Sold out

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

Can the government afford to be complacent about the rate at which right to buy homes are falling into the hands of private landlords?

Pete Apps’s freedom of information investigation for Inside Housing revealed that 38 per cent of former council houses in 91 local authorities are now rented privately. The proportion is as high as 65 per cent in places like Milton Keynes and Stevenage. This figure is for leasehold council flats but there seems no reason to think that the rate for freehold houses will be significantly different, given that many were originally sold longer ago.

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The 101st day

The Conservatives must be pinching themselves after 100 days in government. What can possibly go wrong?

For three months they’ve been able to do pretty much as they like. The Liberal Democrats are humiliated, Labour is demoralised and distracted and the opposition that has come from the SNP is a comforting reminder of the Scottish card that won the election. Thanks to all of that, plus expectations formed by inaccurate opinion polls, a government with a tiny majority elected with just over a third of the vote can behave as though it’s won a victory on a par with 1945, 1979 and 1997.

Yet the Tory luck cannot hold for ever. The obvious cloud on the horizon is Europe, with no sign that Brussels will hand David Cameron concessions meaningful enough to sell to his sceptical party ahead of the election. Economically, it’s far easier to start with a recession turn it into a recovery than it is to manage expectations in improving times.

But could the Conservatives turn out to be most immediately vulnerable where they seem strongest: on the ground they’ve staked out since the election to be ‘the real party of working people’? As Cameron put it in an article for the Telegraph on Saturday:

‘On the challenge of delivering an economy that supports working people, it is Conservatives who believe that a free enterprise economy is an ally not an enemy in generating wealth and extending opportunity. By cutting taxes, reforming welfare and increasing minimum wages we are showing we are the real party of working people.’

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The sharp end

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

Wales is setting an example on homelessness prevention but can it escape the UK-driven logic of austerity in housing?

The question is prompted by today’s Homelessness Monitor Wales 2015, the latest in a comprehensive series of assessments from Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on progress (or otherwise) in the UK nations. This one arrives just at the point where Wales is using its relatively new legislative powers to take a different path to England on housing policy.

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Promised land

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

Did Genesis choose the wrong book of the bible when it went through its rebranding exercise?

Reading this week’s Inside Housing, and especially the interview with chief executive Neil Hadden, an Exodus out of social housing looks a possibility in the wake of a Budget that signalled that grant will be ‘refocused’ towards home ownership in the Autumn spending review.

Except that this latter-day Moses seems to see a future as a private landlord and developer as the land of milk and honey. He is right to see the Budget as a ‘massive watershed’ and right to see that the government is no longer interested in social, or even ‘affordable’ housing. Rent cuts, the extension of the right to buy, compulsory pay to stay, reform of section 106 to benefit starter homes and possible extension of fixed-term tenancies all shout that message. The spending review only seems set to confirm that the plan is to cannibalise what’s left of affordable housing to boost home ownership. The question is how housing associations should respond.

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The fall guys – Part Two

Originally posted on July 28 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

So does it really cost housing associations £150,000 to build what housebuilders can deliver for £90,000?

The first part of this blog examined last week’s Channel 4 News reportclaiming that: ‘Government plans to build more affordable homes are being frustrated by the poor performance of housing associations.’ I concluded that it made some legitimate points, especially on executive pay, but otherwise did not stand up to serious scrutiny.

This second part of the blog is devoted to what I think was the most serious charge:

‘According to private housebuilders, the cost of delivering a house is £90,000 but when you ask housing associations they say they have to spend £150,000 to deliver a home. Now they’ll tell you that the homes are better but is it justified that they build only two-thirds of what private housebuilders do with the same amount of money.’

This is the key fact (or factoid) in the report. It would not be a complete surprise if private housebuilders could deliver homes a bit cheaper than housing associations. They build in bigger volumes. Building homes and trading in land is what they do and they are not distracted by other considerations such as managing homes for tenants. And, as the report pointed out, housing association homes may also be bigger or built to a higher standard. Against that, housebuilders carry more risk and so take higher profit margins than the contractors who build homes for associations.

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The fall guys – Part One

Originally posted on July 28 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Here’s my attempt to separate fact from factoid in one of the most controversial TV news reports on housing in years.

I couldn’t watch last week’s Channel 4 News investigation of housing associations on the night but I think the issues it raised are important enough to come back to it in detail.

The clues that something was not quite right about this report were there even for people who know nothing about housing. The musical soundtrack (ironically a song about the campaign for justice by a wrongly convicted boxer) and the quirky graphics (houses appearing and disappearing) were there as distractions. The fact that in the studio discussion that followed the anti-association case had to be made by the so-called ‘Tax Payers’ Alliance (the self-appointed scrutineers of government spending who refuse to say where their own funding comes from) was further evidence.

The closing commentary confirmed this impression. We were told that:

‘There’s a fierce philosophical row between the Tories on the one hand and the Left on the other about the future of associations. One side wants radical change and the other is desperate to protect its ability to serve the community as it sees fit.’

Really? That may be how the Conservatives would like to present it but it demonstrates a complete lack of awareness of the political context for housing. As associations see fit? I’ll let the fact that this point was illustrated by film of a protestor from ‘the Left’ holding a banner from Defend Council Housing saying ‘No Privatisation Sell-Offs’ and ‘Invest in Council Housing Now’ speak for itself.

But what really shocked me from a programme that I admire and watch regularly was that this welter of unsourced statistics and rampant editorialising went out as the main story of the evening. The failure to understand housing and housebuilding was so complete it would be almost comical – except that this report plus trailers in The Spectator and The Times are part of a media and political narrative with deadly serious implications for the future.

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Shifting sands

Originally posted on July 23 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

A new report aims to maximise Section 106 contributions to affordable housing but the government seems intent on moving in the opposite direction.

Rethinking Planning Obligations is the result of research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by a team from Oxford Brookes University and the University of East London. It notes a sharp fall in the contribution from Section 106 since the credit crunch: from 32,000 in 2006/07 (65% of all affordable homes) to 16,000 in 2012/13 (still significant but only 37% of the total). Contributions to affordable housing varied across case study areas from 2% to 87%.

The decline is partly the result of the housing market downturn: planning permissions agreed before 2007 with high proportions of affordable housing were not viable after the crunch and had to be renegotiated.

However, the government has also introduced a series of changes that make it easier for developers to argue down their contribution, and secretive viability assessments have become a key weapon. For detailed examples of how it works, see Oliver Wainwright’s story about Neo Bankside in The Guardian this week or The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s story from May about Greenwich Peninsula.

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