The Housing Bill: just for starters

Originally posted on January 6 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

MPs staggered bleary eyed from the House of Commons at 2am last night without even getting to the most contentious parts of the Housing and Planning Bill.

Despite a series of obituaries for council housing and a ‘Kill the Bill’ protest outside, issues such as forced high-value sales, Pay to Stay and the voluntary Right to Buy will only be considered on day two of the report stage debate (set for next Tuesday, January 12).

Last night’s five-hour debate included starter homes, the regulation of housing associations, rogue landlords and the planning system. Opposition MPs complained that 65 pages of new clauses and amendments had been added at the last minute to a Bill that was only 145 pages long.

I blogged back in October that this a Bill written on the back of a fag packet and last night only confirmed that impression. The Bill also leaves a series of crucial decisions to be made by ministers by regulation later.

Nothing sums this up more than new clause 31 on planning obligations and affordable housing. This adds starter homes selling for up to £450,000 to the existing definition of affordable housing: homes for people whose needs are not adequately served by the market. However, it also adds that:

‘The Secretary of State may by regulations amend this section so as to modify the definition of “affordable housing”.’

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Moment in the sun

Originally posted on December 4 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

First, the good news: new government figures show that the supply of affordable housing is at a 20-year high. The 66,640 homes delivered in 2014/15 represented the highest output since 1995/96 and is among the highest seen since new council housing investment was killed off in the 1980s.

Yes, the surge in output is partly explained by the rush to beat the April 2015 deadline for the 2011-2015 Affordable Homes Programme, but it is still testament to the efforts of everyone involved: housing associations, government agencies, local authorities and housebuilders.

And given the usual doom and gloom on this blog maybe I should even allow ministers a moment in the sun too. Greg Clark and Brandon Lewis were understandably quick to seize on what was also the biggest increase in supply seen since 1992/93, when another Conservative government invested in housing in the wake of the housing market crash. Here’s what Clark had to say for himself:

‘Today’s figures show how far we’ve come to get the country building, bringing the industry back from the brink to deliver the highest annual increase in affordable housebuilding for over two decades. But we are far from complacent and the doubling of government investment in housebuilding announced at the recent Spending Review reaffirms our commitment to deliver a million new homes by 2020. Affordable homes to rent and buy are a key part of that, helping to give young people and families across the country the best possible start in life.’

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Keep your friends close – Part 2

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

Part 1 of this blog looked at the apparent winners and the big losers from George Osborne’s announcements last week. But there is one more group lurking on the edges of the playground, ostracised by virtually everyone. What happened to George’s well-heeled former chums should be a warning to everyone else.

Buy-to-let landlords and second home owners thought they had worked hard, done the right thing, bought a house and then another (and another). Contrary to what everyone said about them driving up house prices and destroying local communities, they thought they were providing desperately needed homes and helping pay for local services. They thought the Conservatives were on their side after they blocked a Labour tax rise on second homes in 2010 and kept buy to let out of European mortgage regulation in 2013.

They thought George was ‘one of us’. After all, he made £450,000 profit on his taxpayer-funded second home and rents out his main home for £10,000 a month while he lives in Downing Street. And they voted Conservative in May when those horrible Labour oiks planned rent regulation and a mansion tax.

Their thanks for all this? Sand kicked in their faces with cuts in tax relief in July and the Chinese Burn of hikes in stamp duty and capital gains tax in November. The fate of these entrepreneurs and investors turned enemies of aspiration should be a warning for all those who are currently part of the Osborne in-crowd.

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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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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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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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