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At home with Councillor Martin Tett

You’ll never take politics out of the equation, but as the LGA’s housing spokesperson tells Mark Cantrell, if the Government adopted a more pragmatic approach to councils building, then it would go a long way towards fixing the broken market

 

THE housing crisis is a “tough nut to crack”, said Councillor Martin Tett, leader of Buckinghamshire County Council and the Local Government Association’s (LGA) housing spokesperson, but it will be all the harder if councils aren’t allowed to do their bit.

The LGA has long been making the case for a “renaissance” in council house building. In December last year, the organisation published the final report from its 18-month long housing commission. This took evidence from 100 stakeholders across the housebuilding and related sectors, and presented 30 recommendations.

In essence, it sets out the case for councils taking a larger role in the delivery of more homes – contributing to the Government’s desire to build one million new homes by 2020.

The 76-page report ‘Building Our Homes, Communities & Future’ covers rather more ground than a simple magazine page can handle, but some of the key elements are familiar from the LGA’s more general lobbying efforts.

Namely, lifting restrictions on councils’ borrowing abilities, such as removing HRA borrowing from being classed as contributing to public debt; the thorny issue of ensuring councils are sufficiently compensated to adequately replace homes sold under Right-to-Buy; and developing routes for councils to deliver homes of all tenures through new forms of delivery vehicle, including joint ventures. For all its arguments, however, thus far the LGA’s efforts have gone more or less unheeded.

The Housing White Paper was but the latest occasion that councils’ ambitions were rebuffed, though Tett does not dismiss the document. “In general terms, we welcome [it] as a step forward, but we don’t think it goes far enough,” he said. “We recognise that the Government understands there is a housing crisis, that a lot more needs to be done, but there are specific areas where we have concerns.”

One of these, he says, is the existence, generally, of a “culture of blaming councils for the housing problem”; typically on planning. “We think that’s inappropriate,” he adds. “Councils grant something like nine out of 10 [planning] applications that come before them, but the problem we see is that once they are granted they don’t get implemented. There’s something like 500,000 outstanding applications. These are approved planning applications, which are just sitting there waiting to be built.”

According to the LGA’s figures, in the year to December 2016, when it published its final housing commission report, there had been an 11% rise in planning applications. In England, there was a record 475,647 homes with planning permission. The problem, Tett says, is one of developers sitting on approvals; not that he blames them, they are private businesses, after all.

“I’ve been on holiday with people who turn out to be developers, who don’t know what I do, and over a beer in a bar will tell you quite candidly they’re not going to build all the houses they’ve got permission for because it would depress prices in the area. So they will leak them onto the market in a controlled fashion to maintain the prices and profits,” he said. “I get that entirely. If it was my business I completely understand why I might do the same thing, but if you look at the big picture, which is actually getting lots of houses built, then we think the Government needs to do more to incentivise builders to actually implement the planning permissions that they’ve got.”

And not just housebuilders, either. “Quite frankly, there ought to be more incentive for councils to build houses,” Tett said. “This is a big contradiction in Government thinking here, and I’ve had this debate with Gavin Barwell, that if you philosophically believe that you only really want to see private houses built, be they for rent or sale, I understand that as a politician, but if you look at the historical trend, you are never going to build enough homes to meet your million homes target by 2020.”

There’s an economic case as much as a supply argument, he added: “When the economy goes into a recession, be it a minor one or a major one, which it always will do cyclically, the housing market drops off. Councils can counter that cyclical pattern. Looking at the statistics historically, going right back to the 1950s and 40s, the only time that we’ve actually built sufficient houses in this country is when we’ve allowed councils to build.”

For those observing the theatre of national politics, it may often seem like a solution to the housing crisis is a cause lost in the party divide; little wonder, then, that some call for politics – essentially the politicians – to be taken out of the equation, but that’s to misapprehend the nature of the beast, Tett pointed out.

“Taking politics out of anything is always an easy slogan,” he said. “Politics is actually about choices you make with limited resources, and there are inevitably limited resources in just about every aspect of life. I’m not sure you’ll ever remove politics with a small ‘p’ from decision making.”

This shouldn’t be taken to mean that consensus is beyond reach. The LGA is a case in point. Given its membership is made up of the three main political parties and more – Tett himself is a Conservative – the organisation shows how common ground can be reached on critical issues.

But there’s another hurdle – an atrophied skills base – to overcome if councils are to build again. “The skill at building houses has been lost now, I suspect, from a large number – probably a majority – of district councils and boroughs,” Tett said. “They would have to try and recruit those people. That would be difficult because councils are very financially constrained and obviously the private sector can pay significantly more for scarce skills than the public sector can at the moment.”

All told, it’s another layer of complexity to the “tough nut” of fixing the broken housing market. But as Tett said: “The fact that things are tough doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

 

This article first appeared in the April/May 2017 print edition of Housing magazine

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