Jamie Carswell: London’s boroughs are getting into shape for a council housebuilding revival

Jamie Carswell: London’s boroughs are getting into shape for a council housebuilding revival

The story of London’s homelessness and housing insecurity crisis can be told using two remarkably similar numbers: about 300,000 council homes have been sold in the capital since the government introduced the Right to Buy in 1980, and the latest government figures show that London boroughs currently have 301,753 households on their waiting lists. Many of those households are families with children living in temporary accommodation. Some will have spent years in unsuitable housing, unable to move to a home that meets their needs.

London faces the most severe housing and homelessness pressures in the country. The capital’s chronic shortage of homes for social rent is a key factor driving them, which is why boroughs are determined to build new homes for social rent. As co-chair of the London Housing Directors’ Group – a professional network of senior housing officers from London’s 33 local authorities – I have been working across the capital on a collaborative approach to addressing the challenges this presents.

Our latest initiative is the creation of a Housing Development Academy, which seeks to skill up borough housing teams to build the capacity needed for fulfilling our ambitious objectives. This unique example of local authorities working together is funded by the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and the programme will be delivered by Future of London, the leadership development and networking organisation for the built environment.

Experienced training providers have been commissioned to tailor a curriculum to London boroughs’ specific needs, though housing associations, developers and councils outside the capital can get involved too. The skills prioritised in the first year of operation will include understanding viability, procurement and managing relationships with consultants, construction companies and other partners. Learning is based on real-life experience, including site visits, and the courses will help employers grow their own talent, with a strong emphasis on diversity.

This is a difficult time for the development sector, but we need to support councils in maintaining a pipeline of affordable housing and their ability to take advantage when market conditions hopefully improve. The 20th Century saw the steep rise and rapid fall of councils’ role as housebuilders, with a decades-long series of restrictions resulting in it virtually ending altogether until recent reforms.

Boroughs have been pleased to see a change in attitude from central government in the past few years. The restoration of some flexibilities and funding support – including the recent relaxation of restrictions on how we can use the money raised from Right to Buy sales – means council housebuilding is back on the agenda and at its highest level since the 1970s. More than 5,000 new council homes were started in the capital last year. Boroughs are responsible for implementing 40 per cent of the affordable homes programme in London and they receive 50 per cent of its social housing allocation, making them essential strategic partners of the government.

However, London remains desperate for new homes and funding is not the only thing needed to speed up building them. Many councils don’t have staff with the expertise or experience in housing development they need. They have struggled to compete with private sector employers to attract and retain the skills required, and educational institutions and training providers have not been producing enough people with the right skills to meet demand from the wider housing and construction sector. There is a serious skills shortage, which is why the Housing Development Academy has such an important role to play

The academy demonstrates London boroughs’ renewed confidence in their ability to tackle one of the biggest social problems in the capital. It’s the latest in a long line of collaborative initiatives overseen by housing directors for tackling London’s housing priorities and we look forward to Londoners benefiting from this work in the coming years. When it comes to housing development, the capital’s councils are back in business.

The Housing Development Academy is open to local authorities, housing associations and for-profit developers, with priority given to London boroughs. More information HERE.

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