Put out some flags!

Two important decisions this month show that Exeter City Council could at last be facing up to the real challenges confronting the city.

First, building more homes

After a long – very long – gestation period in the shadows, the Council’s proposal to set up a housing development company has burst into the sunlight.  Put simply, the plan is to set up a series of Council-controlled linked companies to build houses of the sort the communities need rather than what the volume housebuilders are prepared to offer.  To fund the housing, the companies will first of all build houses on Council-owned land, sell them at open-market prices and use the profits to fund what will be in practice public sector housing development, for sale and for rent [1].

Setting up a housing development company is not new: other councils have done it as a solution, even if only a partial one, to our housing crisis. But it is very encouraging to see Exeter City Council coming forward with a practical well-thought through plan of action (and not just another “strategy”).  There will doubtless be wrinkles to iron out, but the proposal deserves widespread support.

Second, beyond more homes and into wider development

The Council’s Executive had a busy meeting on 10 July.  Apart from the housing plan, they also considered a paper with the mind-numbing title of “Sustainable Financing Model for Exeter Infrastructure” [2].  But the content is quite the reverse of dull.  What is proposed is the creation of a publicly-owned City Development Fund to pay for infrastructure that will address congestion, urban sprawl, and inchoate development on a scale far greater than can be achieved with the housing development company.  The central idea is that the Council and public sector partners pool their land and other assets against which significant finance can be raised as borrowing.  Savings can be made by pooling overall control of projects, which reduces the need to spend on professional services for individual schemes (remember the £5 million and rising on services for Pete’s Pool before even a foot of tarmac is dug up!)

Senior councillors have agreed the officer recommendation that the model should not be based on partnerships with the private sector on the grounds that experience shows that the private sector ends up calling the shots in such arrangements.  For those of us concerned that Exeter could end up with something like the Haringey Development Vehicle [3], this decision is a profound relief. As with housing, the private sector cherry picks sites for development that will generate an average 20% return on the investment, money which goes to distant shareholders rather than be reinvested directly in Exeter.

The officer paper recognises that there is much more work to be done in fleshing out how the fund will work.  The major risks are recognised.  Questions that immediately occur to me include:

  • Given that planning policy controls in Exeter are weak, how does the Council plan stop private developers carrying on cherry-picking?
  • The fund is said to be available to cover Greater Exeter. Are the surrounding Tory-run Councils bought into a proposal intended to make life difficult for their private sector friends?
  • Will the City Council have enough assets of their own if other public sector partners won’t play?
  • How will the Council engage communities in its development plans?

Unlike the housing development company, this is untried ground for a local authority.  But there’s huge potential, both for our environment and our democracy if we get this right.

So what’s changing?

Both these proposals are inspiring.  They recognise that the self-interest of private sector has for too long given priority to shareholder expectations and failed to respond to what communities need and want.  We’ve had nearly 40 years of governments peddling neo-liberal economics as the default position, and now our local authority is turning round and starting to restore a civilised approach to development.

NOTES

[1]   The details, including the business case, are set out in a Council paper at http://committees.exeter.gov.uk/ieListDocuments.aspx?CId=112&MId=5310&Ver=4 item 14 of the agenda.  The full Council is due to rubber stamp the proposals on 24 July.

[2]   As note [1], item 10 of the agenda

[3]  See for example https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/news/news/lendlease-warns-haringey-council-over-planned-development-vehicle-cancellation-57185

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