Five steps to releasing more public land

November 3, 2016 / Isla MacFarlane
Five steps to releasing more public land

The Public Accounts Committee has warned the government that, without drastic action, it will miss its target to build 160,000 homes on publically-owned land by 2020. At the end of March 2016, the government had disposed of land with capacity to build just 8,580 homes across 77 sites – 5% of the programme commitment.

The government has a slim chance of meeting the target unless its accelerates land sales. The Public Accounts Committee penned five recommendations to speed things up.

  1. Departments have made a slow start in releasing land. The new programme is back-loaded, which increases the risk that government will not meet its commitment. Departments either took their eye off the ball at the end of the previous programme that ran up to 2015 or are struggling to find suitable sites; resulting in a stop-start approach when it was entirely foreseeable that the programme would be extended under the new Government.

Recommendation: Individual departments should focus on increasing the rate of disposal to meet the target by 2020. At a programme level, the Department for Communities and Local Government should work with other departments to identify the barriers that are preventing the sale of land and the main risks, together with actions to address them and ensure any sites sold achieve an acceptable return for taxpayers while balancing the need for housing.

  1. The majority of sites identified by departments for future disposal are speculative, and many are still being used to deliver public services. Over 50% of the estimated housing capacity identified is on sites considered ‘high risk’. Many sites identified for disposal are still in operational use by departments, and their disposal depends on other policy decisions. Any delay in taking these decisions will back-load the programme further

Recommendation: All departments need to identify capacity over their individual targets to create sufficient contingency in the programme to meet the overall commitment, without feeling pressurised to include sites for disposal if they think it is unlikely that homes will be built on these sites.

  1. The Department for Communities and Local Government has not made public the roles and responsibilities for the programme or decided how it will monitor the construction of homes on the sites sold. In December 2015 the Department for Communities and Local Government provided departments with a programme handbook, which sets out the objectives of the programme and the relevant responsibilities of those involved. But, despite previous commitments to do so, it has yet to publish these details.

Recommendation:  After lengthy delays, the Department for Communities and Local Government must now publish the programme handbook, including details of how it will monitor construction, as soon as possible and inform us how it will do this. It needs to ensure that its approach to the monitoring of construction demonstrates how the programme is addressing the housing shortage.

  1. The Department for Communities and Local Government has not yet decided what will be included in its annual report on the programme, or when it will be published.

Recommendation: As a minimum, the annual report should cover: the number and estimated capacity of sites released, details of sites identified for future disposal including their risk rating, sales proceeds, details of sites released (including postcodes), and construction of new homes by type and tenure.

  1. There are many factors for departments to consider in maximising value for money in the sale of land. Departments must release public sector land and to realise £5 billion of receipts from the sale of land and property by 2020. Departments also have to ensure that they retain the estate necessary to fulfil their functions and provide public services, and that they do not compromise other objectives when disposing of land.

Recommendation: Departments should make public their estate strategies to demonstrate how they decide that land is surplus. All departments should outline the factors they will consider to ensure that each sale represents value for money, and set out how they are identifying any wider benefits, including for staff and key workers, which contribute to the departments’ objectives.

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