Devo Housing: Is the government listening?

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Category: General news

The forthcoming local and mayoral elections will put the spotlight on housing issues and ratchet up the call for the devolution of more housing powers and resources to London and the combined authorities. But is the government listening?

In England voters will be choosing seven combined authority-led metro mayors, the London mayor and GLA members, and councillors from 143 councils.  ‘Super Thursday’ on May 6th, which includes the rescheduled 2020 elections, will be the biggest local vote for decades.

The council elections could see some changes, although they’re hard to predict owing to an expected low turnout and because some councils are electing a third or half the seats. Nearly a quarter of the seats are also no overall control. Overall, the Conservatives are predicted to do well; Labour and the Lib Dems may struggle to make gains.

The mayoral elections are more complicated: victories are predicted for Labour in London, the Liverpool City Region, Greater Manchester, and West Yorkshire. Tees Valley and Cambridgeshire/Peterborough are expected to remain Conservative. The West Midlands and West of England are too close to call.

While the elections – which are likely to reflect national voting patterns even more than usual – are fought along party lines, there is noticeable common cause among the mayoral candidates for more – or at least improved – devolution around housing. This is especially true in the city-regions where household growth outstrips housing supply. As the Affordable Housing Commission reported, the devo-deals on housing have so-far failed to recognise the pent-up demand for affordable homes.

The ask from Labour’s metro mayors is for beefed-up, fully devolved long-term housing budgets like London. Greater Manchester’s incumbent mayor, Andy Burnham, is calling on government to make devo-housing central to the levelling-up agenda – a plea echoed by many stock-owning councils who want to build at scale. Similarly, Steve Rotherham, seeking a second term in Liverpool City region, is promising a major retrofit housing programme as central to his plans for a ‘green industrial revolution.’

In the West midlands, the Conservative metro mayor Andy Street wants to accelerate the construction of low carbon homes to drive the region’s economic recovery. Liam Byrne, the Labour candidate, meanwhile says the West Midlands has failed to build enough ‘genuinely’ affordable homes and is promising to build more through a new ‘Green Development Corporation’. The pitch elsewhere is similar – government should do more to help metro mayors deliver more sub-market homes.

While some of the metro mayors look to the London model, Sadiq Kahn looks to the devolved nations and is requesting new housing powers to establish a system of private sector rent control – something already introduced by Holyrood. Kahn claims London’s housing budget needs to be increased five times to meet the capital’s housing need and has pledged to create a new property company to deliver his housing programme, alongside a fund for councils to buy back homes previously sold through right to buy.

These housing requests from metro mayors have had some backing in Parliament. The Conservative-led parliamentary group on devolution, for example, argues “housing is a key example of a policy challenge that can only be effectively addressed through devolution”.  Meanwhile, the LGA’s report in 2020 on the matrix of housing deals claims that collaborative working across combined authority boundaries on housing and planning has made a positive difference.

The government appears reticent, and there is no sign yet of the Devolution White paper – promised at the 2019 election. Housing and planning policies have in fact been driven by national policy objectives, notably around support for the housing market. Ministers have also been caught-up recently in disputes with metro mayors over homelessness policies and the delivery of affordable housing programmes.

The centralisation shift is perhaps understandable given the pandemic, but the PM has been surprisingly quiet about advancing devolution. This is disappointing, for although the party candidates may disagree on local issues, there is an underlying consensus on the benefits of allowing for further housing devolution.

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