Work hard, do the right thing – and get screwed

How has George Osborne got away with a Budget that will hurt the very people he claims it will help most: hardworking families?

The headlines are all about One Nation, National Living Wage and tax cuts but, as the dust settles, the calculations that have emerged so far make clear that the poorest households are going to suffer significant cuts in income. While a series of cuts such as the lower benefit cap will hit out-of-work households hard, people in work face a series of technical changes to tax credits and benefits that will make many of them substantially worse off.

To give some idea, here are the three main cuts:

  • A four-year freeze in working age benefits saving £4 billion by 2020/21. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that this alone means that 13 million families will lose an average of £260 a year. Of those, 7.4 million are in work and will lose £280 a year. The freeze will also hit child benefit, which David Cameron promised to protect.
  • £6 billion worth of cuts to tax credits (and subsequently universal credit) and associated housing allowances from April 2017. The IFS says new claimants will lose credit entitlement for more than two children, losing the average of £3,670 a year that currently goes to 872,000 families (548,000 in work). On top of that, the family element in credits for the first child will be cut for new claimants and housing allowances associated with both will be cut too. Kate Webb of Shelter calculates that just one change – the removal of the family premium, an allowance of earned income before housing benefit starts to be withdrawn for working families with children – could cost a single mother working 20 hours a week at the new national living wage £11 a week. That’s not much less than the bedroom tax.
  • Cuts to work allowances that mean working households will lose tax credits/universal credit much more quickly than now. At the moment, credits start to be withdrawn once family earnings rise above £6,420. That will fall to just £3,850. This will cost 3 million working families just over £1,000 a year each. Credits will also be withdrawn at a faster rate once they hit that threshold.

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Blue skies: Part one

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.

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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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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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The rebel and the ponytail

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.

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The B word

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.

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Heart, brain and Clegg

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.

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