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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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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Look on the back

Originally posted on October 20 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

A few answers and yet more questions: my round-up of the latest developments on the Housing Bill.

An ex-colleague used to speak in awed tones about the time he saw an old-school football reporter compose his match report for the Football Pink as the final whistle sounded. He took a cigarette packet out of this pocket, drew lines on it in the shape of paragraphs, and then dictated a word-perfect report down the line to the copy takers.

Much has changed since the olden days: smoking in public places; laptops and the internet have replaced phones and copy takers; and Pink ‘Uns died out long ago in most cities. But looking back at the events of the past week it seems that cigarette packets remain as popular as ever for drawing up plans – and for things infinitely more complicated than football matches.

This was exactly the metaphor used by an anonymous source in Jill Sherman’s story in The Times last week that the government is set to phase in the extension of the right to buy because of concern over the costs. ‘The Treasury people are hanging their heads in despair,’ the source said. ‘How did this policy that was made up on the back of a fag packet get adopted during the election campaign?’

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Under new ownership

Originally posted on October 7 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Forget social housing, any kind of affordable rented housing is living on borrowed time in the wake of this year’s Conservative conference.

In his speech on Wednesday David Cameron announced ‘a national crusade to get homes built’ and go from ‘Generation Rent into Generation Buy’.

The headline policy of starter homes does not look any better than it did the first two times he announced it (in December 2014 and again when he doubled the target in March). The original policy had potential because it offered the prospect of additional homes on sites that would not have got planning permission before. Though there were potential problems, what would amount to urban exception sites looked like a good idea, especially if the uplift in land values could be captured to pay for infrastructure.

But the idea has looked worse and worse the more it has evolved. Research by Shelter has shown that even at a 20 per cent discount the homes will not be affordable in most of the country. Despite an advisory committee on design, there’s not much to stop housebuilders cutting costs by making them starter hutches rather than homes and no mechanism has been suggested so far to check that the discount really is a discount. And even if there is a deal to be had for Generation Rent some of the benefits will go to people who could have afforded to buy at the undiscounted price.

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Who’s counting

Originally posted on September 24 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The disposal of public land for new homes looks destined to go down as one of the great housing fiascos of this decade.

An extraordinary report published on Thursday by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) reveals complacency on an epic scale within the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

The report is a follow-up to an investigation by the National Audit Office into a programme announced n 2011 by a certain former housing minister (no prizes for guessing which one) to ‘release enough public land to build as many as 100,000 new, much-needed, homes and support as many as 25,000 jobs by 2015’. In March this year the DCLG proclaimed mission accomplished: land with capacity for 109,950 homes across 942 sites had been sold.

However, in a report published in June, the NAO found that ‘the target measured a notional number of expected homes, not actual homes built’. On top of that, a quarter of the 100,000 ‘homes’ were on land that had been sold before Grant Shapps set the target or on land that was categorised as ‘sold’ when its owner simply moved outside the public sector (Royal Mail was privatised and British Waterways moved to a charitable trust).

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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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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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