Local housing company scheme needs positive council response

Giant leaps forward of the kind envisaged in the government's ambitious house building programme are in fact a series of small steps taken by a range of parties.

Guidance on local housing companies (LHCs) issued this week by English Partnerships is another part of the jigsaw, and one that could have several benefits.

After 25 years out in the cold, local authorities will welcome a return to first-hand involvement in providing urgently needed homes. Rather than consign their surplus sites to an uncertain future, councils will appreciate the opportunity to influence the shape of future development and ensure that it is aligned more closely with local needs.

The LHC rules should put councils in a stronger position to specify far higher proportions of affordable housing, increase control over tenures and come up with locally tailored solutions to the needs of key workers and first-time buyers. But the housing drive needs to be about sustainability as much as affordability.

Hundreds of thousands more homes will be built to sub-optimal environmental standards before the 2016 zero carbon deadline kicks in, while mechanisms for improving the performance of existing stock are urgently needed. Given time and space to innovate, LHCs could press forward on sustainability more rapidly by setting higher standards for green construction and design.

One key question is whether house builders and social landlords will see sufficient advantages in LHCs to pick up the ball. Planning and housing officers cannot assume that schemes will be delivered without tough negotiation. If a private sector that can already cherry-pick its public partners declines to co-operate, then it will be game over.

No-one should have any illusions that LHCs will solve the housing crisis overnight. At best, the councils that have expressed enthusiasm for the pilot initiative will produce 14,000 new homes, and it could be years before results are visible on the ground. In the meantime, others may hang on to surplus sites to see how the initiative fares. But if they can tick the affordability, sustainability and deliverability boxes, LHCs will be worth having.


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