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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Blind spot

Fiscal myopia: that’s the telling phrase in a report out this week on the long-term value of social housing.

In a way the verdict of Capital Economics merely confirms what we know intuitively: building social housing at low rents costs much less in the long run than not building it and instead subsidising high rents through housing benefit.

But the report for SHOUT and the National Federation of ALMOs demonstrates just how good long-term deal social housing represents. Capital Economics compared a programme building up to 100,000 social rented homes a year from 2020/21 with existing policies. Among the conclusions:

  • Looking over 25 years, lower housing benefit costs alone justify government investment in social housing in most parts of the country.
  • However, that takes no account of the value of the asset created that remains after 25 years. Once this is done, investment stacks up in most of the rest
  • In a handful of cases where the sums do not add up (mostly larger homes in areas where private rents are the same or lower than social rents) there are still good arguments for investment (urban regeneration, positive impacts on health and education etc).
  • Tenants will also be better off: the report estimates that families would see their net incomes after housing costs rise by £942 a year.

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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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The return of rent control?

An idea that was supposedly buried a generation ago is rising rapidly up the housing policy agenda.

Last year saw modest proposals by Labour for rent regulation within three-year tenancies in the private rented sector. Now there are calls for something that goes much further.

The conjunction of two news items last Friday put the issue into sharp relief. The first was an opinion poll for the private tenants campaign Generation Rent that asked ‘would you support or oppose proposals for the government to introduce a “rent control” system in the UK’. The result was 59 per cent to support, 6.8 per cent to oppose and 34 per cent with no opinion. Levels of support rose to 77 per cent among private renters, 69 per cent of Labour voters and 64.5 per cent of Londoners. However, rent control also had the support of a majority of Conservatives (55 per cent) and homeowners (56 per cent).

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Housing: where’s the plan?

A new book by the economist whose work first established the 250,000 homes a year benchmark has to be worth reading – especially when she’s not convinced it’s possible anymore.

Kate Barker’s seminal report on housing for the Blair government nailed the idea that the UK and especially England need to build houses at a much faster rate. A decade, and a separate study of planning, later and it still the ultimate source for targets of 200,000, 250,000 and even 300,000 homes a year to cope with demand and make up for the shortfall.

Now she’s back with Housing: Where’s the Plan, a short book setting out the housing challenge and potential solutions to it. With the new homes deficit rising by the year, she starts with a sober assessment of the possibilities.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing


Brave new world

Guess what the total value of government financial instruments to support new homes will be by 2021.

The answer that leapt off the page at me in a report on the department’s performance published by the National Audit Office (NAO) last week is a cool £24 billion. And that is just the direct support that comes under the DCLG and its agencies.

Perhaps the figure should not come as a surprise. After all, ever since the financial crisis we’ve grown used to the government adopting new ways of financing things that do not rely on conventional spending or borrowing.

The three programmes that make up the £24 billion are £10 billion for financial guarantees to housing associations and the private rented sector to help build new homes, £9.7 billion for the Help to Buy equity loan scheme (HTB1) and £4.2 billion for other loans and investments such as Build to Rent and the large sites scheme.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing


Making the case

Why do we need social housing? The answer may seem obvious on this website but too often elsewhere the one you’ll get is ‘we don’t’.

It’s a theme I’ve blogged about repeatedly over the last few years as social housing has been eroded from within and overtaken from without by the relentless rise of private renting. As coalition ministers never cease to remind us, the sector shrank by 420,000 in England under the last Labour government, but their own policies are merely accelerating the decline while they blur the distinction between affordable and social.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing


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