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Making the case for regional devolution

Devolution in the North East could help the region deliver more and better homes, says Pat Ritchie

Pat   Ritchie

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Pat   Ritchie
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Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty

Making the case for regional devolution, by Pat Ritchie

With government’s focus firmly on bringing powers and funding back from Brussels, it is easy to forget about the need to continue the process of passing powers and budgets from Whitehall to places in England.

Devolution in England remains unfinished business, particularly in the North East where we remain committed to agreeing a deal with government.

So, never one to miss an opportunity, I am seizing every chance to make the case for devolution. Of course there is an exciting and compelling housing angle here with a strong argument for a more place-based approach. In fact, housing and regeneration sit at the heart of our drive for growth.

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Our overall aim is to deliver an ambitious target for new homes, with real choice for our residents. And it’s open to government to devolve a range of powers that would enable areas like Newcastle to deliver more and better homes.

It could include:

  • Broad powers to acquire and dispose of land to build houses, commercial space and infrastructure for growth and regeneration
  • Enabling investment to deliver housing and employment, with the option of borrowing powers to support this
  • Compulsory purchase powers alongside the secretary of state
  • Powers to create development corporations to support delivery on strategic sites with the increase in land values reinvested to deliver new schemes

But there is much more to devolution than securing new powers from government. It’s as much about authorities coming together and making best use of our collective powers and assets.

In Newcastle, with our partners in Northumberland and North Tyneside, we are exploring opportunities to:

  • Co-ordinate existing local authority partnerships and vehicles to streamline investment and commissioning processes
  • Work together to assemble strategic housing sites across public and private landowners and convening the right partnerships and discussions to take these forward

And we are prepared to put real investment behind this by looking at an innovative vehicle to bring forward 16 key brownfield sites where there are viability issues preventing early development, using a mix of grant funding, long-term loans and equity loan as well as bidding for Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes Programme funding.

“There is much more to devolution than securing new powers from government.”

Once the land is ‘construction ready’, funding would be switched to the existing Homes and Communities Agency national and regional programmes such as the Home Building Fund and Starter Homes.

Our aims are not solely about housing numbers. We understand the strong connections between housing, infrastructure and employment and the need to establish strong, sustainable communities.

That’s why we want to work together with government to secure strategic investment in commuting links. The Housing Investment Fund is particularly welcome here and offers a timely opportunity to address some of the challenges stifling local areas in their plans for growth.

Investing in key infrastructure will open up new land for housing and promote access to jobs and inclusive growth in the North of Tyne area.

National and local funding streams could be used more flexibly and combined to open up better public transport links, and there is potential to use landowner and developer contributions to support investment, where better transport infrastructure will increase land values and housing development.

Alongside this, we are exploring options for the expansion of specialist housing provision. This is an area in which we have invested significantly in Newcastle in recent years and we see supporting people to live independently as key to our long-term programme of public service reform.

Our future plans include using the expertise of the National Innovation Centre for Ageing at Newcastle University to develop a housing offer that supports residents to stay well, independent and productive for as long as possible.

“Investing in key infrastructure will open up new land for housing and promote access to jobs and inclusive growth.”

The opportunity of devolution could also be used to strengthen our private rented sector. This could include working together to develop a private sector licensing proposition that will improve the quality and breadth of the area’s housing offer and support our residents.

We are passionate about our housing plans in the North of Tyne because we see these as key to driving inclusive growth for our communities. And devolution is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to integrate policy on housing, employment, skills and transport.

At a time when Brexit seems to be dominating every political agenda, we know we’ll have to fight hard to be heard. But with such a prize on offer, this is a fight worth having. We let devolution slip through our fingers once; we are determined not to let that happen again.

Pat Ritchie, chief executive, Newcastle City Council

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