The challenge to Whitehall from metro mayors, on behalf of their regions, over Covid-19 restrictions has highlighted a relatively new dynamic in England’s political system.
There are currently ten combined authorities in the country, each set up by two or more neighbouring councils wishing to co-ordinate responsibilities for services including aspects of housing, transport, adult skills and social care. Of these, only West Yorkshire does not have a metro mayor yet.
But that will change on 6 May 2021 when the voters of Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and Wakefield go to the polls to choose the first directly elected Mayor of West Yorkshire. The winning candidate will also serve as chair of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA). As demonstrated by recent events in Greater Manchester, Liverpool and the West Midlands in particular, she or he will be powerful voice for our region on the national stage.
The devolution settlement – agreed by the five West Yorkshire local authorities, WYCA and the Government in March – offers a prime opportunity for the region’s housing association sector to place the need for more affordable homes at the centre of the political debate between now and polling day. But why stop at bricks and mortar?
Building more high-quality affordable homes is clearly an important part of the agenda, but we need to focus on more than new supply. There are numerous other housing and social challenges faced by local communities here and we must find solutions to these too. For us to succeed, we need a collaborative and coordinated approach.
With that mission in mind, 10 housing associations headquartered in the region have formed the West Yorkshire Housing Partnership and published a prospectus setting out how we can work with the metro mayor and WYCA to deliver a shared vision.
Collectively, these 10 housing associations currently provide 91,463 homes across the five districts of West Yorkshire. These are a mix of properties for social rent, affordable rent, leasehold and low-cost ownership. Over the last three years, we have built 2,100 new affordable homes.
We are also major contributors to the regional economy. West Yorkshire housing associations generated a combined turnover of £710 million in 2018-19 and reinvested this in the areas we serve, including through local suppliers. We employ more than 3,751 people including 90 apprentices and, in the last financial year, supported 3,173 West Yorkshire residents into work and training.
We have a significant footprint in the region and impact many lives. By pooling our ideas, knowledge and resolve to affect positive change, we believe we can do such more.
The proposals have been formulated around five integrated ambitions that support the devolution deal. Aside from providing more and better homes, we want to help the mayor to regenerate local areas, connect people to economic opportunity, tackle the climate emergency and fuel poverty, and support improved health care outcomes and reduce homelessness. As one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the country, we also want to enhance West Yorkshire’s position as a standard bearer for inclusion and create pathways to first class affordable homes and a better quality of life for people of all ethnicities.
Under each ambition set out in the prospectus, we have identified specific ways in which we can deliver more results and what the benefits will be. The 38-page document is also crammed with real life case studies, provided by all 10 members of the Partnership, which demonstrate that we can deliver on our aims – particularly when working closely with others.
For example, Connect Housing, which I have been privileged to lead since 2016, joined forces with three other local organisations in 2017 to form the Engage Leeds consortium. This supports 4,500 people across the city each year from falling into homelessness by supporting independent living whilst helping them connect with their local community thus avoiding isolation. The offer was extended early in the pandemic to support Leeds City Council who accommodated 229 people who had previously been rough sleeping in safe accommodation such as hotels with support offered by Engage.
The issues faced by housing associations are complex. But by speaking with a united voice and pooling our expertise, the West Yorkshire Housing Partnership can make a major contribution to the policy direction of the region, aided by the boost that devolution will bring.
We have already begun holding discussions on a non-partisan basis with prospective mayoral candidates and political parties. These engagements will continue between now and polling day. As well as increasing awareness of the work we do, we will strive to build a consensus around how our five integrated ambitions for West Yorkshire can be achieved.
Our region, in common with the rest of the country, is going through a tough period. But better times do lie ahead for West Yorkshire and we want to play our full part in delivering that bright future.