We need to fight the North’s corner for housing funding and allocation

A new charter calls for action to prevent the North of England losing out on housing funding to London and the South East. Carol Matthews, Riverside chief executive and chair for Homes for the North, explains more…

We can all agree this country needs more homes. The Government has set a national housing target of ‘at least 300,000 new homes annually’. Others are calling for more and The National Housing Federation, Crisis and Heriot-Watt University last year published new research on household projections demonstrating that, accounting for hidden households, a further 40,000 homes will be needed each year.

But whilst there is broad consensus about the order of magnitude of the response needed, there has been less debate about geography, with funding remaining concentrated in London and the South East. There is a distinct lack of long-term regional planning when it comes to housing delivery, particularly post-Brexit, despite the Government’s objectives set out in its Industrial Strategy.

There is now a danger that current planning and investment policy is actually accentuating the north-south housing divide. Here are some alarming figures:

  • The North currently accounts for 28% of the nation’s homes BUT only 23% of current housing output – so the three northern regions are already losing market share.
  • If local authorities plan for new homes using the Government’s new baseline housing needs formula (Objectively Assessed Need (OAN)), this will result in the North only building 15% of national housing output – simply not enough.
  • And to make matters even worse, Homes England is now targeting some of its funding away from the North, with only six local authorities qualifying for 80% of funding across five flagship programmes.

Of course, it’s not just homes. New housing is generally occupied by working people, and so the clear implication is that a loss of market share of homes adds up to a loss of market share of economically active households, flying in the face of wider Government objectives to rebalance the economy. So much for a Northern Powerhouse.

As many readers will know, I currently chair Homes for the North (H4N), an alliance of the North’s largest developing associations. We are making it our business to address this position head on, recently hosting a cross-party reception sponsored by Kevin Hollinrake (Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton) to launch our Charter, which has been a culmination of three years’ work. Tory minster Jake Berry and Labour’s John Healey, shared a platform and were (unusually) complimentary about one other in front of a room full of Northern MPs of all political shades who were, for once, violently agreeing with each other. The charter sets out four specific asks:

A housing target for the North – as a bare minimum 50,000 new homes each year, probably more.

Planning and funding mechanisms based on ambition for growth, rather than formulae dominated by affordability ratios which reflect past failures.

A pan-northern body to join-up long-term regional planning and investment around housing, transport and infrastructure.

A renaissance of Northern-style regeneration, with new tools that help create value by tackling the issues that come from an ever present industrial legacy – fragmented land ownership, contaminated land.

But we recognise we need to go further in developing our evidence base, particularly in the run up to a future comprehensive spending review, so we have commissioned two new pieces of research:

One is looking in more detail at the potential housing investment gap which is opening up – on a per household basis – how does investment in the North compare to the rest of the country? And how is this likely to pan out given Homes England’s new funding priorities?

The other is exploring the long-term housing offer – quantity, type, geography –needed to support the ambitious thirty year economic growth scenario set out in the Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review and now reflected in Transport for the North’s own investment plans. This will analyse how a new integrated, pan-northern approach to homes and infrastructure investment could support a massive financial boost that would benefit the whole UK, not just the North.

At H4N, we will use this research to advocate the North’s ambition and potential. But the debate needs to be wider, and I am calling upon the sector to join us in calling for a proper, well-thought out approach. Sign up to our charter – you’ll find it on our website.

In order to get homes where we need them, look up – to the ambitious North.

Published in Inside Housing on 19 February 2019.