Is all the talk of One Nation Conservatism just spin or is there some substance that could mean good news for housing?
In the wake of their surprise election victory, and with the opposition in disarray, senior Tories have moved to claim the centre ground: David Cameron wants ‘blue collar Conservatism’; Robert Halfon says the Tories are the true Workers Party; and it’s full steam ahead for George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse. Even Cameron’s guru Steve Hilton is back in town calling the Living Wage a ‘moral absolute’.
It’s easy to be cynical about all of this when the party ended the campaign seemingly committed to taxing less and spending more at the same time as it runs a budget surplus. As things stand, expect lots of references to cutting tax for people on the minimum wage and rather fewer to cutting their tax credits and housing benefit. Those £12 billion cuts in welfare spending, plus another £13 billion of cuts in departmental budgets are yet to be spelt out.
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).
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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When David Cameron and Nick Clegg are in town on two successive days you know that the election campaign is serious.
The battle for St Ives, the most southerly constituency in Britain stretching round from the Lizard to Land’s End and then out to the Isles of Scilly, is very close. And it is part of a wider struggle in Cornwall and the South West between the two coalition partners (though Labour does have seats in Exeter and Plymouth and hopes of more) that could have a big impact on the result next week. It’s one of the 23 seats the Tories need to win for an overall majority and one the Lib Dems must hold if they are to have a hope of influence in the next parliament.
St Ives is one of three Lib Dem seats in Cornwall, and 14 in the wider South West, that could be vulnerable. The Western Morning News reported on Wednesday that the Tories are now even targeting Yeovil (held by David Laws but former constituency of Paddy Ashdown) in a sign of rising confidence in the blue camp.
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.
What could housing expect from a government influenced by parties other than the Conservatives and Labour? Part 1: the Lib Dems.
Assuming the polls are right and there will be another hung parliament, any of the other five parties who took part in the first TV debate could have an influence. The SNP and Plaid Cymru would seek concessions for Scotland and Wales while demanding less austerity from a Labour government, especially on welfare [though later the SNP reached out to the rest of the UK with a call for 100,000 affordable homes]. However, most housing issues are devolved from Westminster, so I’ll concentrate in this two-part blog on the other three parties. Power may matter a lot more than policies, there are some hints in the Lib Dem, Green and UKIP manifestos of what might offer common ground with one of the bigger parties.
So first, the Lib Dems. Assuming enough of them keep their seats, they could be a coalition partner (or a less formal supporter) for either a Tory or Labour government and they are the only party with a track record in coalition at Westminster.
So does the ‘buccaneering’ Conservative plan to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants stack up?
I was on 5 Live earlier talking about the big idea in today’s Tory manifestoand as usual only got to say half of what I wanted to say. The package beforehand was interesting: tenants from a housing association estate in the Old Kent Road were enthusiastic; but people on an estate in Dartford where the homes were long ago sold off could see the consequences as housing benefit ends up going to private landlords.
I argued that it’s a great idea in theory: if you can help people buy their own home and have enough money to build replacements, why not do it? In practice though, we’ve never come close to achieving this. The government promised one for one replacement for council homes sold in 2012 but the rate so far is one new home started for every 11 sold.
Extending the right to buy to housing associations was meant to be part of the original right to buy in the 1980s but dropped because it was too expensive and because so many associations are charities who have to use their assets for charitable purposes. If Margaret Thatcher couldn’t make it work then, how will David Cameron make it work now? If it’s such a great idea in England, why is Scotland ending the right to buy in 2016 and Wales consulting on doing the same?