Hunts in line for �1m housing bonus to offset Whitehall cuts

HUNTINGDONSHIRE could be in line for more than �1million of Government cash next year as a reward for sustaining high levels of house building, even in the economic downturn.

In the past year, more than 800 homes have been completed in the district, 110 of them on Cambridgeshire County Council’s Princes Street site in Huntingdon town centre.

A scheme announced by the Government – the New Homes Bonus – will see Whitehall matching Council Tax revenue for new homes for six years. In addition, there will be a �350 annual supplement per affordable home.

With Council Tax in Huntingdonshire averaging �1,400 a year, the district council is in line for more than �1m in 2011/12.

This is far from all new money, since HDC will lose the �700,000 it got last year from planning delivery grant for efficient processing of planning applications, as well as a huge chunk of its annual block grant – possibly as much as �1.3m next April.

But it will also be able to borrow against additional business rates from new or expanded business opportunities in the district, although details have yet to be announced.

“Even in recession, we were able to increase the amount of affordable housing delivered,” said Malcolm Sharp, HDC’s director of environment and community services.

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“And there are a lot of completions coming through this year, which will be significant for next year and for six years.

“Growth will continue apace,” he predicted. “But the elephant in the room is uncertainty over the A14, because of sites such as Northstowe and Godmanchester. That could force development into other areas, such as St Neots, coming on more quickly.”

With more than 3,700 households already on Huntingdonshire’s housing registers, delivery of affordable housing is a key priority for the district.

Its first priorities, for delivery up to 2013/14 are nearly 4,000 new homes (1,600 of them ‘affordable’) on a dozen sites of which the largest are at Wintringham Park, St Neots, and Bearscroft Farm, Godmanchester – although both will need major road improvements.

HDC is confident that it can continue to grow in spite of uncertainty about future Whitehall support, though others in Cambridgeshire are less convinced that Government policy has been properly thought through.

Eric Pickles, the Local Government Secretary, has already had to backtrack on ditching the top level of regional planning strategy, the regional spatial strategy because it created a planning vacuum in other parts of the country – though not in Cambridgeshire, where the county council and five districts had agreed a policy to replace it.

Under the auspices of Cambridgeshire Horizons, the not-for-profit delivery vehicle for �6bn of infrastructure needed to support the growth agenda in the wider county, and the Housing and Communities Agency – which has just had its �9bn annual budget for hew homes halved – the county has produced the Cambridgeshire Local Investment Plan (CLIP).

As well as identifying strategic investment principles, the document has enabled each district council to put forward its own priorities for housing growth, along with infrastructure and employment opportunities to sustain the new communities.

HDC, which did some major work two years ago in identifying community infrastructure projects, is a step ahead of the rest of the county.

Although it has not yet introduced a Community Infrastructure Levy on small housing developments, it is in a good position to do so. This would capture money from the 60 per cent of new housing sites that are too small to attract what are called Section 106 developer contributions on larger sites. Contributions may include 40 per cent affordable homes and contributions to schools, surgeries, social services and transport projects affected by the development.

What is less clear is the part the Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership, newly authorized by Mr Pickles and Business Secretary Vince Cable, will play in delivering growth.

The LEP is supposed to take on the mantle – at least in part – that the East of England Development Agency will relinquish when it is abolished in 2013, but without the funding.

Some of the money from the regional development agencies will go into the new Regional Growth Fund – to be spent anywhere but in growing regions! Cambridgeshire is likely to see none of it, much to the anger of the county’s business leaders.