Learning the lessons of Grenfell Tower

Originally published on June 15 as a column for Inside Housing.

Why? Why? Why? The questions come thick and fast.

Why did this happen? How did it happen? Who let it happen?

I can’t pretend to have the technical expertise to have the answers and it’s important not to leap to the wrong conclusions. So for the moment there can only be questions about Tuesday night’s horrific fire in London.

At least 12 people are known to have died as the fire swept through Grenfell Tower but given the number of people missing the final death toll looks like it will be far higher than that.

Even the immediate questions are endless. Why did the fire spread so quickly? Why were there no sprinklers or fire alarms? Should the advice to stay put be changed?

Did the refurbishment work or the cladding used make Grenfell Tower less safe? Why did the council and landlord not heed residents’ warnings about the fire risks?

Where will the surviving residents live now and how long will it take them to find permanent homes?

The questions keep coming but we need answers and soon about why the tragedy happened and how to stop it happening again.

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Another new minister steps through housing’s revolving door

Originally posted on June 15 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Theresa May said it herself. Twice. Polling since the election signals it. Housing matters.

Except that it doesn’t really. The delay in naming Alok Sharma as the sixth housing minister in seven years and the 15th in this century said it all.

As John Healey tweeted on Monday, if Labour had won, it would already have started creating a new housing department with a minister of cabinet rank.

Instead we are left with Sajid Javid still at the DCLG despite the apparent determination of Theresa May’s team to move him and a new man taking his Buggins’ turn in the housing job.

And in place of Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, the joint chiefs of staff to Theresa May who took the rap for the disastrous Tory campaign and manifesto, we have the ex-housing minister and (thanks to those three) ex-MP Gavin Barwell.

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Time for the Tories to listen on housing

Originally published on June 9 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Wow. What a night. I was expecting what I thought would be the worst possible result for housing: the Conservatives winning with a big majority but with the best Tory housing minister in 25 years losing his seat.

Instead I turned out to be right about Gavin Barwell being defeated in Croydon Central but wrong about virtually everything else. Theresa May fought the worst Tory campaign in decades while Jeremy Corbyn surprised all of his critics (including me) and the result is a hung parliament.

But just as Labour won but still lost, so the Conservatives lost but still won. For now at least Theresa May will stay as prime minister of a government dependent on support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). (A couple of days after this blog was written Barwell became May’s new chief of staff).

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The election, housing and poverty

Originally published on June 6 on my blog for Inside Housing.

What will the main political parties do to improve the housing system for the poorest people?

The answer ranges from something to not much at all, according to a study of their manifestos launched by a group of experts this week.

Academics Stand Against Poverty conducted a poverty audit of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat plans on their policies on everything from disability to international development and education to health. Each of these was marked out of five, with 5 representing very high confidence that the policies on offer would tackle poverty and 1 very low confidence.

As the graphic shows, Labour came out best overall with an average score of 3.6, including 5 for its plans for disability and 4 for other areas including health, education and social security.

The Lib Dems came a close second with 3.2, matching Labour on education and ranked as the best party on the environment and sustainability.

The Conservatives scored worst on every topic, with no individual mark higher than 2 and an overall mark of 1.5.

That represents a significant improvement for Labour on its score in 2015, when more parties were assessed. Back then the Greens led the way with 3.9, followed by the Lib Dems with 3.2, Labour in third with 2.6, the Conservatives in fourth on 1.7 and UKIP trailing in last with 1.4.

Looking at housing specifically in the 2017 audit, Labour leads with 3, followed by the Lib Dems with 2 and the Tories with 1. That mostly applies to England given that housing policy is largely devolved but the combined score of 6 out of 15 is the lowest for the 11 different policy areas assessed.

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Theresa May and Old Joe

Originally published on June 1 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Ever since the advance reports of what would be in the Conservative manifesto, I’ve been wondering where the party’s new housing agenda comes from.

As I blogged at the time, the manifesto programme seems to go well beyond the Housing White Paper. It involves not just ‘a new generation of social housing’ but also enhanced compulsory purchase powers for councils and land value capture.

The obvious answer – one that all governing parties do in their manifesto – is to take what is already on the stocks in the relevant department and spin it into a more visionary-sounding idea.

That seems to be what happened with the discussions already underway between the DCLG and three councils – Stoke, Sheffield and Newark and Sheffield – about a package of measures that would enable them to build more homes.

As Inside Housing reported last month, the deals with those pilot authorities involve not just flexibility on borrowing caps but potentially new deals on rents and land assembly too.

That is important because councils have identified a range of barriers to them building new homes, including the caps, the way Right to Buy receipts are treated and (especially) the rent cut. Funding would come from the £1.4 bn allocated in the Autumn Statement

But the manifesto seems to be about more than just a few pilots and some existing money.

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Housing in the Conservative manifesto

Originally posted on May 18 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

This is a Conservative manifesto with only two firm targets on housing but lots of interesting hints about future direction and some intriguing omissions.

The first target is to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it completely by 2027 by implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act and piloting a Housing First approach.

The 2022 target may seem bold but it would mean that rough sleeping would still be significantly higher than it was in 2010 when the coalition came to power.

The one for 2027 is incredibly ambitious and would mean matching Finland’s incredible record on homelessness within ten years.

Sajid Javid obviously returned fired up from his visit to Helsinki but you wonder if he took on board just how comprehensive and well-funded the Finnish version of Housing First needed to be to work.

The second target is ‘meet our 2015 commitment to deliver a million homes by the end of 2020 and we will deliver half a million more by the end of 2022’.

The first bit is unambitious and should be achievable, especially as the end point has been shifted from May 2020 (the original end of the parliament) to December 2020.

As the National Audit Office pointed out in January, that would actually mean that fewer new homes will be built over the next three years than were achieved last year. This is on the basis of the net additional supply of homes rather than just housebuilding completions.

The second bit is a different matter. A quick look at the net supply figures shows that there have only been three years in the last 25 when we have exceeded 200,000.

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Housing in the Labour manifesto

Originally posted on May 16 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

Anyone caught up in the narrative about Labour’s radical manifesto will be left disappointed and a little bit puzzled by the party’s proposals on housing.

They will not be surprised given last week’s leak of the draft but they will find a sensible and pragmatic set of policies that move closer to what is desperately needed to tackle the housing crisis and are actually open to criticism for being too timid.

To give one example, the 2017 manifesto is routinely compared in the media to 1983’s ‘longest suicide note in history’.

But where Michael Foot’s Labour proposed a publicly-owned housebuilder and nationalisation of key parts of the building materials industry, Jeremy Corbyn’s party wants to extend Help to Buy for another seven years.

The equity loan part of the scheme is currently due to end in 2020 but Labour would guarantee funding until 2027 ‘to give long-term certainty to both first-time buyers and the housebuilding industry’.

That goes well beyond necessary action to avoid a cliff edge and abrupt fall in output after 2020.

It should be cause for celebration in the boardrooms of the big housebuilders because Help to Buy would continue to underpin their completions, profit margins, dividends and share options.

Or at least it might be if housebuilder executives were not also going to be hit personally by tax increases on higher earners and corporately by an excessive pay levy on employees paid over £500,000 a year.

But it’s still a surprising move from Labour. As Theresa May found out yesterday, Help to Buy is by no means universally popular and critics argue that too many of the benefits go to the big firms, their shareholders and people who can afford to buy anyway.

Whether you agree or disagree with it, extending Help to Buy until 2027 is evidence that on housing Labour’s approach would be pragmatic rather than ideological.

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