Deepening devolution: what’s in it for housing?
Following the Spring Budget, Dr Gareth Young explores the new trailblazer programme in more detail, focusing on how it will impact housing and regeneration in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, as well as its potential to bring positive change to other areas of local governance.
The Spring Budget on 15 March 2023 announced the Trailblazer Devolution Deals, two major deals for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).
These ‘trailblazers’ mark a step change for the two regions, giving them more power and control than ever before over local decisions. Significantly, the new deals will give the two mayors a departmental-style single budget arrangement, rather than the previous model where MCAs would have to bid for individual pots of money from across different departments – what WMCA mayor Andy Street has referred to as the ‘begging bowl culture.’
One of the main criticisms of the devolution deals and the MCA model to date has been that mayors can find themselves hamstrung, unable to exercise complete policy freedom because they’ve needed Whitehall’s agreement, or had limited ability to reallocate budgets across departmental silos or the few revenue streams they fully control. The hope is that this new trailblazer programme will go some way to redressing this, giving a more appropriate power balance to local regions to deliver on their ambition, and the ambition of the government and their levelling up agenda.
What’s new with the ‘trailblazers’
In many ways, the trailblazers are enhanced versions of the deals that preceded them, building on the mayors’ existing autonomy and responsibility. The trailblazers are particularly important for housing and regeneration, which require the longer-term funding afforded under the new deals.
Within both trailblazer deals, GMCA and WMCA will receive a devolved (£150m and £100m respectively) brownfield fund to drive placemaking, housing, commercial development, and urban regeneration. This budget will be deployed within the spending review period, with ambitions for GMCA to deliver 7,000 homes and 4,000 in WMCA.
Both MCAs will have Strategic Place Partnerships (SPPs) with Homes England. In Greater Manchester, where the SPP is already supporting the delivery of housing across the region, this deal will be built upon, including plans to establish a working group on how to deliver “truly affordable net zero homes.” There are also plans in GMCA to work jointly to deploy a range of levers to help deliver place-led regeneration, including developing programmes and partnerships with the likes of Network Rail.
Gaining control over affordable housing
Under the new trailblazer deal, both the GMCA and WMCA will receive commitment from the government to set its own strategic direction for the Affordable Homes Programme (AHP). AHP is the government’s key mechanism for delivering affordable housing in England through grant funding. The trailblazer means that affordable homes funding benefits from local leadership whilst still retaining the benefits of support and relationships with Homes England – the first time this has happened outside London. A part of this first phase of the trailblazer also means that where the MCA believes that proposed funding decisions by Homes England are inconsistent with the strategic direction set, the MCA will have the right to challenge and escalate the decision to DLUHC.
Moving forward, the future phases of the trailblazer approach, which will begin in any successor programme, will give the MCAs more flexibility to direct Homes England to identify and bring forward sites for affordable housing and to work and partner with providers.
What does the future hold?
Having explored the MCA model in more detail, particularly through a housing lens, to get a better sense of what innovation and opportunities have arisen, there appears to be a fairly consistent message that the MCA model of devolved government and housing remains under-researched and under-evaluated in many ways.
Both through existing reviews and evidence of devolution in England, and from some anecdotal conversations with those involved in MCAs across England, there’s no denying that the principles of the devolution deals, in their many nuanced forms, are a good thing. While the precise evidence as to whether there’s been housing policy change generated as a direct result remains to be seen – though this may be something we have overlooked and would be keen to see any work that highlights this – the deepening of devolution to the two MCAs feels like a positive step for regions outside London.
As James Prestwick, Head of Policy at the Chartered Institute of Housing said to Inside Housing, “Why reinvent the wheel, when you have a model in London that already does a good job?”
We know that many of the positive attitudes towards MCAs rest on their ability to bring together and coordinate local actors, including bridging the gap between a monolithic central government and people in communities. MCAs can increase accountability and allow local needs to be given more priority. It is encouraging to see that the trailblazer CAs are across the north and midlands of England, and the powers and funding being provided feel like a particularly good fit with some of the challenges and ambitions facing housing and communities across these regions.
Good things can come from this model of working, and the promise of some real autonomy over budgets to achieve housing delivery and regeneration is an exciting time for anyone in housing studies, policy, and practice in England.
Date: March 27, 2023 3:42 pm
Author(s): Gareth Young
Categorised in: Governance