Agenda item

Mr Mike Whiting (Cabinet Member for Economic Development, Kent County Council)


1.    The Chair welcomed everyone present and asked them to introduce themselves. Highlighting the Committee’s terms of reference, he invited Mr Whiting to explain the role that the Cabinet Member for Economic Development could play in affordable housing.


2.    Mr Whiting explained that his primary role was to improve the productivity of Kent by promoting inward investment and making the county a great place to live, work and visit. Living in Kent also needed to be affordable. Whilst the local authority’s powers in relation to housing were limited, it did have the power of influence and numerous partnerships available to it.


3.    KCC was working on a Productivity Strategy and a key feature was skills. He felt that good jobs with good wages were key.


4.    Mr Whiting expressed that coastal communities faced particular challenges, in that whilst housing was cheaper than non-coastal areas, the work opportunities were constrained therefore making homes unaffordable.


5.    He explained that for each housing development a team in Economic Development (ED) would collate the internal bids for Section 106 (S106) contributions and submit those to the relevant district council for consideration. He believed that it was often the case that highways and education needs took precedence over those of affordable housing.


6.    Mr Whiting felt that one area that could be reviewed was whether the bids put forward by KCC services for S106 contributions were always fair and reasonable. In addition, he expressed that KCC should lobby government for more infrastructure funding. By allocating separate funds to larger infrastructure requirements (e.g. roads) there would be more opportunity for S106 contributions to fund needs such as affordable housing.


7.    In relation to government infrastructure funding, Mr Whiting gave an example of a housing development where money from Homes England was secured. However, due to a variety of reasons, the project did not move forward quickly enough, and the grant money was lost. The development still proceeded and therefore called upon S106 contributions.


8.    In answer to a question about prioritising the items included in the Growth Infrastructure Framework (GIF), Mr Whiting explained that each KCC service had its own delivery plan and it could only request S106 money for items that featured in those plans. For example, the Education Commissioning Plan set out future school place numbers. He reminded the Committee that the local authority was only one of a number of public bodies that drew on S106 requests, and prioritising those needs was difficult.


9.    In terms of what should come first, affordable housing or the infrastructure, Mr Whiting felt that one really needed the other. For larger developments, it was perhaps more straightforward to get all the elements in place at the same time. For example, the garden villages in Essex had received forward funding from government which allowed them to build the houses at the same time as the required infrastructure. This was much more difficult when looking at smaller developments of around 50 – 200 houses.


10. The Chair questioned whether there was opportunity to work with the districts to make the approach to planning more holistic. Mr Whiting confirmed that partnership working with the districts and other interested parties did already take place but agreed the S106 “pot” must not be overburdened.


11.  One Member voiced their disappointment at not being made aware of housing developments and S106 contributions that were in their electoral ward. They felt that input from an elected representative may be helpful in some situations. Mr Whiting confirmed this was being looked into, so that Members would be notified of larger housing developments in their ward.


12. Another Member expressed their opinion that the County Council should be taking a more proactive role in supplying affordable housing by offering their land for development. Mr Whiting explained that he was in conversation with Essex County Council who had been very proactive in their garden village schemes and attracted substantial money from central government. He was not against the idea for Kent, though advised the property portfolio was held by Peter Oakford who would be better placed to comment on KCC’s land holdings. He offered to invite a member from the select committee along to his next meeting with Essex CC.


13. There was consensus around the table that the power appeared to lay with property developers, and only lobbying government for legislative change would tilt that balance of power.


14.  The Chair raised the idea of placing a charge on a piece of land acquired for development. Mr Whiting said that approach was taken by the Council’s No Use Empty initiative where KCC put a charge on a property acquired for development, then when the property was sold at the end of the process KCC got their money back plus a small surplus to cover administration costs. He agreed KCC should lobby government to get similar schemes underway.


15.  A Committee Member referred to so called “low-skilled” workers. She felt the jobs classified as low skill (such as cleaning, catering) would always be needed and the individuals doing those jobs did not require upskilling. But it did mean there would always be individuals needing financial support to live in a home.


16. There were also individuals working in public sector roles (such as teachers, police, prison officers) that did not earn enough to get them on the housing ladder. Mr Whiting felt there was an opportunity for the Key Worker Scheme to be reintroduced.


17. A Member referred to feedback received from another hearing session, in which district councils found it difficult to know who to contact at KCC. Mr Whiting said the regular Kent Leader’s forum would be the opportunity for such issues to be raised.


18. A Member drew upon the Committee’s visit to Ebbsfleet Garden City earlier in the week. To date, no social housing had been built despite over 3,000 homes being delivered. Mr Whiting offered to raise this at the soon to be held Board meeting of which he was a member.


19. Mr Whiting said from his personal experience, the Help to Buy scheme had not been as helpful as the government promised. There was a fair amount of red tape when it came to selling properties that made it difficult for homeowners to move on.


20. Finally, Mr Whiting expressed that there was nothing stopping landlords from providing affordable homes in a new development, then after a few years selling those homes on for profit, at which point there would be no requirement for them to remain classified as affordable houses.


21. The Chair thanked Mr Whiting for attending the hearing session.


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