Peer review

If the opening salvoes are anything to go by, we are in for a long battle in the House of Lords over the right to buy.

The Conservatives do not have a majority in the Lords. By convention peers do not vote against legislation that was in the government’s manifesto but that still leaves plenty of room for amendments. It’s also hard to see how the government could claim financial privilege to reverse Lords amendments, as it did with the Welfare Reform Act.

Tuesday’s debate was only a short one on that bit of the Queen’s Speech but it was also a preview of the key themes that will be debated over the next few months and some of the key peers who will be making the arguments.

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Vacant lots

As all the attention focuses on housing associations, what about the impact of the right to buy extension on local authorities?

Councils in England have sold 1.8 million homes to tenants since 1980. Sales accelerated again following the introduction of increased discounts by the coalition with little sign of the promised one for one replacement. Now they face being forced to sell their remaining high value stock as it becomes vacant to pay for the discounts for housing association tenants. The receipts will allegedly finance the discounts, plus the construction of replacement homes plus a £1 billion brownfield regeneration fund.

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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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Home nations

Whoever wins the Westminster election on May 7, more devolution looks inevitable. What will it mean for housing?

The impact is obvious in Wales, where major legislation on homelessness came into force this week, and Scotland and Northern Ireland. In England, momentum is building.

I spent most of this week at TAI 2015, the CIH Cymru conference in Cardiff. The final day saw a debate on the proposition ‘If you could only vote once in the next 18 months which election would you vote in: the General Election 2015 or the Welsh Government election 2016?’ On my count, the Westminster election won – but not by much.

And the closing speech by communities and tackling poverty minister Lesley Griffiths made clear just how much Wales is going its own way. ‘We believe in social housing,’ she told the conference, ‘and I firmly believe right to buy and right to acquire should end.’

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Right to sell?

Can two former housing ministers, a flagship Conservative local authority and David Cameron’s favourite think tank all be wrong?

Conservatives may dismiss as self-interested scaremongering the hostile reaction to their manifesto plan to extend the right to buy to all housing association tenants. What happens when you deconstruct the plan using the statements and actions of people on their own side?

1) Because two former Conservative housing ministers say so…

We already knew that Grant Shapps told the 2012 CIH conference that it was not viable in the current financial climate. ‘If I wanted to extend right to buy, which I do, we would have to find billions of pounds,’ he said.

Over the weekend, the Observer reported that Kris Hopkins told Lib Dem MP Tessa Munt in a letter in late 2013 that:

‘Unlike local authorities, housing associations are independent, not-for-profit voluntary bodies and if they are obliged to consistently sell off their stock at less than market value they might find it difficult to borrow which could impact adversely on their repair and maintenance programmes and affect the future provision of affordable housing.

‘The government does not consider that it would be reasonable to require housing associations to sell these properties at a discount. Any increase to the discount available under the Right to Acquire would only be possible through upfront central government subsidy, potentially incurring a high liability for the public purse.’

The policy that was not viable as part of the ‘long-term economic plan’ now seems to make perfect sense in the financial climate of an election campaign. Little wonder that opposition to it is not confined to the usual suspects.

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Homes for votes

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?

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