With northern devolution hanging in the balance, is housing policy the biggest loser?
Last week, summer officially ended as schools reopened and our politicians resumed their place in parliament. One of the first topics for debate, for an opposition unarguably in disarray, was holding the Government to account for its lack of house building. This is safe ground for Labour, as there is always more that the government of the day can do to improve policy in an area that affects so many people up and down the country.
What has also been seized upon by moderate Labour MPs - desperate to divert attention from the parlous state of their Westminster politics - is the advent of directly elected mayors. Large swathes of the North East (with the notable exception of Gateshead), agreed to a deal for more devolved powers in exchange for accepting a directly elected mayor. The deal formed part of then Chancellor, George Osborne MP's pledge to create a Northern Powerhouse, to rival the South for investment. The proposal would create a mayor for the North East who would be joined by ones for Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield, amongst others.
All this changed last week, with four of the seven councils making up the North East area voting down the final offer. This leaves the Northern Powerhouse all but dead before it got going, with North Yorkshire and West Yorkshire also yet to agree their devolution deals with the Government. What could it have meant for housing development though? It seems a missed opportunity to pursue localised policies that are more relevant to the specific demands of individual regions of the country. A one-size-fits-all approach rarely works in its application across all parts of the country, and this is no truer than in meeting the nation's housing demands.
Under the proposals, the northern regions of the UK involved in the devolution deal would have got greater control over planning and housing policy, particularly funding. Many local authorities have rightly complained about the piecemeal approach to funding in these two areas, as well as the distraction of having to apply for increasingly competitive national funding pots, to support local housing development projects. For example, West Yorkshire and the Leeds City region believe that the devolution deal could double their house building capacity by 2021, facilitating the building of 10,000 new homes per year, as well as reducing the region's Housing Benefit bill.
Not a panacea in itself, but with clearly identified benefits like these, let's hope our councils can yet breathe life into the devolution deal; it could make a real difference to housing where it is perhaps needed most.