The Department for Communities and Local Government must learn lessons from its “inconsistent” attempts to free up land for house-building, the public spending watchdog has concluded.
Under plans set out in 2011, government departments with “significant” holdings of previously-developed land have been pressed to release the land for house-building, with ministers claiming the measures would allow firms to “build as many as 100,000 new, much-needed homes and support as many as 25,000 jobs by 2015”.
But a report by the National Audit Office found that while government had disposed of enough land for an expected 109,950 homes, departments did not “not routinely monitor” what happened to that land after it was disposed of, meaning there is “no information on how many homes have been built on sold land”.
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“The NAO is unable to report the actual number of homes built to date as the information is not collected,” the report added.
The watchdog also said it could find "no supporting documentation or economic evidence behind the target or how it was allocated to departments".
Of the departments who released land, the biggest contributors were the Ministry of Defence, Housing and Communities Agency (HCA) and the Department of Health.
The NAO said that due to an inconsistent approach in defining what land could be counted towards the target, land sold before June 2011 and land belonging to organisations that were privatised between 2011 and 2015 were included in the total.
"The Department for Communities and Local Government applied a wide interpretation of the land that could be counted towards the target. For example, the estimated total of 109,590 homes figure included 15,740 homes on land that the public sector disposed of before the target was set,” the report says.
The report also found an “inconsistent” approach to assessing the housing capacity of each site, with departments only able to provide full documentation of housing capacity in 21% of the 127 sites used as a sample size.
Departments also failed to monitor what happened to the site once it was released. As a result, the report finds that DCLG has no way to assess the value for money or whether departments were able to get the market price for the land released.
The report therefore recommends the department, together with the HCA – which as of April 2015 took on a greater role in land disposal – review their processes for 2015/2020.
“DCLG should clarify how it intends to measure progress through sales proceeds or number of potential homes,” the report recommends. “It should ensure it collects the data to enable it to measure this and establish data validation processes to verify the quality of data.”
It adds: “To improve consistency, DCLG should provide guidance on how it expects departments to identify and measure housing capacity and set minimum documentary and data requirements.”
A DCLG spokesman said that the department would consider the NAO’s findings as it works towards the latest target.
They said: “This was an ambitious programme to release surplus government land to build 100,000 homes to help families achieve their dream of home ownership and we broke our target more than a month early with enough land released to build more than 109,000 new homes.
“We now want to go further and faster still with land sales for a further 150,000 homes by 2020 whilst protecting taxpayers by cutting the hoarding of vacant public land and disused buildings. We will consider and learn any lessons from the NAO’s findings.”