This autumn brings a renewed push by government to stimulate the housing sector as the affordable homes programme reaches its halfway point, says Pat Ritchie
Time to get busy
As parliament returns from summer recess September is always a busy month and this year was no exception. Mark Prisk became the new housing minister in the cabinet reshuffle, while the government announced a package of initiatives to boost housing supply and economic growth.
Within his first week as housing minister Mr Prisk spoke at the National Housing Federation conference to state his determination to get more homes built and more jobs created - with housing at the heart of the coalition’s agenda.
At the Homes and Communities Agency we are committed to working with our partners to deliver the housing we need - and I was pleased that the recent announcements strengthened our ability to do just that.
In particular, we have been asked to take on more responsibility around surplus public sector land outside London through a targeted programme of transfers from other government departments and agencies. We will also work to accelerate disposals by preparing the land for market and providing a single ‘shop window’ for all surplus public sector land.
We are well placed to take on this responsibility. We were the first agency to publish a land development and disposal strategy, and can draw on our experience of bringing in the assets of the former regional development agencies and the transfer of former hospital sites to English Partnerships in 2008. Over the past two years we’ve led the way in the renewed push to bring surplus public land into economic use - creating jobs and homes.
By consolidating ownership in one place we can improve the interface with the market and use the expertise of our staff and good relations with local planning authorities.
But getting sites to market is just part of a wider role the HCA will play in land development and I am particularly interested in identifying and tackling the barriers to stalled sites. The ‘get Britain building’ programme is providing funding for housing schemes where developers have identified project finance is preventing work getting started, and in our continuing section 106 mediation project we are assisting local authorities and developers that wish to renegotiate deals to get projects moving.
It is important that we maintain momentum in this work to clear barriers to development and look at what more we can do. A lot of the feedback I am getting from the sector identifies infrastructure as a key constraint, particularly on large sites. We know that the cost of provision and the need for finance upfront, before serious returns can be realised, creates a barrier to development. Within specific localities we need to look at variations in market demand, local capacity and leadership and whether there is support from the local community for development. What’s clear is that in each case a bespoke solution is needed to deliver homes.
This flexible and tailored approach will be vital in keeping development on track. Over at Crest Nicholson’s Bath Western Riverside scheme -where around 3,500 new homes will be built along with business and retail facilities - the HCA and local authority have worked with the developer to keep the momentum going. This involved a range of infrastructure and housing investment alongside ‘get Britain building’ development finance. And, of course, we shouldn’t forget that smaller sites, such as Wiggett Homes’ 41-home Heron’s Reach development in Oldham, are of equal importance, not just for the combined contribution many small sites make to housing delivery, but because of the impact in supporting jobs and activity, often in smaller, local building firms.
As well as our expanded land role, firstbuy has been extended and could help an extra 16,500 first-time buyers into homeownership by March 2014. Difficult economic conditions have done little to diminish aspirations for homeownership and firstbuy equity loan funding can help people take this step.
The programme will run in the same way as the previous funding and we will be inviting house builders and developing housing associations to identify where they can bring forward more homes for sale with a firstbuy 2 equity loan.
While the sector and the HCA digest and respond to these announcements, we need to remain focused on delivering our current programmes. We are not far from the halfway point of the affordable homes programme and we are asking providers to schedule out their programme so there is greater detail on their expected delivery.
If providers find they will be unable to deliver an element of their programme, we need to know now. Other providers will find they have more capacity to deliver, and we will have no hesitation in moving available funding to them - although we will look to keep the allocations local where possible - to ensure we deliver much-needed affordable homes.
So, after a busy month, I don’t expect there to be any let up as we work together to get homes built, to release surplus public land, to unblock stalled sites, to help first-time buyers onto the property ladder and to bring empty homes back into use. And the list doesn’t end there.
However, I can assure you that we won’t lose sight of the need to focus on our current programmes and I hope I can continue to count on the sector to continue to deliver.
Pat Ritchie is chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency