A series of new policies have seen Rotherham emerge as one of the country’s most prolific builders of council homes, with the town expected to account for five per cent of the entire new local authority social housing stock in England during the year ahead.
Rotherham Council currently has a four year plan which will see £50m pumped into projects which will see around 440 new homes built, with more than 250 of those entering the conventional ‘council house’ stock, available for rent in the traditional way, with others available through other schemes designed to help families, including shared ownership.
The policy has seen Rotherham buck the national trend for a “managed decline” of council housing stock, as the Government right to buy policy, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and made more attractive to sitting tenants several years ago, continues to bite into the numbers of homes left in council control.
Last year Rotherham lost 158 of its rented homes through right to buy sales, which it has no ability to control.
The current council, which emerged following the child sexual exploitation scandal, took the view that it was better to take action than to see council housing dwindle further, allowing the private rented sector to take up more of the market.
The council’s Cabinet spokesman for housing, Coun Dominic Beck, said: “Rotherham Council’s housing service has for a very long time provided a very, very good service.
“When I came to this post two and a half years ago, there was a lot of renewal in the council and I wanted to be more ambitious,” he said.
“We have put our money where our mouth is. Local authorities have said for years they are doing as much as they can. Our plan over the next four years is to spend more than £50m, building 440 new homes, with more than 200 new council houses.
“The rest will be other affordable housing options, like share ownership,” he said.
Rotherham’s success is based on the fact that the authority holds substantial amounts of land, including a myriad of small plots, at many locations across the borough and had enough cash reserves to make initial investments.
They have found private developers keen to work with the authority, building some homes to bolster the housing stock, while the other side of the deal allows the developers to build for the open market.
Profits from that arrangement are then used to finance the next stage of the council house building programme, resulting in a rolling arrangement which should be self-financing.
In other circumstances, the council is also buying packages of homes on estates which were originally planned as conventional private developments.
Buying in bulk allows the council to negotiate good prices because the developer has added security from guaranteed sales, along with the convenience of purchasing ‘off the shelf’, with those homes going straight into the housing stock to provide more rented homes.
One of the tactics used by the council is to create a site ‘cluster’, accounting for a total of around 250 homes around a major site in Braithwell Road, Maltby, with smaller sites in the area. The main site was designed to act as an anchor to attract interest from developers and that has worked.
The council is also investigating the use of modern factory built units, an update on the prefab homes idea used post-war, to provide cheap to build, quick to assemble, homes on small sites which would otherwise be problematic to develop.
“In Rotherham last year we lost 158 houses through right to buy and that has been increasing year on year, owing to the Government making the discounts more favourable five years ago.
“What we didn’t want, and still don’t want, is to manage decline. That is what many in the sector are doing,” he said.
“We had an opportunity. Now we have got this going it is not the end game, we will drive things forwards,” he said.
Work in Rotherham has attracted funding from the national agency Homes England and other sources, but the intention is to make the cycle of developments sustainable within the council’s own finances.
Another major development will be at Bellows Road in Rawmarsh, but said Coun Beck: “We have sites on every corner in Rotherham.
“Sometimes we have to pinch ourselves. We should be proud, but we need to kick on and do more. We are bolstering staffing in that area of the council.
“House building can be quite controversial but building council houses is very popular.
“The majority of people were either brought up in one, their mum and dad were or they know someone who lives in one, so they get it,” he said.