Government needs to deliver a regional approach to housing

The Housing White Paper has done little to provide answers for the regional challenges the sector faces, says Carol Matthews, Riverside’s Chief Executive

A month has passed and the dust is settling on the much anticipated Housing White Paper. Did it live up to your expectations, or are you a bit disappointed that the elusive ‘silver bullet’ has yet to be forged, let alone fired? In fact such is the cycle of Government pronouncements, that maybe you’ve already moved on and are thinking ahead to next week’s budget. Or perhaps we just invest too much in these political set pieces that rarely live up to their billings.

But let’s start by giving credit where it is due. Under the current housing minister – a refreshingly pragmatic politician – there is a marked and highly welcome change in tone and direction. The beastliness that characterised the political narrative has all but disappeared, and a May Government seems to have embraced the major contribution that housing associations are making to tackling the housing crisis by being willing to acknowledge and support a new level of ambition. It’s tempting to say that the sector’s charm offensive is paying off, but I suspect the facts around housing delivery simply speak for themselves – when you take the time to add up the numbers properly, year on year we are building more with less, and by definition delivering better value. At Riverside, we’re just coming to the end of a record year for housing completions, and are on the cusp of signing off a new Corporate Plan which will see us double our housebuilding over the next three years, and go even further thereafter. I know many others are in a similar position.

However, whilst strong on intent and long on word count, to what extent does the White Paper set out genuinely new proposals for the sector? Many of its ideas have already been announced as part of the Autumn Statement, and it is less of a springboard for the Government’s vision of radical reform than was hoped, backing away from more controversial proposals such as building on the green belt. In that sense it is probably pretty typical, being more of a resume of current policy and an agenda for further work, with considerable detail to come on many of its flagship planning proposals and other issues such as the full roll-out of Voluntary Right to Buy.

If I have do have a gripe, it’s the fact that the White Paper says little about the regional challenges we face, and the role that housing can play in contributing to the renaissance of towns and cities outside London, as part of a wider project to rebalance the economy. With Metro Mayors due to be elected in areas across the North for the first time on 4th May, how on earth did it miss that trick? The body of evidence is growing, and Homes for the North’s recent ‘Brain Gain’ research has demonstrated that we need to ensure that the North of England has the right infrastructure and housing offer to attract and retain skilled workers – essential for the viability and success of its economic recovery.

The time is right for more nuanced housing policy which can encourage the rapid growth we need across many part of the country, and through H4N, we are calling on the Government to work with us on a simple three point plan. This includes a series of targeted Northern Housing Deals between government, councils and providers and government-backed Homes and Enterprise Zones to boost the supply of new homes and quality of place, supported by making more land available and providing fiscal incentives such as temporary stamp duty cuts, business rate reductions and VAT relief on the refurbishment of empty homes. Building on our research, a Graduate Homes Scheme should offer flexible tenancies and shared ownership products that are portable within the region, using unallocated funds from the Shared Ownership Affordable Homes Programme.

Of course central to our ability to sustain increased build rates north and south, is the small matter of post-2020 rent policy. The White Paper’s commitment to firm this up is welcome, recognising our need for income certainty to support borrowing. Dare we begin to plan again for an era of modest rent increases, or does the ever tightening noose of benefit cuts spoil the party, particularly in low value areas where LHA rates are rock bottom? Whatever the case, we need to seize the opportunity to influence Government to resolve future rent policy at pace, ensuring it remains on DCLG’s agenda as a supply issue, rather than being left to DWP as a tool for spending control. There will be a regional dimension to this issue too, and as the sector debates the need for rent flexibility, we must ensure that associations working outside London and the South East are not trapped in a low-rent envelope in perpetuity.

The ‘R’ word may only occupy a line or two in the White Paper, but is so critical that it now needs to sit at the top of our agendas. Its successful resolution will make the difference between ambition and ambition fulfilled.

This blog was first published by Inside Housing on 7 March 2017