The Housing Question

If you follow my blog here, you might be interested in my new newsletter published on Substack.

The Housing Question is a newsletter about housing, but not just housing… politics, social policy, economics, history and anything else that helps makes sense of how we got here.

I’ll still be posting blogs here but mainly as an archive of articles I’ve published elsewhere. The Housing Question will explore issues in more depth, with more of a sideways look and with a bit more context and evolve over time.

You can read the first issue of The Housing Question here and more about the thinking behind it here. If you’d like to subscribe (it’s free for now) go here.


White paper reverses Tory orthodoxy on renting

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

The fairer renting white paper could mark a turning point for tenants and landlords but there is still a long road ahead.

If enacted by this Conservative government, the proposals will mean the abolition of the Section 21 no-fault evictions and assured shorthold tenancies that were at the heart of the 1988 framework designed by the Thatcher administration to bring the market back into the private rented sector.

The damning verdict of the white paper is that this has led to a sector ‘that offers the most expensive, least secure, and lowest quality housing to 4.4 million households, including 1.3 million households with children and 382,000 households over 65. This is driving unacceptable outcomes and holding back some of the most deprived parts of the country.’

In future, all tenancies will be periodic tenancies that can be ended by the tenant with two months’ notice or by the landlord only with a valid ground for possession.

The new system will also see a reversal of more recent trends towards less security in the social rented sector. Probationary, fixed term and demoted tenancies are now set to be abolished on the grounds that there should be parity between sectors.

Contrast that with what happened in the 2010s under David Cameron. The government enabled social landlords to offer fixed-term tenancies in 2011 and legislated to make them mandatory for new council tenants in 2016 (although this was later dropped). Ministers regularly implied that ‘tenancies for life’ were somehow part of a ‘dependency culture’.  

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Johnson’s lame cover version

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

How exactly should we take Boris Johnson’s plans to ‘bring back Right to Buy’ and ‘turn Generation Rent into Generation Own’?

Many housing association tenants will welcome the chance to own their own home and private renters may welcome official recognition that they are stuck paying more in rent than for the mortgage they can’t get.

Equally, most social landlords will feel that they have no choice but to take very seriously a major change for housing associations and what could be yet another threat to council housing.

And anyone with even the vaguest interest in seeing more genuinely affordable homes will greet the latest guff about one for one replacements with a groan. 

But it’s also very hard not to be cynical about this latest cover version of Margaret Thatcher’s number one from the 1980s. The suspicion is that this is all about a lame duck prime minister having something catchy to announce regardless of how  – or even if – it will work out in practice.

Even so it’s impossible not to wonder about the practicalities of a plan to finance mortgages from housing benefit in the middle of a cost of living crisis, with interest rates about to rise at the peak of a housing market bubble that could be about to burst.

And it’s hard not to contrast Boris Johnson’s tired old rhetoric about social tenants on housing benefit being ‘dependent on the state’ with the plans announced just 24 hours earlier for a Social Housing Regulation Bill that will ‘mean more people living in decent, well looked-after homes enjoying the quality of life they deserve’.

Calling the plan ‘benefits to bricks’ looks like trolling of those who have genuinely attempted to find ways to shift subsidy to new homes.

And all of these reactions are subject to the politics of a wounded prime minister desperate to send the right signals to his party after 41 per cent of his own MPs said they have no confidence in him.

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Action for now, solutions not yet

The £15 billion energy cost support package announced by Rishi Sunak rightly benefits the poorest households most but it remains to be seen what it will do about the cost of living in general and the cost of housing in particular. 

Under the package announced by the chancellor on Thursday, 8 million households on benefits will get a one-off payment of £650 paid in two lump sums in July and the Autumn. Add that to the £400 energy support payment (rather than a loan) that will go to everyone and the £150 payment already made (at least in theory) to those in Bands A-D for the council tax, and the Treasury says this amounts to £1,200 help towards the cost of living for the most vulnerable.

Background documents confirm the one-off payment will not count towards the benefit cap, unlike the £20 a week uplift to universal credit during the pandemic. That should avoid many more households seeing the help disappear as fast as it arrives.

Sunak had been under pressure to do more on benefits not just because of energy costs but also because of the large gap between the 3.1 per cent uprating of benefits in April (based on last September’s inflation rate) and the current 9 per cent rate of CPI inflation.

He said his one-off payment would be worth more than bringing forward next year’s uprating of benefits, as some had suggested. 

And he also confirmed that the April 2023 uprating will be based on next September’s inflation rate, which could easily be more than 10 per cent, rather than retaining the option of declaring it to be unaffordable.

So far, so good, then and this is probably the package that the chancellor should have delivered in a Spring Statementthat looked inadequate at the time and has seemed even weeker with each passing week. This package looks to be both more generous and more redistributive than many people were expecting.

However, that also reflects the scale of the cost of living crisis. Add the £800 increase in the energy price cap expected in October to the £700 increase already seen in April and that is already more than the chancellor’s £1,200 for the most vulnerable and that is before you get to large increases in the price of food, fuel and other essentials. 

And there was one major cost that was as absent from Sunak’s statement this week as it was from the one he made in March and the Queen’s Speech earlier this month. No prizes for guessing it must be housing. 

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Housing in the Queen’s Speech

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It certainly looks like Her Majesty’s Government is doing something on housing – but is that the limit of the ambitions expressed in the Queen’s Speech?

As ever, background briefing notes provide more detail than the speech delivered this year by the future King.

Two promised headline Bills fulfil commitments to reform private renting and the regulation of social housing but both are long overdue.

A third pointedly does not include plans announced in the 2021 Queen’s Speech to reform the planning system to deliver more homes.

And there are vague promises of further ‘housing reform’ but no specifics or commitments to legislation to back them up.

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Two symbolic results in the politics of housing

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

The overall results may be more mixed but the Conservative loss of its flagship councils Wandsworth and Westminster could hardly be more symbolic in terms of the politics of housing.

Westminster has been Conservative-controlled since its creation in 1964 while Wandsworth has been run by the Tories since 1978.

Both were retained by the party at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s unpopularity in 1990 and throughout the Blair and Brown Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 but not anymore.

Together with Barnet, which also went Labour for the first time, they represent a sea change in politics in London, as former housing minister Lord Barwell noted in a tweet this morning:

That gives some idea of the resonance of the results for the Conservatives, but Wandsworth and Westminster are possibly even more significant in the history of the politics of housing.

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An encore all over again for Right to Buy

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It is the idea that is so superficially attractive that Conservatives cannot help forgetting all the other times it proved to be hopelessly impractical.

In a story helpfully briefed to the Telegraph a few days before the local elections, Boris Johnson is planning to ‘bring back Right to Buy’.

The prime minister has reportedly ordered officials to draw up plans to give the Right to Buy to housing association tenants ‘in a major shake-up inspired by Margaret Thatcher’.

Coming just over a week after levelling up secretary Michael Gove appealed to ‘Thatcher worshipping’ Tories to want more homes for social rent, the timing does not look like a total coincidence.

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Can Gove put the social back in ‘affordable’?

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Michael Gove’s challenge to ‘Thatcher-worshipping’ Tories to want more social rented housing feels like another significant milestone in the Conservative journey on the issue but the final destination remains unclear.

Speaking at a conference organised by Shelter, the levelling up secretary said he was exploring ways to increase support for social rent and change rules that restrict funding for it outside of the most unaffordable parts of the country.

He also admitted that previous Tory policies have ‘tilted more towards a particular set of products that are not truly affordable and have not enabled housing associations and others to generate the housing at the social rent that they need’.

The speech followed a report in the Sunday Telegraph that he is set to scrap the Section 106 of planning contributions and replace it with an infrastructure fund that will pave the way for a ‘council housing explosion’.

John Rentoul in The Independent sees all this, plus his success in bullying developers into paying up for building safety, as evidence that Gove will be a strong contender in the undeclared 2022 Conservative leadership contest.

At the same time, Telegraph columnist Liam Halligan, another speaker at the Shelter conference, argues that ‘council housing should be central to the Conservative brand’ and that the party should shift subsidies from benefits to bricks. 

Now keen-eyed readers may spot the odd example of cognitive dissonance in this reversal of 40 years of Conservative orthodoxy.

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A link restored for now

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

We routinely talk about the relationship between health and housing but have we forgotten just how close it once was?

That was the intriguing question posed by Al Story, professor of inclusion health at University College London, in the final session of this year’s Housing Studies Association conference.

As he traced how the relationship between public health, homelessness and housing developed from the 19th century to the present day, he outlined a sometimes surprising history with a striking contemporary relevance in the wake of Covid-19.

It’s a story that starts with the 19th century Vagrancy Act (now finally scheduled for repeal) but also the gradual realisation of the links between overcrowding, poor housing, contaminated water and disease.

A system of workhouses, poor law infirmaries and shelters developed with features such as the penny sit-up (a bench with no sleeping allowed), two penny hangover (a rope to lean on) and four penny coffin (a coffin-shaped box to sleep in).

Although the workhouse model was finally abolished in 1930, much of the concept and many of the buildings still survive: communal casual wards became modern day night shelters and cellular casual wards became hostels.

Public health concerns drove increased help for homeless people. Workhouse infirmaries were responsible for half of all deaths from TB but these were significantly reduced by segregation of consumptives even before treatments were available.

The contemporary relevance of all this is not just that homeless people still have the highest rates of TB even in the 21st century but also that the disease is spread via aerosol transmission – the same as with Covid-19.

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MPs call for reform of private renting

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing

This is shaping up to be a significant year for the regulation of rented housing, with the Social Housing Regulation Bill set to be followed by a white paper on the private rented sector.

While there are still clear differences between the two sectors, there are also similarities in terms of landlords who are unaccountable and tenants who lack a say. In a hybrid world, social housing has become more business focussed and private renting has become by default home to many of those in the greatest housing need.

Yet while the government’s stance on the regulation of social housing has come into focus – the details remain to be seen but creating a national tenant forum and giving the regulator a consumer focus look like a reversal of the light-touch regulation introduced after 2010 – regulation of private renting consists of ‘piecemeal legislative changes’ and the government lacks the data even to evaluate their impact.

That’s the verdict of MPs on the all-party Public Accounts Committee in a report published today [Wednesday] on the regulation of a sector that has doubled in size in the last 20 years and is now home to 11 million people.

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