Give and take: the spending review and housing benefit

Originally posted on November 17 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Two separate reports over the weekend claimed that housing benefit is being targeted by George Osborne for £2bn worth of savings to fix his tax credits debacle.

Iain Duncan Smith famously responded to Osborne’s July Budget ‘triumph’ with a fist-pumping celebration. The triumph soon began to crumble it became clear that the Budget really amounted to a message to work hard, do the right thing – and get screwed. As that realisation dawned, the scene was set for a struggle between the two Cabinet ministers played out in media briefings over an apparent raid on universal credit to pay for mitigation.

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Good cop, bad cop and mad cop

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

Inside Housing: ‘Clark promises deregulation package’. FT: ‘Osborne eyes social housing stake sale.’ Daily Mail: ‘Duncan Smith’s great council house giveaway.’

Three rival visions for housing in England from three rival politicians who all think they know best.

Let’s assume some of this is the result of private disputes about budgets (especially between Osborne and IDS) playing out in public. The run-up to any spending review features media briefings designed to promote pet projects or scupper those of others. But this is still different: it’s not pet projects at stake here but potentially the entire future of housing. And the rival visions directly contradict each other.

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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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The needs of the many

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

How English housing policy arrived from Vulcan via Wales.

I’ve recently been putting together the 100th issue of Welsh Housing Quarterly. The 25-year history of the magazine is closely bound up with the story of Welsh devolution, a distant prospect when it was first published in 1990 but a developing process that led eventually to the first-ever Welsh Housing Act last year. But there was one period early on that has a very contemporary relevance for England as it prepares for the second reading debate on the Housing Bill on Monday and the spending review later this month.

In May 1993 Wales got a new secretary of state who seemed to come from a distant planet. The Conservative MP John Redwood was an intellectual Thatcherite with an appearance that prompted sketch writer Matthew Parris to come up with a comparison that has stuck ever since: ‘a new creature, half human, half Vulcan, brother of the brilliant, cold-blooded Spock’.

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The Pay to Stay work tax

Originally posted on October 29 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The impact assessment of the Housing Bill reveals two devils buried in the detail of proposals for a compulsory Pay to Stay.

First, the principles. The assessment says ‘the Government believes that those on higher incomes should not be subsidised through social rents’. There are 350,000 social rented tenants with household incomes over £30,000 a year including 40,000 with incomes over £50,000. Higher rents for these High Income Social Tenants (HISTs) are justified by the fact that they ‘benefit from a subsidised rent that could be as much as £3,500 less, on average, compared to equivalent rents in the private sector’. 
Needless to say, neither of these figures is sourced. The government has form when it comes to changing its estimates of high earners (not to mention statistics in general) but:

‘This intervention is designed to remove an unfair subsidy. Households with a sufficiently high income do not require this, as they are able to access market housing.’

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Look on the back

Originally posted on October 20 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

A few answers and yet more questions: my round-up of the latest developments on the Housing Bill.

An ex-colleague used to speak in awed tones about the time he saw an old-school football reporter compose his match report for the Football Pink as the final whistle sounded. He took a cigarette packet out of this pocket, drew lines on it in the shape of paragraphs, and then dictated a word-perfect report down the line to the copy takers.

Much has changed since the olden days: smoking in public places; laptops and the internet have replaced phones and copy takers; and Pink ‘Uns died out long ago in most cities. But looking back at the events of the past week it seems that cigarette packets remain as popular as ever for drawing up plans – and for things infinitely more complicated than football matches.

This was exactly the metaphor used by an anonymous source in Jill Sherman’s story in The Times last week that the government is set to phase in the extension of the right to buy because of concern over the costs. ‘The Treasury people are hanging their heads in despair,’ the source said. ‘How did this policy that was made up on the back of a fag packet get adopted during the election campaign?’

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