10 things about 2015: part 1

Originally posted on December 30 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Has there ever been a year quite like it for housing? Here’s the first part of my look back at the issues I’ve been blogging about in 2015. 

1) Be careful what you wish for

It was the year that Homes for Britain became Home Ownership for Britain as political campaigning turned into political salvaging. Housing professionals may made their case from Land’s End to London, filled the Albert Hall and secured wide ranging support for its case for more homes. But the election result changed all that – and many of them had booed the representative of the party that won.

True, housing and the need for new homes moved up the political agenda as the year went on but not quite in the way campaigners had imagined. As the election neared the Tories promised a ‘housing revolution’. What amounted to Plan C, the third revolution in five years, took a poor record on supply, and traded it in for what amounted to homes for votes on a grand scale. The campaigners who had filled the Albert Hall found themselves facing the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants.

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The final countdown

It’s been a tough job with so many to choose from but here are my 10 worst housing policies of the election campaign.

As we prepare to go to the polls, here are a few final reminders of what’s on offer:

1) We’re not going to tell you (Conservative). With extra points for repeated appearances, the Tory refusal to spell out where £12 billion of cuts in benefit spending will come from takes top spot. I first blogged about this before the short campaign began and we’ve learned little more apart from a pledge (sort of) to protect child benefit. Within hours of Iain Duncan Smith telling the BBC yesterday that ‘the work hasn’t been done yet’ on the specifics, The Guardian was publishing leaked documents with DWP proposals including increasing the bedroom tax and cutting housing benefit completely for the under-25s.

2) Exempt main homes worth to £1 million from inheritance tax (Conservative). Brilliant! A tax cut for the very well housed (aka bribe for Tory voters) that will further establish inheritance in its rightful place as the main route into home ownership.

3) Extend the right to buy to housing association tenants (Conservative). Yes, it’s true we’ve tried this before and had to drop it. Yes, forcing charities to sell their assets is a bit iffy. But trust us now we’ve found a way to pay for it: forcing councils to sell their best stock. All the homes sold will be replaced one for one, honest. What’s that you say? It doesn’t stack up? Sorry, we seem to be running out of time for questions on this one.
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Rentier nation

For all the political rhetoric about home ownership, official figures released today confirm that England continues to become a nation of private tenants.

The dwelling stock estimates published by the DCLG show that 137,000 homes were added in the year to March 2014. Of these, an astonishing 90 per cent were private rented (123,000). The owner-occupied stock increased by 24,000 but the social and affordable stock fell by 1,000 and the other public sector stock by 9,000. These figures reflect net changes in the stock, so they include existing homes changing tenure as well as new homes.

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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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Have the Tories lost the plot?

When exactly are the Conservatives playing at with their election campaign? A relentlessly disciplined and on message electoral machine has instead looked erratic and directionless. Personal attacks on Ed Miliband have transformed him from a weird nerd into a ruthless dude. Even the right-wing press that is meant to sing to the Tory tune sounds like it has forgotten the words.

I could be completely wrong about all of this of course. There are still 25 days to go till polling day: the UKIP vote could collapse in enough seats the see the Tories home: we could end up being brainwashed rather than bored by the endless repetition of ‘long-term economic plan’ and ‘hardworking families’; Lynton Crosby is a genius, the cross-over will come and the polls could be as wrong as they were in 1992.

For the moment though things seem to keep going wrong for the party that ruled Britain for most of the 20th century but hasn’t won a majority for 23 years. Just as at the last election, the Conservatives seem unable to win more than a third of the vote. For me, this is about more than just UKIP splitting the vote. A bit like with Labour in the 1980s, I’m not clear what the Tories stand for any more.

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Plan C

So the Conservatives will pledge a ‘housing revolution’ at the election. Sound familiar?

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph over the weekend, George Osborne outlined a Tory plan to help a million more people into home ownership in the next parliament thanks to schemes like Help to Buy, Right to Buy and the Starter Home scheme.

‘I would like to see us double the number of first time buyers, up to half a million. That is the kind of level we saw in the 1980s. There is no reason why our country can’t achieve that again. That’s a goal we set ourselves today.

‘I think we can deliver a revolution in home ownership and make this the home-owning democracy, the home-owning society that I think is one of the Conservatives’ core beliefs.’

The chancellor says that visiting building sites is ‘the best part of my job’, not to mention donning high-vis jackets and being pictured with happy first-time buyers. ‘It reminds me of why we are doing this. Ultimately this is about people’s aspirations, their futures and their dreams.’

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Sign of four

It’s time once again for a comprehensive overview of the state of the housing nation. Here are four key points I drew from this year’s UK Housing Review.

The headlines so far have been made by falls in home ownership for young people, but the 2015 Review also highlights these other key points for housing across all tenures:

1) Universal dependency

This isn’t the first time the Review has made this point but it is the first time I’ve seen it summed up so clearly in one graph.

All the rhetoric about universal credit says that it will reward those ‘hardworking families’ and help to end the ‘dependency culture’ of the benefits system. The new scheme does improve the poverty trap caused by the rate at which housing benefit is withdrawn as your earnings rise. A failure to include council tax benefit plus cuts in recent Budgets and Autumn Statement detract from this objective but it does still seem better designed to ‘make work pay’.

However, there is a price to be paid for this improvement.

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