The Housing Crisis and how we might start to solve it

Elphicke-ReportLast Wednesday week I was in the Grand Committee room of the House of Common for the launch of the long awaited Elphicke-House Report ‘From statutory provider to housing delivery enabler: Review into the local authority role in housing supply’.

It’s an important report in that it was commissioned by the Treasury to look at the issue of how we as a country can build more houses from a local government’s role prospective and by that I don’t mean the usual planning policy prospective. how we as a country can and need to build more houses. Danny Alexander MP, The Finance Minister of State and Brandon Lewis MP the Local Government Minister of State for planning and housing, spoke at the launch and this gives you some idea of how seriously it is taken.

I had a particular interest in this report as I was asked to be one of its ‘expert witnesses’ essentially because I have some 30 years knowledge of the Housebuilding, land and planning sector but can also blend this with knowledge of local government across County and District council responsibilities and my more detailed knowledge of Adult Social Care and housing for older people, something I have led on in Suffolk with the two conferences I arranged on Housing for an Ageing population.

The report can be downloaded from https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/398829/150126_LA_Housing_Review_Report_FINAL.pdf and if you have an interest in local government and housing delivery this is a must read.

It’s not a report about the planning system nor about money, both Natalie and Keith were clear about that as they introduced it. As Keith put it it’s about how Councils should be Housing Delivery Enablers not just a sausage machine for developers to get planning permissions.

In her introduction Natalie posed a really great question to the bankers and investment fund managers in the room ‘How many meetings would you attend before you gave up and went to a different use class of investment’ as they found that sometimes, before a brick is laid up to 300 meetings will take place and this needs to change.

The report itself draws on the innovative approaches and case study examples, from the a very wide range 15% to 20% of the councils who are active in this space and following this report hopefully others taking a central role as Housing Delivery Enablers, working collaboratively with partners across all sectors to increase the building of new homes that can support strong and prosperous communities.

It’s also great news that government has welcomed the report, and accepted its core recommendation that councils should become Housing Delivery Enablers. By being proactive in identifying housing need and opportunity, working with partners, and actively using their assets and knowledge to unlock housing opportunities, councils can and frankly should be at the heart of delivering more homes and building strong communities.
Government’s response can be viewed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/councils-can-enable-more-homes-to-be-built

A bit of a do at the LGA

Last Wednesday evening I popped along from a meeting in London to the drinks reception at Local Government House for Sir Merrick Cockell, it’s Chairman’s, retirement.

The Conservative have narrowly lost control of the LGA and so the next Chairman will be the Labour’s David Sparks OBE. The Conservatives still have a vastly overwhelming majority of Councillors, being more than all the other parties put together, but in the strange LGA block vote system that decides these things Labour narrowly have the majority.

This means for the first time since I became a Councillor, the LGA will no longer have a Conservative Chairman. Some will ask does it matter and to some extent you have to judge does the LGA matter in answering that. Personally I think it is an effective voice for local government and as someone once said to me if it did not exist we would invent it. Equally to my mind Sir Merrick has been a very effective, hard working Chairman and has provided Local Government with a charming national voice and with the ‘Re-Wiring’ paper, a renewed sense of where we want to go and some bite to the lexicon. His and the LGA influence was in some ways summed up by the number of Westminster politicians in attendance despite having to leave promptly for a vote in the House, Secretary of State for Local Government Eric Pickles MP gave a warm speech, Minister of State Brandon Lewis MP was there along with Labour’s shadow team of Hilary Benn MP and Andy Sawford MP amongst others. The challenge for the new Labour Chairman will be how he can engage with a Conservative Local Government team and hopefully will have to for the next parliament as well!

Next week’s LGA conference will see the launch of the LGA’s ‘first 100 days’ document for an incoming government and such is the way of these things, they have to be cross party, so it’s aimed at whichever party wins. Broadly speaking local government is one of this country’s success stories, it has absorbed the cuts, becoming simply the most efficient arm of the public service, which is in no small way due to having elected councillors to hold it to account and shape its direction. I can think of a few areas where such democratic representation would have a positive effect, not least the NHS, but I digress. Of course it must do even better in the years ahead, but I think it has earned the right be to masters of our own destiny more than ever before, and that self-determination will allow us to shape our organisations to continue to deliver the services people need at a reduced cost to the public purse and I suspect that will be the central plank of the document for launch next week. It will be interest to see.

Council Tax – a philosophical point of view, a game of bluff or people’s hard earned money

This week the debate on Council Tax has sprung to life as Councils across the county start to announce their Budget proposals. At Suffolk County Council we have a different approach and our 0% Council Tax rise is the worst kept secret, a manifesto pledge at last year election, it’s been to the county’s Scrutiny Committee twice in October and November and I and a number of my colleagues have been around the county taking part in Suffolk Biggest Budget Conversation taking about the plans and getting feedback.

In Brighton the minority Green administration yesterday proposed a 4.75% rise in their Council tax and that they would want to be the first ever Council to go to referendum to get it though, closer to home in Essex they proposing a 1.49% rise in Council tax, both of which have been associated with specific services they seek to protect as a part of the ‘sell’.

On Wednesday at a Council Councils Network meeting in London county council leaders from across the county were grilling Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis MP about is the Secretary of State about to lower the referendum trigger point. After that meeting I had a chat with a couple of Leaders about their plans and increases they were considering and so the debate is clearly coming more to the fore as Councils are feeling that the current cuts are starting to become more and more difficult to implement.

So is Eric Pickles MP about to lower the referendum cap. To me if Government, as they approach an election year, think Councils are about to start putting up Council tax this may well force Mr. Pickles hand with his colleague in Cabinet to tighten control, something about a self-fulfilling prophecy springs to mind. Personally I think it might be quite telling that Essex where the Secretary of State has his seat is proposing 1.49%, clearly they have pitched it just below where the cap might go.

With regards Brighton, over the past few months I have got to know the Leader of Brighton Council a little bit as we have both contributed to the New Local Government Network’s work on Digital in Local Government and I have no doubt he is earnest in his aims, having said that he also knows that his is minority administration and if Labour and Conservatives join forces he will be defeated, so there might be a little bit of politics mixed in there too!

So what of Suffolk County Council and us keeping our promise of a Council Tax freeze over the next 4 years, following on from 3 years of 0% increases. Yesterday Ipswich Spy blogged about a presentation by my colleague Cllr. Andrew Reid presenting our Budget proposals to an Ipswich area Committee questioned our policy stance.

Well in my next blog I’ll talk about my thoughts and I look forward with interest to the first Council brave enough to actually hold a referendum and beyond the political class let’s see what those hard pressed families sitting at the kitchen table trying to pay their bills with their hard earned money think to a Council asking them if they want to pay more.

A picture paint a thousand words

They say a picture paint a thousand words and this was never more true that this great pictorial summary of the LGA Digital Summit; which was a great opportunity to really explore how the internet can deliver improved services and access.

07.03.2013 - Cartoon Summary of LGA Digital Summit

The day was hosted by BBC News Channels technology programme Click’s presenter Spencer Kelly who was a quite suburb choice and kept a packed agenda on track with wit.

For me this was the third day in a series of days looking at the role of technology in Local Government from the brilliant first Facebook Councillors Boot camp day at Facebook’s London HQ to the Digital Services event with APSE at Elstreet studios; across all three there were two key themes. Firstly technology is here to stay and that the successful application of this is about leadership rather than just how brilliant you can build that app.

Secondly how do we move systems and channel shift when there are still people that such a single minded approach would exclude, often the very people we are seeking to support.

I suppose there is a 3rd that we are current trying to solve with an investment decision by us Conservatives on the County Council to invest £11M in bringing Broadband to 100% of our county, till then there are some parts of the county on dial up!

But perhaps the future also belongs to the penetration of mobile devices, there are some wonderful applications that could say Suffolk County Council millions of pounds, such as the Love Lewisham one where through a simple picture and an app you can report pot holes, fly tipping and graffiti to the right teams the data can almost immediately they will get the job paperwork going.

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