If the Tories want to fix the housing crisis, they need to think regionally

Theresa May addresses the National Housing Summit in September 2018. Image: Getty.

This month marks seven months since the re-launch of the government’s National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Back in March, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed an audience of town planners, urban designers, and developers promising to reform the system to promote more equal access to housing.

Since that speech, a new housing minister has been appointed, the government have announced a prospectus for new Garden Towns, the NPPF has undergone a further revision, and just last month May herself announced an extra £2bn in funding for social housing. Yet, despite all this, nothing seems to have really changed.

Although the £2bn for social housing gained May a rare standing ovation, her critics point out the funding won’t be available until 2022 and might eventually only deliver around 5,000 new homes. The call for new sustainable towns sounds equally ambitious, but a closer examination of the detail suggests the programme simply seeks to rebrand existing proposals. Although these announcements sound radical, neither is backed by the funding or decision-making powers necessary increase supply in the short to medium terms.

There have been no announcements on further commitments to infrastructure which would make poorly connected areas viable locations for development. Likewise, until extremely recently, there has been no mention of additional powers for Local Authorities to raise funds to build more council homes. Perhaps most disappointingly, the promotion of Garden Towns has not been accompanied by a discussion around shifting the dynamic of taxation from properties to land.

In the absence of any tangible increase in funding, May has previously sought to target disingenuous developers who hoard land to artificially inflate house prices. Given the Conservative’s predisposition to private delivery, the big stick mooted by the PM has been largely rhetorical.


Whilst reform in this area is undoubtedly welcome, forcing developers to accelerate build out rates won’t stop them overbidding for sites in the first place – nor will it address the local aversion to change that slows delivery. Most importantly perhaps, oversimplifying the roles of local communities and developers as heroes and villains respectively belies the multifaceted nature of pressures on housing. 

In September, Sky News published the results of detailed analysis that sought to dispel the myth of a monolithic national housing crises. Through an in-depth mapping exercise, its research argued the UK is simultaneously undergoing five separate crises related to a lack of both supply and demand, under-occupation, quality and credit. The analysis rebuffs the binary debate of supply and demand, rejecting the idea that building 300,000 homes a year is the answer to many of the challenges the UK faces.

The findings also demonstrate how the health of any given housing market is inexplicitly linked to strength of the local economy. It should come as no shock that the areas blighted by a lack of demand and quality are also characterised by high levels of deprivation and unemployment.

May’s government has rightly attracted some praise for discussing housing in more nuanced terms. It wasn’t too long ago that national discourse was reduced to an oversimplified, and often artificial choice of brownfield verses green belt development. Whilst the evolution beyond this is welcome, last month’s findings suggest housing policy requires far greater regional specificity if it is to address issues around social justice and equality.

Policy dreamt up in Westminster has a distinctly southern focus and is ill-equipped to deal with such a complex array of challenges. Solutions for the housing crisis must also be thought of in more holistic terms, taking in economic regeneration, infrastructure and the environment. Crucially, policy needs to be backed by adequate funds, power and long-term planning.

Until the government thinks in these terms, kind words on housing will continue to undermine social mobility rather than promote it.

Jas Bhalla is an architect and town planner.

 
 
 
 

What’s killing northerners?

The Angel of the North. Image: Getty.

There is a stark disparity in wealth and health between people in the north and south of England, commonly referred to as England’s “north-south divide”. The causes of this inequality are complex; it’s influenced by the environment, jobs, migration and lifestyle factors – as well as the long-term political power imbalances, which have concentrated resources and investment in the south, especially in and around London.

Life expectancy is also lower in the north, mainly because the region is more deprived. But new analysis of national mortality data highlights a shockingly large mortality gap between young adults, aged 25 to 44, living in the north and south of England. This gap first emerged in the late 1990s, and seems to have been growing ever since.

In 1995, there were 2% more deaths among northerners aged 25 to 34 than southerners (in other words, 2% “excess mortality”). But by 2015, northerners in this age group were 29% more likely to die than their southern counterparts. Likewise, in the 35 to 44 age group, there was 3% difference in mortality between northerners and southerners in 1995. But by 2015, there were 49% more deaths among northerners than southerners in this age group.

Excess mortality in the north compared with south of England by age groups, from 1965 to 2015. Follow the lines to see that people born around 1980 are the ones most affected around 2015.

While mortality increased among northerners aged 25 to 34, and plateaued among 35 to 44-year-olds, southern mortality mainly declined across both age groups. Overall, between 2014 and 2016, northerners aged 25 to 44 were 41% more likely to die than southerners in the same age group. In real terms, this means that between 2014 and 2016, 1,881 more women and 3,530 more men aged between 25 and 44 years died in the north, than in the south.

What’s killing northerners?

To understand what’s driving this mortality gap among young adults, our team of researchers looked at the causes of death from 2014 to 2016, and sorted them into eight groups: accidents, alcohol related, cardiovascular related (heart conditions, diabetes, obesity and so on), suicide, drug related, breast cancer, other cancers and other causes.

Controlling for the age and sex of the population in the north and the south, we found that it was mostly the deaths of northern men contributing to the difference in mortality – and these deaths were caused mainly by cardiovascular conditions, alcohol and drug misuse. Accidents (for men) and cancer (for women) also played important roles.

From 2014 to 2016, northerners were 47% more likely to die for cardiovascular reasons, 109% for alcohol misuse and 60% for drug misuse, across both men and women aged 25 to 44 years old. Although the national rate of death from cardiovascular reasons has dropped since 1981, the longstanding gap between north and south remains.

Death and deprivation

The gap in life expectancy between north and south is usually put down to socioeconomic deprivation. We considered further data for 2016, to find out if this held true for deaths among young people. We found that, while two thirds of the gap were explained by the fact that people lived in deprived areas, the remaining one third could be caused by some unmeasured form of deprivation, or by differences in culture, infrastructure, migration or extreme weather.

Mortality for people aged 25 to 44 years in 2016, at small area geographical level for the whole of England.

Northern men faced a higher risk of dying young than northern women – partly because overall mortality rates are higher for men than for women, pretty much at every age, but also because men tend to be more susceptible to socioeconomic pressures. Although anachronistic, the expectation to have a job and be able to sustain a family weighs more on men. Accidents, alcohol misuse, drug misuse and suicide are all strongly associated with low socioeconomic status.

Suicide risk is twice as high among the most deprived men, compared to the most affluent. Suicide risk has also been associated with unemployment, and substantial increases in suicide have been observed during periods of recession – especially among men. Further evidence tells us that unskilled men between ages 25 and 39 are between ten and 20 times more likely to die from alcohol-related causes, compared to professionals.

Alcohol underpins the steep increase in liver cirrhosis deaths in Britain from the 1990s – which is when the north-south divide in mortality between people aged 25 to 44 also started to emerge. Previous research has shown that men in this age group, who live in the most deprived areas, are five times more likely to die from alcohol-related diseases than those in the most affluent areas. For women in deprived areas, the risk is four times greater.


It’s also widely known that mortality rates for cancer are higher in more deprived areas, and people have worse survival rates in places where smoking and alcohol abuse is more prevalent. Heroin and crack cocaine addiction and deaths from drug overdoses are also strongly associated with deprivation.

The greater number of deaths from accidents in the north should be considered in the context of transport infrastructure investment, which is heavily skewed towards the south – especially London, which enjoys the lowest mortality in the country. What’s more, if reliable and affordable public transport is not available, people will drive more and expose themselves to higher risk of an accident.

Deaths for young adults in the north of England have been increasing compared to those in the south since the late 1990s, creating new health divides between England’s regions. It seems that persistent social, economic and health inequalities are responsible for a growing trend of psychological distress, despair and risk taking among young northerners. Without major changes, the extreme concentration of power, wealth and opportunity in the south will continue to damage people’s health, and worsen the north-south divide.

The Conversation

Evangelos Kontopantelis, Professor in Data Science and Health Services Research, University of Manchester

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.