Cllr Abi Brown is the Leader of the Conservative Group and Deputy Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council.
The government’s ambition to build a million houses, articulated through the Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill unveiled in the 2015 Queen’s Speech, has led to a wider discussion around delivery of homes, and recent comments by the new Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, indicates that this includes a wider view on tenures.
Whilst councils have a clear involvement in the process through the planning system, as the minister mentioned, there is a need for institutional involvement to bring forward choice and quality in some tenures, a gap that could well suit some local authorities very well.
In my own local authority of Stoke-on-Trent, we have been carefully considering over the last few years how we can support the housing market locally to deliver the future needs of our city.
The UK’s thirteenth largest city, Stoke-on-Trent has a plentiful supply of some types of housing, such as terraced and semi-detached properties with two or three bedrooms. But if you are after a large detached property for a growing family, or a flat that allows you to fully enjoy our burgeoning city centre offer, you’ll see we’re struggling. We have significantly more social housing and 81 per cent of all dwellings are valued within Council Tax bands A and B, compared to 44 per cent nationally.
Given the imminently changing funding model of local government, placing more emphasis on locally raised monies, it’s clear that a wholesale shift is needed in our housing strategy. Whilst private development in Stoke-on-Trent has increased steadily since 2011, our low house prices mean there is a low return on private development. As our local economy continues to grow – according to Oxford Economics, the second fastest in the UK outside London – we need a greater range of housing than the market can provide at the moment.
As a result, we have started to look at how we can stimulate the market ourselves, from working with developers to bring forward strategic sites through site remediation or infrastructure support, to working directly with developers through our own local Housing Company. This initiative would see the council develop its own private housing portfolio, to both provide the properties and tenures most needed, as well as an income for the council to support delivery of other services.
We have also recently agreed to extend our popular £1 homes initiative, which initially saw 33 terraced properties emptied by the 1997-2010 Labour Pathfinder scheme brought back to life. The homes are renovated by the council, and although the new owners technically pay £1 to purchase, they repay the renovation costs of around £30,000 over ten years, whilst also committing to be an active part of their community. At the other end of the spectrum, we have also extended our self build programme, which is part of the Government’s Right to Build programme, bringing forward at least 75 new plots in the next few years.
Government support has been crucial in getting some of these schemes going – Housing Zone status has enabled us to quickly bring forward brownfield sites for developments that are underway now, and providing the types of housing we need. Other initiatives are homegrown, such as the Northern Gateway Development Zone, a partnership between seven local authorities and two LEPs in North Staffordshire, Cheshire and Warrington, established last year to ensure we maximise the opportunities that the arrival of HS2 in our subregion will bring.
Our shared ambition is to deliver 120,000 jobs and 100,000 homes, a significant number of which will be in Stoke-on-Trent, and have received government backing and support.
In a perfect world, these sorts of interventions in housing provision wouldn’t be needed and the market would deliver the one million homes we need. However, as has become increasingly clear through the direction of first Brandon Lewis and now Gavin Barwell as Housing Minister, councils need to step up and deliver on the housing needs of our current and future residents, whether through planning, encouragement, or actual delivery.