Regional Perspectives – Q3 2021
It was good to be back!
We were very pleased to get back to face-to-face meetings at our regional forum in October. Thank you to all our hosts and participants, plus officials from the Department of Levelling-Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), who generously gave their time to discuss residential tenure reform and gain members’ feedback.
On tenure reform, across the six core cites we visit, there were similar messages, reflecting the perspectives of larger institutional landlords. An appreciation there is an appetite amongst tenants for longer-term tenancies. The need, however, to ensure landlords could gain access to property for refurbishment, and for the sake of other residents, to tackle instances of anti-social behaviour. The need to retain fixed-term tenancies, especially in the student market. Slightly longer notice periods were called for. There was general support for better standards in the private rented sector and a landlord register.
It was also apt that DLUHC should be our visitors at this round of meetings, having just being established as the department responsible for levelling up. It is fair to say the topic of levelling-up generated most conversation at our meetings, though with regional variations, as one might expect.
There was general uncertainty over what levelling up means in practice? Is it just existing funding repackaged? Whilst the symbolism was welcome, it was not enough to just move parts of Government departments to Wolverhampton or Darlington. There needs to be a real devolution of powers. Planning powers were felt to be an essential part of any regional co-ordination, but were the powers often most jealously guarded by local government. Skills was felt to be another policy area, where regional co-ordination and intervention could make a difference.
There was a sense that there were too many initiatives. And that things were not joined up. Some of that was not the Government’s fault, however, but reflected local politics. How to get local, regional, and national leaders working together, rather than engaging in turf wars, was therefore felt to be critical. It was noted that market forces may do more for levelling up than political initiatives. More home-working and more hybrid working could significantly affect worker and business location decisions.
There was a concern that levelling-up was seen mainly as an initiative for the north of England and not for any area whose growth was below average. Whilst it was felt more investment in infrastructure would aid levelling-up, there were mixed views depending on which city region, as to which infrastructure would make the biggest difference. In the north, Northern Powerhouse Rail was felt to be long overdue and needed to move to action. In other places, however, it was felt it should not all be about the big investments. Big projects can be very disruptive. 20 smaller projects can be more sustainable than one big project.
There was a feeling that too much of the Government’s focus on place was about homes and not enough about creating holistic places. To attract investment into regions, especially outside of big cities, the quality of the whole environment needs to be strong. More homes were needed in most of the city regions we visited, but if levelling-up was to be more than a slogan there was also a need to support the delivery of good employment land opportunities. Initiatives were needed that supported brownfield land delivery for jobs as well as homes.
We picked up many other points and sentiments on our travels. There was a general feeling that the economic activity had rebounded back well from lockdown conditions. The fate of the Government’s Planning White Paper was of significant interest, although there was also a feeling that current uncertainty was unhelpful and leading to some local councils to delay current plans until there was greater clarity on what any reforms would bring? We also heard of the impact that phosphates/nitrates prevention measures were having on development, with significant delay to development as solutions were worked through.
On sustainability, the value of ESG as a driver for change was recognised. There was also recognition of the need for an over-arching strategy – not just about carbon, but also about climate resilience, flooding, etc. And about infrastructure and skills, as new energy infrastructure will be needed to power the new green buildings, and new skills if net zero ambitions are to be met.
Our city regions are at different points in their devolution journeys. Some have greater powers and higher profile Mayors than others. What was striking in our discussions was that whilst participants fed back mixed views on mayoral performance, they were generally positive about devolution, for the wider co-ordination and collaboration it encouraged.
We are very grateful to all our participants in October and now we are back meeting face-to-face, we hope to deliver an enhanced regional programme in 2022.