Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by North West Housing Forum (GRI 35)


  This document is submitted to the Select Committee on behalf of the North West Housing Forum. The Forum represents the views of housing providers in the North West of England, and membership comprises local housing authorities, registered social landlords, and representatives of the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the House Builders Federation, Housing Federation North, the Local Government Association, and the Northern Housing Consortium. Some of our members will be submitting their own views in detail to the Committee—this submission is intended to briefly suggest some more general lessons from across the North West. The North West of England is a diverse region, stretching from Crewe to the Scottish border, and including large rural and semi-rural areas as well as the more familiar industrial and post-industrial urban areas. Consequently, there are few, if any, Government regeneration initiatives which have not been applied somewhere in the North West.


  Because of the nature of the problems faced by many communities in the North West, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between housing and regeneration activity—for example, the Housing Corporation report that 97 per cent of their 2001-02 Approved Development Programme in the North West was spent on what they define as Regeneration schemes. With growing recent acceptance of the language of housing market renewal, housing strategies in the North West increasingly seek to work toward sustainable neighbourhoods, linking investment in housing to parallel action on improving local services and the physical environment, reducing crime, understanding local markets and helping to reduce social exclusion. In rural areas, the need for affordable housing provision is tied particularly closely to the need to sustain local employment and economic development. Housing agencies, particularly registered social landlords (RSLs) and local authority housing departments, find themselves closely involved in community consultation and capacity building, "planning for real" events, etc since they are often the agency with the skills and infrastructure to support this kind of activity.


  Many of the areas now benefiting from the latest regeneration initiatives have repeatedly received attention from previous programmes. While this is far from being a universal truth, it is sufficiently so to suggest that Government's past interventions have not achieved success in producing real, sustainable improvements in the relative fortunes of some of our poorer communities. This was acknowledged by Government when it published "A New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal" in January 2001:

    "Departments have worked at cross purposes on problems that required a joined-up response. Too much reliance was put on short-term regeneration initiatives in a handful of areas and too little was done about the failure of mainstream public services in hundreds of neighbourhoods."

  The issues arising from this can be categorised as follows:

1.  The machinery of regeneration

  It is now accepted that successful regeneration needs to be a comprehensive, joined up exercise. Experience has shown the folly of investing in physical housing stock improvements when those living in the properties still have to tackle problems of crime, poor educational services, lack of healthcare facilities and poor employment prospects. Conversely, one of the key lessons of the "M62 study"[24] is that creating employment opportunities without tackling the other problems of deprived neighbourhoods often leads to newly better off households moving away, further fuelling the exclusion of those remaining. But it's far from clear that the practical task of joining up all of these aspects (and others) is significantly easier now than it was five or 10 years ago. The number of "players", even just within the public sector, who should be expected to contribute to a comprehensive regeneration partnership is almost endless.

  Taking a step back to look at the structures engaged in regeneration in its broadest sense, the complexity is clear. At national level, we have the traditional government "silos" with an interest in regeneration—ODPM (itself a collection of silos—housing, planning, etc.), DTI, English Partnerships, the Housing Corporation and the Countryside Agency. Alongside these we have units such as the Social Exclusion Unit, Neighbourhood Renewal Unit and the Urban Policy Unit. At regional level there are Government Offices, Regional Development Agencies and Regional Assemblies. All of these organisations (and more) produce strategies and guidance, expect to be able to influence or lead those acting at local and sub-regional level, require monitoring of outcomes, reporting of outputs and targets to be met.

  Streamlining of these structures to any significant degree is an unrealistic expectation in the short term, so we must seek ways of making them work more effectively. Experience suggests a number of features which might improve the effectiveness of regeneration activity:

    —  Comprehensive approaches rather than multiple, small, single-themed, short-term, centrally-controlled initiatives coming down each governmental "silo".

    —  Relatively few, relatively high level aims or targets, with the flexibility for those leading each scheme to tackle local circumstances as they see fit within broad parameters.

    —  Clear leadership and decision structures, including strong community involvement and influence.

    —  Proper understanding of the needs of an area before an initiative is designed and implemented, rather than simply trying out the latest flavour of the month idea because some money goes along with it.

    —  Emphasis on monitoring changes in the target area rather than micro-management based on process measures. There also needs to be monitoring of the impact of improvements in one area on surrounding neighbourhoods or districts, to ensure we are not simply moving deprivation around.

    —  Boundaries set according to the scale and extent of the problems being addressed, rather than to reflect the administrative accident of existing boundaries.

    —  Effective pressure on other agencies to bend their mainstream activity to maximise the impact of the programme as a whole—our understanding of the cross-benefits of investment in (say) restructuring the housing and environment of an area for health, police, social services is weak. The principle behind the Invest to Save Budget is a sound one which could perhaps be more broadly applied. Many local authorities now routinely examine their service provision in terms of broader impacts on neighbourhoods within their area, but there is much less evidence that other public services adopt the same approach.

    —  Clear mechanisms for ringing alarm bells and taking appropriate action if the activities of one agency/initiative/authority/Department are adversely impacting on those of another.

    —  Strategy development, planning and monitoring activity appropriate to the scale of the project as a whole—resources going into bureaucracy, payments to consultants and complex assessment procedures rather than delivering change for the better are often (rightly) a huge concern to residents.

2.  The tools for the job

  Whatever the framework set by Government for regeneration, local authorities and their partners in regeneration need effective tools to allow them to make real progress. For example, the North West Housing Forum has been part of the consortium arguing for the establishment of the Housing Market Renewal Fund, which we see as a welcome and crucial addition to the equipment, addressing many of the points made above in terms of "machinery". But declaring Market Renewal Areas will only work if this high level strategy, with broad partnerships, "real" boundaries, programmes based on thorough research of each area's housing markets and comprehensive approach are accompanied by:

    —  Sufficient money to get the job done. In the case of market renewal, this will need to be committed over a period of at least 10 years and probably more. This kind of commitment from Government is exceptional, but provides better long term value for money, not least since it provides much greater confidence for potential private sector investors.

    —  Adequate powers and mechanisms to deliver change on the ground. One crucial example in the case of HMRF is an effective CPO system, something Government has been reviewing in various ways for several years now. The Committee have previously pointed out the need for a replacement of the gap funding scheme. New tools are being developed in areas such as equity release, equity sharing, helping homeowners trapped by negative equity and so on, and the recent Planning Green Paper contained potentially significant new mechanisms. Government needs to be quicker on its feet in assisting the development and implementation of new approaches to regeneration if it is to deliver on some of its own commitments regarding neighbourhood renewal. For example, the Housing Corporation has helped to fund a number of "New Tools" pilot projects in the North of England. One project was a pilot of a shared appreciation mortgage product, designed to enable some of the value tied up in existing property to be released to fund improvements to benefit the (volunteer) homeowners. This has been subjected to lengthy, extremely detailed scrutiny over two years by both Financial Services Authority and Office of Fair Trading officials, despite the clear (publicly funded) intention of the project being to try out the approach on a small scale to see if it worked. There seemed no opportunity for Housing Corporation or DTLR/ODPM officials to persuade their colleagues that "joined-up" government might justify a lighter regulatory touch for what was a small-scale experimental project.

    —  A pool of people with the skills, knowledge and experience to make the system deliver the outcomes we are all seeking. The complexity of the business of regeneration makes the core group of practitioners with the talent to bring about real change a vital resource—"key workers" to borrow a phrase from a slightly different context. We need to do more to understand what the key skills actually are, how they can be developed informally and formally. Alongside that are what we might call related trades—architects, engineers, construction workers, housing managers, community workers, etc.—all of whom have significant roles in delivering different types of regeneration programme. Shortages of some of these groups are known to exist—this may well act as a brake on the effectiveness of regeneration activity if it is not dealt with.


  In this region, as in others, there are many successes attributable to the Government's past and current regeneration initiatives. We have put forward a number of ideas for improvement, each of which will have greater or lesser importance according to the varying aims of regeneration activity in different parts of the North West and elsewhere. Many of these are already being reflected in parts of Government policy and activity, but there is more to be achieved.

24   Changing Housing Markets and Urban Regeneration in the M62 Corridor, Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, University of Birmingham. Back

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