Interview: Carol Matthews – Our homes in the North

The whole country needs a stronger North, Carol Matthews told Mark Cantrell, but the region is unlikely to regain its vigour without building more new housing

IT wasn’t too long before the conversation with Carol Matthews found itself entangled in a discussion about the region’s transport infrastructure; quite a tangent for a housing magazine, but pertinent all the same.

In a way, it’s a salutary lesson in the way housing touches pretty much everything; the two are not so far removed as casual silo-thinking might have us believe.

“They are completely and utterly co-dependent on each other,” Matthews says. “Housing should follow the infrastructure that the economy needs for the North to be a thriving part of the UK. Our view is that if we had a proper strategic plan for the North, that dealt with transport, infrastructure, economy and homes, then we’d have the opportunity to get some quicker wins.”

In her day job, Matthews is the chief executive of Riverside, but for our purposes here, she’s the chair of Homes for the North (H4N). Set up around two years ago, H4N is an alliance of 19 of the region’s largest developing housing associations, including her own organisation.

Since its launch, H4N has been busy lobbying and making the case for more homes, to uplift the North socially and economically. But this isn’t enough, so its lobbying efforts are also geared towards encouraging agencies and policymakers out of their potential silos and get them working creatively together.

“We are committed to doing our part to drive the increase in the supply of housing and driving economic growth,” Matthews says. “We are focused on being positive and pragmatic in coming up with ideas and research about the part that housing and new homes can make to the economic renaissance of the North.”

One of H4N’s proposals is for Transport for the North and the Northern Powerhouse, among others, to come together and create a ‘Homes North’ organisation. This may sound a little like Homes England, but Matthews suggests such a body would have a more strategic, pan-Northern role than serve solely as a development funding agency.

“One of the pieces of research we are commissioning looks to quantify the number of homes that we need to contribute to the Northern Powerhouse’s independent economic review,” Matthews adds. “That’s about making sure that we’ve got the right homes in the right places, so that we can attract talent to those jobs and that they have the right kind of homes to live in. That’s one of the issues in the North – to make sure we’ve got the right talent.”

The North of England has plenty of homegrown talent, of course. It’s just that in our unbalanced national economy, the weight of perceived opportunity tends to pull them southwards. In its first commissioned research, Brain Drain to Brain Gain, H4N found that over the preceding decade, 310,000 graduates left the region, with only 235,000 coming the other way.

So far, an influx of highly qualified workers from beyond the UK has masked the problem, but in a post-Brexit landscape this is unlikely to last. Getting the mix and placement of housing right is a key element in countering this economic gravitational pull.

That takes us on to the second piece of research H4N commissioned, published late last year, that identified a need for 50,000 new homes a year over the next decade. Most of these – 70% – need to be delivered in the North’s city regions, where much of the job demand and creation is set to be located. H4N is looking to further “nuance” these findings with further research, and identify where bottom-up initiatives could further fine-tune and increase the delivery of new homes.

“What we have done is challenge the Government’s methodology,” Matthews says. “The Government’s methodology looks back through the ‘rear window’ at what’s been built, so what it does is it reinforces the fact that the south will get the prized share of resources.

“We don’t argue against the fact that the south needs resources, but if you what you are planning to do is based on last year’s – or the last 10 years’ – output, then that is going to be a real drag on the North.

“We’ve got low value areas, we have housing markets that need to be regenerated. The Government’s standard methodology knocks at least 20% of that [identified need] out, so it means that the North is in danger of falling behind. But it the North falls behind, the country falls behind.”

And we can’t be having that, which is why – in H4N’s outlook – everyone must work together to build that stronger North that Britain needs to thrive.


This article originally appeared in the print edition of Northern Housing magazine #1 Summer (July) 2018.


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