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HCA land bank comes under fire

The Homes and Communities Agency has shed 700 hectares of land, although industry clamour is growing for public bodies to make their assets available for development.

A CN analysis has found that the quango’s land assets decreased from 10,921 in November last year to 10,203 in September this year.

HCA chief executive Pat Ritchie told CN she was confident the body was “more actively using our land estate to accelerate the use of land to boost housing supply”.

She added: “We’ve delivered our targets we set last year, and we’re on track to deliver this year.”

The HCA took on around 3,300 hectares of assets owned by the axed Regional Development Agencies in 2011, in what then business minister Mark Prisk called a “stewardship” until further investment had taken place.

The body is the third-biggest owner in Whitehall of surplus sites with housing development potential.

HCA head of land regeneration Clare O’Shaughnessy told CN about 230 hectares had been transferred to the Greater London Authority, as well asabout 410 hectares to other local authorities and 150 hectares in freehold sales.

Ms O’Shaughnessy said there was a “real push” from the HCA and central government to back the transfer of land into private hands, using deferred receipts “where appropriate”.

But some key industry figures disagreed that the HCA was doing all that it could do to shift its land supply into private hands.

Shadow housing minister Jack Dromey told CN it had been a “serious mistake” to abolish the RDAs, and that the HCA could learn from some local authorities in disposing of land stocks.

“Some of the innovative local authorities doing creative deals on land have been a lot more progressive in their approach than has the HCA,” he added.

Ms Ritchie rebuffed the suggestions, saying: “I think we do learn from local authorities on innovative approaches, and as a national agency we’re well placed to spread best practice.”

Ms O’Shaughnessy said the HCA aimed to bring to market “anything that has potential for development and economic use quickly”, and that there was likely to be an increase in the commercial focus.

“There’ll probably be quite a change in the profile of the land we’re bringing to market over the next 12 months,” she said.

Meanwhile, National Housing Federation chief executive David Orr said that although the centre of government “is keen to encourage government departments and local government to be more enthusiastic about releasing land, government departments are very, very bad”.

He added: “This is not a problem about having the land, it’s a problem about accessing it.”

Mr Orr said that with the release of previously developed, privately held land on a shared equity or leasehold basis, the industry “really, really could get moving”.

The government has promised to “accelerate the release of surplus public sector land by strengthening the role of the HCA outside London through a targeted programme of transfers from other government departments and agencies”, and to “accelerate disposals by preparing the land for market and providing a single ‘shop window’ for all surplus public sector land”.

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