WITH all the talk of the north-south divide, it may seem like a case of never the twain shall meet, but as a major housing conference in Leeds was told – they need each other.
That may be a truth some on either side of the divide may not be keen on hearing, but it was one eagerly accepted by the delegates to Homes for the North’s (H4N) very first conference, held at the Hilton Leeds City Centre hotel last week.
“There’s a lot more common cause with London than you might think.” Lord Kerslake
The venue was packed out, with 300 delegates – industry leaders, civic chiefs and more – from across the North of England attending to hear a line-up of high-powered speakers.
These included keynote speakers Lord Bob Kerslake, chair of the UK2070 Commission on spatial inequality; Kevin Hollinrake, the Conservative Party’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Thirsk & Malton, and former member of the Housing, Communities & Local Government Select Committee; and John Cridland, chair of housing provider Home Group, and chair of Transport for the North (TfN).
The line-up of industry expertise and political clout didn’t end there; panel discussions and themed break-out sessions offered insights into some key topics relevant to the economic revival of the North.
Speakers in these sessions included Salford city mayor, Paul Dennett; Henri Murrison, director of the Northern Housing Partnership; Steve Coffey, chief executive of Torus; Fiona Howie, chief executive of the Town & Country Planning Association; Katie Teasdale, National Housing Federation; and many more.
“The south needs a stronger North,” Carol Matthews, H4N’s chair and the chief executive of Riverside, said while introducing the event. “Our mission is 70,000 homes so that we can do our part to deliver.”
Beyond that, she said, the region’s housing needs to align with infrastructure ; connectivity is another major theme, linking up the towns and cities and the regions of the Northern Powerhouse, so that it can more effectively work in concert, not only to make its case, but to realise its potential.
Transport, consequently, was a big part of the discussion, which might at first glance seem odd for a housing conference, but the two together are part and parcel of powering up the North. Homes, of course, were at the core of the gathering; it was after all about putting housing at the heart of Northern growth.
Across the sessions, the audience heard what the North was up against. More importantly they heard – and had the opportunity to discuss – potential solutions and strategies to help deliver the North’s ambitions, with the evidence to back it up. Admittedly, it won’t be easy, but nor is the task an impossible dream.
Whether it was the spatial inequality between regions, discussed by Lord Kerslake as he summarised the reports of the UK2070 Commission, or the disparity in investment that has seen funding targeted at more affluent areas, to the detriment of poorer neighbourhoods – an imbalance that has seen the North lose out on funding from some key Government funding streams – there was plenty to digest.
Lord Kerslake referred to H4N and its conference as a “terrific initiative” that “demonstrates the power and potential of housing associations when they work together”. This was a reflection of the North working more widely together in common cause, on transport, on the economy, but he suggested that it needs to go further still.
“I would argue you should also make common cause with London as well,” he said. “There’s a lot more common cause with London than you might think, and I would argue [you should] advance your case strongly by making that common cause.”
London and the South East has a stake in this, he suggested during his speech. That’s because the capital and its hinterlands have their own problems born of regional inequality. The economic imbalance between the regions creates “enormous pressure” there – higher house prices, denser living conditions, longer commutes, environmental degradation; the price of success in this regard is expensive misery.
“Nobody wins,” Lord Kerslake said, adding: “The South needs the North to succeed.”
The ground may be shifting towards a recognition of their commonality, however. As he went on to say: “Amongst the different issues, and the very different views that are going on in this election, there’s some common themes… I think this provides a real opportunity for the North.”
Lord Kerslake urged his audience to “seize the political moment”. “It’s very contested, it’s very difficult, but the response to both of our reports was exceptionally strong,” he added. “The wind is behind us, and I do think now there is an almost unstoppable pressure for change. You’ve done the analysis, we’ve done the analysis, others have done the analysis; we now need to take this evidence and make the argument to whoever wins this election.”
Introducing keynote speaker, Kevin Hollinrake, host Nigel Wilson, chief executive of Sunderland’s Gentoo Group, picked up on the point: “The south needs the North as much as the North needs the South,” he said. “This is a whole country issue.”
“We need to build houses that people can actually afford to live,” said Hollinrake. “One of my roles in Parliament was the All Party Group for Poverty, and we know from our work there that 14 million people in the UK live in poverty; about 3.5 million of those people it’s purely a result of housing costs. There is a massive economic and social opportunity in dealing with this issue. This, to my mind, is where Homes for the North comes in.”
He went on to reiterate a commitment to home ownership but conceded there was a need for rental homes too as part of the mix. “We need to look at owner occupation, it’s not just about building more affordable homes for rent,” he said. “We’ve got to build more affordable homes to purchase… but not at the expense of affordable homes for rent. We need both.”
In a packed day of speeches, panel discussions and breakout workshops, a wide range of issues were covered. There was plenty of scope for networking over a coffee and lunch, and a busy exhibition of key supply chain partners.
“If we are going to tackle the housing crisis we need to start building, in my opinion, more social rent.” Paul Dennett
In the morning, delegates heard an expert panel discuss the hurdles and challenges involved in rebalancing the national economy. Afterwards they were able to take part in the discussion in a lively question and answer session.
In the afternoon’s panel discussion, delegates heard about the role of housing in a transformed North. The session was as much about the importance of placemaking, as it was delivering homes. Salford Mayor Paul Dennett, meanwhile, talked about the role of the state in all this, making a case for its entrepreneurial role. He also had a key message for the housing providers among his audience.
“Usefully, the latest iteration of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) does talk about the importance of social rent, and it does include social rents now in the Government’s national definition in the NPPF of affordable housing, so that is certainly welcome,” he said.
“Homes England now are allocating grant for the rounds of social rent, but… councils and housing associations need to start asking for that grant, because there are not many applications coming in, I understand. People are favouring affordable rents over social rents, obviously it’s a new thing, but if we are going to tackle the housing crisis we need to start building, in my opinion, more social rent.”
Breakout sessions offered a choice menu of topics. In the morning, modern methods of construction were placed under the spotlight, while in a parallel workshop, delegates heard and discussed issues around skills and training. In the afternoon, the choice was between a discussion about regenerating communities, and the delivery of more sustainable homes to help tackle climate change.
The final keynote speech of the day was provided by John Cridland, chair of Transport for the North; last but certainly not least. He talked about the connectivity between transport and housing – “two key pillars of the Northern Powerhouse”.
“Transport for the North may transform Northern infrastructure, but it will not deliver the Northern Powerhouse on its own,” he said. “And Homes for the North may achieve the quality and scale of homes we need in the North of England, but that will not deliver the Northern Powerhouse on its own. It’s how they are joined together.”
And that was very much what the day was all about: making the connections.
The Homes for the North Conference: Homes at the heart of Northern Growth was delivered in partnership with Crosby Associates Media – publisher of Northern Housing magazine. The event was sponsored by npa24:7, Rentplus, Efficiency North, Consortium Procurement Construction, Ark Consultancy, and switchee
Main Image: Host Nigel Wilson, chief executive of Gentoo, welcomes delegates to the show.