Cuts, caps and goalposts

Originally posted on July 22 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing 

Looking to gauge the effects of the latest benefit cuts on housing? The official impact assessments are at best a starting point.

Documents published for the second reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill on Monday evening (available here) do give the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) view on what to expect, but there are several reasons why it is a severely blinkered one.

First, they only cover what is actually in the Bill and many of the main housing benefit changes in the Budget do not require primary legislation.

So there is an impact assessment of the five-year freeze on most working age benefits but it does not include the freeze of the local housing allowance. Similarly, we do not get the DWP view on ending automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds because that will be done by regulation rather than primary legislation.

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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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If the cap fits

Worried about the impact of the benefit cap, social landlords? You should be because what happens next seems to be your responsibility.

As housing organisations slowly wake up to the dire implications of reducing the cap to £23,000, Iain Duncan Smith was asked about it at work and pensions questions on Monday. Labour’s Clive Betts asked what consultations the DWP had done with social landlords on the effects of the introduction of universal credit and the benefit cap on direct rent payments to landlords. After the usual guff about roll-outs from IDS, Betts pressed him with a points raised by Tony Stacey of South Yorkshire Housing Association (and Placeshapers):

‘Currently, if a household is in rent arrears and gets housing benefit, the benefit can be paid directly to the social landlord. When universal credit is introduced, if the family also gets a welfare cap, it is the housing cost element that is squeezed by the cap. No longer will the amount of universal credit be paid directly to the social landlord to cover the rent. Can the Secretary of State not see that that could lead to a rise in evictions? Is he aware of the problem, and what will he do about it?’

The context for this was highlighted ahead of this week’s CIH conference in Manchester in a UK Housing Review briefing on Monday. After allowing for other benefits and tax credits, the £23,000 cap will leave a couple with four children just £33 a week to spend on their rent and a couple with three children just £110 a week. Here are the impacts by family size:

impact of 23k cap

Effectively that means larger families will be priced out of even social housing throughout the UK and a couple with three children will not be able to afford the average housing association rent anywhere in the Midlands or South of England. The impact will be felt far beyond inner London and the CIH estimates that four times more households could be affected than under the current £26,000 cap.

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Fly in the ointment

Could the Conservatives really admit they got it wrong on the bedroom tax? Hard as it is to imagine Iain Duncan Smith admitting he was wrong about anything, pressure is growing for a rethink.

In the Times yesterday, David Cameron’s former speechwriter Clare Foges offered her ex-boss some advice a series of options on how to break with the party’s image as the nasty party, including this one:

‘Move on from the bedroom tax. It is not working as had been hoped and will remain a fly in the one-nation ointment. Have a mea culpa moment and move on.’

Note the lack of pretence that it’s really the removal of the spare room subsidy and that it’s all working brilliantly to save money and use social housing more fairly.

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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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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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