Rob Loughenbury is the lead officer for Homes for the North (H4N), an alliance of developing housing associations campaigning for policies that will deliver more and better homes in Northern England, and Director of Strategy at Onward Homes.
Levelling Up. ‘A big idea in search of a policy’. I’ve never understood why some say this as a criticism. Surely it is a better starting point than having a policy in search of a big idea?
There is clearly work to do on defining and delivering Levelling Up before we see its benefits enjoyed by people, families and communities. But the clock is ticking on the next election and it is increasingly clear that voter experience of Levelling Up is a big theme.
This is why Homes for the North (H4N) commissioned opinion research, undertaken by Public First, into how housing and place features in public perceptions of Levelling Up.
We found that people support the principles of Levelling Up, albeit with a dash of scepticism about delivery. But the key finding is that people say visible investment in homes, neighbourhoods and high streets is a great way to make it real to them. It goes a long way towards defining their pride in the place where they live.
Our research included opinion polling and focus groups drawn from different parts of England. It was notable that Levelling Up is popular everywhere but for different reasons. In places facing bigger social and economic challenges, it means better housing and high streets. In places that are doing relatively well already, it means building new homes where there is greater need for investment.
80:20: the policy that makes Levelling Up impossible
So what would a Levelling Up policy for more homes in better places look like?
A good place to start is that it would not look anything like what we currently have. The under-publicised 80:20 rule results in Northern England being unable to access 80% per cent of key Homes England funding streams. The rule is a silent assassin of a spatial strategy that actively works against Levelling Up. Too few people seem to realise it even exists, which is why we did this research previously.
Most damaging is that 80:20 is applied to Housing Infrastructure Funding. Only four of the 72 local authorities in the North are entitled to bid on 80 per cent of the main programme of national resources for infrastructure to enable house building, including land supply, roads and drainage. The other 68 Northern local authorities must bid on a reserved budget of 20 per cent of national resources, along with other areas primarily in the Midlands and South West. As a result, the North gets around 12 per cent of this funding, despite having around 23 per cent of the population of England.
This approach could have been designed to do the opposite of Levelling Up. Even the Government seems to agree, previously saying it would scrap it. Nothing has happened yet.
Time for a housing spending strategy that Levels Up
Instead of 80:20, we need a transparent and comprehensive national strategy that targets housing and place funding where it will deliver Levelling Up.
H4N has created a Levelling Up Place Index that does precisely this. Backed up by original research, our Index ranks local authorities by the scale of opportunity they provide for building homes, widening home ownership, creating jobs, boosting GDP, and reducing inequality. We think this is a pretty good definition of Levelling Up and appreciate others will chip in with their own views on this point.
Simply put, our Place Index puts a spotlight on the places where the Government will get a better Levelling Up Return on Investment. This would be an essential correction to the cold logic of the Green Book and its narrow interpretation of Return on Investment.
As well as being applied to future housing infrastructure funding, our Levelling Up Place Index could tie together and coordinate the various place-based capital pots of money flying around, from the Levelling Up Fund to the Shared Prosperity Fund and everything in-between. A more coordinated approach to these very welcome funding streams will yield greater results per pound spent.
Our proposed methodology and evidence base are transparent. We concede that they can be debated and improved. But what really matters is that a Levelling Up strategy must be baked into how the Government, and Homes England, spend money on new and better homes. The ultimate impact of such a strategy would be felt by voters in places that provide the greatest opportunity for Levelling Up; in the North, West Midlands, coastal areas and every corner of England.