Role model?

If we have a Living Wage, why not a Living Rent? Well, now we do.

With due respect to the Scottish campaign of the same name, the report launched this week by Savills, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and National Housing Federation addresses directly what I’ve long thought to be perhaps the most important question in housing policy: how to make homes genuinely affordable to people on low incomes.

Current policy gets nowhere near that. Employment may be at a record high but millions of people are trapped in low paid work, in part-time jobs and zero hours contracts, and average earnings have only just begun to rise again after years of decline.

Yet private sector rents are too high, leaving families reliant on housing benefit whether they are in or out of work and vulnerable to cuts to come: projections by Savills suggest that one in four of us will be private renters by 2019. ‘Affordable’ rents are only affordable in relation to a market artificially inflated by speculative investment and the aftermath of the financial crisis. Even social rents rise by an inflation-plus formula regardless of what’s happening to earnings.

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Blue skies: Part two

Is One Nation Conservatism anything more than PR puff? The conclusion of my blog sets out 12 tests of what it could and should mean in housing.

In the wake of the unexpected election result influential voices within the Conservative Party talked about the need for a new appeal to the aspirational working classes. Whether it’s called Blue Collar or One Nation Conservatism, the idea is to shake off the negativity of the nasty party, steal Labour’s clothes and lock in another majority for 2020.

Part one of this blog featured calls by people like Tim Montgomerie, David Green, Nick de Bois and Christian Guy not just for a radical new approach to housebuilding to spread the benefits of home ownership but also a new approach to housing to meet the needs of renters. Guy called housing ‘one of the social justice issues of our time’. There was more of this over the weekend, with Chris Walker of Policy Exchange calling housing ‘key to a Conservative vision for working people’.

But what does all this Tory philosophising amount to? The desire to appeal to aspirational workers (and for power in 2020) is certainly genuine enough but is the party really ready for its implications? The suspicion remains that this is as much about redefining the meaning of ‘One Nation’ as it is about changing course: one nation for those able to Work Hard and Do the Right Thing that looks the other way when it comes to those who cannot and ignores the fact that many of them will still not be able to pay their rent.

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The B word

Here’s a number that should embolden whoever wins the election: 54% of voters support government borrowing to fund more affordable homes.

A MORI opinion poll for the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) found that just 21% would oppose borrowing to fund affordable housing for sale or rent and 24% neither support not oppose it. Support was unsurprisingly strongest among renters (60 per cent) and Londoners (66 per cent).

The results are in line with a series of other recent polls showing a significant shift in public attitudes to housebuilding. However, the election campaign seems so fixed that it’s difficult to imagine any of the major parties trying to win majority support by advocating a policy that actually has it. It would simply play into the Conservative narrative that it was not the banks but the last Labour government that caused the economic crisis by borrowing too much.

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Housing at the hustings

So is housing finally cutting through as an issue at this election? Yesterday has convinced me that it is.

The day started with housing featuring as the election issue of the day on Today on Radio 4 – good news in itself but just an indication of the programme’s agenda. The report by John Humphrys was about Shepherd’s Bush and how it’s changed from the setting for Steptoe & Son to a place where a couple on a joint income of over £100,000 cannot afford a deposit, let alone a home, and foreign investors are buying new apartments eight at a time.

An interview with Brandon Lewis and Emma Reynolds followed (listen again here at about 8.30). But it quickly degenerated into bald men squabbling over a comb mode as they traded statistics about who has the worst record in government. Lewis trotted out the usual lines about Help to Buy while Reynolds repeated her better ones about Lyons. Maybe I’ve heard it too many times before, maybe they’ve said the same thing too many times before, but it hardly seemed like housing was at the centre of the election. Depressingly, the focus was entirely on first-time buyers. They do face huge problems but this is an indication I think that the main parties still see home ownership as the issue on which elections are won and lost. It’s a sense of aspiration, rather than housing as such, that is the real issue.

That was enough to lower my expectations for my local hustings. BBC Cornwall is organising them across the county and last night it was the turn of St Ives. The Lib Dems held off the Conservatives by just 1,700 votes in 2010 and it’s one of the 23 seats the Tories need to win to form an overall majority.

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No surprises from Labour

If you’re looking for anything new on housing in the Labour manifesto you’re going to have to search very hard for it.

The party’s priorities were clearly elsewhere in the document launched this morning and the housing sections are largely rehashes of Labour’s response to the Lyons Review and of previous statements on social security.

Housing gets a mention in the introduction but only in relation to housebuilding and home ownership:

‘We are not building the homes we need. Our sons and daughters have been shut out of the housing market and too often they are forced to leave the communities where they were brought up.’

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Last words

As the election campaign for the next government officially gets underway what did we miss in the dying days of the last one?

The end of last week saw frenzied activity to clear the decks before the dissolution of parliament. Here are three things I picked out:

1) A good day to bury bad news?

That was the accusation from Labour’s Chris Ruane as he raised a point of order with the speaker about why it had taken almost five months to answer a written question he had tabled in early November about how much money was spent on social housing in each of the last 15 years. The speaker said he was ‘taken aback’ by the delay and that ministers must do better.

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Starters’ orders

So the national housing strategy now comes down to this ahead of the election: think of a big number and double it.

Even by recent standards, the starter home initiative plumbs new depths in allowing the politics to drive the policy. The idea of building 100,000 homes at a 20 per cent discount for first-time buyers was first proposed in David Cameron’s conference speech in October. The launch (of a website to register interest, as no homes will be built for some time) was accelerated to this month when the consultation was published in December. And in Cameron’s housing speech today it’s been doubled to 200,000 homes.

Housing minister Brandon Lewis made a written statement earlier that is an extraordinarily rapid government response to a consultation that only ended three weeks ago. However, the response (full version here) is only to the original plan for 100,000 homes, not Cameron’s doubling of it. Reading through some of the responses to the consultation today, I was especially struck by this comment from the Council of Mortgage Lenders:

‘Our overall view of the scheme as outlined is that it could provide a modest addition to the flow of lower cost housing for FTBs and we would support this main objective. But we would warn against setting over-ambitious targets for the scheme at this juncture, before the attractiveness of this particular proposition has been tested on the market.’

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