Housing Minister Opens Dialogue with All-Party Parliamentary Group for Housing in the North

On Tuesday the Housing Minister, Chris Pincher MP, attended the latest meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Housing in the North to learn about the work of the Group, give an update on Government priorities, and underline his support for APPG’s as cross-party, Parliament-wide forums of important debate.

To summarise the recent and future work of the APPG, Chair Ian Mearns MP had arranged for Group Secretariat the Northern Housing Consortium (NHC) to begin the meeting with a scene setting presentation.

NHC Chief Executive Tracy Harrison began by introducing the APPG’s recent publication No Home Left Behind: An Inquiry into Property Standards in the North’s Private Rented Sector.  Tracy explained that the sizeable evidence submitted by NHC members had highlighted a series of challenges, and potential solutions, to ensure the PRS was a positive choice and experience for all tenants.

Alongside the Minister, attendees heard how the PRS regulatory framework had become a comprehensive but complicated mixture of statute and case law that hinders enforcement and allows poor conditions to flourish, that the ability to identify landlords and poorly conditioned properties was essential to professionalising the sector, that Local Authorities were being held back in their ability to effectively use enforcement tools by severe budget constraints, and a long-term commitment to regeneration was required to allow place-based partnerships to improve hard-to-address, poor-quality accommodation.

It was then explained that the proposed focus of the APPG in 2021 would be to identify and argue for a strong role for housing in the Government’s ambition to ‘level up’ the regions and the mandated goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Tracy outlined some of the ways housing policy could be adapted to work better for the North: improving capacity in councils, advancing a level playing field on accessing housing infrastructure funds, with it being noted that whilst the Government had committed to reviewing the so-called 80/20 formula, details were yet to emerge; and a refreshed vision for Homes England, incorporating ‘levelling up’ and Net Zero as stated strategic objectives.

Tracy finished by highlighting new research, supported by the NHC, from IPPR North outlining the economic and environmental stimulus brought about by investing the North’s older, colder homes. Sarah Longlands, IPPR North’s Director, was also at the meeting to give a full briefing to the APPG but Tracy used time with the Minister to highlight two aspects of the research. That a roadmap to decarbonise existing homes should begin with social housing, using the sectors historic capacity to deliver large-scale improvement works as a catalyst to further cross-tenure decarbonisation. And secondly, that investment in housing should come alongside a localised focus on skills development to fully realise the potential 77,000 jobs in home retrofit identified by the report.

The Housing Minister Chris Pincher MP used his time to highlight a number of Government announcements made in recent months. Firstly, concerning the Planning White Paper, the Minister noted the scale of feedback received particularly around the future of Section106. On the proposal for a new infrastructure levy, the Minister indicated that this may well be locally set to acknowledge different geographies and housing markets. However, the Planning White Paper was the beginning of the conversation, not the end, so it was certainly too early to make any firm commitment.

The Minister reiterated the Affordable Homes Programme (AHP) as a key area of focus, with the next iteration running to 2026. He stated that this next AHP will be geared more to affordable and socially rented homes, with 32,000 new social homes set to be built, more than double the figure built during the current AHP programme.

The PRS was acknowledged as another area of focus, with the Minister stating he is keen to approach renters reform from a stable economic terrain and is committed to abolishing Section 21 ‘no fault evictions’. The Minister noted that the Government wants to make the private renting system far less complicated for all who navigate it, particularly renters themselves.

Discussing ‘levelling up’, he reiterated the Government’s commitment, though acknowledged that the last 10 months had distracted from this. The recent announcement of the £4bn Levelling Up Fund was more indicative of their desire.

The Minister finished by underlining that regeneration was an area of focus he was seeking to build into planning reforms and he would welcome ideas and feedback on this subject. Before the pandemic we had began to see the ‘Amazon effect’ transform retail. There was a need now to ‘build back’ in our town and city centres and planning reform should facilitate effective masterplans. It may be that ‘regeneration zones’ are identified alongside the Planning White Paper’s proposals of growth, renewal, and protected zones – this was all part of the conversation the Minister was keen to have.

The Minister stayed on for a QnA session with Parliamentarians. Discussion centred on Permitted Development Rights and space standards, the future of Neighbourhood Planning and citizen engagement within the planning process, accessible housing, and embedding housing and improving existing homes into ‘levelling up’ and Net Zero. The Minister thanked the APPG and noted he would be happy to return to the Group in the future.