Local enterprise partnerships are setting the agenda on economic priorities, so why do they have so few housing representatives? Rhiannon Bury visits an LEP in the north east to investigate the vital role landlords can play.
It seems like a no-brainer. If there are powerful local partnerships that control millions of pounds of government funding, why wouldn’t you join up? Yet housing providers don’t seem to have grasped the relevance of local enterprise partnerships - or they are being excluded from them.
The partnerships, in which local authorities and businesses get together with the aim of playing a central role in determining communities’ economic priorities, have been around for a while now. They were first announced in June 2010 by deputy prime minister Nick Clegg who invited councils and businesses to put forward their proposals for LEPs. So far 39 have been approved. They cover areas across England, from Durham in the north to Dorset in the south, Shropshire in the west to Suffolk in the east, and each has received a share of a £9 million pot of start-up funding from the government.
LEPs are similar to the now defunct regional development agencies, which launched in 1999 and cease operation in March 2012, only they have millions of pounds less cash. Nevertheless, they still have access to funding that can be used to shape local economies - they’re the administrators of the government’s £500 million growing places fund, which aims to boost economic growth by getting the required infrastructure built to enable the creation of new jobs and homes, and by getting stalled projects moving again.
Despite this, representation from housing providers is thin on the ground. Just three - 8 per cent - of the 39 successful LEPs include representatives from the social housing sector on their board. Alison Thain, chief executive of Fabrick Housing Group, sits on the board of the north east’s Tees Valley Unlimited LEP; Ray Brookes, chief executive of Worcestershire-based Community Housing Group, sits on the board of Worcestershire LEP; and Ron Dougan, chief executive of Trent and Dove Housing in Staffordshire, sits of the board of Stoke-on-Trent & Staffordshire LEP.
So how did housing’s three musketeers get involved in their LEPs and why have more providers not followed in their footsteps?
Getting on board
Most LEPs have around 12 board members, half of whom are usually representatives of local businesses, while the other half are mainly local councillors and representatives from universities.
To make sure housing is not forgotten in this mix, Pat Ritchie, chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, wrote to community business leaders in December to raise awareness of the importance of investing in housing. ‘We’ve been encouraging LEPs to think whether or not [a lack of] housing is a barrier to achieving growth in their area. Is housing supply lagging behind demand, is it restricting growth in an area?’ she said.
To shed some light on the issue, Inside Housing travelled to Middlesbrough to find out how Fabrick Housing Group’s involvement in Tees Valley Unlimited will benefit the local community and how it got involved.
The north east town has a population of 142,400, and around 4,200 on its housing waiting list. More than 5,200 public sector workers in the town are expected to lose their jobs by 2014/15. We wanted to speak to the housing association’s chief executive, who has been part of the LEP since the beginning, about how she got involved and how this might help lead to new homes and more jobs. We also met three of the association’s tenants to find out what they expect the partnership to mean for their communities.
A wealth of experience
For Ms Thain, taking a leading role in Tees Valley Unlimited - which operates across five areas, Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland and Stockton-on-Tees - was indeed a no-brainer.
‘I think one of the most important things we can do as housing providers in this area is increase prosperity for people,’ she says. ‘It comes down to the economy - the economy has got to be vibrant for our neighbourhoods to be vibrant, for people to be comfortable where they live and be active participants in their neighbourhoods.’
The chief executive, whose organisation owns more than 15,000 homes across the Tees Valley, heads up the ‘place’ group within the LEP whose focus is on improving the local environment. It is meeting for the first time this month, and Ms Thain is optimistic about what it can achieve.
So how did Ms Thain ensure Fabrick was involved in the LEP and what should other social landlords be doing if they are to sign up in their areas?
‘I think you start with what your offer is - you don’t just go and say: “Here we are, we are housing”,’ Ms Thain says. ‘You have to be quite clear.’
‘I bring my experience of working in social housing and neighbourhoods as well as a more strategic overview, and sometimes it’s easy to miss that [on LEP boards] because unless you start to have a representation from the community it’s hard to bring that voice in. I can do that,’ she adds.
Housing providers should present themselves to the LEP as part of the business community, she explains. That way, they can relate to people on a business footing and gain from the other business experience in the LEP structure.
Fabrick’s chief executive points to Bohouse, a development of 20 live-work units a stone’s throw from Middlesbrough’s railway station as an example of the kind of scheme that may result from her organisation’s involvement in the LEP. It was conceived before the LEP existed, but offers a tangible example of the economic benefits of housing.
Ms Thain’s involvement in the LEP is limited to the monthly ‘place’ group meetings and other board meetings. She admits her style of management is about ‘getting out and about’ so the extra LEP work seems to complement, rather than hinder, her role at Fabrick.
Of course, in some areas getting involved will be more difficult than others. Some LEPs, like the London LEP, have made a point of announcing that they will not focus on housing delivery. ‘The LEP will not engage directly in housing and regeneration work, but rather will focus on a London skills agenda, generating enterprise and investment, and promoting London interests to government and others,’ it said in a statement issued in June. The LEP for York and north Yorkshire, just a stone’s throw from Tees Valley, says its focus is on helping start-up businesses.
So why did Tees Valley Unlimited, view housing as an integral part of its remit? ‘It’s not about emphasising a particular strand,’ explains Stephen Catchpole, head of the LEP. ‘We don’t have housing sitting on its own, but what we do see is housing playing a key part, particularly to offer place and quality of life - and make it attractive for businesses and attractive to people to continue to live and work here.’
Mr Catchpole explains that ‘place’ is one of four strands that the LEP will work on, the others being economy, transport and infrastructure and investment. He hopes Fabrick’s involvement will enable the area to build new homes that will help retain skilled workers, particularly graduates from Tees Valley University.
‘Traditionally, one of the things we have to overcome and accept is that many people who earn higher wages in this area don’t choose to live in this area - they live in north Yorkshire or further out towards Durham,’ he says.
The LEP, which began operating last October, has already started working particularly closely with Redcar and Cleveland-based Coast and Country Housing, to help the housing association access European funding for its apprenticeship training scheme.
Mr Catchpole says it’s exactly the sort of thing he wants to see more of - linking housing and the local economy together. ‘Social landlords in their own right are major employers and so using them to train unemployed youngsters to have a long career in the construction industry is fantastically important,’ he enthuses.
‘It’s almost more important than the actual house that comes out of it at the end. We need to be thinking of them as businesses and using their business acumen to help us deal with some of our economic strategies.’
There are also significant problems left behind following the demise of the housing market renewal pathfinder Tees Valley Living, he says. Tees Valley received funding as part of the £2.2 billion housing market renewal programme - set up to tackle low demand for homes in the north and the midlands - before the government scrapped it halfway through its 15-year term in October 2010. Tees Valley Living had planned to build up to 2,394 new homes. But it built just 1,405, while it demolished 1,696 of a planned 2,939 to 3,269 homes by the time it was axed. Part of Tees Valley Unlimited’s work will be to help pick up the pieces.
‘Clearly there will be a need for affordable housing, particularly in rented accommodation as well as ownership because of the difficulties with mortgages,’ the head of the LEP adds.
While the Tees Valley LEP has risen from the ashes of scrapped RDA One North East, it has done so with significantly fewer resources.
The number of staff has reduced from 80 who worked for the RDA since 1999, to 33. Meanwhile, its annual budget, which was £9 million, is now £2 million per year, funded by the five local authorities.
Money could be a problem, especially when it comes to addressing the abandoned pathfinder projects. ‘[At Fabrick] we’re very much not about looking for handouts,’ Ms Thain insists, ‘but if you’re going to tackle housing market failure then it’s big bucks you need.’
Getting the housing market to move in certain part of the Tees Valley will be a difficult task. ‘In Gresham [an area of Middlesbrough], a house hasn’t been sold for owner-occupation in five years. Private landlords are buying them up for [housing] benefit and that just creates further problems of disadvantaged people concentrated in one area undermining economic ambitions,’ says Ms Thain.
The only way to fund regeneration now, she says, is by being innovative. And the LEP facilitates the type of meetings that might help bring ideas to fruition.
‘The LEP is the framework. I think you have to understand its economic underpinning and what it’s there for. We know what the economic base is for this area and that’s really important in giving us and the board confidence in investment,’ she says.
Erimus Housing, part of the Fabrick Housing Group, only became involved in building Bohouse because it was approached by the Boho Zone project manager to provide homes for people working in creative industries - part of a local plan to help these professionals stay in the area.
The project, which was completed in August 2010, cost £2.7 million to build, £820,000 of which came from the Homes and Communities Agency. It sits alongside 35,000 square feet Boho One, a new commercial building for creative businesses from the digital sector for Middlesbrough’s digital city project, a regeneration initiative funded by the RDA.
‘There’s no real money in the LEP, but if it can strengthen bids that we want to put into the HCA and other partners then that would be great,’ sums up Chris Smith, managing director of Erimus.
‘People can’t afford to buy at the moment, so we’re no longer looking at providing homes for just the traditional social housing tenants.’
The next step
With Ms Thain on the LEP’s board, housing is at least firmly on the radar of the rest of the business community in Middlesbrough. But if there’s
£500 million in funding at stake, other providers also need to start shouting a little bit louder.
Warren Finney, south-east lead manager at the National Housing Federation says housing associations are keen to be involved: ‘The inclusion of housing associations in the LEP decision-making process benefits both parties and, ultimately, local neighbourhoods: LEPs can learn from the community-level expertise of social housing providers, while associations will have an influential voice when local funding streams are being decided and delivered.’
LEPs need to start attracting housing professionals for their community-based knowledge and expertise.
‘Maybe LEPs have to publicise themselves better too,’ admits Tees Valley Unlimited head Mr Catchpole. ‘People need to know who we are.’
Source: Richad Rayner / North News
Inside Housing spoke to three tenants of Erimus Housing and Tees Valley Housing, both part of the Fabrick Housing Group, to find out what they think their area’s local enterprise partnership, Tees Valley Unlimited, will mean for them and others living in Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland.
Andrew and Karen Evans, aged 39 and 42, are optimistic about what the LEP might achieve.
‘The north east is probably the hardest area in the country to find work at the moment,’ Mr Evans says. ‘The job situation is dire.’
But he hopes that, with the right kind of investment, the LEP could change that.
‘We have to make sure we have the right infrastructure, and that we build housing for all different types of people,’ adds his wife Karen.
‘There are streets [which have been abandoned with the housing market renewal programme] that still need development, and that’s something the LEP could be doing.’
Erimus Housing tenant, Pam McIvor, 45, who lives in Middlesbrough and sits on the board of Erimus Housing, says she is pleased that Fabrick Housing Group is involved in setting the economic priorities for the area.
‘I think the LEPs have to include housing,’ she says. ‘There’s no point in having the people if you haven’t got homes to put them in.’
the number of LEPs
98 per cent
the area of England covered by LEPs
amount of set-up funding LEPs received from government
total amount of growing places funding, which LEPs are responsible for between them. It was allocated in January
88 per cent
proportion of local authorities that are in one LEP
the number of housing association chief executives on LEP boards