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How council development can help the economy

Wed, 04/11/2020

Barbara Brownlee, Managing Director of Westminster Builds, gives her view on how council development companies can help the London economy to get back on its feet and keep housebuilding going...

Over the last few years, many councils have made the decision to launch their own development company and this summer Westminster City Council launched Westminster Builds (WB).  We have watched events of recent months and I am confident we are in a strong position to support Westminster’s economy through the impact of the pandemic as well as help other councils to keep their own housebuilding efforts on track.

Like others, we decided to launch WB to enable the council to retain control over the assets it produces but also to maintain the quality and place making that the council’s £1bn development and regeneration programme has become known for.

However, the advantages of council-owned development companies are uniquely pertinent at this time with the pandemic hot on the heels of Brexit uncertainty, especially if that means investors decide not to take the risk and pull out of schemes.

WB is wholly-owned by and fully-funded by the council, which means we can safely manage a higher risk situation and are able to step in when a private developer feels unable to. This happened at Luton Street in Westminster when we were able to save a stalled scheme. It also means we can be flexible to the needs of the market at that point in time. For example; if units are not selling then we can put them on the affordable rental market until the market recovers.

This can only help the industry, which accounts for seven percent of GDP and nine percent of its workforce. We saw what happened in 2008 when the construction industry collapsed impacting the supply chains and we must all work together to ensure that doesn’t happen again.

In Westminster, long before Covid, the city council had embarked on a once in a generation estate regeneration programme alongside an imaginative infill programme. Most planning, consultation and construction has continued throughout this year and the council remains confident of delivery. Incredible work is taking place around Church Street to regenerate the area, build new homes for our local population and connect the residents of this wonderful area in the heart of London with all of the opportunities of living in central London. The regeneration of Ebury Estate in Pimlico also continues at pace with plans expected to double the existing number of units in this highly sustainable development.

But with the city streets quiet we must see the pandemic as an opportunity to speed up plans for more schemes like this, to make Westminster a more family-friendly environment where people want to live. This means being imaginative and reimagining our great city; creating pocket parks and building multi use attractive places.  Over the coming months we will be working closely with our expert development team to identify how our homes, already designed with flexible spaces to meet varying needs can be fit for the future.

The pandemic has also prompted us to refresh our thinking and WB is in active conversations with prospective partners to act as developer in London’s growth corridors, enabling host councils’ to keep their own development programmes on track. The host council will retain the Section 106 housing while WB would take on the risk of market housing at this time and provide homes for those who wish to commute, possibly part time, to their jobs in the city. Not only will this support London’s construction industry but we will make sure we bring with us the city council’s ethos of creating high quality buildings and place making.

Public/public partnership can and should be a viable alternative to public/private partnership at this time and I call on central Government and the GLA to give us the financial backing required to help lead the country out of recession. With additional funding from central Government we could significantly supercharge our existing housing programme and explore some new and exciting initiatives.

Now is the time to back the unique strengths of council-owned development companies and in return council-owned development companies must think outside the box and be imaginative in how they support the reopening of the Capital.

Last updated: 4 November 2020