The new metropolitan mayors who are being elected in the UK in May will wield significant power. But can they do any better than their colleagues in Westminster when it comes to tackling poverty? Housing is perhaps one area where the new mayors will be able to make their mark.
Two years ago, researchers found that there was “little consideration of social or environmental policy” in the 38 city regional economic plans they reviewed. And further research in 2016 showed that growth is not enough to secure falls in poverty. But since then, the government has struck devolution deals with many city regions. This has enabled those areas to articulate a vision and argue for the freedoms, flexibilities and funding necessary to realise it. This provides new opportunities for city regions and the metro mayors to use these powers to tackle poverty head on. So what exactly can these new city regional bodies do to have an impact on tackling poverty?
In our study, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we assessed the extent to which devolved institutions were using their new housing and planning capacities to meet poverty reduction objectives.
The study found that the interest in more “inclusive” growth has yet to be translated into firm strategies and policies for housing and planning designed explicitly to support poverty reduction. Instead, the primary focus is on increasing housing supply to attract the skilled workers needed to deliver growth.
But we also concluded that city regions have significant opportunities to ensure their ambitious growth targets include the delivery of new and genuinely affordable housing and a better deal for increasingly marginalised private renters.
Here are ten ways that city regions can use devolution to support poor households in housing and planning policy, increase the stock of genuinely affordable housing and improve conditions in the private rented sector.
Combined authorities should use new planning powers – including the power to make new city regional plans – to make clear statements about the role of genuinely affordable housing in future housing developments.
Local authorities with the capacity to build affordable housing should get the funding they need to do so. Cross-boundary partnerships between city regions will open up possibilities to pool or trade the capacity within Housing Revenue Accounts so individual local authorities don’t max out their borrowing limits.
City regions need to dig deep and go far in deploying the land resources that they have available. This includes disposing of land at discounted rates to support affordable housing delivery.
City regions need to use devolution discussions to put in place a regeneration strategy for their areas. Grant funding will be critical in unlocking brownfield sites which are expensive to develop. City regions could go even further to ensure full alignment of transport, infrastructure and service investment to develop sustainable new communities and not just housing estates.
“Use it or lose it” measures, including compulsory purchase and levying charges on undeveloped sites, might unlock stalled projects where planning permission has been granted but where developers are not taking action.
City regions could set up non-profit lettings agencies to drive up quality in the unregulated private rental sector – where only voluntary reforms have so far been promised by the government.
Local authorities have insufficient incentives to enforce housing laws and maintain quality because revenues are paid directly to the Treasury. City regions could negotiate the right to keep fines and reinvest them in enforcing housing standards.
In some poor quality local rental markets it may make sense to negotiate with government to administer housing benefit more flexibly. The Local Housing Allowance rates could be set by reference to standards, with higher payments going to better landlords.
The political challenges of securing cross-boundary cooperation are all too real. But for metro mayors there is a distinct prize. Housing-related poverty is a local issue that will not go away on its own and smart mayors will get capital from distinguishing themselves from central government ineffectiveness in tackling the housing question.
The city regional political conversation must begin to articulate a convincing narrative beyond the current myopia on housing growth. Whitehall’s sole fixation on numbers is wrong but is being copied elsewhere. City regions can tackle the problem head on.
Our work has shown that there are huge challenges to come for the city regions. Most notably, those areas that need the most help to cut poverty may be left to get on with the job on their own, without the political capital and financial resources they need. But there is a good deal to be hopeful about, too. The opportunities for new metro mayors to respond to the issues facing towns and cities are great. And it can set them apart from the Westminster pack.