Published: 10th Jul 2020

Is it easy to misplace a house? The answer is yes when it’s supposed to be an affordable home, writes Dave Mann, managing director of dxw.

We know there is a housing emergency, with many urban areas in particular facing a chronic shortage of high-quality affordable homes. What was a crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic, will only get worse as economic uncertainty, unemployment and financial hardship will drive an upturn in need.

The recent government announcement that it would be ploughing £12 billion into a new affordable homes programme over the next 8 years should, on the face of it, make some difference.

Local authorities don’t know the scale of the problem

But there is a significant, and largely hidden, problem in affordable housing provision. Many local authorities don’t know how many affordable homes they have. So, it’s impossible to quantify the size of the issue. There has been no automatic way of tracking an individual affordable home through its lifecycle; from planning, to build and occupancy. None of the systems that councils use throughout the planning process are able to reliably track exactly which housing “unit” is affordable.

According to the government 460,000 affordable homes have been delivered in the last decade, but how many of those remain affordable today?

When a development is planned, it exists as a plot description and a series of coordinates. If there are many developments on a site, they inherit coordinates from the plot. But it isn’t until after a build is completed that it receives its own street address.

In practice this means that a developer might promise to deliver 100 affordable units on a development of 300 homes. When these homes are built, the council will add 100 units to its running total of affordable housing stock. But, they won’t actually link the addresses of the affordable homes to the original planning permission where they agreed 100 affordable homes.

Once a section 106 agreement is signed off and an application approved, local authorities trust developers to deliver what’s been promised. If a developer or, at some point later, a person occupying or managing one of the affordable homes chooses to abuse the system, chances are, the council would never know. It’s difficult to monitor a property if you don’t know its address.

A data-led approach to affordable housing delivery

Councils are doing their best with outdated paper-based systems and non-standardised data. But there is another way. Southwark Council is driving this change with a digital service that creates a single view of available affordable housing. It will, for the first time, allow them to track affordable housing across its lifecycle, while also making that information publicly available.

By connecting the built world to the planning world, they are ensuring that when an affordable home has been agreed, it gets built, they know how many homes they have, where, and can make sure the property stays affordable.

Building a national affordable housing picture

While it’s great that affordable housing tracking systems are starting to be developed at a local level, there is a need to create an accurate national picture of affordable housing supply. If we can create a cross-authority service, with consistent local, regional, and nationwide monitoring data on homes, then we have the opportunity for local authorities to protect social and affordable housing stock, and for national policy to respond to what’s happening in our towns, wards, boroughs, and cities.

Only then can the government be confident that it is delivering on its £12 billion investment, and citizens can hold them to account for it.

Photo Credit – Skitterphoto (Pixabay)

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