Can Devolution Solve Greater Manchester’s Housing Crisis?

by Isaac Rose

31 March 2017

Manchesterfire/ Creative Commons

The housing crisis is no longer just a London issue. Its effects are being felt across the UK, including in Greater Manchester. There, in the context of the devolution of a wide package of powers to local government and the upcoming mayoral election, Greater Manchester Housing Action (GMHA) are organising around the issues of housing and homelessness.

Greater Manchester’s housing crisis.

Outside of London, Greater Manchester is one of the regions worst affected by the housing crisis. New developments have led to the displacement of communities, with fast-gentrifying neighbourhoods like Ordsall among the worst affected areas. There are now more than 120,000 people on the waiting list for social housing and the average mortgage requires a salary of over £34,000 a year. Homelessness in Manchester rose by 44 percent in 2016 and 79 percent in 2015. Shelter estimates there are 3,200 street homeless across the city. As well as street homelessness, there is a crisis of ‘hidden homelessness’ with over 13,000 houses in the city being home to more than one family.

The situation is likely to worsen. The city population is growing 15% faster than the rate new homes are being provided. At the same time, the homes that are being built are too often unaffordable. This year the city was named one of the year’s property ‘hot spots’, threatening to drastically increase the cost of living, force residents out and fundamentally change the social makeup of the region. The Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) – the planning framework for the next twenty years – relies on private sector development and includes little provision for the building of affordable homes or liveable communities. It has been the target of vocal opposition from civil society organisations and has been dubbed as a ‘developers charter‘ and acted as a unifying force for civil society which is connecting as a network to defend the greenbelt and push for greater transparency and civil involvement in the planning process.

The context of devolution.

On 4 May Greater Manchester will for the first time elect a mayor. This new office was created last year and is a key part of the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ agenda. With direct powers over police, fire, transport, housing and planning, as well significant ‘soft power’ in terms of agenda setting and political leadership, this is a significant new office which operates on a city-region level. With the departure of the powerful Manchester City Council chief exec Sir Howard Bernstein imminent, and his replacement holding a stated focus on homelessness, this is a time of huge change in the city. While there exists pessimism about the impact devolution can have, especially in an age of austerity, it remains true that this is the largest shakeup of local government in England in decades.

On paper this should provide an opportunity to revive local democracy and increase political accountability. Yet up until now, devolution has largely been a process delivered in private, behind closed doors. In the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum, David Cameron promised a radical shakeup of England’s governance and the city leaders of Greater Manchester were quick to act. Calls for ‘democratic devolution’ fell on deaf ears; up till now the agenda has largely been set by the city-region’s businesses and political elite.

Greater Manchester Housing Action.

GMHA was formed at the end of 2015 in the context of devolution and the housing crisis. It was believed that devolution provided a window of immense opportunity for a grassroots campaigning organisations to hold city leaders to account and shape the agenda. Self-consciously municipal in its outlook, the organisation drew inspiration from housing campaigns in Europe that have succeeded in pushing radical agendas forward. In choosing to campaign on all aspects of the housing crisis – homelessness, private renting and the selloff of social housing – GMHA seeks to draw attention to how interlinked these issues are.

Key to the strategy of GMHA has been a network-based approach. By drawing together a range of grassroots organisations working on housing issues and building partnerships, GMHA has been able to punch above its weight as a relatively new and little-funded organisation. The clearest example of this power has been the securing of a public mayoral hustings next Monday on housing and homelessness. It is notable that the sole hustings on the hugely important issue of housing is not organised by developers or housing associations, but a collection of progressive grassroots campaigners. At these hustings, GMHA will platform questions from groups and individuals who do not usually have a voice in the housing debate and use the opportunity of the candidates being in front of a over two hundred voters to press them on tangible commitments and hold them to account.

Yet GMHA’s strategy does not end with these hustings. Over the next few months it will be working with a diverse range of partners – including RAPAR, University of Manchester Students’ Union, ACORN, Manchester Shield and Salford Community Theatre to build alliances around housing in the city. As well, it will be running a series of workshops that will train a new generation of housing activists around key issues of renting and homelessness. It will build the infrastructure and capacity of the movement, strengthen the skills base, and ensure that the new mayor will be held to account by a vibrant and powerful movement from below. The experience of Bristol and the demands the #rentersrising movement is making on their mayor shows that this is an entirely achievable goal.

The future.

While Brexit and the change of government seems to have put the brakes on the devolution process in most areas for now, in Manchester the process already has its own momentum. It is likely that Andy Burnham, whose campaign has in part been characterised by a willingness to question the city’s current direction, will win the mayoralty. He has called for a rewrite of the GMSF and questioned the lack of affordable housing. He has pledged a 15 percent pay cut as mayor to fund a scheme to tackle homelessness. There are signs he will go further – arguing for more powers to be devolved so that the city region can adequately deal with its housing needs. This is something that some commentators have said will be essential if Britain is to seriously address the housing crisis. Once in office, Salford Mayor Paul Dennett provides a model of what committed and progressive local government can do on housing – he has pledged to build 500 council homes during the next three years. Burnham will have greater powers at his disposal and the enactment of a similar progressive agenda across the entire city region could have a transformational effect on the housing debate in this country by showing what local government can do.

The main question here is one of political will and whether Burnham feels enough pressure to carry out his campaign pledges. That Burnham’s campaign has been built around these issues is a testament to the hard work of grassroots campaigners in setting the agenda, and their role will be no less important after 4 May. In this context, a strong housing movement will be more essential than ever.

To keep up to date with the work of GMHA follow them on Facebook and Twitter. Their special mayoral hustings on housing and homelessness will be on 3  April, St Phillips Church, Salford. Tickets are free and available here.

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