Housing-led regeneration is a big issue in British politics, but to read the press or watch the television, you wouldn’t believe it. The condition of housing and the environment on estates was a major issue in many Labour ‘heartland’ seats during the general election. The problems are deep seated and have been compounded by years of under-investment; a failure to focus on changes in local housing markets; a stigmatisation of rented housing; and an unwillingness to define a long-term multi-tenure housing strategy which acknowledges the uniqueness of each region. These issues affect us all, but we continue to place them well down the ladder of policy priorities. It’s time for that to change.
Investment in housing must secure a higher profile in the mainstream approach government is taking to regenerate communities and build a stronger and fairer Britain. A number of key themes need to be pursued to make this happen.
The development of regionally distinct housing strategies will be crucial. These strategies must link to the wider regional regeneration agenda and build on an understanding of the housing market. A one-size fits all, often London-centric, national housing strategy fails to address the changes going on in the balance of supply and demand of homes in many urban areas. Activity to tackle large scale collapse in demand in many Midlands and Northern towns will, by its very nature, be different from the approaches needed to tackle shortage of homes in the South East or rural communities across the country. A regional and sub-regional perspective is needed.
In some areas, housing market failure in the public and private sector is so dramatic that existing regeneration regimes are not effective in dealing with the situation. New investment models and delivery vehicles are needed, such as Housing Market Renewal Areas, proposed by the Centre of Urban and Regional Studies. These areas would focus on large towns and cities where market failure is occurring and would ensure that housing investment is the centrepiece of regeneration activity and not an optional extra. Alongside these larger intervention models we need new processes to tackle problems in areas not currently targeted by the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit. A Housing Investment Pilot Fund is needed to pump prime work with local agencies and communities to develop innovative solutions and investment vehicles in these areas.
Targets for the development of affordable housing need to be re-examined. Estimates suggest that 80,000 to 100,000 new homes are needed every year to meet existing demand. However, planning powers are not being used effectively enough to secure them. Specific targets for the construction of rented homes must be written into the development plan of each local authority. This will need a re-examination of the definition of affordable housing being used nationally. If a developer builds a new industrial estate they should also consider the implications of housing people who might work there. The development of mixed tenure estates, predominantly on brownfield land, must remain a government priority.
For too long in Britain social rented housing has been stigmatised as a tenure of last resort. Its very name suggests so. This has been compounded by inflexible allocation policies and poor local management. We need to create sustainable communities by giving local people a greater say in the type of accommodation made available in their area, through refurbishment and development programmes. We also need to give them a say in the structure of local allocation policies and management models. Allocation policies need to be transparent, but also realistic in terms of the local housing market. Management models need to give people a stake in the success of their area.
The energy for housing strategy shown by Lord Falconer and Sally Keeble is laudable. We now need to see the issues outlined above rise up the Cabinet agenda. If they do, we will reap the electoral rewards in ‘heartland’ Labour seats.
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