Given the deepening housing crisis and the council’s main election pledge on new homes, it is astonishing that the Local Government Ombudsman report has found it has no procedure to check that developers are keeping to their social housing promises.
The amount of social housing each developer promises to deliver when making a planning application has not been monitored by the council, according to a damning report published on November 30.
This was just days before the Leader of the Council took the Government to task over the challenges he faces in delivering 11,000 council homes over 30 years while funding is cut. He told the Communities and Local Government Committee: “National changes to the funding of homebuilding mean that local authorities face significant financial challenges and rely increasingly on private sector partnerships to deliver new homes.”
Southwark should be commended for embarking on the biggest council house building programme in the country. And it has produced reports clearly marking out its tally of new homes under schemes like renovating estates and finding homes out of vacant garages etc. But to fall below par on monitoring compliance with Section 106 agreements, which councils use to bargain with developers, is counterproductive. As the Ombudsman put it, this “may act as encouragement for unscrupulous developers to agree to something they do not intend to provide, knowing nothing will happen.”
Whether other local authorities have a procedure in place is unclear. Certainly it was not just this administration, but successive administrations that failed to put this procedure in place. Without it there are no figures to show exactly how many out of the swathe of developments across the borough over countless years have fallen short.
To its credit the council has agreed to take legal action against those that have taken advantage, and immediately agreed to carry out an audit. As the Ombudsman points out, while councils “may seek a court injunction if developers or subsequent owners fails to comply with its duty” it is “a discretionary power so it may not always follow that a failure will lead to action.”
The work of the pressure group the 35% Campaign, which called in the Ombudsman, has once again highlighted a real flaw and will hopefully tighten up the system, to stop developers from trying to get away with providing less social housing.
They were also behind a campaign which means Southwark now has in place a rule where developers have to publish a viability scheme, so they cannot later claim poverty to retract on their commitment to social housing.
Having both the viability scheme published and followed up now with a monitoring procedure to see that both developers and housing associations are delivering on their promises – getting to grips with the housing crisis will be a step closer in Southwark at least.