English housing policy has one objective: build more.  The country needs extra, and better housing. Right?  On the surface, it might seem an obvious objective. But where? And should better housing always mean more homes, rather than renewed homes and revitalised communities?

Currently, the government’s strategy is overwhelmingly south east-centric. It is thus largely targeted on areas facing what its rebranded housing agency, Homes England, calls “affordability pressures”. The rationale appears simple: build more, and assuredly house  prices will fall. That neatly ignores the fact that its generous ‘help-to-buy’ scheme, offering subsidised loans of up to 20 per cent of a property price (40% in London) has pushed up prices further and boosted the profits of the big house-builders.

More contentiously, the strategy of Homes England – whose predecessor agency once championed its record of ‘regeneration’ – skews funding away from towns, cities and once-thriving industrial communities, largely in the north.

In short, England’s housing strategy is so partial it hardly passes for a policy, still less a plan to address whole swathes of the country, largely away from the big cities and ignored by the government. True, when 62 of the 73 local authority areas of the north voted to leave the EU three years’ ago – and 6.3 million northern people live away from the big cities, sometimes in places labelled ‘post-industrial’ – Theresa May promised a radical agenda in which “no one and no community is left behind.” It has never emerged.

But what has emerged is more evidence of a skewed funding formula – which, in the words of Carol Mathews, chair of Homes for the North (representing 17 large  housing associations) “directs funding away from northern towns and into overheated housing markets in the south.”

At a weekend conference in Newcastle upon Tyne, Mathews lamented that large chunks of the North and the Midlands were not eligible for 80 per cent of Homes England funding – further exacerbating the north-south divide, leaving more northern towns left-behind while “increasing demand and pressure in southern regions.”

Organised by the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA) - of which I’m a former chair - and Newcastle University, the conference  specifically addressed the challenges and opportunities in towns and communities away from big cities.  A mixed picture emerged.

With national and local government hollowed out after nine years of austerity – and the abolition of regional development agencies, government regional offices and the effective scrapping of a national regeneration agency – it was heartening to be reminded that local endeavour can work wonders. Inspiring stories from two small towns – Wooler, and Amble, in Northumberland – caught the imagination. A community trust in the former has assets of almost £3m, owns high street shops, has delivered 18 affordable homes, and runs a large community hub incorporating a library and much more. Similarly, another trust in Amble, once a coal port, has bought and renewed shops, created a new town square, and built a ‘harbour village’ with a variety of shops and cafes. People – yes, from the south – have moved in.

In discussing the wider agenda, we deliberately avoided the term ‘left behind’ to describe the places at the heart of our discussions – far better, in the words of one delegate, to replace it with ‘kept behind’. In other words, as a matter of policy, help for such places had been withdrawn, deliberately, or otherwise.  How, you might ask?

Well, until 2010,  both Wooler, Amble, and lots of other places, could count on the support of (now abolished) regional bodies. Northumberland, for instance, had a strategic partnership, funded by the county council and the local regional development agency, which provided support. A dilapidated pier in Amble was rebuilt 20 years’ ago by the (then) national regeneration agency, English Partnerships.

As Fiona Howie, chief executive of the TCPA recalled, a government with limited focus on domestic policy had become fixated with housing numbers while regional policy was focused on directing investment to the greater south east.

About time, then, for a policy reappraisal to make renewal in housing markets – and in our neglected towns, cities and communities – as important as new house building. That will mean addressing domestic policy. Remember that?


This blog was written by Peter Hetherington, a past chair of the TCPA and former regional affairs editor of the Guardian.