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  • The Rother Alliance

Update from Rother's housing company

The following is an update from Cllr Richard Thomas, Chair of Rother District Housing Company.

Cllr Richard Thomas, Chair of RDHC

Why even have a Council-owned housing company? Because Rother District Council has struggled to meet, not just government housing targets, but the needs of its inhabitants for somewhere decent to live. Private developers have failed to build out sites with planning permission, as housing waiting lists have lengthened. Meanwhile, developers pleaded, on economic grounds, for permission to abandon promised numbers of affordable homes. Something had to change-drastically.

So, the Housing Company was born- to build to the highest possible environmental standards-meaning lower fuel bills- while helping the Council move towards Net Zero. The company will erect affordable rented housing, and develop housing for ownership, ensuring that first time buyers are not forgotten. As a bonus, stalled sites, such as Blackfriars, could be unlocked. The Blackfriars development alone will boost housing provision in the District by at least two hundred homes, of which more than 35% will be affordable, and forty six will be available for renting at low rates.

The choice of a Housing Company as the delivery vehicle for these objectives was bold but not unusual. Over 80% of Councils now run housing companies in one form or another.

Rother District Council can borrow money for long periods at fixed rates, lower than those available to the private sector, and can then loan sizeable sums to its housing company at a somewhat higher rate. A win-win situation!

Before we get too carried away, however, we need to be alive to the sombre national background of high inflation, a close-to-stagnant economy, and historically high interest rates. This has brought to the fore the advantages of the Council setting up an arm’s length body. A Company can be far more agile, adaptable, and commercially minded, than a Council can. A Company can be less bureaucratic and rigid, not as inhibited by procurement rules and formal procedures. This has enabled the Company to adapt successfully to externally created delays, and severe financial pressures. For example, when forced by inflationary factors to switch from its original (award-winning) design for Blackfriars to a new one, it was able quickly to engage its own choice of architects to realise its vision.

This new scheme has been subject already to a pre-planning consultation, and it would be fair to say it has been favourably received by the public. In comparison with its predecessor, the new version has a better housing mix, makes better use of an awkward site, and spreads its environmental credentials more equally and fairly across its area. At the same time, it offers improved parking arrangements, more level gardens, and a better relationship with its neighbours. We can all feel pride in these new proposals and can look forward to their realisation.

As Chair of the Housing Company, I have been particularly proud of the culture of the company. It is an organisation that keeps itself continuously under review, eager to avoid mistakes, sometimes grievous, made by the companies of other authorities, while learning from best practice elsewhere. To that end, we have employed a very experienced and widely respected person as our COO, and have engaged the most reputable companies to provide us with technical and legal support. Our solicitors, Trowers, for example, employs, arguably, this country’s most highly esteemed experts on the operation of housing companies and their relationships with their parent councils. We have recently recruited to the Board two individuals with long experience of housing projects at the highest level. A superb company support system has evolved, headed by an expert and dedicated team.

What of the future? Given the adverse economic environment, the company may be compelled to look for potentially profitable sites, using Joint Ventures when these are advantageous. It will be for the Councillors to set the tasks which it will mandate for the Company, and the timing of those. The long-term aim of the company remains that of generating sufficient profits from the sale of housing to be able to invest in the future provision of homes in Rother, as it enlarges the stock of affordable homes available to our residents. The company is due to increase the development pipeline by around 30%, totalling 500 homes, of which 175 should be affordable, in the next three to five years, towards the target set of 1000 homes by 2037.

It is widely recognised that there is no single solution to resolving the housing crisis, and, certainly, there is no overnight fix. The Company can only make its contribution to a solution alongside its partners: the Local Authority, the Registered Providers, community-led housing, and the private sector. At the end of the day, the Company will be judged by the contribution it has made to life in Rother. There is nothing more important to the health, happiness, and comfort of life than to be safely and securely housed.

- Richard Thomas, Chair of Rother District Housing Company.


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