Affordable housing concerns for Cambridgeshire
PUBLISHED: 12:33 16 September 2020 | UPDATED: 12:54 16 September 2020
A councillor has raised concerns that the Combined Authority did not inform a housing committee about government doubts over its affordable housing project.
A Freedom of Information request from the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed last week that the government has cast doubts over whether the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority will meet its affordable housing target.
Speaking at the Combined Authority’s housing committee on Monday (September 14), Cambridge city councillor, Labour’s Mike Sargeant, suggested councillors had not been informed of the situation, despite asking for updates on the programme.
He said: “I think it’s vital that we do consider this today because I think potentially we are in an emergency situation where – I acknowledge that we are negotiating in terms of when the end date will be, March 2021 or March 2022 – but it is vital that we do deliver on these 2,000 homes and potentially, at least in the eyes of the ministry, that is even more seriously in doubt than we have been led to believe in the past. We do need accurate information.”
He said he had raised the issue of progress at the last housing meeting, “and was told we are going to deliver – but it looks as though we were already going to lose potentially 540 starts before the last meeting”.
He said that in the past, when councillors had raised concerns over the issue, the director of housing had “given warm words,” even, he said, “when [meeting the target] was very clearly under threat at that stage”.
“We as a committee need to know what is going on and I feel at the moment we are not being trusted necessarily with all of that information,” he said. “I do ask in future that we are accurately kept up-to-date with the information we are given.”
The chairman of the committee, Conservative Chris Boden, said that the Combined Authority “does not know at this stage” what the government’s position on the issue is, but said that he is confident that by November’s meeting, “we will then know very clearly what is expected of us”.
The Combined Authority has been promised £100 million to deliver 2,000 affordable homes over five years as part of the 2017 devolution deal.
It is relying on the delivery of 540 affordable homes at the Northstowe new town in order to meet the target.
The Combined Authority is using £760,000 of its £100 million budget to account for more than a quarter of the programme’s target by arguing that its funding of “infrastructure improvements preventing flood risk” at Mare Fen, near the Northstowe development, has enabled the second phase of the new town’s planning permission to be granted.
But a letter from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), sent on June 8 this year, and released under the Freedom of Information Act, says that so far the Combined Authority has not been able to “evidence the additionality” of its investment as a contribution to its affordable homes programme.
If the Combined Authority cannot prove that it played a sufficiently significant role in the delivery of those homes then some, if not all of those 540 homes, may not count.
The Combined Authority said last month that the government has withheld funds for the housing programme – £15 million expected last year, with concerns over a further £30 million expected this year. The leader of the Combined Authority, the Conservative mayor James Palmer, has said he believes the issue relates to a disagreement over the programme’s completion date – with the government arguing it is March 2021, and the Combined Authority saying it believes March 2022 was the agreed date.
The Combined Authority’s housing director, Roger Thompson, told the committee that his team met with MHCLG officials last week.
He said the meeting was held “in a good and positive atmosphere,” and that the authority has made “good progress” since the last meeting on the issue with the government, which was “quite well received”.
He said that the news that the minister responsible, Simon Clarke, had resigned came through “literally while we were having the meeting,” so a resolution may be delayed while his predecessor is brought up to speed.
Cllr Sargeant told the housing committee that he has raised the issue of additionality, particularly as it relates to the homes at Northstowe, “a number of times,” going as far back as September 2018.
The minutes of an overview and scrutiny committee meeting held on September 4, 2018 say: “Members raised a concern around the measurements and methodology used to ensure that there was additionality and were advised that officers were keen to ensure that they did not discourage any applications due to a strict methodology for assessing applications. The director advised that the guidelines that the team were using could be provided to members.”
Cllr Sargeant told the housing committee: “We do need the information on additionality so that we can make proper judgements.
“We are making judgements on behalf of the Combined Authority but we are not necessarily being given the information to make that judgement.
“I think going forward we need to make sure that we will be providing full information on additionality.
“I don’t know the reason why the ministry are concerned about additionality in terms of Mare Fen.
“Overview and scrutiny back in 2018, in fact two years ago, asked to see what the methodology was, and we were told, well, we didn’t want methodology to get in the way of approving schemes, in effect deliverability was the most important thing.”
Cllr Boden, said that back in 2018 he was “the member of the overview and scrutiny committee who was most vocal about being concerned about the definition of additionality”.
He added: “You are knocking at an open door as far as that is concerned.
“It is absolutely vital that we continue to be transparent,” he said, adding “whilst we certainly don’t want to be over prescriptive in methodologies, it is appropriate for us to understand the definitions clearly.”
He requested, and the housing officers agreed, that further information about determining additionality would be provided, and that “the additionality calculations are spelt out even more clearly in all future reports so that it can clearly be seen what is additional and why”.
Explaining the issue around additionality and Northstowe, Mr Thompson said: “The reason Mare Fen is a little different is because it is – at the moment – one of the few schemes in that programme that is an infrastructure grant, for flood remediation, rather than being a loan or more traditional grant, and I think that possibly is in danger of confusing things a little bit.
“If you go back to when Mare Fen was being discussed in March 2018, at that time no one was actually offering to pay for those works, there seemed to be a bit of a void, and therefore the Combined Authority stepped in, and that story is what we told and explained to MHCLG.”
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