The voice of region

March 7th, 2019 by Mark Henderson in Mark Henderson, Home Group CEO, blog

The North was a powerhouse once, what’s to stop it being so again? Quite a bit as it turns out. Government for one.

Historians are at pains to tell us; ‘if you want to know where you’re going you need to know where you’ve been. I’m not one for looking back particularly, but it is worth a glance now and then.

Take the North in days gone by, for instance. Between 1870 and 1910 the North (the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside and the North West) delivered, on average, £460m (28%) of the UK’s GDP per annum, while London and its outlying areas contributed £290m (17%).

Things are a tad different today. In terms of GVA as of 2016, The North contributes £325bn to the UK economy, compared to London, the south east and south west where it’s close to £780bn.

That’s some shift – one that needs to be redressed.

Looking back to the turn of the 20th Century should give people heart - the North had the infrastructure, knowledge, skills, housing, people and culture that made the rest of Europe take note.

It was a powerhouse once, what’s to stop it being so again? Quite a bit as it turns out. Government for one. 

Recent Governments have inadvertently put down hurdles, barriers and stingers which are severely blocking the region’s path to progress.

Take housing, for example. Issues like the skewed Objectively Assessed Need formula, which favours areas of low affordability as the key criteria for investment, needs resolved. There’s a similar challenge with Homes England’s Strategic Partnership investment, which while targeting areas outside London, still uses low affordability as its key criterion.

The Government’s policy which focuses on supply (based on trends), at the expense of what is already there, is another issue. There are many opportunities across the country in terms of regeneration but it’s difficult to make this stack up financially due to lower demand and values.

A shift is needed in the fundamentals for planning infrastructure – in housing as well as transport - from the current ‘predict and provide’ to a ‘vision and validate’.

The Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which this week set out ten new recommendations, can play its part in helping shift momentum.

Its proposed £250m Housing Investment Fund is heading in the right direction, but once again highlights the need for a policy focused on rebalancing – moving away from rewarding prosperity with prosperity.

Speeding up rail connectivity improvements, with the goal of 2033 completion to coincide with HS2, is welcomed. It would speed up economic growth, but it does require faster housing delivery, which would need Government support, particularly in terms of targets, and in overcoming market failures such as prohibitive costs of remediating brownfield land in the North. 

The ten recommendations are welcome and should be influential in shaping the Government’s refreshed Northern Powerhouse Strategy, which is published later this year.

Before it’s published it seems there’s one issue that needs resolving. One that only those in the North can resolve.

Homes for the North and Transport for the North recently laid out their plans and asks to help redress the imbalance. Plans that are well thought through, ambitious but realistic, and certainly achievable.

Other equally excellent plans are coming out of the North’s regions from different groups and bodies. But, it seems progress isn’t as speedy as it should be. Maybe because they are mostly working in silos.

What the North doesn’t seem to have at present is an overarching body that drives these excellent plans, and harnesses the passion and commitment that underpins them.

One of the key asks in the Homes for the North Charter is ‘the establishment of a powerful pan-northern body as a united voice for the North, charged with ensuring that housing and infrastructure are planned together’.

As a committed member of Homes for the North I fully support that ask. But should we go further?

If the North is going to become a powerful and influential region then it has to ask itself is it as united as it needs to be? And is its voice as strong as its vision and aims?

The answer may well be no. Therefore, does the proposed pan-northern body need to be widened to provide clarity, consistency and increase its intensity and influence in order to achieve its objectives?

If so, it needs to include leaders from business, industry, enterprise, transport, housing, education, politics, culture, and of course the new super mayors leading the combined authorities.

Should we add the media? Too often I think we talk about ‘using’ the media, when we should be talking about them being a part of the process. They live and work in the North and are as equally passionate about the region as everyone else.

Don’t get me wrong, we all have our issues with them from time to time. But for the past 20 years, in the North East for example, the Newcastle Journal has been a strong lobbyist for the region.

The have pushed on funding issues and the North-South divide – be it the Barnett Formula, infrastructure issues like dualling the A1 and A66 or pushing for increased social mobility.

The likes of the Journal, and others, have shown a real passion for the North. Maybe we should embrace that.

Independently, there is a lot of good work going on in the North; in housing; transport; industry; business; education and so on.

But as a cohesive pan-northern body, with clarity of direction and consistency, it could be a lot easier to dismantle those hurdles, barriers and stingers and clear the road for the promising journey ahead.

And, it will give the historians something to look back on.

This post first appeared in Inside Housing March 2019 Why we need a cohesive pan-Northern body.