Home truths – levelling up will require addressing some difficult housing issues

  • Living standards and Levelling up

Janice Morphet, Visiting Professor, Bartlett School of Planning at University College London 

In this piece Janice Morphet provides an incisive picking apart of the Levelling Up White Paper in relation to the role of housing within the wider agenda. The piece suggests that there are some difficult challenges around housing which will need to be addressed if Levelling Up is to succeed.

The role that housing plays in contributing positively to levelling up in society has long been understood and was included in the Prime Minister’s speech (2021) on how his policies for dealing with spatial inequality across the UK would include housing investment. It is also the case, that when housing costs are considered, London has the highest percentage of people on relative low income in the UK so housing acts as a major factor in the level of disposable household incomes everywhere for some people. It is not a north/south issue. Access to affordable housing in a reasonable condition has always been a local determinant of relative deprivation but has been reduced in its importance as an issue for policy intervention in favour of skills and other economic initiatives. Instead, housing has become an issue for market intervention to support those on above average incomes. Yet the government is beginning to appreciate that the loss of social rent housing that has not been replaced after decades of right to buy policies in England was mistaken and should be addressed (Andrews, S. 2022. Speech to the District Council’s Network 21st March). Without waiting for the government to understand this issue, over 80% of English local authorities have started to engage in some form of direct housing delivery motivated by the need to meet local issues including homelessness and low incomes.  So this more recent Government recognition of the role of housing in the understanding of spatial inequities is welcome.

What does the Levelling Up White Paper (LUWP) (2022) propose should be done about housing as part of the wider package of measures proposed?  The LUWP does not address housing as a single issue and has policy approaches distributed throughout its text, although these do not appear to be a coherent package. The LUWP acknowledges that housing quality is a key issue to be addressed particularly in private and social rented homes. The ability of Local Authorities to maintain their social rented stock to reasonable levels has been constrained by past Government policy for the Housing Revenue Account (HRA). The HRA is not an accounting convention but a government policy to control local authority expenditure and does not allow them to use their assets as leverage for borrowing as in the private sector. The quality of private landlords remains an issue without appropriate regulation while much of the private rented stock comprises of former council homes sold under right to buy policies. As a consequence of the pandemic, local authorities have become aware of internal space issues within their dwellings which have an effect on residents’ mental and physical well-being. The LUWP classifies housing as an element of physical capital which contributes to social capital – a principle that was always part of the concept of the welfare state when this was more actively pursued as government policy. Outside the home, the LUWP also recognises, or rediscovers, the role of housing in stimulating community pride in place which has been a key public regeneration policy since the 1950s. Housing also has other contributions to levelling up as indicated in the LUWP. It is a means of supporting the improvement of local productivity – both in construction and providing the capacity for a more mobile work force.

In terms of its spatial policies for housing, the LUWP considers that housing provision in the UK can be a major contributor to the reduction of housing pressure in the South East. This statement is disconnected from the rest of the economic and environmental issues included within the paper. Further, the LUWP is UK wide, yet there is no indication that UK government could adopt the same social housing policies for England as the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where there is no right to buy policy and local authorities are provided with funding for social housing programmes each year. The same approach applies in London, where since 2017, the Mayor of London has control of the housing budget and more social and affordable housing is built by London boroughs as a consequence.

The LUWP’s policy proposals for housing comprise a mixture of existing and new policies. It restates the government’s policy of using planning as a means of delivering housing, despite the inability of local authorities to enforce construction of planning consents. Providing the opportunity for renters to be able to move to home ownership is another variant on existing policies. A commitment to focus on the quality of housing appears after past governments have removed internal and environmental standards that reduce living costs – most recently in 2015. Finally there is a statement that there should be a focus on antisocial behaviour within housing areas – a policy which has attracted much public funding and policy attention since the 1960s.

So what is new that might make some contribution to levelling up through meeting housing need? Firstly there is a recognition that more social rented housing should be built to meet the needs of those on lower incomes who may never be able to purchase a home. This is not new but makes its first reappearance as a positive policy since 1980:

‘The UK Government will also increase the amount of social housing available over time to provide the most affordable housing to those who need it. This will include reviewing how to support councils to deliver greater numbers of council homes, alongside Housing Associations.’ (LUWP p224).

There is also a proposal to combine housing with regeneration projects – for town centres, riversides and brownfields sites. This is an area where over 200 councils are already active but receive little credit for their contributions. This also recognises that an affordable rent roll is a key financial contributor to regeneration investment – unlike the shops and offices of the past. The government is also proposing that pension schemes should be investing more in housing although there is less enthusiasm about this in the public sector. Other proposals include establishing a national landlords register although this may be difficult to achieve, in practice, in the face of a major and well organised landlords lobby in Parliament. Other policies include retrofitting to meet energy needs – a crucial policy to meet climate change targets but no indication of how this is funded and where the priorities might be.

So what is the major contribution of housing as part of the strategy set out in the LUWP? Firstly, it is difficult to see a coherent narrative about the role of housing in levelling up and social redistribution. The LUWP is long on the analysis of the past but how far does it learn from it? Secondly, the initiatives are project rather than programme or policy based and provide opportunities for political gaming on the ground. There is no indication of the relative importance of these housing issues in contributing to levelling up in different parts of the country. Social housing need is as important in London as in Liverpool. The issues about quality and climate change could have been further progressed if the government had not abolished housing standards in the past and it could now use planning and building control to make these mandatory in new developments and refurbishments. Yet if the result of the LUWP is a return to a funded programme for social housing, delivered by local authorities and housing associations, this might provide a measure that could have the largest impact on lower income and deprived households who are in private rented accommodation now. With legislation in the LUWP now appearing to be delayed until 2023, we may have to wait longer to see how many of these new proposals come into effect while others like the provision of social housing could be delivered now if the Chancellor proposed the funding or changes in the borrowing rules for local authorities. Housing can contribute to levelling up if it is allowed to do so.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash

About the author

Janice Morphet is an independent researcher, Visiting Professor in the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London and is a Design Council Built Environment Expert. Janice was a member of the Planning Committee of the London 2012 Olympic Games. She was a Senior Adviser on local government at DCLG 2000-2005, having been Chief Executive of Rutland CC, Director of Technical Services at Woking, and Professorial Head of the School of Planning and Landscape at Birmingham Polytechnic. Janice has been a trustee of the RTPI and TCPA.