The adviser to Liverpool’s mayor discusses the challenges and rewards of regeneration in northern England 

barbara spicer crop

Some of the longstanding residents of the Victorian terraces of Liverpool’s Welsh Streets remember Barbara Spicer when she was, as they tell her jokingly, “a nobody” working at a housing association. Since then, Spicer has become a powerful voice for housing in the region while the Welsh Streets, targeted for demolition well over a decade ago, are being refurbished. Spicer is an adviser to metro mayor Steve Rotheram, a board member of the Northern Housing Consortium, and chief executive of housing association Plus Dane Housing, the latest move in a career trajectory that started at Knowsley council and has included the chief executive’s role at Salford council.

Plus Dane has brought Spicer back to the Welsh Streets, as it is working with Liverpool council and Homes England on a major home refurbishment programme. Spicer joined the housing association almost five years ago, putting it on a fresh business track, but the sector’s human focus remains her passion. The day before we speak, Spicer has been practising what she preaches on the latter, going with colleagues to see Under the Wire, the film about war correspondent Marie Colvin. It was an opportunity for the team to discuss the importance of the association’s work in helping to resettle Syrian refugees, she says.

In the north there is a need to focus on the fact that we have the wrong supply in the wrong places

How are you working with the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority?

I’m pretty sure that Liverpool is the only combined authority where the housing sector is a formal part of the governance arrangements, and that means we are embedded as a sector. I am one of a number of advisors to Steve Rotheram, bringing knowledge and capacity to the combined authority.

I am also one of two housing association representatives on the housing and spatial planning advisory board, alongside the six portfolio holders for the local authorities. This means we can be quite vocal on what works and what doesn’t. At combined authority level it is about threading together housing, transport, the economy and the environment. We are discussing an upcoming housing strategy. The city region is also one of the areas piloting the government’s Housing First programme to support rough sleepers.

What is the key priority in housing across the region?

In the north there is a need to focus on the fact that we have the wrong supply in the wrong places and on neighbourhood renewal. We have been let down by a poor quality rental market, and for Plus Dane that presents questions around whether we sell that stock or whether we stay and try to regenerate those areas. We have to find a way to protect our asset base.

For a long time regeneration hasn’t been in the government lexicon

For a long time regeneration hasn’t been in the government lexicon. There is more of an understanding that it’s needed now, but I don’t think people have got their heads around how to fund it. The issue for us is that if we sell poor quality stock, those areas will become worse. We have to accept that some areas need investment.

The combined authority and the Northern Housing Consortium commissioned research from the Smith Institute on the cost of poor-quality housing in the north, published late last year, which highlighted the fact that the majority of non-decent housing is in owner occupation, and is occupied by at least one person over the age of 60 with a long-term illness or disability. There are a number of ageing Right to Buy owners in the north of England who are income poor and asset poor, so they are trapped in their own poor homes without the ability to repair. There is a real systemic issue here.

Many ageing Right to Buy owners are trapped in their own poor homes without the ability to repair. There is a real systemic issue here

This plays into the debate about housing and health – they don’t come together as much as they should. We need to persuade the Treasury that getting this better in a whole-systems approach can help keep people out of the health system. At combined authority level we are talking about what we can do in our design brief to build in environmental and health priorities across the housing sector.

Gwydir Street

Gwydir Street is one of the Welsh Streets that were refurbished

The refurbishment of the Welsh Streets is the culmination of a very long story. What are the lessons from it?

A lesson for us is that you can’t leave it that long. Also, while the end result is amazing and I’m hugely proud of it, it has a cost – in high levels of subsidy, a huge amount of work with the residents involving dedicated teams and a high level of investment in what is undeniably a great product. They are costly properties to work with – there are structural issues and absentee owners, where Liverpool council had to decide whether to compulsorily purchase. At the end of all that we have a low return because people are returning to those homes on social rents.

The Welsh Streets approach can’t be a solution for all terraced housing. But there are lessons that we can take forward

This can’t be a solution for all terraced housing. But there are lessons that we can take forward in the overall approach to doing it from the bureaucratic side – having faith in the partnership – and in taking the community with you.

Under your business strategy for Plus Dane you are aiming to increase development – how?

The sector as a whole faces a challenge around quality versus growth. The leadership of Homes England is doing great work in stepping up delivery, but it is important that we do not inadvertently end up in a race to the bottom in quality.

Associations have done Section 106 to push their numbers up, but I have not been a great fan of that because of the issues – quite often you get the grot spot on a site. Stepping up our own development activity doesn’t mean that we won’t do Section 106 in the future, but in Merseyside and Cheshire we are concentrating on relationship building – trust and confidence are important. We’ll be looking to work with partners and local authorities.

We want to grow, but we don’t want growth for the sake of it. This is a socially, morally driven association.

We’re looking to double our development programme from its current level, but we will only push within our capacity and capability. We want to grow, but we don’t want growth for the sake of it. This is a socially, morally driven association.

Factfile

Number of homes in ownership and management: 13,694

Asset value: £586m

Welsh Streets housing: Remodelling 127 homes to create 99

Total number of new homes built (April 2018 – January 2019): 149