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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If at first you don’t succeed

Originally posted on July 13 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

It may have important new provisions on housing and planning but the name of the government’s new productivity strategy rather gives the game away.

Described as ‘the second half of the Budget’, Fixing the Foundations was published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills but includes chapters on housing and planning and welfare that amplify decisions taken in the first half.

But does the name remind you of anything? Go back four years and David Cameron himself was launching a ‘radical and unashamedly ambitious’ housing strategy. The title? Laying the Foundations.

Once they’ve stopped sucking air through their teeth, any builder will tell you that once you’ve laid the foundations and built on top of them, it’s enormously expensive to start to fix them. It’s also a pretty good indication that the foundations were pretty rocky to begin with.

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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 day after

So it turns out that the winners in the ‘the housing election’ are upmarket estate agents and housebuilders.

The soaring share prices of firms like Berkeley Homes and Foxtons this morning may be as much about Labour defeat as Conservative victory. Take the mansion tax and moves against non-doms out of the equation and prices of expensive London homes are set to go on rising along with the profits of the firms that trade in them.

The mood could hardly be more different in a housing sector facing up to an unexpected Conservative overall majority that changes all the pre-election calculations about the right to buy (it won’t happen under a coalition) and huge cuts in social security (another party will block them).

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