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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Cuts, caps and goalposts

Originally posted on July 22 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing 

Looking to gauge the effects of the latest benefit cuts on housing? The official impact assessments are at best a starting point.

Documents published for the second reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill on Monday evening (available here) do give the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) view on what to expect, but there are several reasons why it is a severely blinkered one.

First, they only cover what is actually in the Bill and many of the main housing benefit changes in the Budget do not require primary legislation.

So there is an impact assessment of the five-year freeze on most working age benefits but it does not include the freeze of the local housing allowance. Similarly, we do not get the DWP view on ending automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds because that will be done by regulation rather than primary legislation.

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State of the nation

Originally published on July 16 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Results from the latest English Housing Survey reveal some fascinating details about where and how we live and how much we pay for it.

Headline findings from the survey for 2013/14 were published in February. As I blogged at the time, they revealed the full scale of the shift in tenure: this was not just about private renting overtaking social renting but outright ownership overtaking buying with a mortgage.

The results published on Thursday provide much more detail on that and much more besides. Here are some details that caught my eye:

100 years of changing tenure

Most of the 20th century was all about the decline of private renting from a tenure that housed three-quarters of us in 1918 to less than 10% of us by the 1980s. Until then, social renting was expanding almost as quickly as home ownership but it retreated again in the wake of the right to buy. But the 21st century has seen a big decline in home ownership too and the rebirth of private renting:

shift

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If at first you don’t succeed

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

It may have important new provisions on housing and planning but the name of the government’s new productivity strategy rather gives the game away.

Described as ‘the second half of the Budget’, Fixing the Foundations was published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills but includes chapters on housing and planning and welfare that amplify decisions taken in the first half.

But does the name remind you of anything? Go back four years and David Cameron himself was launching a ‘radical and unashamedly ambitious’ housing strategy. The title? Laying the Foundations.

Once they’ve stopped sucking air through their teeth, any builder will tell you that once you’ve laid the foundations and built on top of them, it’s enormously expensive to start to fix them. It’s also a pretty good indication that the foundations were pretty rocky to begin with.

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Work hard, do the right thing – and get screwed

How has George Osborne got away with a Budget that will hurt the very people he claims it will help most: hardworking families?

The headlines are all about One Nation, National Living Wage and tax cuts but, as the dust settles, the calculations that have emerged so far make clear that the poorest households are going to suffer significant cuts in income. While a series of cuts such as the lower benefit cap will hit out-of-work households hard, people in work face a series of technical changes to tax credits and benefits that will make many of them substantially worse off.

To give some idea, here are the three main cuts:

  • A four-year freeze in working age benefits saving £4 billion by 2020/21. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that this alone means that 13 million families will lose an average of £260 a year. Of those, 7.4 million are in work and will lose £280 a year. The freeze will also hit child benefit, which David Cameron promised to protect.
  • £6 billion worth of cuts to tax credits (and subsequently universal credit) and associated housing allowances from April 2017. The IFS says new claimants will lose credit entitlement for more than two children, losing the average of £3,670 a year that currently goes to 872,000 families (548,000 in work). On top of that, the family element in credits for the first child will be cut for new claimants and housing allowances associated with both will be cut too. Kate Webb of Shelter calculates that just one change – the removal of the family premium, an allowance of earned income before housing benefit starts to be withdrawn for working families with children – could cost a single mother working 20 hours a week at the new national living wage £11 a week. That’s not much less than the bedroom tax.
  • Cuts to work allowances that mean working households will lose tax credits/universal credit much more quickly than now. At the moment, credits start to be withdrawn once family earnings rise above £6,420. That will fall to just £3,850. This will cost 3 million working families just over £1,000 a year each. Credits will also be withdrawn at a faster rate once they hit that threshold.

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Reconstructing Speenhamland

Where do the Conservatives really stand when it comes to supporting workers on low wages?

Are the Tories the One Nation ‘workers party’, cutting tax, increasing the minimum wage and reforming welfare to make sure that work always pays? Or are they the one that’s set to cut spending on tax credits by £5 billion and cost those same workers up to £1,690 per year?

Ahead of Wednesday’s Budget, the rhetoric and the reality simply do not match. In David Cameron’s ‘speech on opportunity’ in Runcorn last month, he contrasted the ‘right track’ of economic opportunity with the ‘wrong track’ of ‘people capable of work, written off to a lifetime on benefits’ and policies that ‘ignore the causes and simply treat the symptoms of the social and economic problems we face’. Rather than redistributing money through the benefits system we have to tackle the ‘real causes’ of child poverty. And our approach to low pay is complacent:

‘There is what I would call a merry-go-round. People working on the minimum wage having that money taxed by the government and then the government giving them that money back – and more – in welfare. Again, it’s dealing with the symptoms of the problem: topping up low pay rather than extending the drivers of opportunity – helping to create well paid jobs in the first place. So this is the change we need. We need to move from a low wage, high tax, high welfare society to a higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare society.’

Needless to say he did not explain how. The key Conservative policy of increasing the income tax threshold to the level of the minimum wage sounds like it benefits low-paid workers most. In fact, anyone paid below the current threshold of £10,600 a year will receive no benefit at all while most of the gains will go to people on higher earnings. It’s the same story with tax credits and housing benefit, both of which are essential to people who are in work but on low pay. All the tax cuts in the world do little to make up for the cuts in the last parliament and the cuts to come in this. As Gavin Kelly argues, the notion that higher wages will somehow fill the gap is fanciful.

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Frustrated hopes

First posted on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing on July 6

What’s stopping shared ownership from fulfilling its potential as the fourth housing option?

Ever since it was launched, shared ownership has seemed to promise more than it delivers to people who can’t afford full ownership, want something better and more affordable than private renting and want something more or don’t qualify for social housing. Its part-rent, part-buy status and the fact that it requires less grant than social housing have ensured support from both Conservative and Labour governments and it’s become increasingly important to the finances of the providers that offer it. Yet somehow something is missing.

It’s a conundrum the government is trying to resolve through changes introduced in April and a review of longer term options out this summer. It would do well to take heed of a new report from Bristol, Kent and York universities and the Leverhulme Trust launched at an event at the House of Lords last week that I chaired.

From a wider policy perspective, shared ownership has huge potential. As Lord Best put it at the launch, we could create three to four times more home owners through shared ownership than through the Right to Buy.

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