The North needs no permission to build its own future via Northern Housing Magazine

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An alliance of housing providers has launched an ambitious charter, backed by a major new research programme, to bind housing and transport at the heart of Northern economic revival 

By Mark Cantrell 

THEY didn’t quite take Parliament by storm (maybe they should have, although that would be an entirely different story), but an alliance of Northern housing providers certainly wielded a hefty vision of an economically empowered North.

Well, Northerners united are a force to be reckoned with, and the pen is said to be mightier than the sword, so keep that in mind as we consider Homes for the North’s (H4N) efforts to revive what was once – and could be again – a region to be reckoned with.

The alliance, which takes in 17 of the North’s largest developing housing organisations, has written an ambitious charter, Rebalancing the Economy: Building the Northern Homes We Need; what amounts to a manifesto (see below) demanding that housing is placed right at the heart of the growth agenda.

With more than a nod towards Transport for the North’s recently published strategic transport plan, H4N was in Westminster for the charter’s formal launch.

The event was hosted by Kevin Hollinrake, the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, in North Yorkshire, and drew an audience of 30 Northern MPs from across the political spectrum. These included Rossendale and Darwen MP, Jake Berry – the minister for the Northern Powerhouse – and shadow housing secretary, John Healey MP, whose constituency is Wentworth and Dearne.

“In three years since launching the Northern Powerhouse Strategy, we grew the North’s economy by £22 billion,” Berry told the audience. “That is a step change in growth for the North’s economy. A similar period before 2010, albeit at the time of an economic crisis, was £4 billion.

“And, finally, we acknowledged in the Northern Powerhouse that it is all about human capital as well. Crucially, human capital is about creating the homes that the North needs, and homes that people want to live in. And that is why I am pleased with the ambition of this report.

“This report demonstrates what is at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse. It is about cooperation, and one of the most eye-catching things in this report is about creating that housing cooperation group across the North of England.”

For sure, cooperation is a key part of H4N’s message, but its charter is about more than collaboration between housing providers, their local authorities, or indeed with TfN – ministers need to get on board too and work with the region’s leaders.

Implicit in this, no doubt, is the notion that Westminster and Whitehall don’t always know best, and that a ‘southern mindset’ isn’t necessarily best-placed to fathom Northern realities.

“The challenges for many urban areas in the North can be quite different to those in the south,” the report points out. “Whilst there is a similar need for decent, affordable new homes and thriving businesses, many areas still struggle to tackle the legacy of their industrial pasts: this can include poor housing conditions, Victorian infrastructure, fragmented land ownership and contaminated land.

“This often results in developers and housing associations seeing few short-term economic incentives to develop, without first unlocking the potential through substantial investment.

“Furthermore, the Government’s proposed methodology for geographical targeting of a number of its housing programmes, focused on areas of highest affordability pressure, will skew funding allocation away from many of our cities and could further disadvantage the Northern position.”

That the measure of need could become a deadweight holding back the North’s recovery has become a growing bugbear for H4N’s members, as Bronwen Rapley, chief executive of Onward Homes, explained on the organisation’s blog.

“Based on current population trajectories and demand, the highest need identified by Government is in London and the south east,” she said “The projections are also based on previous economic growth and these are drawn from a period of particularly sluggish growth in many Northern towns and cities.

“The current figures don’t take into account the potential impact of economic growth across the North on the number of homes needed. If we are to truly challenge ourselves to re-balance the economy, we need to future proof the number of homes we build. We must build not for decline but for a prosperous North.”

Alongside the launch of its charter, H4N used the occasion to unveil its latest research project. Working with TfN, the project aims to explore how strategic investment in housing can complement planned investment in housing and infrastructure, bringing with it major benefits for the Northern economy.

Economics consultancy, the Centre for Economics & Business Research (CEBR) has been commissioned, along with planning consultants Quod and the University of Sheffield, to undertake the research, which is being published in the summer. The research will build on the Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review published in 2016, which revealed how pursuing the Northern Powerhouse Vision could deliver a “transformational economic growth scenario”, including 1.5 million new jobs and an additional £97 billion in GVA by 2050.

“Previous research reveals that the North needs 500,000 homes over the next 10 years just to keep pace with current demand,” said Carol Matthews, chief executive of Riverside, who serves as H4N’s chair.

“A new approach is needed to get the good quality homes we need across the region. We hope that our charter – and our work with Transport for the North – will provide the blueprint for achieving that potential. We look forward to working with central and local government to change and ensure that the North is the absolute best it can be.”

Hollinrake, who is a member of the Housing, Communities & Local Government Select Committee, said: “I am 100% behind any initiative which will transform our economy in the North and enable us to fulfil our huge potential. Ever since I was elected, I have been campaigning for more funds to improve our infrastructure, particularly for transport… [We] absolutely need to prepare to build more houses in the right places to encourage people, especially the young, to make their homes in the North instead of heading down south.”

Lest we forget the housing crisis is also a political issue, not just a technocratic quibble over investment, shadow housing secretary John Healey was on hand to inject a suitable note.

“The housing crisis is a national crisis,” he said. “Home ownership has fallen across the North of England since 2010, and there is visibly rising homelessness in almost every town and city. Ambitious Northern areas want to build for the future, but ministers are making it harder for them to do that. I hope this research will bolster the case for more investment and more decent, affordable homes for the North of England.”

For his part, Berry assured his audience that the Government will look at H4N’s charter and “absolutely will respond” to it. Graciously, perhaps, he went on to concede that the North doesn’t need the Government’s permission to take a hand in its own future.

“[Y]ou do not need the Government’s permission for all of us in the North of England – local government leaders and mayors, members of Parliament and housing providers – to come together and work together to build and plan for the homes we need. So… let’s not wait for the Government’s permission to do anything. Let’s get on with it. We are for the North; we are from the North, and we want to create the homes we need.”

That’s the [Northern] spirit.

The North demands

  1. A regional housing target to build at least 50,000 homes per year in the North
  2. A requirement that local authorities in the North align their Local Industrial Strategies with housing supply plans
  3. The establishment of a powerful pan-Northern body charged with ensuring that housing and infrastructure are planned together over the long term
  4. A new type of ‘renewal deal’ between government, combined and local authorities, and housing associations that would focus on combining existing investment streams in housing, transport, and local economic development

NH

This article first appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing #4 April 2019