Colm Lacey is Chief Executive of Brick by Brick, a housing development company established by Croydon Council.
Much has been said about the new generation of council-led development companies and their potential for contributing to housing supply. Some comment veers towards a hyperbolic romanticism, heralding the beginning of a new era of creative municipalism which can only do good. Others see them simply as a threat.
It is undoubtedly true that the introduction of new development actors and the sites they bring with them is a very good thing for the supply of multi-tenure housing. The established housebuilding sector is simply not providing the types of homes that the majority of Londoners need and can afford, partly through a lack of production capacity and partly through a lack of will. When their business model is working so well as it is, why would they?
Many council-led housing companies have a range of attributes offering hope that their impact on the evolution of the city will be far greater than the mere addition of new homes. Their deep understanding of local neighbourhoods suggests that their developments will be more contextual and relevant to the residents who already live in them.
Not for them the formulaic housebuilder box applied incautiously for the benefit of a hungry waiting list of place-agnostic buyers, but rather a more considered appraisal of local housing need and how it might be met by releasing capacity from a variety of previously untapped smaller sites.
Moreover, the political scrutiny or advocacy of their activity has changed the debate on housing supply from a national, strategic problem to a local, practical one. Londoners, presented with real proposals and planning applications for local sites that they pass on their way to work, can no longer be forgiven for assuming that the housing crisis will be solved by the development of new eco-villages off the M1. The active role London local authorities need to play in providing both old and new housing for their residents has been reconfirmed. Things have got real.
Of course if we are to maximise the potential of this new municipalism, we should learn from what has gone before. Which brings us to expectation management. Name me a 1960s council estate, successful or otherwise, which has not laboured under the weight of social, political or design expectations. All too often this weight has been too much to bear and thousands of perfectly good homes have come crashing down, to be replaced by something equally imperfect.
There is a significant risk that the newest wave of council housing companies, laden as they are with hope and symbolism, will be expected to do too much too soon. Housing development is a complex and lengthy business at the best of times. There is no tap that can simply be turned on.
Our own experience in Croydon is a case in point. Brick by Brick, a private development company of which Croydon Council is the sole shareholder, was established by the council as a means of achieving pace, scale and quality in housing supply, and ensuring that the benefit from this development activity to local residents is maximised.
Ours is a deliberately ambitious initiative, and since we began trading in 2016 we have maintained a resolute focus on providing well-designed new housing, at scale, by the quickest means possible.
In practice, this has meant that our first year was spent establishing the corporate structure and governance of the company from scratch, identifying and surveying close to 100 development sites and securing funding for a major housing programme.
Our second year involved developing planning applications and winning planning approval for over 40 sites and around 1,500 new homes, nearly half of which are to be affordable. Now, halfway through our third year, we have procured a responsive contractor framework and are actively on site on around 12 of our sites, with another 12 or so in contract and due to start imminently. We expect our first homes to be complete early next year.
Our experience should make one thing abundantly clear – council-led housing companies, for all their potential powers, cannot significantly foreshorten the gestation period of a new home. They are not a quick fix, stick-on solution to London’s housing crisis, but rather an opening salvo in the battle for a more sustainable, ethical, egalitarian way of building homes.
These companies are ultimately an exercise in doing things differently, and if they are to flourish all strands of the public sector must adapt responsibly to their new roles: as long term investors; as shareholders; as business owners. This means avoiding the historic pitfalls of impractical expectations and short termism, and giving them the time and support to show what they can do.