Hunts council could return to social house-building

COUNCIL houses could be built in Huntingdonshire for the first time in decades.

Although 800 new homes were completed in Huntingdonshire last year, as many as 25,000 more could be needed by 2036, planners believe.

And, while the recession has slowed down house-building in the market sector, it has done nothing to reduce the more than 2,700 households on Huntingdonshire District Council’s housing registers.

Now senior council officers are investigating possible options for a limited return to the social housing market.

Deputy leader Councillor Nick Guyatt, whose portfolio includes strategic planning, told The Hunts Post this week: “I’m thinking of lots of options for funding affordable housing. If there are ways of raising finance, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t think about doing it if it washes its face.

“I’m looking at a number of different variations. We can borrow money very cheaply as a local authority, and the pension fund has a need to achieve a certain level of return. So we may be able to raise money and lend it on to somebody else.

“I’m ruling nothing out. It’s something that officers here and at the county council [of which Cllr Guyatt is also a member] are looking at for me.”

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The options include the council building new homes itself or providing finance to a house-builder or social landlord.

One thing HDC, which sold its housing stock to Luminus more than a decade ago, does not want to do is to return to operating social housing. “We would get somebody else to run them for us,” said Cllr Guyatt, whose background is in corporate finance.

The council’s first task in the housing market is to ensure that there is sufficient land allocated for housing.

HDC had been working on the assumption of 14,000 additional dwellings by 2026, but the Government has now demanded that councils stretch their planning horizons by a further 10 years.

Predictions of demand from 2026 to 2036 vary between the 4,500 included in the defunct regional spatial strategy for the East of England and the 10,500 forecast by the Office for National Statistics – and even that could change when the results of last year’s census are analysed.

But sustainable development is achievable only if the private sector co-operates. HDC can provide planning consents and land allocations, but it does not control house-building, which is exclusively in the hands of private developers at the moment.

The council can require either land for affordable housing or the homes themselves as conditions of consents for major housing developments. But in a depressed market – though the housing market is still dynamic in Huntingdonshire – those contributions may be slow in coming.

The new ‘community infrastructure levy’, which applies to all new housing and most commercial developments, will also provide cash, but there is no longer any central government money for housing.

“If we were to build, we would expect some uplift in asset value as part of the calculation,” Cllr Guyatt said.

“I hope to have the analysis in the next few months because, if I can’t lock into borrowing [in the short term], I don’t know what interest rates will look like.

“With quantitative easing there’s lots of cash we can borrow cheaply, but the question is whether we can create a package that also makes the whole thing work for Council Tax payers.”