The think tank IPPR North has launched a report, Closer to Home, that suggests metro-mayors and local authorities should be given far greater powers over housing policy. On launching the report on Monday, Ed Cox, Director of IPPR North, said that the current devolution deals, while being some of the more important changes to housing policy in recent decades, remain ‘neither significant nor substantial.’
The launch event at Manchester Metropolitan University featured a panel of industry and public figures including Cllr Sean Anstee, declared candidate for Greater Manchester (GM) Mayor, Simon Ridley, a senior Department for Communities and Local Government official, and the Shadow Minister for Housing, Roberta Blackman-Woods.
While Cox has grabbed headlines with the report’s suggestion to use green belt land in addition to brownfield sites, he has his defenders: on Monday, it was Cllr Anstee, who made a plea that politicians stop only focusing on the green belt, and consider the wider planning in infrastructure and services needed in new housing developments. IPPR North’s new report suggests brownfield sites could house only around 1m of the 3.3m homes needed in England over the next fifteen years.
Greater Manchester continues to set the agenda. The region’s new Spatial Framework – which went out for consultation on Monday – is something that Simon Ridley argued should be replicated across the country. Ridley also made clear that the investment funds offered in devolution deals are decided ‘locally’. This will be welcomed by housing campaigners and mayoral candidates alike in Greater Manchester, who are unhappy with the current terms of the £300m Greater Manchester Housing Fund, which primarily awards loans to high end apartments and large developments. Andy Burnham has pledged to renegotiate the terms if he is elected.
The report echoed some of the recommendations made in the Smith Institute’s Devo-Housing: the emerging agenda, which DevoConnect launched in Parliament earlier this year, including single funding pots and consistency over powers.
While the attention on housing is to be welcomed, two comments from the audience highlighted the challenge at hand: one asked where the ‘urgency’ is, given the rapidly worsening situation for many, and another asked how locally elected councillors, such as the leaders on the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, can be expected to push for potentially unpopular housing developments. Cox suggested that a sub-regional housing strategy would be more likely to succeed than a mix of ‘district councils, national government, and MPs getting in the way.’
The great localiser Eric Pickles, whilst Secretary of State at DCLG, once proclaimed to Cabinet that his government would ‘hand power back to local people, and drive through a new wave of housebuilding.’ While few would suggest planning decisions taken at a local level are likely to boost house numbers, devo-housing, at present, is about handing powers to sub-regional authorities, and ‘double devolution’ is by no means necessitated. It looks like housing will be another devolved area where decisions are taken at a level further away from the ordinary citizen.