Devolution is a journey, not a destination

The election of new metro mayors presents an opportunity for housing associations to make the case for more and better housing by building their advocacy and forging strong relationships to influence these new local centres of political power.

Gill Morris is Founder and CEO of political communications agency DevoConnect

Gill Morris is Founder and CEO of political communications agency DevoConnect

5 May 2017

On 4 May, voters in six city regions across England – Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Tees Valley, West Midlands, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and the West of England – went to the polls to elect a new metro mayor. With 8 June fast approaching and the country shifting into general election gear, it would be easy to dismiss these new roles as a distraction from more important, Westminster affairs. That’d be wrong.

The successful mayoral candidates are going to be key decision makers in the housing sector and local government. They will have powers and influence over health and social care, emergency services, transport and – crucially – planning and housing.

The scale of the housing crisis that the mayors will inherit is simply shocking. If the current rate of housing supply remains the same, by 2027 there will be a shortfall of 150,000 homes in the city regions. The challenge is greater for affordable housing. To deliver even a quarter of the 10-year shortfall of homes at social rents, an additional £2.2bn in grant funding would be required. By way of comparison, the mayoral combined authority investment funds, which are intended to support whole swathes of non-housing activity too, are generally between £15–40m a year.

The new DevoConnect and Smith Institute report, Halfway house: the limits and opportunities of devo-housing in England highlights the Government’s failure to appreciate the extent of the housing crisis in the city regions and asks whether metro mayors will have the powers to make a difference.

Despite the scale of the challenge they face, the new metro mayors have pledged to tackle the problems of homelessness, rising rents and falling home ownership and, once elected, they will want to be seen pushing these issues to the top of their agenda. The power to set out strategic-level spatial frameworks will give the mayor, and the committee of council leaders they chair, the power to push for new housing to be built that has the right access to infrastructure and employment, making our cities smarter and more responsive to the needs of local people.

The mayor will have access to resources to fund development and infrastructural projects through ‘housing funds’ bespoke to each city region’s devolution deal. Already, Andy Burnham has pledged that funding will be prioritised for the expansion of social and affordable housing provision. Similarly, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough devolution deal provides £70m explicitly for the construction of council housing in Cambridge.

For housing associations, devolution and the election of the new mayors presents an opportunity to make the case for more and better housing by building their advocacy and forging strong relationships to influence these new local centres of political power. The mayoral campaigns demonstrated housing associations ability to shape the debate and work alongside candidates to promote affordable, social housing. Housing associations now have the chance to realise their ambitions and work with the mayor to create a broad coalition to tackle the wider housing crisis.

Make no mistake, the election of six new metro mayors will have a big impact on politics in their city regions. Devolution is a journey, not a destination. So rather than be discouraged by the limitations of the devolved powers, it is important to recognise that the task of the new mayors is to promote their city regions and bang the drum for additional powers. They have huge potential to be strong, regional voices who can champion local solutions to address the acute problems of the housing crisis. The real work of devolution has just begun.

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