Agenda item

Interview with Cllr Kevin Maskell, Housing & Health Deputy Portfolio Holder, Sevenoaks District Council, and Gavin Missons, Housing Policy Manager, Sevenoaks District Council


1.            The Chairman welcomed Cllr Maskell and Mr Missons and thanked them for attending


2.            Mr Missons presented a series of slides (included in the agenda pack) which he had prepared in response to the questions sent to him in advance by the Research Officer. The presentation set out statistics for the District’s housing stock and type and the priorities of the housing strategy which was adopted in 2017 and then focused on rural and modular housing in Sevenoaks district. It set out the background to the District Council’s housing strategy and ideas for joint working between the District Council and the County Council.


3.            So far in the current financial year, 219 new-build homes had been completed, an excellent achievement, but this only scratched the surface of the number of new homes needed each year. The District Council had achieved 40% of its housing contribution as affordable housing on one scheme, had enabled the delivery of its first affordable modular housing scheme, had achieved 100% affordable housing on a land-led development and established a rural housing work programme.  Quercus Housing, the District Council’s own housing company, had been set up in 2019 and had acquired its first affordable housing development, as well as exploring some temporary accommodation across the district. The presentation then set out information on housing developments in Edenbridge, Swanley and Westerham, the latter being the Quercus Housing project.


4.            In its community engagement, the District Council had been told by older people that most older people seeking to downsize to smaller retirement homes did not want to live among other older people but in mixed communities of all ages. The District Council therefore sought to enable the development of 1- or 2-bed housing suitable for any and all age groups, to meet the Lifetime Homes Standard by building in features to cater for the needs of an ageing population so these did not need to be retro-fitted later. Further phases of the development in Oakley Park in Edenbridge would be built in 2021-22. 


5.            The Mallards development in Swanley featured the district’s first modular affordable housing.  Asked how long this process had taken, Mr Missons explained that planning consent had been granted in April 2019 after a straightforward application process and groundworks had been started soon after. Mr Missons went on to explain that developments could be undertaken by experienced precision engineers and units could be constructed in one day with minimal snagging. The modular units were proving both popular and fashionable, particularly with young families.  The opening ceremony for the Mallards development would take place shortly and he undertook to provide details, once known, so Members of the Select Committee could attend.


6.            Rural housing had previously been developed on an ad hoc basis, working with interested Parish Councils, but this did not address the needs of households requiring affordable housing who lived in other parishes. The new Rural Housing Work Programme (RHWP) had been developed to address this and introduce a formal process of surveying all housing needs across the whole district and produce an evidence-based programme, to seek to make provision fairer. The new RHWP would be considered by the District Council’s Strategic Management Team, Housing and Health Advisory Committee and Cabinet.


7.            Key issues affecting the housing market in the district included the high price and very limited supply of land suitable for development, with 93% of this land being in the greenbelt and 60% being in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The District Council had negotiated to build ten 1-bed homes for shared-ownership but, being high-standard units, these would likely attract well-paid professionals who would commute into London to work. As part of its Housing Strategy, the District Council hoped that, if it allowed developers to build on prime sites, the trade-off could be that it could encourage developers to build low-cost housing on other sites, to meet the local need for affordable housing. The district experienced levels of out-migration among 25- to 44-year olds as there were few housing opportunities for them, and a higher-than-average number of homeowners in the 55+, 65+ and 85+ age groups.


8.            The Government had recently changed the requirements governing local qualification for shared ownership, so Housing Associations were informally targeting people with local connections first. As with the first Right to Buy scheme, younger people taking advantage of the Right to Buy 2 scheme could buy their parents’ home and sell it on once their parents had passed away. Previously, there had been cases where people would buy their home, sell it on, retire abroad on the proceeds and then come back to the UK and seek another local authority property for their later years!  With a limited private rented sector, private landlords could afford to pick and choose the tenants they wanted and would avoid people on the housing register in favour of well-paid professionals. A major change in taxation was coming shortly and would have a big impact on private renting.  Any support the KCC could give to increase Local Housing Allowance (LHA) levels with the District’s two broad rental market areas (BRMAs) could help this. The Localism Act of 2011 had led to a push for fixed-term tenancies and this was introduced in the District.


9.            Other areas in which the County Council could give support and have influence included selling or gifting small parcels of its unused land for use for affordable housing development, joint ventures with Quercus Housing (QH) and supporting the exploration of air-space developments, for example, building accommodation for teachers near schools.  Although land-gifting projects existed elsewhere, landowners in Sevenoaks district did not tend to support this but sought to realise as much as possible of the financial value of their land. Any help and influence the County Council could bring to this would be appreciated.  Nationally, 25% of private landlords were expected to leave the sector this year, due to the taxation changes outlined above.  Institutional landlords offered tenants a good reliable service and tended to maintain their properties better than some other private landlords. A return to renovation grant assistance could improve the standard of the existing housing stock. It was hoped that Housing Associations could be encouraged to develop more private rented housing to create income which could subsidise affordable housing schemes. Micro-housing, a form of modular housing resembling modern bedsit units, was very well designed and was fashionable and popular with young people, who had bought many units off-plan, and could be built in high-density developments. High-density development would always need to be well designed.  The District Council was keen to develop this type. If land supply were an issue in an area, there could be an option to seek planning consent for a temporary development of modular housing and return the land to greenbelt afterwards, for example, after 5 years. It was hoped that modular housing development could be scaled up across the county, and the County Council could possibly design its own modular housing as a Kent-wide design product. 


10.         Looking to the future, there was much in the new draft Local Plan which would strengthen the District Council’s position as regards affordable housing, including off-site s106 contributions, developing the work of Quercus Housing, which was not intended to replace existing Housing Associations but to support those programmes, and a supported downsizing strategy for people over 55, which it was hoped the County Council could support.


11.         Mr Missons and Cllr Maskell then responded to comments and questions from the committee, including the following:-


a.    asked if modular housing would be available for rental only, or if it could be purchased, Mr Missons explained that it could be acquired through shared ownership with an affordable housing company, although the rental market was the main focus.  Work would be pursued with banks, however, to create a bespoke product to which traditional mortgages could be applied;


b.    Mr Missons was then asked how this would fit with the mortgage lending code set in the Financial Conduct Authority’s prudential regulations, which placed high restrictions on ‘prefabs’, and if the Government was likely to relax these restrictions in the near future. Brian Horton (Strategic Housing Advisor, South East Local Enterprise Partnership), who was attending the hearing as an observer, having been interviewed previously by the Select Committee, explained that he had worked with councils, mortgage providers and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) to promote the Buildoffsite Property Assurance Scheme (BOPAS). This provided a 60-year assurance warranty on homes and allowed mortgages to be offered via recognition of the scheme by the Council for Mortgage Lenders (CML). Nick Fenton, Chairman, Kent Developers Group, who was attending prior to being interviewed by the Select Committee, advised that some lenders would take on this arrangement.  He undertook to find out which lenders and advise the Select Committee outside the meeting. Mr Horton undertook to send the Select Committee a link to the BOPAS website;


c.    asked if the District Council would welcome a standardised approach to housing provision across the county, Mr Missons said that a centralised, standardised approach would be welcome as it would save time and effort.  Developers may also be more likely to come forward to provide affordable housing if the process to be followed were uniform and applied the same rules across the whole county, where it could, still appreciating some district/borough-level differences. Cllr Maskell added that clarity was important, along with full consultation and a thorough assessment of the issues which any District Council might find, and that no part of the process should contradict any other. Partnership was very important and would help to overcome any contradictions shown up between participating district councils’ current processes;


d.    asked if Sevenoaks district was in danger of running out of development land, and if development was still an option in rural villages, Mr Missons advised that the District Council worked by the type of land, for example, greenbelt, rather than its location.  The agricultural value of the land to the landowner would be low and landowners with this land were likely to be keen to use it or sell it for development at a higher value of around £10,000 per plot.  Being still low-cost to the relevant housing association, this opened up options for the land and made development viable.  However, in  rural areas around Sevenoaks, there was much opposition in some areas to a local development of affordable housing; half a village may support it as it would give their children and elderly neighbours a chance to remain living within their community and the other half of the village would fight any development of affordable housing near their homes. This very polarised reaction would make such a development difficult to achieve, but local examples, for example, Gibbs Field in Leigh, showed that it was worth the struggle. Cllr Maskell added that it could be a challenge to find ways of adding value to a development.  Infrastructure and facilities which could improve residents’ health and wellbeing had a large role to play in adding value and could help local people to accept a proposed development;


e.    asked if building on agricultural land had been successful and if the approach could be copied elsewhere, Mr Missons advised that, arising from housing legislation passed in 1996, a former Government department had developed maps which identified rural areas designated as being suitable for rural exceptions sites and enabled the protection of such homes for local people in perpetuity.  However, it was not clear how these sites had been identified and what criteria had been used in the designation. If such a site were still to be covered by its previous designation, this designation could outweigh and override greenbelt policy if building within an area were to be only for people from that area who wished to stay there, rather than incomers. Such maps could prove useful in establishing a local connection in perpetuity;


f.     it was pointed out that engagement and joint working seeking to develop affordable housing would need to be backed up with sufficient funding to bring plans to fruition. The County Council could help to cut through the talk and make things happen. The ‘No Use Empty’ (NUE) initiative was a good example of this. Mr Missons advised that 8 houses had been brought back into use in the last reporting period, some with NUE funding. County Council loans for this, for a period of 5 years, had helped a lot;


g.    a view was expressed that the Select Committee needed to engage and involve the County Council’s Director of Finance to give a professional opinion on the substantial financial element of the issues it had heard about and the recommendations it might want to make. The County Council was close to its 75% borrowing limit for housing; and


h.      a view was expressed that the Sevenoaks district was atypical of Kent districts as it was the wealthiest in Kent and so would have been first to lose its Government financial support.  Asked to what extent Sevenoaks’ relative wealth had allowed it to pursue its planned housing projects, and if other local authorities could realistically hope to follow some of its examples, Mr Missons advised that Quercus Seven was a self-sufficient company receiving no Government grant and working on a 6-7% return.  The company had purchased all types of property and was working well. Quercus Housing was separate to Quercus Seven and was a not-for-profit company, buying properties funded by rents from affordable housing, intermediate rents at Local Housing Allowance level and up to 80% of market value and private rents generated by Quercus Seven in a joint venture with Quercus Housing, which had made it cheaper to deliver its affordable housing elements. Cllr Maskell added that Quercus Housing was limited by restrictions and restraints, and he expressed his personal view that the success of future developments had yet to be seen. It was frustrating that more affordable housing could not be funded from Quercus Housing as it could not generate enough revenue to buy since the Government changed the planning rules which had provided financial contributions on smaller developments.  Mr Missons added that, similar to Housing Associations, Quercus Housing may have to borrow money in the future as it was a small-scale outfit.  He added, however, that the joint approach of the social and commercial arms of the District Council had worked well.


12.    The Chairman thanked Mr Missons and Cllr Maskell for giving their time to attend and help the Select Committee with its information gathering and advised them that a written summary of their interview would be sent to them for checking and approval.



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