Lime Legal

Calling the shots

Published 01 May 2023

They'll be telling government where to spend money on housing, but who are the new regional boards? By Melanie Delargy

Regional housing boards are the first step towards loosening the strings binding regional housing decisions to Whitehall. Over the next three months the boards will be drawing up recommendations on how to spend part of £7.4 billion of housing investment in new build and refurbishment for councils and housing associations outlined in the last spending review.

As time goes on, that amount will increase. And if legislation for regional government is passed and people vote in favour, then control of a chunk of housing spending will be handed to an elected regional assembly, not central government.

Housing organisations have mostly welcomed this approach. Riverside chief executive Deborah Shackleton says: ‘We have to be positive about housing boards. It is a chance to get the policy right without being distracted by central targets.’

Chief executive of Home Group, Malcolm Levi says: ‘The big advantage is that the boards are regionally focused. If you look at the north you have areas with out of date housing that might be linked to lack of jobs, or transport problems that cross local boundaries. Put the problem right in one local authority, and you might export it to another.’

But the finer detail is raising questions. One housing expert says 25 per cent of his recent meetings have involved discussions about the new regional structures. Concerns revolve around how the new bodies will make their decisions, and how they will take on board wider views, such as the local community and health and social services.

But the fundamental question is: will the boards be better at pushing through the construction of new affordable homes, and shoring up unstable housing markets?

John Prescott announced the regional housing boards in his communities plan in February. He said the core membership would include English Partnerships, the Housing Corporation, regional development agencies, regional assemblies and the government office for the region.

The development-led make-up of the boards has raised the question of how receptive they will be to the views of the community and social services, health and homelessness organisations. Sheffield Hallam University professor of housing Ian Cole was struck by the absence of tenant representation. ‘There is a risk regional strategy will be seen as too top down.’

The Tenants Participation Advisory Service is pressing government to allow tenants a seat at the table. Chief executive Phil Morgan’s argument is that if there are strong regional tenants forums with a constitution, as there is in the North East with similar ones planned in the North West and London, they should have a place on the regional housing boards.

‘Housing doesn’t exist in isolation and tenants can give feedback on the effectiveness of housing policy and how it interacts with crime and regeneration. The regional agenda must reach out to people at grassroots level otherwise it is just a replica of centralised government.’

A number of boards have added extra members. In the North East, the House Builders Federation, the North East Council of Tenants and Residents and the North East Housing Forum are represented.

Boards also have to decide who will represent the five core organisations.

In the eastern region, the assembly went for a member, rather than an officer. ‘Uniquely we assumed the person could be a member of the assembly largely because we felt the assembly is trying to address the democratic deficit and creeping quangoisation of these structures,’ says Regional Assembly secretary Brian Stewart.

The key role of the boards is to allocate funding. Government offices contacted by ROOF say it is too early to talk about how the money will be divided, but the boards will draw up a strategy for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). Money will then be allocated according to those recommendations, as approved by ministers.

Jim Battle, head of the National Housing Federation in the north, says: ‘There are tough decisions to be made but we have got to have confidence in the decision making process.’

Precisely because there will be tough decisions, and winners and losers, these appointed bodies will need to be accountable. Guinness Trust chief executive Simon Dow says they should follow the Bank of England’s example. It publishes minutes detailing how and why members voted on interest rate changes. ‘The decision process must be transparent as the boards will be making mistakes early on. I would commend the monetary policy committee as a model.’

How the cash will be allocated is a particular worry for councils. For the first two years, 70 per cent of the Housing Investment Programme (HIP) will be distributed according to existing formulas based on a housing needs index. After that nothing is certain.

Local Government Association programme manager Gwyneth Taylor says: ‘It will be 70 per cent for the next two years but resources for local authorities could be reduced much further as they redistribute to the pathfinders and growth areas.’

Specialist housing associations are concerned that the loss of local authority social housing grant (LASHG) will have a huge impact on the provision of special needs housing. In many cases, specialist organisations have built up relationships with individual authorities over years, and benefited from LASHG. It may be harder to get smaller voices heard above the clamour of regional demands.

Chief executive of Stonham, Clare Tickell is not so fearful. ‘I welcome the housing boards as filling a gap between local and central government, but you need to demonstrate the links between health and social services to achieve its potential.’

And is there a danger that a regionally focused body will not take into account local demands? In Yorkshire and Humberside, for example, there is a combination of high demand and low, and rural and urban housing. In some regions the regional housing forum allows sub-regional input. In the north these forums are well established, and successfully lobbied government for £500 million for pathfinder market renewal schemes.

In the East of England, North West and North East the regional housing forum will have a place on the regional housing board. In these regions they are the brains behind the regional housing strategy.

Many of these interest groups will be satisfied by the presence of the regional assembly on the boards, according to government offices for the regions. The assemblies themselves are keen to prove they are the voice of the region. Director of corporate and social issues for the North East Regional Assembly, Melanie Laws says: ‘In the current draft of our housing strategy our members made the point that homelessness ought to be picked up. Homelessness is an issue the assembly will bring to the table about tackling social problems such as anti-social behaviour.’

The East of England Regional Assembly’s Stewart believes the housing board has already asserted its influence over the surprise abolition of LASHG in March. ‘We had our first board meeting two months ago and we were keen to indicate the withdrawal of funding could cause major problems. Now transitional arrangements are in place to soften the blow. That message filtered through.’

Concerns that the South East’s growth areas will take the lion’s share of funding, leaving equally hard-pressed cities like Portsmouth and Southampton to struggle are allayed in the short term. But Mike Gwilliam, director of planning and transport for the South East Regional Assembly, says: ‘There needs to be a safety net, so we are trying to find reassurances that local authorities will not be worse off than they currently are.’

And there will be consultation on the strategies. Housing Corporation director of strategy and investment Max Steinberg, who has been working with the regional boards in the north, says: ‘There will be detailed consultation over the spring. Some are talking about a website. In the North West they are talking about an event in April.’

Although the housing boards are still in their infancy, it is not too early to look at their future. If, as is expected, the North East and possibly Yorkshire and Humber and the North West vote for elected regional assemblies, questions about democratic deficits will be wiped out. The regional assembly will absorb the housing board’s function and control spending – without Whitehall approval.

But what happens in regions that show no appetite for devolved government? Will it make a difference if there is an elected assembly or not? This is a question the Guinness Trust’s Simon Dow put to housing minister Lord Rooker over supper a few weeks ago. ‘He said regional assemblies that are appointed will have less influence on housing policy, as they will lack the democratic mandate. They wouldn’t have the same authority.’

Regional housing boards will need to prove themselves early. The East of England region includes the the Stansted-Cambridge corridor, part of the Thames Gateway and borders Milton Keynes. Stewart says: ‘Ministers are looking for a step change quickly. In the growth areas we need to have early wins and then continue to get more sites and up completions.’

After the next election there could be elected assemblies in the north deciding housing policy, and housing boards everywhere else sending strategies to Whitehall for approval. As long as there are clear regional differences there will be a need for strong regional housing action. Housing boards look a bit like quangos now. It is up to board members to prove they can deliver more affordable homes and fix failing markets.

Who's on the board?

The core membership includes English Partnerships, the regional development agencies, regional assemblies, government offices for the region and the Housing Corporation.

Meetings will be decided by the board but for example the South East board will meet eight times a year.

In the case of English Partnerships there will be doubling up of regional board members. The board will be chaired by the representative from the government office for the region.

Each board will have help. In the South east there is an executive group including less senior officials of each group who will carry out much of the strategy. Regional housing forums in some cases will inform the board and its strategy on wider issues in the region.

How will each board produce its housing strategy?

By July, each board must produce a regional housing strategy. Some have already written draft strategies based on the regional housing statements already produced by the regional housing forums.

The boards’ strategies will be drawn up in close consultation with the regional development agencies (RDAs) producing the regional economic strategy and the regional planning guidance produced by the regional assembly. National Housing Federation in the North head Jim Battle says: ‘The job is to weld the strategies together so funding arrives in the same street at the same time for the same purpose.’

The strategy will not dictate how many homes are built – that is done by the regional planning authority in the Regional Planning Guidance. Rob Warm at the Yorkshire and Humber assembly says: ‘We have commissioned research into the overlaps and tensions between the three strategies. There are tensions around housing and planning. It doesn’t matter which one has the numbers but they must be the same numbers.’

One North East, the RDA in the North East, has already worked on housing policy. The agency’s lead on housing Tom Warburton says: ‘We are members of the regional housing forum and part funded the regional housing market study. Part of the attractiveness of the region is the housing on offer.’

Some strategies are well under way. South East regional assembly director of transport and planning Mike Gwilliam says will produce one by July, but it will be an interim version, to be updated over the following 12 months.

The strategy will be a series of recommendations that will be sent to the ODPM to be signed off. Then the money will be allocated by the ODPM. This process is likely to be repeated every two or three years.

Who's who in regional housing policy?

Of the five core board member organisations, the Housing Corporation and government offices are familiar faces, but the others may need an introduction:

Regional assembly

There will eventually be two kinds of assemblies. Legislation is going through parliament to allow for a referendum on whether a region would like an elected assembly, and the government is currently taking soundings from each region on whether such a referendum is welcome or not. The North East, North West and Yorkshire and Humber are likely to be the first regions to hold a referendum.

There will then be further legislation on the powers of a regional assembly, which have been set out in the government white paper Your Region Your Choice. The first actual elected assemblies would not exist until 2015. Elected assembly responsibilities will include investment in housing and regeneration. An elected assembly will be directly accountable to the electorate, rather than ministers or the UK parliament. The assembly will carry out the regional housing strategy, and allocate housing capital investment between councils to improve stock, and support new build by housing associations.

Appointed regional assemblies were set up in 1999 as a scrutiny body for regional development agencies. If there is no appetite for regional government they will remain – and retain a role in housing. They are the regional planning body and produce the regional planning guidance that will evolve into the regional spatial strategy. Appointed members are made up of councillors, the business community and voluntary sector.

Regional housing forums

Members usually include council officers, members, House Builders Federation, Council of Mortgage Lenders, housing associations, tenants and residents organisations and other organisations with an interest in housing. The regional housing forums in the north were effective lobbying bodies for market renewal pathfinder money and as such have built up good relationships.

English Partnerships

The national regeneration agency is responsible for promoting regeneration, housing, and brownfield development. As a member of the board the agency will have a role in acquiring and redeveloping brownfield land. English Partnerships are already involved in urban regeneration companies and millennium communities, including the Greenwich Millennium Village.

Regional development agencies

Launched in 1999, their remit is to promote the economy, regeneration, and employment, and contribute to sustainable development. The agencies are responsible to central government.

Scotland and Wales

Scotland’s record on housing post-devolution looks enviable. Five acts and bills; 11 more with an impact on the sector, writes Emma Hawkey.

Severing ties with Whitehall has made way for radical policies, like the abolition of housing need. As far as the housing lobby goes, it’s been more inclusive. ‘They got in there early when the parliament was new, and their influence shows,’ says Robert Johnson, director of Waverley housing association. But in the excitement to legislate, the rigours of implementation may have been underestimated. ‘Some of the early stuff was more about aspirations than ability to deliver,’ says

Nick Fletcher, policy officer at the CIH in Scotland. ‘Has the executive learned from the Housing Act, where there were problems with resources not coming on stream on time?’

So in Scotland’s brave new devolved world, some old problems remain. The first Programme for Government promised ‘new ways of working together across traditional boundaries to deliver real results’.

Four years on, the Cities Review calls for ‘effective joint working’ between local authorities. ‘We need to make sure everybody’s talking to each other about where and what sort of accommodation is needed to support policy,’ Fletcher warns. And now it’s election time again, the ruling Labour Party campaign slogan seems strangely apologetic about what’s been achieved: ‘A fresh start for devolution’. Already?

Over in Wales, the assembly is a closer model for English devolution. As in Scotland, progress has not been helped by constant reshuffling of committees, departments and leadership. Critics of the local government and housing committee say it’s weak in terms of policy scrutiny. But a very inclusive National Consultative Forum (involving councils, housing associations, tenants and homeless campaigners) produced the country’s first strategy for housing within three months.

So far not that much ‘Made in Wales’ policy has yet emerged post devolution, although it’s early days, says Joy Kent, policy officer at CIH Wales. ‘We did extend priority homeless categories before England’. Insufficient resources and powers are a common complaint. ‘The assembly is over-influenced by local government,’ says one commentator. ‘England should learn from that.’

The huge advantage has been accessibility. ‘If I needed to tackle something with the old Department of the Environment, I’d have to go to some anonymous room number in Marsham Street,’ says North Wales housing association chief executive Paul Diggory. ‘Here, they’ll say “I’m up in North Wales next week, shall I pop in? It’s personal and easier to get the logic of the situation. If they can develop that in England it would be great.’