Manchester’s housing strategy under the spotlight: Economy Scrutiny Committee, 24 June 2021

Two big meaty strategies at this month’s Economy Scrutiny Committee, including the much anticipated Manchester Housing Strategy 2021. As usual though, there’s disappointment about the amount of finger pointing and the small number of questions that were asked challenging the strategies’ environmental credentials.

Like the rest of the scrutiny committees, this month’s Economy Scrutiny Committee was the first “proper” meeting since the local elections. The Committee looks at issues affecting Manchester’s economy and its local residents.

Let’s get into it then. The Housing Strategy is designed to look at how the city will respond to growth over the next 10 years. The draft strategy looks at challenges with social housing, rogue landlords, and how to increase the environmental credentials of the housing stock. 17,000 homes were built in Manchester since 2015, but there’s still a void between supply and demand. The strategy does contain some encouraging new ideas to tackle social problems, such as Russell Road in Whalley’s Range becoming the first Extra Care site for older LGBT people. However the devil is in the detail. 

The private rented sector is particularly diverse across Manchester, with accommodation for higher earners, students and lower earners. Yet, throughout the strategy it reads as though lower income households are not so welcome in Manchester. For example, on p.2 the strategy explains that “the housing stock remains dominated by Council Tax Band A & B –constraining our ability to pay for services” and  on p.11 “in 2021 Manchester had almost as many Band A properties… as the whole of Greater London” . While presented as facts, CEM hopes that there is not a subtext within the Strategy that lower income renters will be displaced or “priced out” of the MCC area. 

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, the Council has a Zero Carbon target of 2038. Housing represents a key part of Manchester’s carbon emissions, so work is ongoing to improve sustainability. However, only around 20% of the total number of houses being built in the next 5 years will be “low carbon” or built using Modern Methods of Construction (for example constructing “panels” offsite which can be put together on site). Though they do want to dramatically increase that over the lifetime of the strategy, it’s a poor starting point. The strategy mentions:

  • Zero Carbon housing retrofit work
  • a Low Carbon Build Standard for all new developments which will run from 2023. As Cllr Johns (Deansgate) pointed out at the committee, this accommodation will need to be retrofitted in coming years. This waste of everyone’s time and money was blamed on central government for not being “ambitious” enough.
  • A set of “draft principles” which encourages the adoption of Modern Methods of Construction by those building new homes . Are you sure this gentle “encouraging” will be particularly effective? In another case of finger pointing, Cllr Doswell (Fallowfield) asked if more central government money could be used for this.

As the Committee drew out in conversation, a lot of the work to reach the Zero Carbon target will need to come from the public. The population needs to shift behaviour, such as changing how they heat their homes (one of the presenters said people won’t have places to hang their clothes without radiators). While this was acknowledged, it would be great to see more detail about how the Council will start to nudge and change people’s behaviours and how they also address fuel poverty.

There was a lot more in the discussion worth noting – this item will likely feature again at future committee meetings and come under pressure from campaigners groups such as Greater Manchester Housing Action. Today questions centred on what “affordable” means and how student landlords can pay more tax to encourage more sustainable communities. The committee also discussed building safety problems such as cladding. Once again, the finger was firmly pointed at Westminster for not providing enough funding and not covering buildings under 18 metres in the funding it does give. We were assured that the Council plans to lobby really hard though…

How many fingers were pointed? Surely if you’re using all your fingers to point at something it looks more like you’re trying to give it a cuddle. The strategy will be going to consultation soon.

The next item on the agenda was another strategy, this time about work and skills. It is further behind in it’s journey compared to the transport strategy, so there was less interest from Councillors. The “Refresh” of the Manchester Work and Skills strategy takes into  account the Covid-19 challenges and the “wider strategic and policy context in the city”. Which we think means that it’s a very different world to 2015 when the strategy was created (remember when Brexit wasn’t a word?). I’m sure the fact the strategy is being refreshed doesn’t mean that it failed first time though.

There was very little substance in the document presented to the Council, lots of talk of themes and how they will be developed. For that reason there weren’t too many questions either, and the Strategy will no doubt return to the committee when those themes are fully “developed”. Let’s hope there’s lots of detail about green jobs, right?!

The agenda and link to the webcast for the meeting can be found online: Agenda for Economy Scrutiny Committee on Thursday, 24th June 2021 (manchester.gov.uk)

 

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