One North – a good deal for housing?

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I’m a northern lad (disclaimer: when you are from the north you can use the term ‘lad’ to describe yourself even when your hair is tinged with silver). I currently live in Leeds where I also studied. I grew up in Manchester. I travel a lot with my job, both in the north of England and nationally. So when I hear the Government talking about investment in the North of England, and how collaboration between historic rivals can help transform local economies, my ears prick up.  

The first thing to say is that the argument for better transport links between northern cities is pretty unarguable. I have spent too many miserable hours of my life on inadequate and overcrowded Transpennine Express trains to ignore that fact. But at the same time, I need to look beyond the personal and the anecdotal - my day job is around housing so I can’t help but think about what the principles of One North and devolved investment could potentially mean for housing?

Let’s start with a history lesson. Only the most dedicated regional governance anoraks will remember a Government exercise called Regional Funding Allocations which took place twice – first in 2005 and then in 2008/09.  For those who missed it at the time, RFA pooled capital funding from transport, housing and regeneration (so Housing Corporation money, LA private sector renewal money and HMR Pathfinders), the Regional Development Agency programme budget and ERDF into a notional single pot.  The ‘region’ then had to identify it’s priorities within that single pot – with the potential to move money from one policy area to another.  Sign off sat with the 3 key regional organisations – the regional assembly, the RDA and the Government Office.

I worked on the housing element of both rounds of RFA in Yorkshire and Humber.  The process was complex and deeply political. Horses were traded. Deals were done. But it was also quietly effective – and the second time around it felt much easier than the first. This was new. We were learning.

In many respects RFA only ended up tinkering around the edges – so tweaking investment rather than wholesale changes. But even those very minor changes were controversial. The big headline for Yorkshire and Humber for instance was a (very small) shifting of money from economic development and housing to transport – which politically, then as now, was the key priority for major northern LAs.

It would be fair to say that the housing sector at the time was deeply unimpressed. The prevailing view was that ‘our money’ was being used to fund transport projects and this reflected the poor relation status of housing in local and regional political discussions. There were also murmurs of discontent from central Government which, it turned out, was not as geared up for devolution of funding as it imagined – after all, what incentive for a housing minister to secure a good deal for housing in a CSR only for a bunch of distant northerners to spend it on a tram.

I was reflecting on this when I read about the One North agenda, and the related broad hints about devolving more decision making to cities (assuming that the governance can be sorted). Would the housing view now be the same as it was then? This matters because, if we are serious about local level decision making, we as housing professionals must be prepared for the fact that this could open up the possibility of ‘housing money’ being spent on something else.

Clearly we don’t know for sure, but my instinct is that, as a sector, we are now in a very different place. In part this is due to the decreasing level of grant in development and the removal of major programmes such as Housing Market Renewal – so the argument over resources carries less risk for housing.  We don’t get much money to start with – so it is easier to be philosophical about that money going into a single pot to be spent in line with local priorities. 

However, more fundamentally, I also think there is an increased maturity in discussions – with Housing Associations recognising that as landlords, and as major local investors, they have a shared interest in strong, vibrant, economically successful and connected communities.  They also have a long term leadership role in communities and the skills and resources to support local growth ambitions.

Most importantly though, we are all increasingly aware that investment, especially in communities that are struggling, is not a ‘zero sum game’.  Based on the conversations I have, my instinct is that the old view of transport as a ‘rival’ for housing investment is being replaced by a more sophisticated view that acknowledges that investment in connectivity could be transformative for some housing markets in the north. So who know – perhaps paying for a better train line could turn out to be a pretty significant housing investment after all.

However, if this new maturity is to deliver real results for local communities, then there needs to be a place for housing providers in discussions about the future shape and role of cities.  This is not about a scramble for resources but it is a plea for a rounded discussion about how housing sits alongside transport and economic development as a key part of a connected and successful northern economy.

If housing has moved on and is ready to be part of that more mature debate then let’s hope our partners have too.

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