It has become fashionable again to talk about regions. This is absolutely right – the northern regions are different to those in the south. They are as distinct as they are diverse. Living here can offer the most fantastic quality of life providing, for example, affordable homes in vibrant cities or the chance to live in incredibly beautiful countryside. There is another side, though, which is still deeply unfashionable to talk about – wrongly in my view – and that is about the challenge we face in tackling housing obsolescence.
Much of the housing in and around our great northern cities was built for another era; for long-gone economies and job markets. I’m really proud that Northern Housing Consortium members have been so involved in public and private regeneration partnerships that have made great inroads into modernising these areas without the divisive impacts sometimes seen by gentrification. The job is not finished, however, and there are far too many deeply deprived places typified by worn-out terraces and blighted by empty homes. We need grown-up discussion about how wider tool kits, including selective demolition, can help bring confidence back to these areas.
We also need stronger tools to help tackle the all too common substandard private rented stock in these areas, which can provide such lucrative returns for rogue landlords. It particularly galls me that such landlords are getting more, often through housing benefit, for such poor properties than a housing provider would receive for a warm, dry, secure and well-managed home.
These neighbourhoods represent a post-industrial legacy that now often goes unseen or unmentioned, sitting cheek by jowl with the amazing revitalisation of other areas of our cities. We have to create the conditions to bring about locally-led change to help these areas reach their economic potential and provide standards of housing that are fit for purpose in the 21st century.
I am acutely aware that the existing stock issues I raise here need to be put in the context of the supply crisis so severely effecting many parts of the country, and I do understand why a government that is surrounded by this would respond by focusing on new housing numbers. My main concern is that we should not allow this focus to override other housing policy options that can achieve better economic outcomes for some places – in areas of the north, this can mean putting regenerating communities before quantity.
We’ve welcomed the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ dialogue and potential investment and reform that may bring. In particular, it’s been great to see a recognition that the north lacks the necessary infrastructure to properly modernise neighbourhoods and the positive moves now emerging to help address this. We share the view that we need more and better homes in the right places – near schools, health provision, decent jobs and transport links – with good digital access and all the other attributes that go towards making viable and vital communities that will prosper in the future.
To do this properly, we need more than capital investment; we must have the local flexibility to respond to the multi-layered issues that affect our communities in a way that fits their unique needs. These needs are different for Manchester and Newcastle, let alone different from the policy that is developed in the context of the acute supply crisis that faces London and the south-east.
The time is now right to pull together discussion on housing, devolved decision-making and public sector reform to set a clear overall approach to housing AND regeneration – one that involves departments across Whitehall and that is informed by evidence on what will really help to unleash the economic potential for the north. This must provide the strategic framework for new local policy flexibilities that move away from out-dated, national, one-size-fits-all approaches, and helps streamline the now desperately over-complicated set of housing programmes.
To do this, Northern Housing Consortium is calling for a commission for housing in the north to take and build on existing evidence on what will drive regeneration for our regions. We will support the commission to report early in the next parliament to demonstrate the importance of implementing reform, to allow our diverse regions to develop bespoke policy that strengthens our housing markets and local economies, and really does tackle the issues critical for the north.