Give and take: the spending review and housing benefit

Originally posted on November 17 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Two separate reports over the weekend claimed that housing benefit is being targeted by George Osborne for £2bn worth of savings to fix his tax credits debacle.

Iain Duncan Smith famously responded to Osborne’s July Budget ‘triumph’ with a fist-pumping celebration. The triumph soon began to crumble it became clear that the Budget really amounted to a message to work hard, do the right thing – and get screwed. As that realisation dawned, the scene was set for a struggle between the two Cabinet ministers played out in media briefings over an apparent raid on universal credit to pay for mitigation.

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Rent control moves closer to home

Whether you’re for or against measures to control private sector rents, it’s going to be worth watching closely what happens to new legislation in Ireland.

After a long row between the Irish coalition partners, the government has finally agreed a package of measures designed to give ‘rent certainty’ to tenants until supply increases. The package includes:

  • For the next four years, landlords will only be allowed to increase their rents once every 24 months rather than 12 months as at present
  • Landlords will have to give 90 days notice of any increase (up from 28)
  • Landlords will have to provide evidence that any future increases are in line with the local market rate and inform tenants of their legal right to challenge them
  • Tenants will have stronger protection against unscrupulous landlords who falsely declare they need to sell the home or move in a family member: landlords will have to sign a statutory declaration and face fines if it is invalid
  • Landlords who house tenants on social security will get 100% mortgage tax relief against their rent (up from 75%).

Note that ‘rent certainty’ is not the same thing as rent control. What’s interesting about the package from this side of the Irish Sea is that it anticipates – and goes beyond – all of the points raised in the growing debate on rent regulation here. The Scottish Government is dipping its toe in the water with a Bill that will allow local rent control in rent pressure areas while Labour will call for new powers to freeze rents in London if Sadiq Khan wins next year’s mayoral election.

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Good cop, bad cop and mad cop

Originally posted on November 13 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Inside Housing: ‘Clark promises deregulation package’. FT: ‘Osborne eyes social housing stake sale.’ Daily Mail: ‘Duncan Smith’s great council house giveaway.’

Three rival visions for housing in England from three rival politicians who all think they know best.

Let’s assume some of this is the result of private disputes about budgets (especially between Osborne and IDS) playing out in public. The run-up to any spending review features media briefings designed to promote pet projects or scupper those of others. But this is still different: it’s not pet projects at stake here but potentially the entire future of housing. And the rival visions directly contradict each other.

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Beyond meaning

Originally posted on November 11 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

So now it is official. Brandon Lewis has confirmed that ‘affordable’ means 80% of the market rate.

His statement at a Communities and Local Government Committee hearing on the Housing Bill confirms a direction of travel that has been clear ever since the creation of ‘affordable’ rent. Starter homes at a 20% discount to the full price now represent ‘affordable’ home ownership. Needless to say, neither is exactly affordable by any conventional definition of the word.

The minister’s statement came in this exchange with Labour MP Jo Cox:

Cox: Do you think there should be a statutory definition of affordability for both rent and purchase?’

Lewis: At the moment it’s 80% of the market value, whether to rent or purchase.

Cox: But there isn’t a statutory definition.

Lewis: Well, the definition of affordability… an affordable rent is 80% of market value and affordable purchase with starter homes it would effectively be 80% of market value.

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Right to buy watch

Originally posted on November 4 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Here are eight key themes that emerged in evidence from housing association executives to the parliamentary inquiry into the extension of the right to buy.

I wasn’t planning to but I got sucked in to watching the Communities and Local Government committee hearing on housing associations and the right to buy on Wednesday. Across two sessions with witnesses from eight different associations, here’s what I learned:

1) This is not just about the right to buy

The inquiry is meant to be focussed on the right to buy but questions ranged far and wide as MPs asked about the 1% rent cut, Pay to Stay, starter homes, shared ownership, redundancies, reclassification, mergers, you name it. As an indication of the pace of change, they were even questioned about a policy that has not even been announced yet but everyone assumes will be soon (the end of lifetime tenancies).

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Noises off

Originally posted on November 3 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

As MPs debated the Housing and Planning Bill on Monday it was hard to escape the impression that the real action was elsewhere.

From the extension of the right to buy to the forced sale of council houses to starter homes, key discussions had either already happened or were still taking place outside the Commons chamber. Yes, talks behind the scenes are an inevitable part of any Bill, but far more so with this one than any other that I can remember. Yes, the Deal removes what would have been a key element in the legislation from parliamentary scrutiny but this is about more than just that.

That’s partly because this is a back of a fag packet Bill that sets out some general principles with the detail to be filled in later. We still  know little more about how the sums will add up for paying housing association discounts from forced council sales than during the election campaign. And, as Alex Marsh points out in relation to Pay to Stay, there are whole chunks of the Bill that give the secretary of state the power to do pretty much whatever they like.

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The needs of the many

Originally posted on November 2 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

How English housing policy arrived from Vulcan via Wales.

I’ve recently been putting together the 100th issue of Welsh Housing Quarterly. The 25-year history of the magazine is closely bound up with the story of Welsh devolution, a distant prospect when it was first published in 1990 but a developing process that led eventually to the first-ever Welsh Housing Act last year. But there was one period early on that has a very contemporary relevance for England as it prepares for the second reading debate on the Housing Bill on Monday and the spending review later this month.

In May 1993 Wales got a new secretary of state who seemed to come from a distant planet. The Conservative MP John Redwood was an intellectual Thatcherite with an appearance that prompted sketch writer Matthew Parris to come up with a comparison that has stuck ever since: ‘a new creature, half human, half Vulcan, brother of the brilliant, cold-blooded Spock’.

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