We know there is a critical problem with housing provision, with many urban areas in particular facing a chronic shortage of high-quality, affordable homes. What was already a huge challenge before the pandemic will only get worse as economic uncertainty and unemployment will accelerate that need.
The government announcement that it would be ploughing £12 billion into a new affordable homes programme over the next eight years should, on the face of it, make some difference but we also need to focus on how data can help change the way we approach affordable housing provision in the UK.
The need for a digital-first approach to the planning system, driven by data rather than documents, is an important part of the government’s recent proposals for reform.
Understanding the challenge
There is a significant, yet largely hidden, problem in affordable housing provision; many local authorities simply don’t know how many affordable homes they have, so it’s therefore 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 their planning processes 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 50 affordable units on a development of 200 homes. When these homes are built, the council will add 50 units to its running total of affordable housing stock. However, they won’t actually link the addresses of the affordable homes to the original planning permission where they agreed them.
Once a ‘section 106’ agreement has been 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, the chances are that the council would never know. After all, it’s difficult to monitor a property if you don’t even know its address.
Be guided by the data…
Many 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. For the first time, the digital service will allow it to track affordable housing across its lifecycle while also making that information publicly available.
By connecting the built world to the planning world, Southwark Council is ensuring that when an affordable home has been agreed, it gets built, it knows how many homes it has, where, and can make sure the property remains affordable.
A national picture of affordable housing
While it’s great that affordable housing tracking systems are beginning to be developed at a local level, there needs to be 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 actually happening in our towns, wards, boroughs and cities.
Only then can the government be confident that it is delivering against its £12 billion investment and citizens can hold them to account for it.
Dave Mann is the managing director of DXW.