Could the return of council homes help solve affordable housing crisis?
PUBLISHED: 07:31 26 November 2019 | UPDATED: 08:28 26 November 2019
Councils are returning to house-building for the first time in decades to address the affordable accommodation shortage that big developers have failed to resolve.
East Suffolk, Babergh, Mid Suffolk, Ipswich, Colchester and Tendring councils have all announced plans to provide hundreds of council homes in the coming years, marking a major change in the region's delivery of housing.
Government figures show that none of the local authorities in Suffolk and north Essex - other than Ipswich - had delivered any council housing since 2014 when records were first collated.
Most new homes in the region - around 85% - have been delivered by commercial developers, with the remainder built by housing associations.
But despite a more than 50% increase in the rate of house building since 2014/15 - the region remains far behind government set targets.
Babergh and Mid Suffolk, for example, need to build more than 1,000 homes each year, according to the councils' joint housing strategy - a figure far higher than achieved in any of the past five years. Figures for affordable housing in Suffolk are also far behind targets - despite recent improvements.
Head of Housing Services at East Suffolk Council, Cairistine Foster-Cannan, said the private sector had never managed to provide the 300,000 new homes a year the government hopes to achieve by the mid 2020s.
"The public sector needs to get on board," she said. "And many councils are now waking up to that."
As well as recognising the need, Ms Foster-Cannan also said the government had made it easier for councils by lifting restrictions on public borrowing.
She said allowing access to finance marked a "complete step change" from central government, whose policies had restricted council house building for decades.
The "Right to Buy" scheme, introduced in 1979, saw huge swathes of the nation's social housing sold to tenants - including more than 20,000 properties in Suffolk alone. Much of the remaining stock was transferred to social landlords in the 90s when the government ordered all local authorities to undertake a "stock option appraisal".
With the exception of Waveney and Ipswich, Suffolk councils moved their properties over to housing associations.
But with the demands for affordable ever rising, Ms Foster-Cannan said an "awful lot of lobbying" went on to bring council housing back in.
"People in the industry were saying 'councils need to build'," she said, "They've got the land, the assets and the skills, they've got the need and the demand - why stop it?"
Ms Foster-Cannan also said council house building allowed authorities to deliver schemes the private sector was reluctant to offer. Following the financial crash of 2008, most of the nation's small to medium sized developers folded, leaving a handful of multibillion pound nationwide firms, such as Persimmon, Taylor Wimpey and Barrett Homes, to dominate the sector.
Big developers have tended to favour large schemes on greenfield sites rather than smaller in-fill sites, which communities prefer.
Ms Foster-Cannan said: "This is where can come in. Bigger developers are less interested in small plots, so it's something we can do to have a positive impact on the community."
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ESC's return to council house building has so far delivered 65 homes in Southwold, Lowestoft, Blundeston Beccles and Bungay, all for affordable rent.
A further 16 homes, a mix of shared ownership and rent, are in the pipeline from Brampton and Lowestoft. All of the properties will be managed and let by the council.
Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils have also become more involved in the development of affordable housing. Over the past two years the councils have been involved with 132 new homes across both districts - and their new joint housing strategy includes an aim to build more than 400 council homes by 2022.
"We continue to work to ensure we are delivering good homes for our communities and are constantly looking at the best ways to use our own land and resources, taking advantage of partnership opportunities with housing developers to supply the homes that are needed," a spokesman said.
"It is essential that we deliver a mix of housing provision to support the whole community. Our vision is for all our residents to be able live in affordable high-quality homes, building settled, safe and healthy lives as part of a thriving community."
Tendring District Council's housing strategy, agreed in July, also includes an aspiration to build 200 council homes in the next five years - as well as addressing a shortfall in smaller properties for older people.
Announcing the strategy, TDC's cabinet member for housing said at the time: "This strategy takes a holistic look at the issue of housing across Tendring, recognising that there is no one, simple solution to solving it."
Colchester Borough Council announced its ambition to deliver 350 new affordable homes in June by transferring land to its own housing company - Colchester Amphora Homes Limited. It is seeking to borrow up to £75m over five years to support the housing delivery.
Councillor Adam Fox, Portfolio Holder for Housing, said: "It is no secret there is a dire need for more affordable homes across the country. However, while we have had the desire to deliver them in Colchester, we have been hamstrung for years by a variety of Government policies and procedures.
More council housing for Ipswich
Ipswich has received the most new council housing in Suffolk over recent years.
Since 2016, Ipswich Borough Council has provided 132 homes at Bader Close, Barnes Square, Ainsley Road and Marsh Terrace.
It is currently building in Cauldwell Hall Road and the former Tooks site in Norwich Road, which will provide 77 homes in total when complete.
A further 150 are in the pipeline for completion within the next three years.
Neil MacDonald, who is responsible for housing at the council, said: "Ipswich Labour Party believe that everyone should have somewhere that they can call home. A safe space for them and their loved ones, with security of tenure, maintained to a good standard and at a cost people can afford to pay.
"This is as relevant today as it was in the past, and the previous Labour leaders at IBC like Jamie Cann and John Mowles promoted council housing. They knew that providing quality housing, set in a quality environment, gives stability to families and promotes better education, health and quality of life.