7 June 2021

Levelling up is a blank canvas. This is its political strength, as a space for people to fill with their own priorities, as well as a practical challenge to turn it into policy. Social housing must be ready to enter this space, and grasp this challenge, as an opportunity for our customers.

A political realignment is underway. For the first time in a generation, the main two political parties are vying for votes in many ‘left behind’ areas, where we happen to have many homes and lots of customers. If we cannot turn this situation to the advantage of our customers, we are in the wrong game.

Housing can make levelling up real
Homes for the North has commissioned research on levelling up to support its submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review. Focus groups and opinion polls have taken place in some of the areas that will help to decide the next general election.

Early results suggest that voters are not yet identifying with the phrase levelling up. Few are familiar with it and those who are don’t identify with it. Notably, investment in better housing came through as one way to make levelling up real to people, by improving the look and feel of their hometowns.

Importantly, voters are unhappy with a key principle of current housing policy; funding for new homes being focused on net additions to housing stock, rather than on improving or replacing old homes. It is also notable that the tide is going out on the household formation projections found at the bottom of the various methods for assessing how many new homes are needed.

We must make the most of a situation where public opinion, in key political battlegrounds, supports a shift towards funding the renewal of ageing housing stock.

Investing in renewal gives a great return
We need to convince the government that a place-based approach to housing renewal will deliver many things they value: more homeowners, less carbon, more economic activity. Our sector is a big lever they should be pulling to deliver these results. It helps that this will often be in the areas needed to win the next general election.

Homes for the North’s Spending Review submission includes original research on a broad view of return on investment that captures the benefits of housing renewal. Importantly, this return is maximised by balancing spending on new homes with spending on improving and replacing old homes, to a greater extent than policy currently allows.

For those of us in the North, we need to remember that this is not ‘Northern Powerhouse: the sequel’. Levelling up is driven by different geography and themes - more about towns, potentially more about housing, but less about cities and big transport infrastructure and not just about the North.

Permission to speak
In the current political climate, and faced with the realities of ageing stock, our investment priorities in the years ahead will be about homes that are safe, secure, green and healthy. Meanwhile, a policy focus on net additionality seems increasingly out of place with the spirit of the age. Voters seem to think so and I imagine government will eventually catch up.

But the elephant in the room is the quality of some of the homes we provide. Basing a case for public investment in improving or replacing homes on need will be poorly received – we will be expected first to put our own houses in order. Unless we do that, our permission to speak in this area will be undermined.

Equally important though is to build our case around the opportunity to make levelling up real for people, by investing in existing housing to create homes fit for the future, which people will love to buy, rent and build their lives in.

Bronwen Rapley, Chief Executive, Onward Homes and Chair of Liverpool City Region Housing Associations will be joining us at the National Housing Summit – Special Edition on Tuesday 19 October on the session “From locking down to levelling up.”

Bronwen Rapley

Bronwen Rapley, Chief Executive, Onward Homes and Chair of Liverpool City Region Housing Associations

Since 2016, Bronwen has spearheaded the creation of Onward Homes from five separate housing associations, building a united organisation committed to the customers and communities it serves across the North West.

Under Bronwen’s leadership, Onward has achieved top governance (G1) and financial (V1) ratings from the Regulator and secured a top A1 (Stable) credit rating, ahead of a successful bond issue to support delivery of an ambitious Business Plan. Looking to the future, her priority for Onward is to work with customers to build thriving communities, supported by the security of good quality, green homes and places.

Bronwen has worked in housing and regeneration for 30 years, initially as a solicitor and then by delivering a number of large regeneration projects in the North West. Prior to joining Onward, Bronwen led the investigation and enforcement team at the Regulator of Social Housing.

Making the most of the levelling up opportunity