1. The Chairman welcomed the guests to the Committee.
2. Mr Heley and Mr Baker introduced themselves to the Committee and briefly talked about Housing Growth in Essex.
3. What interplay is there between districts? Are the district Leaders welcoming of additional affordable housing?
Mr Baker confirmed that a significant amount of work had been undertaken to establish positive relationships with Essex County Council (ECC) housing partners and support their wider housing aims. He explained that an ECC housing strategy is being developed by ECC’s Housing Growth Unit which will go out to public consultation soon. The strategy consultation document was submitted to Essex County Council’s Place Scrutiny Committee in January and was generally welcomed, it was also shared with Essex’s district and borough housing officers to seek and incorporate feedback before formal consultation commences. He emphasised the importance of ensuring that the appropriate language was used within the document recognising the distinctive housing roles that different organisations play. Mr Baker outlined the three strategic goals included in the emerging ECC housing strategy:
i. Growing Essex while protecting the best of the county - maintaining a focus on quality growth and ensuring that housing growth supports wider policy objectives e.g. environmental sustainability and supporting local districts to deliver the required amount of housing including affordable housing.
ii. Enabling people to live independently throughout their life Promoting accessible housing provision that allows people to remain independent and healthy for longer, the provision of specialist accommodation when needed and the potential for new technology to enable people to remain in their own homes.
iii. Supporting people to have a stable home Partnership work to tackle rough sleeping, homelessness and the inappropriate use of temporary accommodation in Essex.
4. Can you tell us more about the establishment of Essex County Council’s dedicated Housing Growth Unit and its main aims/objectives?
Mr Heley said that the dedicated Housing Growth Unit had been established to work across Essex, in partnership with colleagues across the Council and with the 12 local housing authorities, to help deliver ambitions for housing growth. He said that, work over the last 12 months had been focused on developing and submitting three Housing Infrastructure Fund bids to government seeking investment to deliver infrastructure that supports housing growth. He said that to date the government have announced that two HIF bids have been approved in Essex meaning that £317m in funding for new road and sustainable transport infrastructure has been secured subject to agreement of terms and conditions. He emphasised the importance of the County Council having the capacity and capability to understand and engage with the housing delivery elements of the bid and not just infrastructure aspects. He said that as the bidding authority Essex County Council would be held accountable for housing delivery related to the funding as well as infrastructure delivery. He added that Essex County Council were passionate about ensuring that the money that came into the county delivered the right amount of affordable housing to its residents. He explained that housing associated with the funding needed to be compliant with local plan policy requirements on affordable housing.
5. Could you provide more information in relation to Affordable Housing supply in Essex? What does it mean to be an affordable home?
Mr Heley set the wider context of worsening affordability over the last decade since the global financial crisis in 2008. He said that the affordable housing crisis was exacerbated in part as a result of the global financial crisis and national policy responses to it. Lower interest rates and quantitative easing raised house prices, but wages have not increased at the same rate. He briefly referred to the freezing of housing benefits as one long term consequence of the global financial crisis: the Bank of England lowered interest rates, pushing up house prices and so private sector rents. The government cut expenditure as tax revenue fell after the financial crash, including freezing housing benefit in 2016. So rent is up, but wages and benefit have fallen. Benefit no longer pays for rent in the private sector in Essex, making housing less affordable.
Mr Baker referenced a project looking at ways to increase affordable housing in Essex involving multiple public sector partners and coordinated by ECC’s housing growth unit, a final report is due in the spring. He confirmed that there were approximately 1,250 new affordable housing units built in Essex in 2018-19, which was the highest amount since 2013.
6. Could you provide more information in relation to accessible housing and life-long homes?
Mr Baker referred to the pivotal role that building regulations play and specifically the government-approved document ‘Access to and use of buildings. He emphasised the importance for ECC of ensuring that people were able to access and use buildings and their facilities. He said that it was often difficult to ensure that houses were wheelchair accessible as there had to be a demonstrated need and that viability needed to be taken into account. He said that partnership working between Essex County Council and housing partners would continue to understand how best practice and knowledge could be shared to ensure accessible housing is delivered that meet the county’s residents’ needs. Mr Heley stated that the more information that was available within an agreed policy, the more it suppressed land value, he emphasised the importance of clearly specifying need with underlying evidence. Brian Horton emphasised the importance of affordable housing to developer business plans in helping to smooth cash flow considerations.
7. Is it often difficult to secure land in first instance and find developers to build on land?
Mr Heley said that developers bring land forward through the planning system. He referred to Essex’s garden communities and by way of example referred to the 43,000 homes proposed in garden communities in North Essex alone. He said that development was often a complex process, especially at a large scale and involved multiple landowners and different developers.
8. What conversations are taking place at Essex County Council in relation to asset management, policy and disposals?
Mr Heley said that Essex County Council had an independent living programme which brought forward schemes for older people with complex care needs which included use of ECC-owned land. He briefly talked about the close working relationship between property and housing in Essex and the importance of evidential work to show best value and best consideration for the intended purpose.
9. What is Essex County Council’s relationship with the NHS like?
Mr Baker referred to a development site in Colchester which Essex County Council’s housing development team ‘Essex Housing’ were working on with NHS partners. He added that wider conversations were taking place between Essex County Council and the NHS in relation to housing.
10. What opportunities are there for Essex County Council to work more closely with district councils in relation to housing?
Mr Baker referred to the Essex Planning Officers Association, which was currently chaired by Essex County Council’s Head of Planning, and the positive joint work that had been undertaken in supporting shared aims in relation to e.g. housing viability and good design. Mr Heley talked about the potential for shared capacity to engage further with developers and garden communities through the master planning process.
11. How can housing associations be best supported to deliver more affordable homes?
Mr Baker said that positive discussions with housing associations and the National Housing Federation were taking place via the ongoing affordable housing project (referenced in response to question 5 above) in relation to the delivery of policy-compliant affordable homes. He talked about the range of housing associations in Essex and the different approaches that were needed dependent on local context in relation to land supply and grant funding. Mr Heley emphasised the importance of housing associations in delivering ECC’s Independent Living programme.
12. Could more be done in relation to affordable housing? Are all opportunities being captured?
Mr Heley referred to the need for land, funding and market for the development of housing and the need to become more involved in the land market to generate greater opportunities. Brian Horton added that confidence and certainty in delivery helped to secure delivery of more affordable homes.
13. Are there many objections in relation to additional affordable housing units in Essex?
Mr Heley said that Essex County Council worked closely with district colleagues in relation to the importance of affordable housing delivery and also for specialist housing. Districts are supportive of the need for more affordable housing including specialist affordable housing.
14. In your view, what more can Kent County Council do, if anything, to support the development and provision of affordable housing in Kent?
Mr Heley reiterated Brian Horton’s earlier comments in relation to the importance of having confidence and certainty in delivery and the positive work that Kent County Council had already undertaken in relation to affordable housing by holding a Select Committee on the matter. He said that affordable housing was key to enabling people to move out of inappropriate accommodation and live independently.
15. What would you say are the key things that could shake confidence in relation to housing schemes?
Mr Heley emphasised the importance of maintaining a positive working relationship with the county’s districts.
16. Is there any superannuation fund involved in the housing developments in Essex?
Mr Heley said that some housing associations in Essex were backed by pension funds and that pension funds were involved in directly investing in housing developments, but he was not aware of council pension schemes investing in housing developments in Essex.
17. Are landowners involved in any of the housing conversations between Essex County Council, developers and partners?
Brian Horton confirmed that landowners would not usually be involved in conversations which related to housing developments, but developers would be. The Essex Developers Group and the SELEP Housing and Development Group being examples of the forums where council/developer conversations take place.
The Chairman thanked the guests from Essex County Council for attending and answering Members questions. He invited them to submit written evidence in support of the Select Committee’s work.