New year, new positivity, and a new gigantic policy initiative to distract us all, namely the still clumsy-sounding ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper, which roped in a variety of important housing moves as part of its wide regeneration agenda.
There is controversy of course – the re-announcements of funding packages ‘regifted’ like unwanted Christmas presents, among the genuinely new aspects such as abilities for regions to self-govern using ‘London-style Mayors’.
There’s also been tittle tattle around whether the recent announcement was hastily cobbled together including sections cut and pasted from Wikipedia.
For a variety of reasons, we will find it difficult to sever our adherence to the fossil fuel
New money, old money
As perhaps one of his senior colleagues might consider, to restore some credibility to one’s long-term legacy, Gove should level with the public and industry that the housing money isn’t new – at least £1.5bn of it isn’t.
Rishi Sunak actually announced the £1.8bn Brownfield Fund in October 2021, but we are now presented with the £1.5bn Levelling Up Home Building Fund of brownfield regeneration loans for SME builders – in priority areas in the north and midlands.
The two funding packages are one and the same, the money has been diverted to what’s perceived as the more needy target.
City Mayors in those regions will have £120m of that pot to play with, and there is a paltry £300m left for other brownfield projects across the rest of the country.
Beyond London and the SE
Gove launched the ambitious plan (led by the all-powerful Homes England) to regenerate 20 towns and city centres, starting with Wolverhampton and Sheffield.
The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has been inspired by the metamorphosis of London’s Kings Cross from an industrial wasteland into a high-end commercial and residential space, and wants the projects to be “ambitious, King’s Cross-style, transforming derelict urban sites into beautiful communities.”
Under the new plans, the ‘80/20 rule’ (which means that most Government housing investment is directed at London and the south east) will be scrapped.
Red Wall investment
For those areas prioritised (which are largely the former ‘red wall’ Tory seats), there is to be a bonanza of building work for housebuilders and the rest of the industry, which can only be a good thing.
At the same time, we need to remember that the big picture is the net zero target of 2050, and that new schemes which replace dilapidated infrastructure in northern and midlands towns must be driven by sustainability.
As yet, there are no mandatory Government green building standards beyond the interim 31% carbon cut under the Future Homes Standard, so developers will need to deploy their own carbon-cutting ambitions, and nous in delivering it efficiently.
Heating and eating
The big question, as we face the biggest energy price rises for a generation, is whether promises to ‘level up’ poorer areas to their richer counterparts is a borderline insulting pipe-dream, given that many people will be choosing between ‘heating and eating’ come April.
What is really going to be a major dampener on Ministers’ no doubt partly honest ambitions to improve the prospects of deprived areas, is a double gut-punch for ‘hard working families’ (or actually, anyone who isn’t rich) that will occur then. Namely, an estimated £693 rise in energy bills this year, thanks to the energy price cap being raised in April, as worldwide fuel prices continue to soar.
This is coupled with a likely continued increase in interest rates, the Bank of England determined to curb inflation, having again raised rates this week to 0.5%. This may not add hundreds to monthly mortgage payments yet, but combined with the fuel price rise, it’s going to be hard to swallow for not only the homeowners in areas earmarked for levelling up, but also widely across the UK.
We do, as Rishi Sunak said recently, have to confront the reality of a future with high gas prices.
It now seems that the quiet war against gas, instead embracing decarbonised electricity, could have usefully started with more purpose many years ago, and we might be in a different position now.
But, for a variety of reasons, not least our ongoing relationship with North Sea gas, we will find it difficult to sever our adherence to the fossil fuel. Catastrophic long-term price rises might just be the thing that breaks it.