‘Time to level-up’ on housing and planning capacity in the North of England
On 20 February the Northern Housing Consortium published their report, Local Authority Housing and Planning Capacity in the North of England, which is based on research undertaken by the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence. In this blog, lead author, Dr Stephen Hincks, gives an overview of the key findings.
Since 2010, successive governments have cut funding to local government in England as part of a package of austerity measures. These measures have yielded real-term reductions in central allocations of local authority funding of 49% and spending power of 29% between 2010-11 and 2017-18. Our recent research, funded in part by the Northern Housing Consortium (NHC), explores how net expenditure on housing, planning and development services has changed in the North of England compared to the rest of the country over this period. The research revealed that in relative terms, average net expenditure per local authority in the north fell by -54% for housing and by -65% for planning and development services. In comparison, average net spend per local authority in the rest of England stood at -34% for housing services and -50% for planning and development services. In short, local authorities in the North of England have been disproportionately impacted by reductions in spending since 2010, leading to significant loss of housing and planning capacity over that time.
At a regional level, the East of England, London and South East England recorded the lowest relative reductions in net expenditure on both housing and planning and development services. The North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber along with the East and West Midlands recorded the highest relative reductions in both service areas over the same period. Yet it was in the north – where reliance on central government funding tends to be greater and tax raising streams (e.g. council tax) tend to be less profitable than in many parts of the South – that the combined impacts of housing and planning service cuts were felt most acutely.
Readers might well ask here whether these trends in funding for housing and planning services are simply a product of resources following development pressures and opportunities to where they are most needed. The problem with this perspective is that it simply reinforces the overbearing dominance of questions of housing supply and private sector affordability when it has been recognised that “…there is geographic variation in household growth and housing need, with more need in London and the south of England”. At the same time, since “…the rapid rundown of Area Based Grants” under the Coalition government, issues of place-based regeneration and the prevalence of physical problems with existing housing stock have been relegated to the footnotes of national policy debates, despite these being long-standing challenges facing the north. Indeed, evidence submitted to the 2016 Commission for Housing in the North lamented the lack of policy attention given to: the maintenance and refurbishment of existing stock; lack of interest in retrofit; challenges associated with tackling persistent low value; obsolete, empty or unfit stock; fuel poverty and homelessness; or in addressing poor standards at the bottom-end of the private-rented market.
Set against this context, the consensus that emerged from our case study interviews was that the austerity drive since 2010 has fundamentally reshaped the capacity of local authorities in the north to deliver services in housing, planning and development. While the case study interviewees revealed a general acceptance that reduced capacity in staffing and resources, compared to the pre-austerity era, was the “new normal”, there was concern that institutional restructuring, reductions in staffing numbers and a loss of strategic leadership had taken their toll on the housing and planning services. The challenging austerity context was further reflected in the day-to-day running of housing, planning and development services that included slower delivery of housing and planning outcomes than anticipated by external partners or demanded by central government with current capacity described variably as being “stretched”, “under strain”, “challenging”, “just about manageable” or “operating on a skeleton model”.
Yet equally, there was a sense that local government was being underutilised or by-passed in efforts to address issues like climate change or even the housing crisis, where in the case of the latter, delivery was seen to have been reduced to a numbers and targets game. This was reflected through the case study interviewees where mechanisms such as selective licensing and planning fee reform were seen to offer some benefits in maintaining current capacity but which were often constrained in the difficult market contexts faced by many local authorities in the north. Here the austerity-drive in the eyes of many interviewees had simply turned housing and planning into reactive service delivery agents of local government at the expense of their potential visionary and convening roles in shaping the places where we want to live.
Against this backdrop then, it is hoped that our research stimulates discussion over what the implications of changes to housing and planning capacity might mean for the future of the North under increasingly challenging political-economic, social and environmental circumstances. In short, it illustrates the scale of the challenge facing the current Government in delivering on its promises of ‘levelling up’ the country after a decade of austerity that has disproportionality impacted councils in the north.
Dr Stephen Hincks is a Reader in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Sheffield.
 We use Local Authority Revenue Expenditure and Financing statistics for the financial years 2010-11 or 2018-19 (General Fund allocations only).
 Defined as the North West, North East and Yorkshire and the Humber regions
 Where housing and planning service cuts were above the national average when compared to the rest of England.
Date: February 25, 2020 10:07 am
Author(s): Stephen Hincks
Categorised in: Economy