Councillor John Blundell on why, when it comes to housing, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion." - Edmund Burke, 1744

Manchester city centre is virtually unrecognisable from when I was a child. In the 1990s, the city was failing to attract young professionals on the scale that mega-cities like London have been managing for decades. A city can never have too many ‘bright young things’; they are essential to any vibrant and successful economy.

Now, it seems, the wind is beginning to blow in both directions. As reported in the Financial Times recently, young southerners are increasingly seeing Manchester as a viable option for relocation. In recent years, we’ve enjoyed an influx of twenty-something professionals. The cultural, economic and physical make-up of our city have all benefitted from a much-needed dose of youthful energy.

The newly elected Mayor’s recent announcement that he intends to ‘re-focus’ his housing investment fund on social housing may not prove as popular as people may think. This plan is not without its merit; but Mr Burnham should be careful not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. Now is not the time to pull the plug on the kind of modern apartment blocks which are partly responsible for attracting so many young professionals.

Now is not the time to pull the plug on the kind of modern apartment blocks which are partly responsible for attracting so many young professionals.

The price and the quality of housing are undoubtedly key incentives to move ‘up North’. In our city centre you can buy a smart apartment within walking distance of both work and your favourite bar in the Northern Quarter for less than £150k - unimaginable in London. 

The main benefit to us native Mancunians is the greater spending power and increased opportunities afforded by this migration. Firms need a thriving labour market full of young professionals trying to make their mark on the world. In Manchester, there is now a critical mass of young go-getters. The percentage of their wages that this age group spends in the local economy is unmatched by any other demographic. The consumerist instincts of millennials are a veritable boon to our region’s economy.

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Mayor Burham intends to ‘re-focus’ his housing investment fund on social housing MPA
170522 St Johns Allied London
Ambitious city centre schemes like Allied London's St John's neighbourhood will see more luxury apartments enter the market

One criticism of the way the housing investment fund is currently being deployed is that it enables multi-nationals to build the types of homes we already have an abundance: tall, glass Yuppie apartment blocks, some of which end up sitting empty. On the face of it, the naysayers are right to raise concerns but their arguments do not stack up to reality.

Empty homes do not represent a lack of demand for property. Possibly the most upmarket borough in the world, Kensington and Chelsea, had the same number of empty properties in 2016 as the City of Manchester (1,400). Remember Kensington and Chelsea? That area famed for its lack of demand for housing and over supply.

In fact, whilst the number of long-term vacant properties in Kensington and Chelsea remained roughly constant between 2006 and 2016, in the same period the number fell dramatically - from 11,000 to 1,400 - in Manchester. The days where empty homes in this city posed a significant problem have passed. We need to build, and quickly, if we are to ensure that demand does not begin to outstrip supply. We do not want to see a repeat of the housing bubble witnessed in the city centre during 2008.

Pooling our social housing stock across Greater Manchester and having a common allocations policy could help ameliorate the existing problem of long waiting lists

I am concerned that parts of the public are disregarding the opinions of experts (of whom we have all supposedly 'had enough'). Given the Mayor’s popularity I hope he can help lead public opinion, we cannot allow an ill-informed minority of the public steer everybody else’s opinion.

The Mayor’s efforts to solve the social housing crisis are laudable. For too long, those in need of social housing have languished on waiting lists. The solution in this instance, however, is not simply to increase the supply. Unlike the private rented sector, there are huge barriers to overcome when trying to move from one housing association to another.

Pooling our social housing stock across Greater Manchester and having a common allocations policy could help ameliorate the existing problem of long waiting lists. We need to take advantage of the economies of scale that may be on offer. In Rochdale, for example, there were plans to knock down two of the iconic Seven Sisters tower blocks, owing to reduced demand in this, the era of the social housing crisis. A change in policy direction could be a cheaper and more effective option than building new homes. 

We could also remove some of the outdated rules that plague social housing allocation, such as the restriction on children living above the third floor in tower blocks. No such regulations exist in the private rental market, it should be up to parents. If there are space and quality issues, we should either invest in re-modelling our current stock or hand them over to developers such as Urban Splash. 

Seven Sisters Rochdale
There were plans to knock down two of the iconic Seven Sisters tower blocks in Rochdale, owing to reduced demand Paul Clare

It is no coincidence that Eamon Boylan was recently appointed as CEO of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), in a previous role Mr Boylan served as deputy CEO of the Homes and Community Agency (HCA). Similarly, Joanne Roney’s appointment as CEO of Manchester City Council reflects her strong track record in delivering housing. These are not the types of experts we should have 'had enough' of. 

The mayoral decision that I strongly agree with: appointing Paul Dennett as housing czar. Mr Dennett has an excellent track record in the delivery of social housing, but, crucially, he also understands the value to the region of the city centre housing market. Salford has benefited tremendously from city centre living. I do not believe he will be over-zealous in the proposed overhaul, all that is required are pragmatic reforms. 

If I were to have a single take-home message for you it is this: when it comes to housing, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. What we have been doing so far has been working but too few have been willing to defend our record.

Cllr John Blundell:

John Blundell is a graduate of economics at the University of Manchester and was elected to Rochdale Borough Council at the age of 20. He has worked as a transport and development economist both for a niche firm London and a large practice in Manchester. 

He campaigns on trying to change the life chances of young people both through literacy and art but is now using his professional skills to better inform the debate on city economics in Greater Manchester.