Central government is distancing itself from regional policy, which is why Liverpool’s first elected mayor will have a vital role to play, says Ann O’Byrne
Give the regions a chance
The word region appears to have disappeared from the language of government.
The regional development agencies are no more. When the Localism Act mentions regions it is closely followed by words like ‘repeal’ or ‘abolish’. And the gossip from Whitehall is that ministers are now so averse to any mention of the regions that civil servants are making up new acronyms to talk about them without their political masters overhearing.
Now, the cynical part of me thinks that the move away from regional policy is simply to hide the unfair targeting and impact of the spending cuts. As serious as that is, my broader concern is much more about the impact of often London-centric policy-making, which ignores the broad variations and regional diversity which exists across England.
No easy fix
Extending the right to buy may provide a source of income for social new build in areas where house prices are high, but in areas like Liverpool it will simply lead to a greater depletion of already dangerously low levels of social housing.
Similarly, using financial penalties to drive down under-occupation is not going to work when the number and type of social housing stock does not give residents an option other than to under-occupy.
Add to that rising non-dependent costs, which will almost certainly drive people out of the family home at a much quicker rate, and you have a recipe for pushing more and more people into private sector housing.
For Greater London and the south east, which has reasonably buoyant private sector new build development, that’s not too much of a problem.
However, in areas such as Merseyside, with a more stagnant market, there is no obvious private sector solution to undersupply, and the market alone will not deliver. It will force families into unsuitable housing with far less security of tenure.
Equally, the impact of the affordable homes programme will differ between regions as the actual profit margins offered by affordable rents will vary wildly based on the local market.
High-value local housing markets will offer greater returns and attract greater investment potential, while lower-value markets, those with the greatest need for stimulus, will remain difficult to grow as the maximum rental income will remain low. This approach favours those areas that are already more affluent.
New local powers
Quite clearly, the regions need a greater voice and a much greater ability to help shape their own destinies. That’s why I am proud
of Liverpool’s decision to elect our first mayor.
I’ll be backing Labour’s candidate in Liverpool, Joe Anderson - the current leader of the council and a passionate supporter of social housing. He is promising 5,000 new homes in the city, pledging to bring 1,000 derelict properties back into use and launching our own locally funded first-time buyers’ scheme.
But regardless of who the successful candidate is, the new mayor will have direct and regular access to the prime minister. This is a clear route into government policy creation through the Cabinet Office and provides a greater opportunity to bend and shape national policy to fit local circumstances.
Liverpool’s mayor will be a voice for the city and for the city region. The mayor will have a tough job in sorting out decades of under-investment in social housing in the city and dealing with government housing policy that will damage the lives of thousands of residents.
But our new city mayor will be a powerful voice for Liverpool and will give us a real chance to develop and implement policies that are tailored to our particular housing market need.
Now we just need to make sure the right person gets the job.
Ann O’Byrne is cabinet member for housing and community safety at Liverpool Council