The Budget – a local government perspective
Such is the pace of events, Wednesday’s Budget, focussed on tackling the coronavirus pandemic, already feels a long time ago. Added to which Thursday saw major housing and planning announcements. Local government will be at the fore in delivering many of the Chancellor’s £12bn of measures to support residents and businesses through the challenges in coming weeks – from advice, support for elderly & vulnerable residents, information to schools, business rate relief, especially to the leisure and hospitality sectors as social distancing takes effect and the country moves from a strategy of ‘contain’ to ‘delay’ in an effort to ‘squash the sombrero’ of the coronavirus infection curve. Perhaps nowhere will this be more evident than in London’s 32 densely populated boroughs.
High streets and town centres, already in the eye of a storm as UK retail struggles, are a focus of several measures, from immediate rate reliefs through to planning changes aimed at housing-led reinvigoration as part of broader reforms aimed at shaking up the planning system. Infrastructure receives a significant boost, with several large schemes getting the green light providing stimulus to their localities and wider supply chains. Two changes to council borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board are noteworthy – a likely ban on council’s borrowing to invest in retail property, and an interest rate cut making £1bn available to councils for social housing of various tenures. Together with the widely welcomed new Affordable Homes Programme worth £12bn, housing is a key element of the government’s infrastructure revolution.
The housing secretary, Robert Jenrick followed up on Thursday with a call for greater use of brownfield sites, changes to the permitted development scheme, encouraging building above stations, and building upwards – a key theme in the high land value London & South East. Needs have changed beyond recognition since the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, and the coming months will see a revolutionary planning white paper aiming to speed up house building of all tenures, social rent, affordable rent, shared ownership and supported housing. Running through all is the importance of setting high standards of design & build quality - valued by residents and critical in creating an enduring sense of place.
The past two days have seen major announcements that will truly shift gears as we tackle the multiple challenges ahead, from immediate concerns to the longer-term need for quality housing across the tenure spectrum.
Jonathan Cook is deputy leader of Wandsworth Council (writing in a personal capacity)