Saturday, 15 November 2014

Housing the 'Northern Powerhouse'

If the general election of 2010 was about localism, the 2015 election promises to be about devolution. If it’s not on the lips of everybody then it’s certainly on the lips of the metropolitan, liberal elite that concerns itself with the future of regional governance. The Conservatives’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’; the five cities’ ‘One North’ plan; Nick Clegg’s ‘Northern Futures’ project; the City Growth Commission’s ‘Unleashing Metro Growth’ report; Labour’s plans for an English Regional Cabinet Committee; and David Higgins’ ‘Rebalancing Britain’ report, are all evidence of a devolution arms race.

"New transport and science and powerful city governance", said George Osborne.

"Better connections between people and jobs is crucial if we want to rebalance the national economy", said Keith Wakefield.

"The next phase in our drive to generate the best ideas for stronger local growth", said Nick Clegg.

'Granting more powers to cities should form an essential part of a new deal for the north', said Jim O'Neill.

"Labour has a radical plan for spreading power and prosperity across England’s city and county regions", said Ed Miliband.

"Improving connectivity is one key factor essential in addressing that gap by raising our productivity, and prosperity, as a country", said David Higgins.

Jobs and growth. Transport and infrastructure. Power and prosperity. There are constant themes here, but something is constantly missing as well, which is mention of the new homes to support the jobs and the growth and the transport and the infrastructure and the power and the prosperity.

'But hang on, Sam', I can hear you say. 'Hasn't Greater Manchester just published "an overarching plan within which the ten local authorities identify and make available land to deliver ambitious strategic priorities?"'. Well, yes, Reader, that is very true, but I am not sure that the word ambitious can legitimately be used to describe the proposed housing requirement.

'But hang on, Sam', I can also hear you say. 'Doesn't the 10,700 homes per annum included in the Spatial Framework represent 1,083 more homes per annum (or 11%) than the cumulative former RSS target?"'. Well, yes, Reader, that is also very true, but historic RSS targets have long-since been confirmed as obsolete in planning terms.

Here comes the science part. The NPPG clearly states that household projections should provide the starting point for housing need. Plan-makers may then consider sensitivity testing, specific to their local circumstances, based on alternative assumptions in relation to demographic projections and household formation rates, migration levels, job numbers and market signals (land prices, house prices, rents, affordability, rate of development and overcrowding).

The assessment of housing need in the Spatial Framework is based solely on the translation of the 2012 Sub-National Population Projection data into households and dwellings. That's it. There is no adjustment is to reflect demographic data, economic evidence or market signals. This despite evidence that supply across Greater Manchester has failed to keep pace with demand and that there are increased levels of over-crowding, rental values and affordability ratios.

In contrast to the narrow assessment of housing need, the consultation document does introduce a range of economic forecasts, but again, analysis of historic job growth, the ambitions of Greater Manchester and the pipeline of major development projects highlights that consideration should be given to more aspirational levels of job growth. Modelling undertaken by NLP indicates that to realise the level of job growth based on the Experian job growth figures (set out in Section 5) would require over 15,000 new homes per annum.

With pantomime season approaching I am going to attempt a tenuous metaphor. It looks as though jobs and growth, the ugly sisters, are going to the 'Devolution Ball', but poor housing looks like being left home alone. The suppression of requirements relative to the number of new jobs being targeted might be expected in more, let's just say, rural, authorities, like Cheshire East, where the priorities are perhaps more, let's just say, local, but the ambition for Manchester, as stated in the Greater Manchester Strategy, is for the city "to become one of the most successful cities in the world".

I would hazard a guess that the most successful cities in the world, if they do undertake any kind of spatial planning, do more than the bare minimum necessary to meet demographic needs. So, if the Spatial Framework is to be, as it could be, a once in a generation opportunity to drive real change, then there should be some genuinely ambitious targets behind the rhetoric.

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