Unlocking Public Unused Land For Housing
Tackling Britain's Housing Crisis is one of the most challenging tasks faced by policymakers, politicians and housing providers. I welcomed the pledge in the Government's Spending Review of 2015 to deliver the largest house building programme since the 1970s to help meet this challenge. I was delighted to hear that unused land like Brownfield sites should be unlocked for private developers and housing providers to build homes. Nevertheless, with 142,890 new homes built in 2015, (a 21% increase compared with the previous 12 months), we are still far short of the figure pinpointed by The Barker Review of Housing Supply in 2004. This review concluded that 250,000 homes needed to be built per year to accommodate Britain's growing population and this figure remains undisputed. The nation built more than 300,000 homes per year post World War II and similar effort and determination is required today. I believe that public bodies have a major role in unlocking unused land for house building.
Utilising Network Rail Land
As Tower Hamlets' Cabinet Member for Housing & Regeneration from 2010-2015, I was always interested in how best to utilise land for the construction of new homes. My borough is crisscrossed with overground lines and tunnels, so I was particularly interested in the small parcels of unused Network Rail land in the borough. The overheads associated with affordable housing development on small parcels of land tend to make it prohibitively expensive, but become viable if the overheads are shared with larger developments. Therefore, in 2012, I was instrumental in the council approving a Section 106 agreement to build housing offsite in relation to a large development at Royal Mint Street. The Chief Executive at the time, Mike Tyrrell, was just as excited as I was to find new ways of building on public, but difficult and challenging sites.
The planning application by ZBV (RMS Limited) to develop land owned by Network Rail at Royal Mint Street could not accommodate the number of social housing homes required by Tower Hamlets Council. Providing 100% affordable homes offsite through a Section 106 agreement was attractive. This agreement enabled Tower Hamlets Community Housing (THCH), who possess a strong community ethos, to deliver homes on two small Network Rail sites; Repton Street and Pedley Street. THCH was granted a 140-year lease on these sites.
Developing the Repton site posed problems, due to the proximity of the railway and the Regent's Canal, but Tower Hamlets Council took a pragmatic approach with regard to the planning application for Repton Street. Not only did this offsite location allow all the homes to have canal side views and all the ground floor homes to be wheelchair accessible, but the deal also permitted a greater number of affordable homes to be built than would have been possible on the Royal Mint site. 60 affordable homes comprising44 rented and 16 shared ownership units were delivered to a very high standard. From grant of lease, design and planning to build and completion, took little over a year.
The homes on the Repton Street and Pedley Street sites provided the catalyst for me to instigate further development on Network Rail land. Working closely with housing providers, developers and house builders, we were able to deliver even more affordable homes on other Network Rail sites. These included Bradwell Street, together with Londonnewcastle, a central London luxury residential developer, who incorporated offsite affordable housing on Fleet Street Hill in their planning proposal.
This work demonstrated to me that by being creative on Network Rail land, there is the potential to develop what I term "Railway Villages"; small clusters of developments that include social housing, private for sale, quality private rented units and, conceivably, space for small economic units, thus creating thriving, sustainable and diverse communities. According to a report by the Campaign Protect Rural England, there are enough brownfield sites to cater for 960,000 homes near to where people currently live and work.
The Government's Role
With the construction industry predicting that Brexit may mean that fewer homes will be built in the next ten years, there is additional pressure on those in need of social housing and on private renters aspiring to become homeowners. As politicians, policy makers and housing providers, we must step up to reduce this pressure. In his speech at the Conservative Conference this year, the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, said that the Government would use, "all the tools at its disposal" to increase Britain's house building, "because making housing more affordable will be a vital part of building a country that works for everyone". Although extremely challenging, one of those tools is unlocking brownfield sites owned by public bodies
Unfortunately, in June this year, the government drastically cut funds required to encourage new building on brownfield sites, despite originally claiming that this could be the solution to solving the housing crisis. Sites where buildings once stood need remediation, which is a process to remove potentially dangerous toxins from the soil prior to new development. This problem could be solved by developers paying for decontamination themselves in all areas, not just more affluent regions.
Autumn Statement 2016
In his Autumn Statement the Chancellor announced new spending on housing delivery of £3.7 billion to support the building of 100,000 new homes and agreed to spend an extra £1.4bn on affordable housing. Recently the Government also announced a new £18 million fund to accelerate delivery of up to 800,000 homes on brownfield land. Councils can bid for a share of this 'capacity fund' to tackle planning issues that can prevent builders from commencing work.
Building for the Future - National Network Rail Land Housing Corporation
For Britain to build homes for its future generations it needs to be far more creative in strategy; the Chancellor stated that a "step-change" would help the housing industry. One way would be for the Government to consider developing a National Network Rail Land Housing Corporation, which delivers housing on network land, but ensures that that the government is always the owner of the land in order to secure it as national asset. The National Network Rail Land Housing Corporation could use the concept that all adjacent land to Network Rail and Arches could potentially be tendered through a long lease process for an external investor while the Government remains the ultimate site owner.
I hope the Government will adopt such an approach.