In October 2018, Future of London launched the Council-Led Housing Forum. One year on, we reflect on what the Forum has achieved and find out what’s next on its agenda.
In response to ambitious housing targets from both the Mayor and central government, local authorities are, once again, building homes. The FoL Council-Led Housing Forum was set up a year ago, with support from the Greater London Authority, and sponsors Potter Raper and Red Loft, to offer boroughs the practical support they need to establish, and then scale up, their home-building programmes, and help them navigate the challenges they’re facing.
“The only way we can meet London’s housing need – particularly because what London needs is affordable housing – is by having councils come back into the sector to build new council homes,” says Visakha Sri Chandrasekera, FoL’s Council-Led Housing Forum Manager. “There’s a limit to what will come from the private sector through S106 agreements, and there’s a limit to what housing associations can do – so we need councils to be building again.”
The Forum is a monthly programme of events that addresses all aspects of housing delivery, from building the right team, to addressing internal barriers and engaging with communities. More than 400 practitioners from almost every London borough have participated in the programme during its first year, learning from each other and forging networks. “I head up a direct delivery team working in partnership with a London Authority with big ambitions to develop the next generation of council homes”, says Meera Bedi, Head of Development (New Build), Barnet Homes. “The insightful and illuminating Council-Led Housing Forum events are helping us to do this.”
However, for many councils, it’s been over 30 years since they last built homes, so this is, effectively, a completely new role. The new teams need help developing their skills and expertise – particularly because both land and construction have become so much more expensive, and subsidy requirements so much greater, than they were in the past.
“The value of the Forum to the sector is the opportunity it gives practitioners to share experiences, knowledge and expertise,” says Danny Sutcliffe, Partner at Red Loft. “Developing councils know that they are not alone in the trials and tribulations they go through in delivering new affordable homes.”
One of the key challenges that boroughs face is a shortage of skilled staff, particularly project managers. As a result, boroughs are competing for talent – not just against private-sector developers and housing associations but also against each other. Although the Forum’s programme is helping to address this skills shortage with training on project management, many boroughs continue to rely on consultants.
Delivery teams must also navigate the changing politics within the borough; the council’s political agenda plays an important role in shaping the way in which the boroughs approach housing delivery. There’s a sense among many practitioners that the mechanisms which councils established a few years ago to deliver new housing, such as setting up local housing companies, have yet to realise their full potential.
Other key themes that have emerged over the course of the year are the importance of design and the need to define what good new council housing looks like. The praise that has been heaped on Goldsmith Street, a new development of around 100 homes built by Norwich city council that recently won the RIBA Stirling prize for the UK’s best new building, has served as a reminder that council housing can be well-designed, energy-saving and award-worthy.
Visakha believes we’re going to see more and more good quality, sustainable council housing being built in the capital, that reflects the character and diversity of London’s neighbourhoods. “Councils are organisations that naturally take a longer-view; while they might have short-term goals with regards to the numbers they build, they know they’ll be maintaining them for the long term”, she says. “By developing sensitively, and with a focus on resident engagement, councils are more likely to bring people with them. Ultimately, this could be the key to their success as home builders.”
So what’s next for the Council-Led Housing Forum? In addition to commercial skills, the most frequently requested topic has been procurement, including procuring feasibility studies, appointing professional advisors, commissioning contractors and setting up joint venture partnerships. Procurement appears to be a contentious issue, with feedback suggesting that processes don’t always achieve the desired outcome.
The Forum will pick this issue up next year, along with approaches to viability and the key issue of risk and reward; many practitioners believe they should be less risk adverse and plan long term, but, against this, is an acute sense of the need for public accountability. And as more projects move into the delivery phase, the Forum is looking for an additional sponsor to expand the programme and support boroughs as they further scale up their house-building programmes.
For Danny Sutcliffe, sponsoring the Council-Led Housing Forum has encouraged Red Loft to look again at how they help and support organisations that are starting out on their development journey: “When preparing for seminars, we’ve reflected on how our existing clients – developers, registered providers and more established developing councils – are delivering new affordable homes, and how their experiences can be translated to the council model of delivery. It’s been refreshing to see so many new organisations entering the market looking to build new homes.”