Levelling-up is a term that has become synonymous with the north-south divide, with the government’s agenda often focused purely on the significant investment needed in many northern towns to revive their economies and attract private investors.
With this in mind, and regardless of how brief our encounter with the new housing minister might be, it is encouraging that Stuart Andrew took the opportunity at last month’s Mipim to confirm that levelling-up would be for the whole country including the south, where housing for young people needs to be affordable, and in London, where very wealthy neighbourhoods sit next door to very deprived areas.
It is time that policymakers looked through short-term political cycles and formulated a long-term housing strategy aimed at rebalancing the housing market in the south. This does not require huge sums of government investment but instead a reassessment of restrictive planning laws, which in turn would have a meaningful impact on reducing inequalities.
Unfortunately, the Levelling Up White Paper neglects to address the issue of affordable housing in the south of England and some of its proposals may even exacerbate the problem – namely, the UK government’s plans to enhance and maintain protections of the green belt.
Its brownfield-first approach will not fulfil the demand for family homes, nor will it offer communities in London the advantages of living in a less polluted and greener environment.
The narrative around the green belt, therefore, needs to shift. Releasing some of this land should be seen as a way of improving the quality of life of many people, who would otherwise have no other means of achieving home ownership. Making the green belt more flexible in contemporary housing and urban planning is a growing area of research, including the London School of Economics’ Knowledge and Exchange Impact Project, which is considering views on the purpose and future form of the Metropolitan green belt.
Our own development, Linmere near Luton, offers an insight into how levelling-up objectives can be realised through a multi-stakeholder approach, which engages public policymakers at both central and local government levels, communities and private investors. Indeed, the direction of travel will need to move towards more powers being devolved to local decision-makers to tackle the issue of housing shortages and formulate solutions that will be sustainable and sympathetic to the local environment.
Encouragingly, the white paper seems to recognise this requirement based on its proposal to move towards having more mayoral combined authorities and county deals. Such devolution to a combined authority must be made on the basis that there is a binding statutory strategic spatial plan that sets the framework for infrastructure, economic development and housing, as well as identifying broad areas for this growth and renewal so as to provide certainty for future investment.
More details on the government’s flagship policy are expected in May but, without bold planning reform, the worry is that the challenges faced by communities in Greater London and the South East will continue to be ignored.
James Stone is managing director at Lands Improvement