In October 2018 Future of London launched the Council-led Housing Forum at the top of City Hall. The panoramic views across the capital reminded us how vast and diverse the character of the capital’s built environment is.
It is set within this richness that London boroughs have become significant developers of new homes with expanding development teams. These teams are to be found in-house, within ALMOs or in council owned companies, depending on the chosen delivery model. By and large local authority delivery models have now been set and the focus has shifted from set up to delivering new homes for Londoners.
Over the three years of the Forum, which was set up to bring council-led development teams together, the agenda has gone from building teams and internal relationships to a very practical focus on the key challenges of development delivery. In year one, the Forum’s very first event was focused on strategic approaches and scaling up. Year two saw sessions on community engagement, managing the design process, and sales & marketing, and in year three the Forum looked at managing market uncertainty, development risk management and achieving net zero carbon. Whilst most events involved those working directly in development teams, internal stakeholders were also encouraged to join, particularly on topics such as finance and procurement.
The Forum’s final event held in October 2021 was on the topic of the future of the council-led sector. It was an event about looking forward, building on what is already established and thinking about how that might evolve.
It was noted that the sector had grown considerably in a very short space of time. To sustain and continue to grow, the sector needs to resolve the skills shortage. For councils this has meant attracting people from aligned sectors as well as growing their own talent. Competing with private sector salaries is tough, but boroughs offer access to land and the ability to raise finance cheaply, creating continuous and diverse programmes. The existing and long-term relationships with communities mean council projects also offer the opportunity to achieve holistic place-making.
The skills shortage is not the only challenge faced by this new sector in the development world. Like other developers, the council-led sector is challenged by the prospect of rising inflation, labour shortages and supply chain issues.
It is also working through the impact of the pandemic and how the design of new homes and spaces must evolve to meet how people have changed the way they live and work. Access to green space remains critical for biodiversity, exercise and mental health. Of course, developments must also deliver safer buildings, and there is a raft of new building regulations and ways of working to adapt to in the light of the Grenfell Tower public inquiry and implementation of the Hackitt review.
Finally, and not least in the list of significant challenges, the
sector must build more sustainably, and in that local authorities often lead the way.
The enthusiastic participation of 981 people in the Forum over three years has shown that the council-led sector is up for all these challenges and actively working through them. The sector wants to work together, share knowledge and good practice.
There is a strong recognition of the value of peer to peer exchange, learning from success and avoiding the pitfalls that other council teams have experienced. There is also recognition of the value of engaging with experts from across the wider industry and in working as partners with both housing associations and the private sector. So in the future we might see more joint ventures and potentially vertical integration with the supply chain. These changes could support a greater use of modern methods of construction (MMC) leading to greater efficiency and value for money.
The future of council-led housing development is one of a maturing sector. A number of different delivery models have now been established and these are operating with a distinct set of values, often placing net zero carbon and respect for existing communities at their heart.
This new generation of council building will leave a legacy of borough intervention in the market, and it is this ability to fill the gap that is its greatest achievement. The new generation of council homes will sit alongside many post-war estates, some of which are now 100 years old. It will be the quality of the buildings, the places they created and their endurance through time that will be the true judge of success.