A series of Whitehall documents issued in recent years has called on local authorities to become place-shapers. Now that the government is exerting increased pressure to boost house building, this role will take on ever greater importance.
This is one of the reasons that the DCLG has backed a two-year Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) project to support local authorities' strategic housing role. "It is about increasing their ability to co-ordinate all the functions that affect places," explains project manager Janet Dean. "At the heart of it is the need to integrate strategic housing issues and planning functions to make more successful places."
Councils have been doing this well for some time, but Dean insists that they must do it even better. Some housing departments focus on homelessness and fail to see the bigger picture, she says, while planners overlook specific housing issues. There are many other departments and external agencies that must play their part in supporting growth. The upshot is that council resources are not being used to their best effect.
The initial report, published earlier this year, called for a partnership environment to establish a robust, shared understanding of the trends and drivers that influence housing needs and demand and the wider implications for planning and communities. Many local authorities are still coming to terms with this broader housing role, it warns, particularly those in two-tier areas.
IDeA is urging a focus on collaboration among housing, planning and economic development staff in tackling the integration of local development frameworks (LDFs) and sustainable community strategies (SCSs). David Cumberland of consultancy ARC4, which researched the IDeA report, says a failure to co-ordinate basic issues can lead to poor policies or legal agreements.
Strategic housing issues must be seen as part of the planning agenda, argues Planning Advisory Service programme manager Ed Watson. Working in partnership helps housing officers identify a delivery pipeline for sites according to housing need, he reasons. But a culture of collaboration has to come down from the chief executive, while councillors must be engaged in the process, he adds. He points to the fact that the London Borough of Lambeth has recently put housing and planning officers together in one department.
The report cites Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council, which has separate corporate services for different functions. The council maintains that all relevant departments work collectively on housing developments. The team is consulted on every residential application and works to ensure that housing requirements are fulfilled on the borough's own land.
Like planners, housing professionals are finding it hard to embrace the agenda outside their traditional domains. A survey by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) and Ipsos-MORI for IDeA shows that only nine per cent of housing officers flagged up sustainable communities as a priority, while just 16 per cent were concerned about achieving a balanced housing market.
They gave greater weight to securing an affordable housing supply and meeting the needs of vulnerable households. "Housing officers are too keen to stay in their comfort zones," contends CIH senior research officer Sarah Davies. This is linked to officers' concerns that housing is insufficiently recognised in regional strategies, she suggests. But it is clear that officers must have the technical skills necessary to comprehend finance and housing markets.
"House building is politically very difficult and it is clear that councillors need to understand how growth can bring benefits, particularly through working with the private sector," says IDeA principal consultant Reniera Graham, who is developing the regional side of the strategic housing programme. "They need increased confidence in negotiating progressive arrangements with developers."
The government is putting increasing pressure on councils to perform their place-shaping role more effectively. So far, local area agreements (LAAs) have not looked at housing development, but this could change. LAA action plans could be the first to reflect housing provision. The comprehensive area assessment system being introduced by the Audit Commission is set to look at councils' effectiveness in place-shaping.
Watson envisages close links between SCSs and LDFs. "They should be derived from shared evidence and reflect each other's aspirations and objectives," he argues. Cumberland goes further, suggesting a single strategy or housing development document, jointly commissioned by housing and planning departments. He advises that local strategic partnerships then need to play a key role in taking forward the conclusions in tandem with housing and planning officers.
- Community Leadership and the Strategic Housing Role in Local Government is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc
HAMBLETON SHOWS HOW TO SET GROUND RULES
Three years ago, Hambleton District Council in North Yorkshire was criticised by the Audit Commission for its poor understanding of its local housing market. Its comprehensive performance assessment warned of a "high risk of service or function failure" in this area.
Hambleton's housing and planning teams had been amalgamated into an environmental services division but the quality of its information was deemed inadequate. This assessment acted as a spur to fill gaps in its knowledge of housing demand and develop policies that secured beacon council status for its services.
It was commended by the DCLG for integrating its local development framework (LDF) across the council, both through working arrangements and linkages with other strategies and programmes, and achieving a joined-up approach with the community plan. The core LDF policies, which include affordable housing, were declared sound earlier this year (Planning, 23 February, p2).
A housing needs study, which provided the basis for the policies, anticipated many of the requirements in official guidelines on strategic housing market assessments published this summer. The highly detailed study included a 100 per cent survey in rural areas, taking into account sizes as well as the needs of different groups across the district.
"This level of detail was required to support the affordable housing policy at the LDF public inquiry," says ARC4 research manager Michael Bullock, who managed the study. It enabled the council to argue its case for a policy that required a 50 per cent target for affordable homes in new developments and a substantial provision in the regional spatial strategy.
The policies are now being followed up in a site allocations document, which will set out the tenure as well as the unit sizes of houses on particular development sites. "A set of options will be discussed with developers and landowners," says Hambleton's planning policy team leader Graham Banks. "At the very least we intend to set some ground rules for the kind of housing that goes on these sites."
NORTH IMPROVES OFFER
City-regions in the north of England are taking steps to tailor their housing offer to support economic growth. A report for the Northern Way by Llewelyn Davies Yeang (LDY) suggests that housing market analysis should look beyond raw numbers. "Building more homes will not raise the quality of our residential offer. The type of homes, where they are built and what services are nearby matter too," it says.
It proposes that councils' strategic housing market assessments collect qualitative data "to contribute to plans for accelerating economic growth". At regional and sub-regional levels, it argues that economic modelling and intelligence is required "to provide a thorough understanding of the current and projected future structure of the economy".
This information would form the basis of a policy framework and support reviews of regional spatial strategies. The report urges planners to gather evidence to "deliver a residential future for the north's city-regions to match their economic potential and ambition".
The Northern Way advises a two-pronged analysis to ascertain the gap between the demands of economic growth and housing supply. It starts from an analysis of changing occupational structures resulting from growth and its implications for housing demand. This is compared with the existing residential offer to show how it might match growth demands.
LDY project director Martin Crookston says this analysis should begin with a review of existing housing sites in strategic locations that are not making a major contribution. "Our housing offer suited the industrial heritage but has left a legacy of poor-quality homes," adds Northern Way director Andrew Lewis. "We need spatial planning and economic restructuring to manage the housing offer."
- Shaping the North's Cities for Growth is available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc.