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CLG – party-goer or party pooper? Matthew Warburton - 01/11/2012

redbrick_300This week three London boroughs asked for HRA debt caps to be lifted to let them build homes for middle-income families squeezed out of the central London housing market.

Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster City councils want to invest £53 million in a pilot scheme to provide 300 homes for rents between social and market levels, which they argue would deliver an annual surplus of £500,000 to the HRA over 10 years and an asset worth £64 million at the end of that period.

The proposal aims to deal with specific housing market issues which are pretty well unique to central London, but the business case for the proposal, which emphasises the job creation and economic benefits it would bring, could be adapted to apply much more widely.

One important fact about this submission which has been missed by the housing media, and which may significantly improve its chances of being taken seriously by the government, is that it forms part of the three boroughs' submission as one of the four whole-area Community Budgets pilots - a government initiative which positively encourages proposals to remove current rules and regulations where this would allow the design and delivery of better services to citizens.

Community Budgets is the name invented by the Coalition government to distinguish this programme from the previous government's Total Place initiative which was its progenitor.  

The Total Place idea was to look across the multitude of different public services serving the same area or people for opportunities where pooling resources or better coordination could lead to better services, less duplication and cost savings.  

Evaluation of the Total Place pilots suggested opportunities for substantial savings by sharing back-office functions, simplifying access to services, better targeting and shifting the service focus from reaction to prevention.  

Making these happen would mean better cooperation among public service partners at local level, but also the removal of unhelpful government rules and restrictions. Ambitious plans for taking Total Place forward were cut short by the general election.

At first, the new government's plans for Community budgets were limited to initiatives in 16 areas to improve support for "troubled" families. But in December last year, CLG announced plans to allow four areas - Greater Manchester, Cheshire West and Chester, Essex and West London, embracing the three boroughs - to pilot a much more ambitious whole area approach which would look for opportunities for improvements across the full spread of public services in these areas.

The housing plans are one of seven West London proposals submitted on 31 October. Others include: a jobs passport for school leavers to give employers information on their skills, aptitudes and experience; integrating health and social care to allow more people to stay in their own homes; plans to speed up care proceedings and extend support for families with complex needs; reducing adult reoffending, and allowing more local say in national infrastructure projects - the boroughs argue that they could ensure the planned HS2 hub in North West London could help deliver 21,000 new homes and 196,000 jobs.

Launching the submission, Nicholas Botterill, Leader of Hammersmith & Fulham said, "many people will see these proposals as plain old common sense, but the fact is that we need Government to join the party to make much of this work."  

Quite so, and since the proposals impinge on more than a few Government departments it will be particularly interesting to see which choose to join the party and which are too arrogant or too short-sighted to give up their traditional "Whitehall knows best" attitudes. On housing, will CLG be a party-goer or a party-pooper?

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