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Lessons on public land disposal must be learnt to boost housing

Is anybody shocked to learn that the coalition’s pledge to sell enough surplus public land to deliver 100,000 new homes wasn’t all it appeared to be?

To the last government’s credit, it did indeed release its target amount of land.

But as last week’s National Audit Office report makes clear, simply releasing a large volume of land does not equate to diggers in the ground, lots of brickies making cups of tea and new homes being built. 

The pledge was, of course, a worthy one: there’s a massive housing shortage, especially in London, where house prices continue to rise as supply fails to meet demand.

The negative social impact this is having is well known, but a lack of new homes also poses a strategic threat to the capital’s economic competitiveness.

Government’s way forward

So what does this mean for the Conservative government’s land release programme, which is largely a continuation of the previous regime?

Firstly, the government should carry on.

“A focus on releasing surplus land is a key part to getting more homes built”

A focus on releasing surplus land is a key part to getting more homes built and, while it doesn’t automatically translate into new homes springing up out the ground, you have to start somewhere.

Secondly, the government needs to start to think about delivery.

Who is the land going to?

Are there commitments to build out over a certain period of time?

And thirdly, it needs to think innovatively.

Is there an opportunity for the public landowner to retain a financial stake in the development or use the land to unlock a wider development proposal, rather than just sell off a site in isolation?  

In London, these questions must be answered by the newly formed London Land Commission.

The commission is an initiative being driven by the Greater London Authority and central government, working with all public bodies in London, to identify surplus public land that could be used for housing.

Its first task is to create a 21st century Domesday Book for London – a chronicle of all the land that could be put to better use.

Encouragingly, its work will not stop there.

It is expected to also look at opportunities for asset management – a dry phrase for securing better utilisation of space occupied by public bodies – and help to support more adventurous development proposals.

London’s helping hand

The commission is clearly a significant boost to creating a bigger pipeline for new development.

“It might make sense for the GLA to acquire the site from the public body and lead the disposal and planning process”

But all public bodies must engage with its work, from the NHS to the Whitehall estate through to London’s boroughs.

It requires swift co-operation and for parochial instincts to be left behind.

It also needs the public landowners to be open to different models of delivery.

In some instances, a straightforward disposal will be the right answer.

In other instances, it might make sense for the GLA to acquire the site from the public body and lead the disposal and planning process.

There is much riding on the work of the London Land Commission, and it is only through learning the lessons from the last five years of public land release that the commission’s work will lead to significantly more new homes being built.

Jonathan Seager is Director of Housing Policy at London First

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