By David Cowans, Group Chief Executive at Places for People

"There needs to be a profound shift to see social housing as a national asset like any other infrastructure… it is the only hope the government has of hitting its 300,000 homes a year target."

I agree strongly with these words from Lord Jim O’Neill, former Treasury minister, at the launch last month of the report, Building for our future: a vision for social housing, published by Shelter’s social housing commission.

One bold policy response to deliver this shift would be a change in the planning regime to bring housing-led projects under the ambit of ‘nationally significant infrastructure projects’ or to establish an equivalent regime for major housing developments.

Focusing our efforts

In truth, it is hard to see government delivering a new regime in the near future. Other distractions, not least Brexit, are taking up the policy bandwidth. Moreover, the fine balance of power in UK domestic politics at present is hardly conducive to game-changing initiatives.

We must not throw up our hands and accept inertia. It is important that we do everything we can within the existing policy parameters to deliver for the communities we serve.

There is innovation taking place within the existing paradigm. I am proud, for example, that Places for People is one of the strategic partners confirmed by Homes England to help deliver 14,000 additional affordable homes by March 2022.

Local government is also starting to adopt a more strategic approach.

Our joint venture with Surrey County Council will unlock disused sites and open them up for development, delivering new affordable homes and driving growth and jobs. More innovation and creativity are needed.

Until the conditions are right to advance the debate on housing as infrastructure, we need to focus our efforts on integrating housing with infrastructure.

The best way to deliver for local communities, and to build social and political consent for developments, is to ensure that infrastructure is integrated into housing schemes at the earliest possible stage.

True placemaking recognises that housing alone does not make a community.

Everything that goes into a neighbourhood must add value to local communities beyond housing. That means providing supporting infrastructure, educational provision, leisure facilities, social fabric, and ready access to employment opportunities.

Sometimes only a modest intervention may be required, such as a new play area. But increasingly, our sector has a more profound role to play in creating the full platform of services, facilities and connections that translate a housing development into a thriving and successful community.

An ambitious vision

At Places for People we take a holistic view of placemaking, prioritising residents’ needs at every stage of project delivery.

“Increasingly, our sector has a more profound role to play in creating the full platform of services, facilities and connections that translate a housing development into a community”

Our flagship Brooklands scheme in Milton Keynes is more than 10 years old and continues to evolve, with a total of 2,500 homes supported by a full raft of infrastructure and amenities including a new primary school, health centre, shops, wider commercial activity and acres of open green space for residents to enjoy.

At the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, our joint venture with Balfour Beatty on behalf of the London Legacy Development Corporation is providing the essential services that the new communities of East Wick and Sweetwater will need to thrive, alongside a mix of housing suited to all stages of life.

For every one of our major schemes, we engage with communities and make a long-term commitment, and investment, to the places we build together. The economic, physical and mental well-being of residents comes first.

At East Wick and Sweetwater we’ve appointed a community benefits manager to better engage at a local level. This is enabling us to target our engagement activities to reach as many different groups within the community as possible.

Our capability to deliver on this ambitious vision is rooted in the expertise on which we can draw as a group of companies. Our unique range of in-house services enables us to offer end-to-end placemaking – from land acquisition and planning achievement, procurement and management of construction phases, and bespoke property management for the long term.

A shared challenge

Our local knowledge is another factor that we believe helps us deliver developments that respond effectively to local needs and circumstances.

As housing providers, we must first and foremost establish what is needed to make a great place. That involves reaching out across the whole community, and delivering a truly representative picture of views and requirements across demographics.

It also requires a scope of consultation that goes beyond housing need to deliver a granular picture of local requirements as they relate to supporting infrastructure. But we also need to understand the hopes and aspirations of local people on the character and identity of the place they will make their home.

Infrastructure can be a pretty grey term, evoking pipelines and girders, and far from the vibrant social colour of schools, sports centres, community clubs and playing fields.

Our shared challenge is to bring this picture to life, demonstrating the great work being done by the sector to deliver housing and infrastructure side by side and giving prominence to the social value we are working hard to create.

This blog was first featured in Inside Housing on 20 February 2019.

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