Housing is rarely mentioned in the conversation about levelling up

Here is how the housing sector should change the story about levelling up ahead of this year’s crucial Spending Review. In particular the strategy should focus on homelessness and rethinking Homes England’s investment strategy, write Carol Matthews and Richard Hill

One recent Friday afternoon the two of us walked around one of One Housing’s estates. In the shadow of the steel and glass of London’s Docklands, we saw deep-seated local poverty. As we walked, we talked about the challenges also faced in northern towns and cities as the country attempts to recover from the pandemic, and it struck us that while the places might look different, the issues are depressingly similar.

In Liverpool, you are 50% more likely to die a COVID-related death than the national average; in Tower Hamlets a shocking 98% more likely. If ever there was a symbol of the need for ‘levelling up’, we were looking at it.

But what exactly is levelling up? A clearly defined strategy, with measurable objectives, or a worthy aspiration? This need for clarity seems to have been recognised by government and we both look forward to the promised white paper.

The other striking thing about levelling up is that you rarely hear housing being part of the conversation. Jobs, skills, health, education – yes. Housing – not really.

This is dangerous for our sector and given that levelling up is likely to lie at the heart of the forthcoming Spending Review, we need to influence the debate and ensure thinking about housing policy and investment is properly aligned.

Surely we are well placed to make a compelling case that housing, and housing associations, should be at the heart of this policy.

Thinking about what levelling up means to Riverside and One Housing, while the phrase may be relatively new, the important ideas behind it are ingrained in our organisational DNAs. If pushed, we would say that levelling up starts with identifying those who face structural disadvantage – perhaps because of their protected characteristics or where they live – and then improving opportunities for them in a sustained way: opportunities for decent, affordable housing, a decent living environment, a good education, the chance of a job and access to great services, including health and mental health services.

These are the things that we do, either on our own or through really strong alliances. We should be the levelling up partners of choice.

As two housing associations with a wide geographical footprint, we can provide fresh insight into the challenge. Our own data (and eyes!) tell us that there is a geographical component to structural disadvantage, but it is complex and multi-layered. Taking the helicopter view, inequalities between areas (crudely characterised as North vs South) do exist and need to be tackled, but not by levelling down the South.

The country needs a strong North and a strong South with a vibrant world-class city as its capital. But just as important are inequalities within areas, as so vividly illustrated by our walk. It is simply not acceptable for there to be canyons across our towns and cities, where life expectancy and life chances change within a 10-minute journey.

So how do we add value to this debate? Over the coming months, the sector needs to set out a clear case for a national levelling-up strategy focused on housing and improving life chances, with clear targets and milestones – one that describes what a more equal country looks like.

And then we need to call for a Spending Review that explicitly delivers this strategy, funded by a Treasury that has a broader view of what return on investment looks like, beyond the narrow prism of measures such as land value uplift.

The new Green Book is an important first step, but in itself not enough. This means a structural realignment of the big spending budgets, capital and revenue. Although this is fearsomely difficult at a time when government borrowing has spiralled, we need to ensure that levelling up is not reduced to a series of capital-funded vanity projects.

And for housing this means two things in particular: a rethink of Homes England’s additionality-focused investment strategy, to one that is far more interested in the renewal and sustainable prosperity of places where housing is part of the bigger picture; and a properly funded strategy for tackling homelessness that is as rooted in prevention as it is in dealing with the symptom of rough sleeping.

In articulating these asks, we need to show how we can contribute as a sector. With deep roots in localities that need levelling up, we are ideally placed. We own homes in these places, making us long-term anchor institutions, and we deliver local services, extending beyond those of a traditional landlord to helping people into work, offering money advice and addressing affordable warmth and mental health issues.

We have significant investment programmes both in our own homes, and the provision of new ones. With the right policy and investment frameworks we can leverage this huge capacity to do even more, especially if we optimise the way we work.

In the case of Riverside and One Housing we believe we can do this better by coming together. We have already announced plans to form a long-term partnership that is not predicated on simply being bigger, but rather using our combined capacity to do more than we could have as separate organisations.

More homes, an accelerated and sustainable investment strategy, better services, more support for communities. Otherwise what’s the point?

So back to our London walk. Shocking though the stark contrast is, we left full of optimism, having seen the way local lives are being transformed by interventions like the Rough Sleeper Accommodation Programme.

This programme shows how housing associations are so well placed to provide the type of wraparound support, on everything from managing mental health conditions to finding a job, that alongside good accommodation can really help people overcome the disadvantages they face and restart their own lives.

Now that’s levelling up in action.

Carol Matthews, Chief executive for the Riverside Group, and
Richard Hill, Chief Executive for One Housing Group


[This blog was originally published in Inside Housing on 03.08.21]