Here’s how councils can jumpstart housebuilding

Houses in Bristol. Image: Getty.

A lot has gone wrong in the UK housing market to create a crisis as bad as the one we’ve got. Our biggest problem though, is that local authorities don’t build enough anymore. 

At Key Cities therefore, our answer is simple: councils should take the lead on solving the housing crisis. We are proposing an ambitious package of policy reforms – lifting restrictions so councils can borrow to finance building, more powers so councils can bring land into use, and revising central government funding formulas to reward councils which build with extra cash for public services.

Sajid Javid recently talked about borrowing more to build homes. The first thing he can do is lift the cap on the amount local authorities can borrow under the Housing Revenue Account, so councils can bring us up to 300,000 homes per year. Local authorities can then borrow what they need to build more homes and use the money from rents and sales of new homes to pay back their debts. Central government grants would be welcome to get building started – but in many cases, Whitehall wouldn’t need to borrow an extra penny.

To help councils plan more efficiently, the government should allow local authorities to reserve a certain amount of stock from being eligible for, and so guarantee that councils won’t lose any income from. Right to Buy sales. This will allow local authorities to preserve more social housing stock and get the income necessary to replace the homes which are sold.


Key Cities is also asking for the powers to take land which has planning permission, but construction has not commenced within a designated time, and use it to build houses ourselves. We also support strengthening compulsory purchase powers to get viable land into use, and further powers to get empty homes back into use, including through council tax. We’ve now got 1.4m empty homes in the UK, and even getting some of them back into use will relieve much of the immediate shortage and price pressure, particularly in the private rented sector.

In this endeavour, we are already working in partnership with the private and third sectors, and encouraging positive developments that promote quality housing and a mix of tenure. But local authorities must lead the process. We are the ones with a duty to provide local services, and we are the ones ultimately who have to make our cities good places to live.

Whitehall policy should take that into account. Central government funding formulas should reward councils which build more homes with extra funds for schools, hospitals and road improvements. In the end, we’ll only get homes built if the communities support them – and they’ll only support them if they know there will be a new GP surgery, or a new primary school, or a new junction to ease the traffic. And it’s no good to wait until the roads are gridlocked to act.

The Budget in November is an ideal opportunity for the government to set this right. All these powers are within their gift, and would jumpstart housebuilding immediately. This crisis is a generational challenge, and it’s time we found the guts to solve it. 

Councillor John Merry is deputy city mayor of Salford, and housing lead for the Key Cities group of 21 cities.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.  

 
 
 
 

“One of the greatest opportunities facing our region”: Andy Burnham on making work better for older people

Andy Burnham (then health secretary) and Gordon Brown (then prime minister) meeting an older voter in 2010. Image: Getty.

In the Greater Manchester Strategy, published by the Combined Authority in October, we set out our vision for Greater Manchester, including our ambitions for employment.

It’s not simply about getting more people into work – though this is important, given that our employment rate across the region is still below the national average. It’s also about improving the quality of work; creating better jobs with opportunities for people to progress and develop. That’s why we’re working towards a Good Employer Charter to encourage businesses across the region to step up.

But if we want to make a real difference for the people of Greater Manchester, we need to focus on those who currently struggle most to find a job, including people with disabilities, people with fewer qualifications – and older people.

One in three people aged between 50 and 64 in the Greater Manchester area are out of work. Adding in older workers on low pay, nearly half (46.3 per cent) of 50-64 year olds in Greater Manchester are either out of work or in low paid, low quality jobs. This is a bad situation at any age – in your 50s, with fewer chances to get back into work and less time to make up the shortfall in income and savings, it’s terrible.

It’s also bad for the region. People out of work are more likely to have or develop health problems, and need more care and support from our public services. We are also missing out on the skills and experience of thousands of residents. If Greater Manchester’s employment rate for 50-64 year olds matched the UK average, there would be 19,000 more people in work – earning, spending and paying into the local economy. GVA in the region could grow by £800m pa if we achieved this. 

If it’s bad now, it’s only going to get worse unless we act. This is the fastest growing age group among working age people in Greater Manchester. And with the rise in State Pension Age, we are no longer talking about 50-64 year olds, but 50-65, 66 and eventually 67. There are more older workers, and we are working for longer. Many of us are now expecting to work into our 70s to be able to earn enough for our later lives.


As the State Pension age rises, older people without decent work must struggle for longer without an income before they can draw their pension. But if we approach this right, we can improve people’s lives and benefit our local economy at the same time. It makes financial and social sense.

Older people bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the workplace, but we must make sure we provide a work environment that enables them to flourish. If we can help them get into good quality, suitable work, older people will be able to retain their financial independence and continue contributing to the region’s economy.

A report published earlier this week by the Centre for Ageing Better looks at exactly this issue. Part of our strategic partnership with the Centre for Ageing Better, the report is based on research conducted over six months with older residents in five communities with high levels of economic disadvantage across Greater Manchester.

In Brinnington, Stockport, the team met Adrian, in his late 50s. Adrian is a trained electrician, but since being made redundant ten years ago, has only managed to get a few short-term contracts. These short term, zero hours contracts, are “more trouble than they’re worth” and have left Adrian stressed and worse-off financially.

He has been sent on a large number of employment-related courses by JobCentre Plus, and has a CV with two pages listing training he has completed. However, these courses were of little interest to him and did not relate to his aim of finding stable work as an electrician. He told the team he only attended most of the courses so he “doesn’t get in trouble”.

Adrian recognises there are other types of work available, but much of it is warehouse based and as he is not in the best physical health he does not feel this work is suitable. He said he has “given up” on finding work – even though he still has 8 or 9 years to go until State Pension age.

Adrian’s story shows how badly the system is failing people like him – highly skilled, in a trade that’s in high demand, but being put through the motions of support in ways that make no sense for him.

A major finding of the report was the high number of people in this age group who had both caring responsibilities and their own health problems. With the need to manage their own health, and the high cost of paying for care, people found that they were not better off in low paid work. Several people shared stories of the complexity of coming off income support to take up temporary work and how this left them worse off financially – in some cases in severe debt.

The report concludes that changes are needed at every level to tackle chronic worklessness amongst this age group. This is not something that employment and skills services alone can fix, although Adrian’s story shows they can be much better at dealing with people as individuals, and this is something we want to do more on in Greater Manchester. But the health and benefits systems need to work in sync with employment support, and this is a national as well as a local issue.

Employers too need to do more to support older workers and prevent them from falling out of the labour market in the first place. This means more flexible working arrangements to accommodate common challenges such as health issues or caring responsibilities, and ensuring recruitment and other processes don’t discriminate against this age group.  

Greater Manchester has been at the forefront of devolution and has been using its powers to bring together health, skills and employment support to improve the lives of local people. The Working Well programme is a perfect example of this, providing integrated and personalised support to over 18,000 people, and delivering fantastic outcomes and value for money.

Such an approach could clearly be expanded even further to include the needs of older people. Ageing Better’s report shows that more can and needs to be done, and we will use their insights as we prepare our age-friendly strategy for Greater Manchester

We have to act now. In 20 years’ time, over a third of the population of Greater Manchester will be over 50. Making work better for all of us as we age is one of the greatest economic and social opportunities facing our city region.

Andy Burnham is the mayor of Greater Manchester.

For more about the work of Greater Manchester Combined Authority and its Ageing Hub, click here.