The government must double down on levelling up in its Budget

The government needs to deliver on its pledge to level up the country in next week's Budget, Tracy Harrison writes.
Tracy Harrison, chief executive of the Northern Housing Consortium.
Tracy Harrison, chief executive of the Northern Housing Consortium (NHC). Credit: NHC

Rishi Sunak has faced an extraordinary first year as chancellor, dealing with the most complex crisis since the Second World War.

The Budget he will present next week comes at a critical time for the North. The new government was elected in December 2019 on the back of ambitious – and welcome – pledges to level up our country.

However, the economic downturn precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has made that task even more challenging. But it has also demonstrated just how much that agenda is needed.

The conditions that many experienced during lockdown – when homes became workplaces, schools, gyms and more – have illustrated more clearly than ever the need for good quality housing and the importance of homes as part of neighbourhoods.

It has also highlighted the crippling effect that fuel poverty can have on individuals and families, re-emphasising the need to demonstrate policy ambition on net zero.

So, next week we want to see the government double down on levelling up. The Northern Housing Consortium’s Budget submission suggests three ways government can do this.

Firstly, we want to see a long-term commitment to bringing together net zero and levelling up.  We suggest a 10-year programme of targeted investment in decarbonising the North’s social housing stock which would provide significant economic stimulus, with potential for 77,000 jobs across the North.

This could be kickstarted by bringing forward the remainder of the £3.8 billion earmarked for the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund to assist economic recovery in Northern regions. Government investment would be matched by social housing providers’ contributions through their existing resources or raising private finance.

We need to learn lessons from the Green Homes Grant voucher scheme – and place initial investment in the organisations that can invest at scale, building supply chains and skills pipelines that all homes can benefit from over time. This proposal is very much in-line with the recommendations of the cross-party House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, who last week called for greater long-term stimulus for domestic energy efficiency.

As well as helping the government reach net zero targets (housing accounts for one quarter of all carbon emissions in the North), it will deliver a significant set of wider benefits in terms of improved comfort and health, particularly for fuel poor households. The current estimated cost to the NHS from poor quality housing is £1.4 – 2 billion per year in England alone. Levelling up means improving the fabric of homes and neighbourhoods, which is why, alongside decarbonisation measures, we’re urging government to commit to place-based, housing-led regeneration through a Housing Quality Investment Fund.

With one million owner-occupied homes in the North failing to meet the Decent Homes Standard, in addition to 354,000 privately rented homes, we think there’s a significant opportunity to deliver tangible improvements for red wall voters by levelling up housing quality in the North, supporting local collaborative, partnership working to drive wider improvements in housing quality across tenures and bring a new focus to raising the standards of the North’s existing stock. It would provide tangible evidence of levelling up at pace.

Without such a boost to left-behind housing, there is a risk of momentum and investment in declining towns being lost and problems being stored up for the future.

Underpinning this investment in our homes, there is a need to build housing and planning capacity in the North through sustained, real-terms increase in local government funding and the creation of a national centre of specialist housing and planning expertise, located in the North.

NHC research has demonstrated how reductions in housing capacity have disproportionately impacted the North of England over the last decade.

The change in average net spend per local authority in the North between 2010/11 and 2018/19 stood at -54% for housing services; and -65% for planning and development services. Comparatively, across the rest of England, this difference stood at -34% for housing services and -50% for planning and development services. We need to build back the capacity to regenerate existing neighbourhoods and plan for the homes of the future.

We’ve all been through a lot over the last twelve months. With the vaccine offering light at the end of the tunnel, it’s time for the chancellor to look to the future. There’s a real opportunity to build back better in the North – delivering on the government’s original pledge to level up the country. The chancellor will find willing partners in the North’s housing sector.

Tracy Harrison is chief executive of the Northern Housing Consortium.

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