Colm Lacey: London’s borough-led development is serving the city well

Colm Lacey: London’s borough-led development is serving the city well

It’s an interesting time for reviewing the progress of local authority led development. There has been much debate about the potential of the public sector as a development actor and the emergence of a “new municipalism”. For some, this was a giant leap towards a more egalitarian and locally relevant development model which would benefit London as a whole. For others, this particular straw in the wind was unlikely to overcome the buffeting of political interference, a stalling property market and the citywide lack of suitably experienced staff.
There are many different types of council led development model, ranging from wholly in-house teams focussing on traditional council housing to wholly owned, outward-facing development companies delivering multi-tenure housing, and pretty much everything in between. However, most of them have one thing in common – they have been developed in response to market failure. Councils have simply not been getting what they need from their interactions with the unfettered property market, whether it be speed or quality of new housing delivery or commercial revenue from development activity. They feel that they can do better.
There is also a more informal thread joining many of these companies arising from their local authority provenance – the sense that development should be for the good of the place, rather than defined by pure economics. It’s a responsibility they take seriously and, as a result, the need to drive social value and incorporate considered urbanism is ever present in their decision-making.
It’s fair to say there hasn’t been a great deal of strategic support from central government for council-led development. Housing minister after housing minister has gamely flirted with the idea. Some have even released funding. But none have been able to stick around long enough to develop a holistic housing strategy which might genuinely enable new approaches to thrive. Local authorities have, in essence, been left to develop the model themselves and get on with it. So, have they succeeded?
At first glance, it would certainly appear so. In Hackney, there is hardly an award that the regeneration of the Kings Crescent estate (pictured) hasn’t won. The project, delivered directly by the council, is providing nearly 800 new or refurbished homes, half of which are to be affordable. This was no open goal. The borough had to develop local support for a complex masterplan on a tough site with competing demands. They then had to deliver it, a feat which had eluded many others in nearly 20 years of failed attempts. The first two phases are now complete and feedback from the residents who have moved in appear to be very positive.
Out east in Newham, multiple new housing developments have now been completed under the council’s Red Door Ventures model, giving the local authority options about how the completed homes are ultimately used. In common with the Hackney example, most are of a design quality not usually seen on sites like these, bringing further knock-on benefits to local communities.
Outside the capital, councils have been pretty busy too. In Norwich, the city council recently completed Goldsmith Street, a development of around 100 social rent homes, built to Passivhaus standards. Again, this scheme has attracted admiring recognition from far and wide. In Sheffield, the council-led Sheffield Housing Company has completed more than 300 low cost homes across on multiple sites on the outskirts of the city of the sort that other developers simply wouldn’t touch.
What is particularly interesting is the fact that council-led models are now also starting to deliver large-scale mixed-use projects, the kind that have traditionally posed the greatest risk in terms of procurement complexity and value retention for the public sector. In Croydon, my own company Brick By Brick has recently completed the refurbishment of the Fairfield Halls in Central Croydon on behalf of the council.
This is a £40m-plus renewal of a large mid-century performance venue and represents an investment in culture by a local council that is unprecedented in recent years. It is the largest and most complex project we have undertaken since being set up by the council in 2016 and I think it is an excellent example of what can be achieved by local authorities if they are prepared to be bold and do things differently.
And as a development company wholly owned by the council, all value created by our development activity goes back to the council in a fully transparent manner. This not only pays for the likes of the Fairfield Halls refurbishment, but it also has the potential to provide much needed ongoing revenue for the council to spend on public services as it sees fit.
So what does all this progress mean? For some, local authority successes inform an anti-private sector polemic – a knee jerk sense that the public sector has been taken for a ride for years and that now it’s payback time. This is pretty lazy thinking. In all the cases mentioned above, the private sector is heavily involved in the design, delivery and ongoing management of the schemes, and their success depends on this. This is an important point to note for the private sector too, as these projects represent economic activity (for example, jobs, revenue and household income) which probably wouldn’t exist in the current climate had councils not established development structures.
For me, it is more relevant to say that the public sector is becoming a more intelligent client, capable of expressing its needs with far greater clarity than has previously been the case. By delivering these schemes, making and resolving mistakes, exploring the deepest nooks and crannies of the development process, local authorities are also resetting their expectations for the development partnerships of the future.
This can only be a good thing for any city, but especially for London where the disparate politics and funding structures of local authorities do not lend themselves to the adoption of a citywide development plan that all can buy into in the manner of many of our European counterparts. Far better to develop a city of experienced clients, who know what good urbanism is and how they might be able to get it.
Colm Lacey is founding Managing Director/CEO of Brick by Brick. He has led some of the capital’s most complex development projects for over 15 years, including in senior roles at the Homes and Communities Agency, the Greater London Authority and the boroughs of Lambeth, Newham and Croydon.
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