Delivering homes for the North of England

Housing is key to revitalising the North of England, but it’s more important to look to the future than the past, says Carol Matthews, Riverside’s Chief Executive.

Good quality, affordable housing of the right type and in the right place is essential to the health and wellbeing of individuals and communities. It should also be seen as an essential precondition for the economic renaissance of our great Northern cities. If we are serious about closing the gap in economic output and productivity which plagues the North, housing is key.

Riverside is part of Homes for the North (H4N) – an alliance of 19 large developing housing associations who have put housing at the heart of the North’s economic revival.

As a group, we have at times found ourselves, not unreasonably, being asked; “So, just how many homes does the North really need?” And we have been scrabbling around for a convincing answer. That is until now.

Working with planning consultants, Lichfields, we set out to address this question directly, starting with a bottom-up approach – reviewing existing local plans of the 72 northern local authorities and aggregating the level of   ‘Objectively Assessed Need’ identified in each plan.

During the research, we stumbled across the problem highlighted in the Housing White Paper published earlier this year; inconsistency. These local authority assessments have been undertaken at different times, using different baselines, methodologies and assumptions about growth. To counter this, we performed a ‘reality check’, taking Government household projections, and overlaying ambitious, but realistic, economic growth scenarios.

So, what’s the answer? How many new homes does the North need?

Half a million.

That‘s the number we project the North will need over the next 10 years, to support the sort of economic ambition set out in the Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review. This equates to 50,000 each year.

However, in the wake of the White Paper, the Government’s recently published consultation “Planning for the Right Homes in the Right Places” has the potential to undermine a target for growth.

Early analysis suggests the Government’s proposed method for establishing need – and published housing projections by locality – will only perpetuate the overheated markets of the South, and could mean the North contributes very little to solving the nation’s housing crisis. This is because the method is essentially backward looking – dealing with yesterday’s market failures rather than tomorrow’s ambitions for growth.

This would mean missing a massive opportunity. It would also do little to support a rebalanced the economy, which should surely be a fundamental plank of the Industrial Strategy. 

It’s easy to get obsessed with numbers though, and the continued revitalisation of many areas in the North requires so much more. Quality, diversity and value for money of housing is essential to make the North somewhere people want to live, whilst improving its attractiveness for businesses and future investment. Even the Secretary of State seems to get this, recently announcing a root and branch review of social housing through a new Housing Green Paper. In doing this he said: What role can social housing policy play in building safe and integrated communities, where people from different backgrounds get along no matter what type of housing they live in?”

In answer to this, we as housing providers (quite literally) hold the key to unlocking the North’s potential by helping to build safe and integrated communities. Personally, I am aglow after visiting three extra care schemes in Sunderland recently and seeing the intergenerational communities they house. Each scheme provides fantastic, modern accommodation for both sale and rent, for people aged 55+ looking to downsize, as well as those with care and support needs. This includes self-contained apartments, with care services onsite and a range of communal facilities. Not only is there provision for safe and secure accommodation, but jobs are also created in the short and longer-term through apprenticeships in the construction industry, work for trade suppliers and sub-contractors and ultimately management, care and support services. 

Benefits of diverse housing schemes such as these are far-reaching and we need many more of them. We should not be looking to what has been done in the past to determine future housing supply. As Abraham Lincoln once said; “The best way to predict your future is to create it.” We need to be striving to achieve more, not less, to generate truly sustainable Northern cities.

Carol Matthews, Chief Executive, Riverside

This blog was first published by Inside Housing on 05 October 2017