A lot of the discussion around the Northern Powerhouse is formed on infrastructure. But to unlock the required investment you have to generate demand. The only way that will be done is by creating an upswing in economic activity – through more high paid jobs, and provision of high quality housing for a large population.
We have a shortage of housing in the UK. The extent of the problem is a source of debate, but there is little disagreement that we need to provide more homes, perhaps as many as 300,000 per year to ensure decent accommodation for all.
At present the greatest housing pressure is on the south-east of England. In the cities of the Northern Powerhouse there is far less pressure on housing and in some areas properties can be found for less than the £50,000 needed for a deposit in London.
At the same time, relentless economic growth in London and the south-east is creating a society where there is a growing difficulty in finding staff for lower-paid jobs, and where costs of housing and the costs and time of commuting have a hugely negative impact on quality of life.
The solutions to this dilemma are not complex and not novel. Connectivity and amenity in London and the south-east drive growth there. To boost the northern economy major infrastructure and housing investment are required. And that means creating better education, top class training, and providing better jobs.
There have been some attempts to decentralise civil service, and other tasks, from London. These are to be commended but have required staff to relocate. Perhaps the opportunity now is for employers in the public and private sectors to recognise and highlight the positive benefits of a relocation to the Northern Powerhouse as a move which will cut commuting and make home ownership a reality, whilst taking pressure off services in the south-east.
If this is to succeed, we need housing which fulfils the expectation of growing Northern Powerhouse populations. There are easy wins such as the refurbishment of old industrial premises into loft-living apartments. These will support the renewal of the city centre economy.
But the wider challenge for the Northern Powerhouse will be to create vibrant integrated communities through housing modernisation programmes which improve energy efficiency and insulation, maximise useable space, and install high speed broadband.
Such upgrades are currently undertaken in an ad-hoc manner. A systematic and concerted programme involving a menu of potential improvements for easy roll-out, at a neighbourhood scale, and without relocating or pricing out the existing population, would create attractive high performance houses for incumbents and incomers alike. Without high quality homes, the Northern Powerhouse won’t get out of the starting blocks.