London calling to the faraway towns

Every blog or article needs a clever hook to open the piece, doesn’t it? So… in the true spirit of punk rock: “London calling to the faraway towns.”

Dave Smith is External Affairs Manager at the National Housing Federation

Dave Smith is External Affairs Manager at the National Housing Federation

2 October 2018

Welcome to a short discussion about the history of housing and devolution in London, littered with tangential and laboured references to The Clash.

Joe Strummer is said to have once remarked: “Everyone has got to realise you can't hold onto the past if you want any future. Each second should lead to the next one.” And that is very similar to a conversation we have been having at the National Housing Federation about devolution. (Stick with it…) Far too frequently, I think it is fair to say, we treat the notion of devolution as an on/off switch – something just to be engaged with at certain points, in certain places. Yet if the experience in London over the past twenty years is anything to go by, it is an ongoing process, arguably negotiated as much every day as it was in the first instance, with local politicians constantly testing the limits of their powers and remaking the boundaries of democratic expectations.

Large, structural changes can occur over time too. Arguably the most important aspect of devolution in the capital – as regards housing associations, at least – was the passing down of executive powers over housing investment from the Homes and Communities Agency to the Greater London Authority, so it can be fully aligned with the Mayor’s own funding pot and the London Housing Strategy. However, although it is easy to forget, it is important to remember that ‘housing’ was very specifically and explicitly not a part of the initial Greater London Authority Act 1999, which founded the mayoral system. (Despite being the longest Act to be passed by Parliament since 1935, Tony Blair was said to be deeply sceptical about giving the likely new Mayor Ken Livingstone such vital powers over such an important aspect of people’s daily lives.)

So what’s my point? Well, I guess it is simply that, as a national trade body, whilst the temptation may be for us to ‘focus resources’ on devolution in certain ‘key areas’ over the coming years, what I think would be far more beneficial would be for us to help instil a sense of collective endeavour across the country around the ongoing issue of devolution.

I’ve run out of Joe Strummer quotes now, so in closing I will mention someone very similar in tone and manner – George Osborne once remarked in 2015, prior to announcing the Manchester city deal, that: “The old model of trying to run everything in our country from the centre of London is broken. It’s led to an unbalanced economy. It’s made people feel remote from the decisions that affect their lives. It’s not good for our prosperity or our democracy.”

It is very hard to disagree with his sentiment. We all have a vested interest in devolution, regardless of which particular phase or permutation we find ourselves as individual organisations, and especially in reference to our ability to learn from each other. As External Affairs Manager for London, the temptation sometimes may be to say that “devolution doesn’t affect us”. But it has done, and is continuing to do so. It’s time for a national conversation about what works well, what is transferable and what could be done better elsewhere.

I never felt so much alike alike alike…


At the National Housing Federation, we promise to help housing associations influence devolution to create the best possible environment for social housing and your customers. The devolution hub is at the heart of how we will deliver on this.

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