Time to level-up: local authority housing and planning capacity in the North
In a guest blog for CIH, Brian Robson, executive director at the Northern Housing Consortium, talks about why it’s an exciting time to be living and working in the North of England.
Since the election, it feels the debates occurring right across the political spectrum are (finally) putting the North’s opportunities centre-stage. In housing, we face a dual challenge of boosting the supply of new homes and the quality of our existing homes and communities. The North is up for that challenge – but there’s a vital pre-requisite: we need to level-up housing and planning capacity in our councils.
New research by CaCHE for the Northern Housing Consortium shows just how much capacity councils have lost over the last decade, and how the North has been disproportionately affected.
Across the country, local authority average net spend on housing services has declined by 34% since 2010/11. In the North, that reduction is 54%. On planning, the situation is even bleaker, with average net spend declining by 50% across the country and by a staggering 65% in the North. In fact, 80% of local government spend in the North is now going into statutory services like social care.
We can’t go on like this. Rebalancing, regeneration, levelling-up – call it what you want – will need underlying capacity. It’s not just about capital investment in big projects (important though that is). It’s also about the vital do-ers who make projects happen and weave those projects into strategies that maximise their impact.
It’s little wonder therefore, that 87% of northern councilors polled for the New Statesman considered cuts to local authority budgets a significant barrier to northern economic growth. That’s consistent with the findings of our study, which found housing association and developer partners concerned by the lack of capacity within their council partners.
Those working within local authorities were equally frustrated. They used words like “stretched”, “under strain”, and “just about managing” to describe their capacity; noting that “what could have been swallowed a few years ago can’t now” and that “you always feel like you’re living on borrowed time, it will only take one more task to rock the boat quite a lot”.
Where councils had managed to retain some capacity, it was making a real difference. By investing time in engagement with house builders, councils like Doncaster have been able to unlock delivery and build market confidence. Similarly, in Preston the council told us they know what needs to be done but need the resources to match their ambition.
The forthcoming Budget and Spending Review present the new Chancellor - Richmondshire MP Rishi Sunak - with the chance to level-up. The NHC has set out a three-point plan:
- We need a commitment from Government to a sustained, real-terms increase in local government funding. That money might not find its way into housing and planning – but it can help relieve the pressure on services like Adult Social Care, and thereby prevent further reductions in spending on non-statutory services.
- We want to see a national centre of specialist expertise, located in the North but open to all. Reductions in capacity have especially impacted on the availability of specialist skills, and a national centre of excellence could plug some of this gap.
- We want the Government to engage in a series of place-based, outcome-focused deals with Northern Councils. These would be mature conversations based on the outcomes we all want to see – increased supply and quality, decarbonisation – and how we collaboratively build capacity to deliver these outcomes.
The evidence is clear: we need to level-up housing and planning capacity. Over to you, Rishi.
Brian Robson CIHCM is executive director (policy and public affairs) at the Northern Housing Consortium. The research referred to was led by Dr Stephen Hincks of Sheffield University, with colleagues from the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE).