Stalled housing sites and relationship management: Luton Borough Council

Developing better communication with existing local developers.


At a glance

Housing Advisers Programme case study

2020/21 cohort 

What went in
  • Priority area addressed: Improve communication between the council and local developers resulting in fewer stalled sites and more opportunities for development partnerships
  • Budget: LGA funding £8,400. Internal match funding £10,000.
  • Time taken to achieve outcomes: Once started, the project took around 6 months to final report. Unfortunately this overlapped with the early part of the pandemic which drew attention and resource away from the work. However our main problem was that the project took a long time to get going.
What came out
  • Deliverables: Report and recommendations. Suggested MOU for partnerships. Confirmation of key issues around stalled sites, and actions which we are taking forward now to improve communications with developers.
  • Difference made / indication of success: Immediate impact was limited due to loss of momentum and staff changes during Covid. However, our approach to relationship management on new sites is improving, partly due to the approach of our development management team, and partly due to shared monitoring arrangements. In addition, the work led to Local Partnerships launching a national project on unleashing the potential of SME builders to be working with local councils.

What we did

This LGA Housing Advisors project was seeking to address an information gap about ongoing housing sites in the town.  We were experiencing a number of major sites stalled or recycled through the planning system without being built out, and did not have the established relationships with owners and developers to understand the reasons for this and what might unblock the development. The aim of the project was to review our current arrangements, bring in best practice from other areas and propose mechanisms to improve relationship management with landowners and developers.  We also wanted to understand the drivers of the current development pipeline.

After a delayed start we worked with Local Partnerships to review our current position and better understand how to unlock stalled sites.  Some of the key points of learning were:

  • Confirmation of the churning of sites through the planning system
  • Challenges to bringing sites forward especially brownfield risks and limited range of proposed house types
  • Lack of relationships with land owners, SME developers and larger developers
  • Opportunities to access available land for smaller schemes via SME developers

The difference we made

This project has only just started to impact our work in Luton as implementation was disturbed by changes of staffing and the pandemic.

However, Local Partnerships used their work on this project to recognise the potential of SME builders in delivering new homes. They subsequently launched a national project looking at collaboration between councils and SME developers: https://localpartnerships.org.uk/news/call-for-pilot-participants/

What’s next?

We have only recently (July 2022) regained some of our capacity to respond to the ideas and recommendations in the report.

One starting point is a new housing supply monitoring approach which is jointly managed between Housing enabling and Planning. This is a tracker of all live sites in the system which includes details of contacts for the developments.  At this point, we are starting to identify lead “account management” points of contact within the council for each site.  We recently held a housing conference and our improved record of developers meant we were able to target those leading major sites to invite to the event.

We have intentions of setting up a developer forum as recommended in the report as this meets with other strategic priorities too.

We are in negotiations to acquire a scheme from a local developer of nine homes. This is the kind of project which we think there is a lot of potential for within Luton, and could be the first of many similar infill developments.  Acquisitions such as this help the council to access homes on sites where there would not normally be affordable housing as they are below threshold. In addition it supports local businesses which employ locally, in alignment with our wealth building strategy.

Lessons learned

Initially our lesson was to price the bid appropriately, as the funding awarded was half of what was eventually required.

The challenges in securing an appropriate consultant prompted us to consider how we work with professional companies via established frameworks.

The benefits of well-established communication arrangements with developers, RPs and landowners are made clear and this is something we are improving.

Contact:

Claire Astbury, Head of Housing Strategy & Development, claire.astbury@luton.gov.uk