A county council perspective

Earlier this summer, the County Councils Network (CCN) held its first-ever housing conference, where 70 delegates saw the launch of two new reports examining the role of counties in housing. Despite a large proportion of CCN member councils being county councils in two-tier areas and therefore not having planning or housing responsibilities, both reports – from the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) and Catriona Riddell Associates respectively – illustrate the important role counties are playing, and will play, in solving the national affordability crisis.

Indeed, housing has become a central part of the CCN policy agenda in tandem with it becoming arguably the government’s single-most important domestic agenda. The housing affordability crisis is no longer confined to London and the south east, it is a problem affecting civic leaders across the whole country. A survey carried out by the TCPA to inform their report found that 91 per cent of county leaders perceive their affordable housing need as either ‘severe’ or ‘moderate’.

In this context, county councils and county unitary councils are dealing with these challenges head on, taking a direct stake in the development process by setting up housebuilding companies or entering in joint development ventures with the private sector to maximise public assets. Herefordshire is a great example of county innovation. They have entered into a 50/50 risk-share joint-development venture with Morgan Sindall Investments. This could ultimately deliver 6,000 homes over 15 years on council-owned land, with a gross development value of £2 billion.

Best value guidance
However, there still remains significant barriers to county innovation in acceleration housing growth; with many of CCN’s member councils warning that a lack of skills for housing within the social as a significant barrier. Therefore, a key recommendation in the report is for government to direct resource towards improving capacity and skills of county councils in planning. It also challenges the Treasury to amend ‘best value’ guidance on public land so that councils can sell land on the basis of long term social and economic gains rather than focusing on purely on receipts.

Both the TCPA and the Catriona Riddell reports support a strengthening of the statement of common ground (SoCG), a tool that encourages closer collaboration between district and county councils, particularly in housing, infrastructure, and economic growth. However, unless counties are formal signatories, it remains a toothless instrument.

Our recent social care report illustrates the important link between care services and housing, and shows how that closer links between the two can ensure we build the right tenures of housing in the right areas – a strengthened SoCG could make that a reality.

Therefore, we were disappointed that the government did not include a strengthened role for the SoCG in its recently-published revised National Planning Policy Framework. However, we will continue to work with ministers in advocating for closer, and formal, collaboration between district councils and county councils in two-tier areas.

Indeed, a closer alignment of planning and housing is explored in the Catriona Riddell report, particularly as the necessary level infrastructure does not always follow housing development. Strategic planning was abolished under the Coalition after being scaled back under Labour but CCN is advocating a move towards planning over a larger geography in two-tier areas, with all councils in a local area coming together to outline the housing need and the infrastructure necessary to support it, over a strategic scale.

To this end, we will follow the Oxfordshire ‘housing deal’ with interest, with the county council and five district councils coming together to formulate a joint plan to deliver 100,000 new homes, backed by the necessary infrastructure.

Outside of the city regions, county councils are best placed to lead conversations around devolution, infrastructure investment and housing deals as they provide strategic and established boundaries recognisable to their residents.

We have a new housing minister in post and we look forward to working with Kit Malthouse on the government’s planning reform agenda. Our latest work shows that counties are playing their part in solving the national housing crisis but with further reform and closer alignment of housing and planning they can do so much more.

Cllr Philip Atkins is the County Councils Network Conservative vice-chairman and leader of Staffordshire County Council.

Cllr Philip Atkins

The Town and Country Planning Association report can be viewed here.

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