View from the South – it is grim up North?

northern-housing-consortiumThere isn’t one northern housing market. But it concerns me that our words are not cutting through.  Have politicians, civil servants, policy makers and journalists become so lost to the London bubble that their default position in considering the North to look for difficulty and moaning? 

Is the inclination to believe it really is grim up North rather than the understand how we are working to create some fantastic places to live – including thriving city centres – to the extent that a London based company was inundated with applications from staff to leave London and move northwards recognising the affordable, high quality housing offer that can be found in the North?

The NHC Commission for Housing in the North has spent the past few months understanding how housing markets in the North can best support a vibrant economy and the opportunities that the  Northern Powerhouse will deliver. Our 16 expert Commissioners have heard evidence from stakeholders as diverse as the CBI and UK Trade and Investment to Sir Bob Kerslake.  We’ve engaged with NHC members both Housing providers and Local Authorities in a series of excellently attended member engagement meetings.

Throughout this process we have heard some fantastic examples of innovation across the North – from Rent to Buy schemes to approaches to unlocking delivery.  Our members have said they want the North to be bold in our ambition, to be proud of our track record, they recognise the need for collaboration and the opportunities presented by devolution.

Even in this difficult climate people have shown positivity and optimism, which is not the impression you may get if you just read the inside housing article on the Commission report which starts with a depressing sentence and never really recognises the will to collaborate and build on the opportunities from devolution.   Thankfully so many NHC members have engaged with us I’m confident they will see from the report how building on innovation and flexibility will create opportunities for the future. I strongly believe they will feel Tom Miskell, Chair of the Commission speaks with a voice closer to their own ““I believe this interim report demonstrates the very real potential that the housing sector has to support wider efforts to rebalance the UK economy as the Northern Powerhouse drives forward. I was excited and enthused by the quality of the evidence we heard and by the absolute commitment of NHC members to be innovative, committed and creative in tackling the challenges facing housing in the North. They are clearly ready to capitalise on the opportunities we believe lie before us.”

But perhaps this points to a more intransigent problem? For many years we have worked with our members to build a positive relationship with governments of all political hues – we strive to be pragmatic and work to achieve positive solutions. Our strapline for our Northern Housing Summit last year was the North is ready to “lead not plead”.  Thankfully, our recent experience with civil servants and politicians is that they do understand the opportunities present across the North and want to work with us to build upon this platform to ensure we are doing all we can to ensure housing markets and communities are striving, secure, offering opportunity and quality of life.   Our report rightly acknowledges that the North is not a homogenous mass – there are areas which are at risk of overheating, there are cities that are booming, there are rural localities which need to retain young families and there are some places that need continued support to build market confidence. But throughout our Commission to date we’ve seen no sign that confidence is beyond reach – we’re determined to work with our members, with government and other stakeholders to ensure we can demonstrate the value that housing can bring to Northern economies, that there is no shortage of will or lack of ideas to create a strong compelling housing component of the Northern Powerhouse.

Throughout the Commission to date, we have sought not to make this a North – South issue. We have rightly acknowledged the need to tackle the very real housing crisis in London and the South East – indeed part of our rationale in inviting evidence from Sir Bob Kerslake was to explore how the North and South can work together to share innovation, learn from each other, recognising that a vibrant North benefits London and that London can act as the gateway to the North.  We have sought to understand the complexity of northern housing markets (and others) to ensure we can develop solutions that are fit for purpose. We don’t shy away from complexity and sometimes difficult messages but neither should we stand for stereotyping – whether by politicians or journalists.

Charlotte Harrison is Executive Director (Policy and Public Affairs) at the Northern Housing Consortium, which set up the Northern Housing Commission. Read more about the commission’s work here.