Innovation in council housebuilding: chapter eight

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There is no single best approach, as councils must address their own specific local issues. Thus, an overriding feature is that council housebuilding demonstrates, as one interviewee for the case studies commented, “localism in action” and “a commitment to action and doing”.  

Nevertheless, there are six specific common interrelated themes:

  • co-ordinating council housebuilding policies with the broader strategic framework of, for example, housing strategies, local plans (including neighbourhood planning), regeneration policies, asset management strategies and corporate financial planning (this relates to the role of local authorities as enablers – see chapter two)
  • integrating council housebuilding with other delivery approaches such as local housing companies, especially on larger sites (see chapter three)  
  • making the case for council housebuilding through its added value, for example providing local jobs and training, helping the local supply chain in the construction sector such as SMEs, and delivering homes that meet the unmet needs of, for instance, older people (see chapter six) 
  • bringing together the wide range of funding streams – each with its own set of rules and regulations (see chapter seven) 
  • adopting an exemplar role in relation to types of development sites and build quality (see chapter six)  
  • taking a positive proactive stance even in difficult circumstances – for instance, in cases where the borrowing headroom has been reached (see chapter four).  

In addition, there are three emerging themes that are likely to grow in significance over the next few years:

  • greater community involvement through estate regeneration and with potential links to neighbourhood planning 
  • collaboration between councils and with housing associations and developers to address concerns over (i) competition for land and resources and (ii) skills deficits 
  • city region and sub-regional council housebuilding programmes through local growth deals and devolution to combined authorities with elected mayors. 

Overview of the case studies

The 10 case studies in this chapter were selected on the basis of three considerations. Firstly, there should be an element of innovation. Secondly, they should be drawn from a wide range of types of authorities and regions as possible. Thirdly, and pragmatically, they should be willing to participate.. The table below provides basic information on the 10 local authorities.

Table five: case study local authorities

Local authority

Region/area

Type

Political leadership (March 2018)

Birmingham

West Midlands

Core city unitary

Labour

Camden

Inner London

London borough

Labour

East Riding

Yorkshire & Humberside

Rural unitary

Conservative

North Kesteven

East Midlands

Rural district

Conservative

Northumberland

North East

Rural unitary

No overall control

Nuneaton

West Midlands

Urban district

Labour

Oxford

South East

Urban district

Labour

Stoke

West Midlands

Urban unitary

No overall control

Stroud

South West

Rural district

No overall control

Sutton

Outer London

London borough

Liberal Democrat

 

In addition to these specific case studies, our research identified other examples of interesting initiatives including:

  •  Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils: these two adjacent councils have a single integrated staffing structure and have developed 65 homes through the HRA over the last three years. In the case of Babergh, these are the first new council properties for nearly 30 years.  
  • Cambridge City Council: over 200 council homes have been developed between 2010 and 2017. The council intends to use affordable housing funding through the devolution deal for the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to continue this programme.  
  • Cheltenham Borough Council: through its ALMO, Cheltenham Borough Homes, there has been added value created by its development and modernisation programme that incorporates an employment initiatives service to address worklessness. 
  • Harrogate Borough Council: there is a long-standing commitment to develop homes through the HRA and the council has built up in-house capacity, including a design team and a viability assessment unit.  
  • Hartlepool Borough Council: has re-opened its HRA to help develop new affordable homes in the area. 
  • Winchester Borough Council: has built 100 council properties since 2012 and held discussions with the Government in 2017 over additional funding to develop a programme of 100 new units per year. 
  • York City Council: has developed nearly 80 council houses since 2015 and has been negotiating with Homes England over the setting up of a housebuilding fund for 2018/19 to 2023/24.   

These case studies and examples are illustrative of the innovative nature of council housebuilding. They therefore add significantly to previous research by other organisations that have included examples of council activity, such as the regular reports by the Association of Public Service Excellence (APSE) and the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) on affordable housing (see the appendix for further details).  

Innovation 

One of the principal reasons for the selection of case studies was to highlight interesting and innovative aspects of council housebuilding. Although there have been few, if any, recent studies on innovation in housing, there has been considerable engagement with the idea in public services – for example Mulgan (2014). 

There are many definitions of innovation. An interviewee in one of the case studies commented that “building any council houses in the current climate is innovative”. However, a more formal definition is “creating, developing and implementing practical ideas that achieve a public benefit” (Mulgan, 2014, p5). The key features are that the ideas (i) are new rather than incremental improvements, (ii) have been implemented and (iii) are judged to be useful. Linked to this definition is the concept of an innovation cycle. The basic principles are illustrated in the diagram below. 

Diagram two: innovation cycle

The reality is more complex – for example: 

  • projects may be abandoned at a specific stage in the cycle 
  • external factors may positively or negatively affect each of the stages (for example changes in Government policies have resulted in the scaling-down of initiatives, as in  North Kesteven)
  • ideas may require modification if they, for instance, are proving difficult to implement (such as the transfer of council housebuilding schemes to LHCs – Oxford). 

The table below illustrates the stages in the cycle from the case studies. 

Table six: innovation examples 

Innovation cycle stage

Topic

Examples

Opportunities and challenges

Meeting local needs

Ageing opulation and downsizing – Birmingham

Regeneration of estates through the Community Investment Programme (CIP) – Camden

Place-shaping in regeneration areas – Stoke-on-Trent

Developing and testing

Piloting

Nuneaton (2014 – 2016) – 47 properties on three sites

East Riding (2008-2010) – 338 units

North Kesteven (2010-2015) – 134 units on 26 sites

Making the case

Added value – training

Training – ‘Building Birmingham Scholarship’

CIP apprenticeship and work experience programme – Camden

Training and apprenticeship  programme – Northumberland

Delivering and implementing

Funding

Cross-subsidy from market sales – Birmingham

Commuted sums from planning agreements – East Riding

local growth fund – Sutton

Scaling and changing the system

Exemplar role – Quality and type of housing

Stroud new build standard 

Sutton design standard 

North Kesteven ‘Fabric first plus’ standard

 
Case studies