1. The Chairman opened the hearing by informing the committee of the terms of reference which are:
a) To define and put into context affordable housing.
b) To explore Kent County Council’s (KCC) current role in supporting the development of new affordable housing in Kent.
c) To consider additional ways in which KCC can support the development of affordable housing in Kent.
d) For the Affordable Housing Select Committee to make recommendations after having gathered evidence and information throughout the review.
2. The Chairman welcomed the three guests; Tim Woolmer, Tom Marchant & David Godfrey to the Select Committee meeting and invited all those present to introduce themselves.
3. Tom Marchant explained that he was Head of Strategic Planning and Policy within Growth Environment and Transport directorate for KCC and Tim Woolmer explained that he leads on housing within the corporate policy unit as well as having a wider focus on strategic relationships with KCC’s statutory partners.
4. Both Tim Woolmer and Tom Marchant presented a power point presentation to Members headed ‘Affordable Housing’.
5. During the presentation the Chairman reminded Members that questions could be asked at any time. The presentation was paused during the slide on ‘Challenges in delivering affordable housing’.
6. Mr Brazier asked if there was a difference in the quality of affordable housing compared to full market price housing on the same site? In relation to permitted development rights and commercial properties in town centres, he felt that these units were being bought up by developers to be converted into units of accommodation and then let to Local Authorities who were then responsible for providing accommodation and weather this was what was being referred to within the presentation?
7. Tom Marchant advised that it was his understanding the Government was about to release findings of a review which discussed these issues especially around quality of accommodation. However, he clarified that the accommodation should be the same for both affordable housing and the market housing. There is a strong policy focus on integration of units and for them to be undistinguishable from the market housing.
8. Tim Woolmer informed Members that there had been greater focus within Kent and Medway to work with London Councils on deterring placements of homeless households into the county, particularly into former office blocks converted for residential use under permitted development. These are often in town centre environments without the necessary infrastructure to support residential dwellings such as school places, health provision and come without developer contributions meaning that any necessary provision is completely unfounded and difficult to establish, compounding capacity issues on already stretched local services.
9. Brian Horton who was in attendance to speak on the item 5 of the agenda added that in his experience as a Chief Executive of a Housing Association and Head of Housing for a District Council, there were many cases that social housing was usually a higher standard than homes for sale because a landlord building homes to let for forty to sixty year periods needed to ensure that they were durable and not only for the immediate needs but also future generations. The ‘Decent Home Standard’ was a government set of standards that Local Authorities and Housing Associations had to meet.
10. Mr Farrell questioned whether the percentage of affordable housing through section 106 agreements were tracked? In terms of the viability argument with developers, Mr Farrell asked for views on ability of larger house builders to make more robust viability arguments and how that has changed over time and the district capacity to challenge those arguments.
11. Tom Marchant addressed the first point on delivery information, he explained that Local Planning Authorities must publish at least annually, an Authority Monitoring Report setting out the success of policies against indicators in their Local Plans. In the past KCC had published its own monitoring reports, however he would need to clarify what the current position was. In terms of viability, the major housebuilders did almost inevitably have greater access to resources, however, over recent years, local planning authorities had committed significant resources to improve the depth of knowledge and understanding on these matters.
12. Tim Woolmer reminded Members that they will be hearing from both Kent Planning and Development groups during the Select Committee sessions.
13. Mrs Beresford raised concerns about developers not meeting their quota of 30% social and affordable housing although they had initially agreed to do so and asked what the answer would be?
14. Tom Marchant felt that although this is not uncommon, legislative change and redressing the emphasis in national policy and guidance were part of a wider ongoing debate regarding land value capture. Often one of the key issues was the price paid for the land in a competitive market, and the impact on the level contributions available for infrastructure and affordable housing. The Royal Institution for Charters Surveyors has recently consulted on fresh draft viability guidance reflecting the latest changes to national planning policy and guidance.
15. Mrs Dean asked who determines the Local Housing Allowance rate and what and who decides on the definition. During the presentation there were discussions about ratio of affordability and the relationship between income and house price, Mrs Dean asked if there was a gold standard and what ratio should be aimed for? On the issue of how housing numbers were calculated, there are 3 indicators from the government, she asked which was the gold standard? In relation to garden communities Mrs Dean commented on proposals for garden settlements which the Government had announced it would give £19 million of funding but which hadn’t been approved through local plans. This in turn could undermine what had been achieved through their local planning and she sought views from the speakers.
16. Tim Woolmer addressed the point on who sets the rates and advised that Local Housing Allowance rates are set by the Valuation Office Agency on behalf of Government according to broad rental market areas and the number of bedrooms the household is deemed eligible for. Changes in Government policy has meant that the number of private rented properties that are available within Local Housing Allowance Rates has steadily reduced since 2011 Tim Woolmer will provide more detail to the Committee on this. On an optimum affordability ratio between house prices and earnings, there is not an easy or universal answer. Whilst it is true that the current low cost of borrowing and schemes such as Help to Buy does still make mortgages accessible to households with sufficient income in the south east, conditions can change quickly, and any definitive answer to the question would require a comprehensive piece of national research to be carried out.
17. Tom Marchant referenced the relationship between Kent and London and the pending response from the Secretary of State to the draft London Plan. There is a shortfall in meeting the housing need for London and the relationship with the wider South East region will no doubt be subject to further scrutiny in due course. On the query of Borough Green Gardens, it was explained that whilst Kent had several designated garden settlements in the Garden Communities Programme, this does not prejudice the statutory plan making process. Tom commented on several high-profile cases outside of Kent where garden settlements had experienced significant issues at independent Examination of Local Plans.
18. The presentation continued with David Godfrey contributing, suggesting areas where KCC might influence the delivery of affordable housing and introduced the proposed Kent & Medway Infrastructure Proposition.
19. Following the end of the presentation, Mr Murphy raised a point of having infrastructure first, as in his experience whenever there is an objection for a planning application to the infrastructure, Kent highways would often overturn the decision due to the roads being adequate.
20. David Godfrey commented that that in the proposed Infrastructure Proposition, the aim was that infrastructure should always come first. He agreed that working as a single entity within KCC was important, with agreed objectives to ensure that policy was joined up. At the same time, having a single conversation with Government as proposed through the Infrastructure Proposition, would further strengthen our dealings with Government for more funding and planning flexibility.
21. Tim Woolmer explained that detailed discussions on the Infrastructure Proposition would be needed before a deal could be completed. However, Leaders, were interested to progress.
22. Mr Farrell asked if there was a policy when KCC is the planning applicant?
23. Tom Marchant was not aware of any policy and each planning application should be treated on its own merits. Tom commented that the Committee would be hearing from Rebecca Spore (Director of Infrastructure) who will be well placed to answer that through an up and coming Select Committee.
24. Mr Bond questioned the panel whether KCC was going to take a lead on how to encourage the utilities to invest to support growth? In addition, with house prices being pushed up by London house prices how would KCC address this or would it be out of the remit to look at/question these pressures?
25. David Godfrey commented that if an Infrastructure Proposition went ahead there would be a bid for funding and powers in a number of areas, one of which would be around the utility companies. He commented that SELEP had supported earlier work to encourage joint planning.
26. Mr Bond requested clarity that with private companies would KCC take a lead over aspects such as the road system etc?
27. David Godfrey confirmed the Infrastructure Proposition was looking primarily at what was needed to release difficult sites and working with individual Districts on what their priorities were.
28. Brian Horton commented that at a macroeconomic level, the way to contain house prices and inflation would be to build more homes where those people want to live. The housing market would then adjust although he was aware that that can bring enormous challenges. In terms of infrastructure what they have been discussing is public sector investment in infrastructure that will bring greater viability to areas that might struggle and reducing the potential for affordable housing or other social benefits to be reduced or lost. In terms of infrastructure there has been active dialog with various infrastructure providers through the Kent Development group from Housing & Finance Institute. Reference to Nick Fenton was made from the Kent Development Group who will be giving evidence at a later session.
29. The Chairman thanked both Tom Marchant, Tim Woolmer and David Godfrey for their valued input into the session and for answering Members questions.