Regionalism, devolution and social housing

Catharine Chater

This summary of a review prepared for National Housing Week explores the implications for social housing of the proposals for greater devolution.

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A report prepared for National Housing Week 1998 explores and discusses the implications for social housing of the proposals for greater devolution, including Regional Development Agencies for England and Assemblies for Scotland and Wales. Based largely upon a review of existing material, the report draws together some key issues and themes. It finds:

  • There is already a range of regional structures in the organisation of social housing in England. These include the operation of the integrated regional offices of central government and the regional offices of the Housing Corporation. Two current issues - the use of brownfield and greenfield sites for accommodating household growth and the link between social housing and social exclusion - are of particular relevance to the question of regionalism and social housing.
  • There are a number of important lessons to be learned and potential advantages to be identified in the experience of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which all have national housing agencies. These can provide polices more closely geared to local priorities, needs and traditions. Their size provides a 'critical mass' in terms of their capability for research, strategic analysis and policy innovation and the ability to operate beyond the constraints of local authority boundaries.
  • The regional level is an important channel for EU funding. Though the EU has no direct responsibility for housing, a number of EU programmes are relevant to social housing, especially the Structural Funds concerned mainly with infrastructure, economic development and training.
  • The authors conclude that:
    - A regional level of social housing in England might provide: a 'local voice' in housing for the region; the co-ordination of housing land allocations; the linking of housing policy with economic and urban regeneration; a research and strategic policy-making capability; the integration of funding for social housing and regeneration and a potential to capture new sources of funding.
    - The creation of a powerful regional level for social housing could pose challenges to both national and local government. Difficulties could well be intensified were there not to be accompanying structures of democratic accountability.


The proposals for the creation of elected Assemblies for Scotland and Wales and Regional Development Agencies and regional chambers in England raise the question of the implications for social housing of the evolution of regionalism and devolution in the UK. The purpose of this study was to explore this issue and to make a contribution to placing social housing at the centre of the minds of policy-makers as these new structures develop.

Existing regional structure in England

There are already in England some formal structures of government relevant to social housing which operate at the regional level. An important recent innovation was the bringing together in 1994 of the regional offices of the Departments of Environment, Transport, Employment and Trade and Industry into integrated Regional Government Offices. Their creation was part of a policy 'package' which also included bringing a range of urban policies together into the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB), and the establishment of English Partnerships. In addition to their direct housing role, especially in the funding of local authority capital spending on housing through the Housing Investment Programme (HIP), their role in administering SRB is also crucial and reinforces the link between housing and wider social and urban regeneration objectives.

A second element is the regional offices of the Housing Corporation, responsible for the funding and regulation of 'registered social landlords' (which includes housing associations and other, newer forms of social landlords such as housing companies). Regional offices establish regional priorities for the allocation of the annual Approved Development Programme (ADP). Increasingly, there is also integration with the housing strategies of local authorities. This is seen in the co-ordination of HIPs and ADPs, with local authority housing strategy forming a framework for both funding regimes. A further development is the Joint Commissioning initiative, announced in 1997, in which the Housing Corporation and local authorities jointly agree priorities and select housing association schemes.

In addition to these formal structures, there exists a range of informal regional organisations and working groups addressing various housing and planning issues, usually formed by local authorities but increasingly involving a range of regional stakeholders including business and community sector representatives.

The proposed Regional Development Agencies in England

It is intended that nine Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) will come into being in April 1999. They will be concerned primarily with economic and business development, employment and training. They will be run by appointed boards, rather than being directly elected by the people of the region. Although social regeneration and environmental sustainability have been included in their objectives, there are some concerns that RDAs will be quite narrowly economic and business-focused.

Housing is not one of the functions explicitly identified for RDAs, though it is seen as one of a whole number of areas (including, for example, crime prevention, education and public health) in which they will make a contribution to policies and programmes.

One important dimension of the proposed RDAs which is of direct relevance to social housing is that they will take over from the government offices the administration of the SRB Challenge Fund. In addition, the regeneration and land reclamation functions of English Partnerships and, in rural areas, the functions of the Rural Development Commission in rural regeneration, will be transferred to the RDAs. They will also take a leading role on European Union Structural Funds.

While in England, the proposed creation of Regional Development Agencies is the most important element of the move to regionalism there are two further aspects: the formation of voluntary regional chambers to provide a 'regional voice' and to look at a wider range of issues than RDAs; and the possibility of an elected mayor for London.

Key regional issues for social housing

Two current issues are, perhaps, particularly important in terms of a regional dimension for social housing.

Household growth and housing land

Recent forecasts predicting the need to accommodate 4.4 million extra households (or even more) by 2016 have highlighted the issue of where people will live and where new housing provision should be made, especially the balance between greenfield and brownfield development. Moreover, this debate should consider not only where housing should be provided - in town or country - but also what kind of housing will meet the forecast needs. The demographic factors driving household growth - the ageing population, divorce and separation, independent living by young adults - points to new demand dominated by small, and by implication relatively poor, households, many of whom will require low-cost social housing. This is at odds with the current pattern of supply of new housing, especially on greenfield sites, which is dominated by high-cost, low-density, family-sized housing for owner-occupation. It can be argued that such issues can really only be effectively considered and planned within 'functional regions'. People do not live their lives, travel to work, or choose their homes, only within the boundaries of a single local authority.

Housing and regeneration:

Awareness has grown of the link between social housing and social exclusion, with the rapid process during the last two decades of the concentration of the poorest in social housing. With this has come growing convergence between purely housing policies and wider programmes of social and economic regeneration. Regeneration will be a responsibility of the Regional Development Agencies but there may be a need to make the case that the regeneration of neighbourhoods and housing can play a central role in the concerns of the RDAs alongside their focus on the economy, the firm and the labour market.

The issues of social exclusion and of housing land supply are closely related. Often greenfield sites are sought for reasons of location rather than land availability. There are urban areas with potential housing land, even existing stocks of good housing, which are 'written-off' as acceptable places to live because of the problems which arise from the social exclusion of their people and neighbourhoods.

Devolved and regional housing structures in the rest of the UK

The organisation of social housing in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales is distinguished from that of England most obviously by the fact that they already have national housing agencies - the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and Scottish Homes (both of which have their own operational regional structures), and Tai Cymru in Wales.

A number of potential benefits of such agencies can be identified. One is their ability to pursue policies more independently of central government and more closely related to local needs and priorities. For example, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive was able to continue large-scale, public-sector house-building long after this had been brought to a halt in the rest of the UK. The particular emphasis within Scottish Homes on linking housing to wider regeneration is another example of a capacity for independence and innovation.

Their scale of operation allows them to transcend the limitations of local authority boundaries and also gives the capability to provide a powerful research and strategy-making role. The development by Scottish Homes of the technique of Local Housing System Analysis is a prime example.

While these specialist housing agencies are the most obvious difference between England and the rest of the UK, the greater degree of existing devolution of government seen in, for instance, the operation of the Welsh and the Scottish Offices has also provided a different context for housing policy - in the case of Wales, for example, creating a more integrated framework for linking housing and land-use planning.

In terms of the future, the implications of constitutional change are unclear for Scottish Homes and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. In Wales, Tai Cymru is to be abolished and its functions incorporated into a new Housing Department which may come within the remit of the Welsh Assembly. This could provide a prototype for the rest of the UK of the integration of social housing policy-making at a level between the UK government and local authorities.

The European dimension

While housing is not a competence of the European Union, many EU programmes do have an indirect impact on social housing and the regional level is a crucially important channel of EU resources.

Currently the most important element of EU funding for social housing are the Structural Funds - the Regional Development Fund and the Social Fund - providing support mainly for infrastructure and economic development and for training, especially for disadvantaged groups. As the EU expands with the inclusion of countries from Eastern Europe, regions in the UK may be given less priority under the Structural Funds. However, there may be further opportunities for linking social housing and especially the social and economic problems of disadvantaged social housing neighbourhoods, to the development of urban and spatial policies in the EU, for example in the URBAN Community Initiative.

Some other European countries have more developed systems of regional government or of integration of housing and related policies at different governmental levels, though lessons from them may not be directly applicable to the UK because of differences in political structures and traditions.

Lessons may also be learned from the common experience of many other European countries which, like the UK, are currently developing regional government, in part in response to the need for a strong regional level as a channel for EU action and funding. There are also, perhaps, some similarities between the task of developing a housing dimension within the essentially economic focus of the RDAs, and the use of an EU funding programme, such as the Structural Funds, to meet housing and housing-related objectives - the creation of what has been called a 'surrogate' housing programme.

Issues for the future

A number of potential advantages can be seen in the development of a stronger regional level for social housing in England, based in part on experience elsewhere in the UK.

The first is to provide a 'regional voice' matching policies to the very different regional priorities. For example, in the South of England housing shortage and problems of availability of affordable housing are the key issues, allied to acute problems and conflicts over housing land, while in some areas, especially in the North, low demand for social housing creates its own problems of vacancy, dereliction and social exclusion.

The scale and scope of a regional housing agency could also potentially provide a more effective framework for research, analysis and strategy-making for local housing systems which operate beyond the boundaries of a single local authority. Addressing the issue of balancing greenfield and brownfield development and linking housing to wider regeneration objectives are important elements of such a strategy.

In addition, the regional level might be appropriate for the bringing together of the funding regimes for social housing and their integration with funding for urban regeneration, EU programmes and, possibly, the future taxation of greenfield development.

The above factors indicate that there may be a strong case for wishing to place social housing firmly on the agenda of the Regional Development Agencies. However, it could also be argued that significant transfer of powers over housing to the regional level should not take place in advance of the development of democratically accountable, directly elected regional assemblies in England.

The creation of a powerful regional dimension for social housing would undoubtedly challenge the existing levels of government, especially the local authority level. However, a major role would remain for local authorities in taking forward the 'tactical' elements of an enabling role in order to meet the social objectives of housing through the creation of partnerships at the local level.

About the study

This was essentially a desk-based study but did involve semi-structured interviews with representatives of regional agencies in England and national agencies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.