DSC07210A group of local housing experts had the opportunity to discuss their ambitions and concerns with the Housing Minister, Kris Hopkins MP. I was delighted to be able to welcome the Minister to Sutton to hear about the demand for new homes across Sutton and the state of the housing market. Metro Bank on Sutton High Street hosted representatives from Haxted Estates, a local property developer, Burn & Warne, a Sutton Estate Agent and a private rental landlord who works closely with the council. The main concern that came across was that Sutton council were slow to respond to demand in comparison with other boroughs such as Croydon.

When I see places like Victoria House, Sutherland House and the old Burger King site across the constituency remaining derelict after so many years, I remind myself that whereas most councils have a Planning Committee, whereas we have a Development Control Committee. That may sound like semantics but seeking to control planning centrally is not the same as sensible forward planning. The number of times that I sat on said Development Control Committee as a councillor to be told that there was nothing that we could do to amend an application to make it more acceptable and that we had to deal with the case in front of us. The officers were right, it was too late, but there is little scope for members and local residents to get involved at an earlier stage, thus leaving planning meetings as the only way to vent frustration. Other boroughs have Strategic Planning Committees where developers can showcase their ideas and receive comprehensive feedback before submitting their applications. In Croydon the make up of that committee is the same as the people who will eventually decide on the final application.

Of course we do not want developers to rule the roost and change the borough beyond recognition without some semblance of control. However working with the right people we can offer some sensitive development in return for cheap or free facilities, or perhaps breathing new life into old buildings. I’ve spoken for sometime for the need to get the council to ask residents what they want to see in their local area and then go out and find the people to make this happen rather than wait for someone to come along with a proposal that isn’t suitable and then make do. We do need more homes in Sutton. Working out plans in the urban centres to meet this demand will help better protect the parts of the borough that have a special character from over-development. This will also help reinvigorate our local retail areas with more people walking to them as their primary shops.

One such development that should help give a boost to the town centre is Sutton Point. I took the Minister up to the site where CNM Estates are planning 322 residential units, a hotel, offices and shops. Once this is built, it will fill the site that has laid empty on the one-way system for years. One of my first tasks as a councillor was to give the original scheme by its former owners planning permission. That was back in 2006. Eight years later, I am finally optimistic that we will see action.

I was pleased to be able to introduce the Minister to Andrew Taylor, Chief Executive of Sutton Housing Partnership who looks after the borough’s housing stock. He has a challenging job to improve the standard of social housing across the borough. This work has progressed well over the last four years after starting from the point where Sutton’s homes were ranked as second worst in London after Tower Hamlets. He is ambitious for the borough, wanting to build 100 new council homes and asked to increase the debt cap so that the council can borrow to build. Although the Minister believed that the Treasury would be reluctant for debt to be increased at a time that the country is struggling to pay its bills, he was keen to help and explained how the council is now able to keep more of the rent received from tenants to invest in new homes.

All in all, a good day with lively discussion. It is clear that there are companies like Haxted Estates who are keen to invest in Sutton and agents like Burn & Warne who can match up land and home buyers to help this investment along. If we can get a local authority who can move from the hackneyed phrase “Sutton is open for business” to taking real action beyond the appropriate start that they have made with Opportunity Sutton, we can get this borough moving again.