Celebrations fit for heroes

Originally published on January 31as a blog for Inside Housing.

This year marks the centenary of a key event in the history of housing in Britain that deserves to be widely celebrated.

The 1919 Housing Act was designed to deliver on Lloyd George’s promise of homes for the soldiers, sailors and munitions workers of the First World War. He never actually said the exact words ‘homes fit for heroes’ and only 213,000 of the 500,000 promised were delivered before the Treasury axe fell in 1921.

But the results can still be seen in towns and cities all over the country in well-designed and spacious houses and the Act drawn up by health minister Christopher Addison also legacy for the future that went beyond the homes themselves. 

Christopher Addison, the architect of the 1919 Act

It effectively established principles for council housing that lasted (but would also be contested) through the rest of the century by giving local authorities responsibility for assessing local housing need and the tools and the resources to address it. 

Councils had been building houses on a discretionary basis since the 1860s but both main political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, were opposed to state subsidies. Under the 1919 Act, councils levied a penny on the rates and the Treasury met the rest of the initial costs in loans repayable from the rents.  

The homes themselves would be of a far higher quality than were being built in the private sector, with the best homes drawing on garden city principles to deliver space and light and a bathroom instead of damp, overcrowding and slums. 

Council housing has had its ups and downs in the 100 years since. The Conservative part of the coalition government in 1919 saw council housing and post-war rent control as temporary measures that could be abandoned when the housing market returned to ‘normal’ (a theme that would be replayed after 1979). 

The Geddes Axe of 1921 scrapped a programme whose costs were inflated by post-war inflation. Addison resigned in protest from the government and eventually left the Liberal Party. 

When Bevan proclaimed his vision of a ‘living tapestry’ in 1945 Addison was a member of the Labour government and council housing would become a mass tenure in the years as both main parties vied to build more of it. 

For most of the last 40 years, through the right to buy, spending and borrowing controls and stock transfer, it has mostly been about the downs but politics is at last moving back in the right direction. 

I’ve just edited a special issue of Welsh Housing Quarterly celebrating the centenary with articles looking back to 1919 (see, for example, this article by John Boughton, author of Municipal Dreams). 

But I also look at more recent developments that allow local authorities to look to the future with renewed confidence. 

It may be too early to assess the full impact of the end of borrowing caps in England and Wales but the right to buy finally ended in Wales last Saturday after several years of being suspended in many areas.

There was clear ambition to build new homes among the Welsh councils that I spoke to but this is about much more than just numbers – councils are also looking to advance agendas on quality, space and energy efficiency and embracing a wider housing role. 

Austerity and universal credit may continue, and I also found some frustration at the time it takes to get things done, but 100 years on from 1919 there is a real determination to make sure that they do. 

But this year’s centenary is about more than just the plans of individual local authorities. It also marks an opportunity to celebrate a proud history, bring communities together and remind everyone of the achievements of the past that could be an inspiration for the future. 

The best plans I’ve come across so far are in Bristol, where Homes for Heroes 100, a group of projects in Sea Mills, Hillfields, St Judes and Knowle West, has won National Lottery Funding to explore the history of the areas and the people who have lived there over the last century.

There will be a book written by people who have grown up on council estates, art projects, walking tours and a phone box refurbished to share stories and the planting of a new oak tree to go with the one planted by Addison himself when he visited Bristol in June 1919 to cut the first sod for new homes at Sea Mills.  

The present day housing minister was asked in the Commons on Monday why he had turned down an invitation to the centenary celebrations and said that he was ‘impatient to visit’ and plans to be in Bristol today (Thursday). 

There is also a conference at the Institute for Historical Research in London in July bringing together historical perspectives on 1919 plus broader themes about social and housing policy.  

The Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH) has raised the anniversary with the government and is calling for ideas and suggestions about how to mark it.  

There are Addison Act houses all over the country and any number of different Addison Streets whose story their residents may not know. 

This year’s centenary is a chance to celebrate not just the past but also the present and the future of council housing.   

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The man who collects houses

I’d never heard of Ken Griffin before a week in which the hedge fund billionaire bought the most expensive home ever sold in the United States and then snapped up (as you do) what is thought to be the priciest home sold in Britain for a decade.

I use the words ‘houses’ and ‘home’ in a loose sense, of course. Because we are talking about penthouses, apartments and condos too. And because, despite spending $238m on a four-storey penthouse in a new skyscraper in New York and £95m on a London house near Buckingham Palace, it’s hard to see how he will spend much time living in either of them.

kenneth_griffin

Griffin’s Citadel hedge fund is actually based in Chicago, where he already has two more homes. The most expensive ever sold in the city, a $59m four-storey penthouse, offers a place to crash after day at the office. Fitting it out could cost another $25m but if he needs somewhere in the meantime he also owns a whole floor of the Waldorf Astoria plus a two-storey penthouse in another skyscraper.

For weekends or holidays he can fly down to Florida, the state where he was born and has acquired a $230m portfolio of land and property in Palm Beach near President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. One property (which cost $15m) will apparently be used as a guest house while some of the four others could be demolished to make way for a gargantuan beach house. That’s almost forgetting the $60m penthouse in Miami that he seemingly never moved into and has now put back on the market.

If he fancies a change of scene, he can nip over to Hawaii, where he bought one property for $11m in 2009 only to buy a second for $17m three years later.

I’m labouring the point here but it’s worth it on a few different levels, most obviously for what it reveals about the astonishing lives of the ultra-rich but also for what this extreme case says about our attitudes to housing and property and about what has happened since the financial crisis.

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Meanwhile, in other news…

Originally posted on January 29 as a blog for Inside Housing.

In the brief lull between Brexit chaos, the politics of housing just about continues as normal at Westminster.

The first Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) questions of the year was dominated by two all-too-familiar issues (homelessness and fire safety) while the HCLG committee inquiry into reform of the building regulations heard from the main expert and the minister.

First up in the main chamber was what the government is doing to reduce death rates among homeless people, with housing secretary James Brokenshire saying that every death is ‘one too many’.

Given the 597 deaths recorded in 2017, an increase of 24% in five years, his script about £100m for the rough sleeping strategy and £1.2bn for homelessness prevention, let alone £5m for colder weather, did not exactly sound convincing.

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Shrinking homes to fit

Originally published on January 23 on insidehousing.co.uk.

Shrinkflation made the headlines this week as government statisticians highlighted the way that food manufacturers reduce the size of their packets rather than put up the price of their products.

Most commonly seen in bread and cereals, it means you now get 10 Jaffa Cakes where you used to get 12.

But another news story got me wondering about whether the same thing could happen in housing.

Micro-homes could solve London’s housing crisis,’ said a BBC headline based on a new report from the Adam Smith Institute.

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A new vision for social housing

Originally posted at www.insidehousing.co.uk on January 8.

shelter commissionSooner or later a government will have to come up with a long-term plan for housing like the one that Theresa May launched this week for the NHS.

In place of the endless promises of the ‘jam tomorrow’ of more new homes at some point in the next parliament it would need a commitment that goes beyond the next election or even the one after that.

Today’s report from the independent Social Housing Commission provides a stark illustration of what is needed and the scale of the resources required.

And this is much more than the usual call for more from the social housing lobby. The 16 commissioners are drawn from across the political spectrum, with former Labour leader Ed Miliband matched by former Conservative ministers Lady Warsi and Lord O’Neill, and from across society, with Baroness Doreen Lawrence joined by members of the Grenfell community. There were also 13 public debates around the country and responses from 31,000 people.

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10 things about 2018 – part two

Originally posted on December 28 as a column for Inside Housing. 

The second part of my look back at the year runs from land to Brexit via renting and council housing. Part one is here.

6. The land question

If 2018 was the year of the tenant, then another issue was not far behind as the land question took on an importance arguably not seen since before the First World War.

A developing political consensus around the potential of land value capture as a funding mechanism for infrastructure and affordable housing found expression in a favourable report from the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and an open letter signed by former Downing Street insiders and think tanks and organisations across the political spectrum. One report put the net profit made by landowners just for getting planning permission for housing at a cool £13 bn a year.

At the same time the chancellor appointed former Cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin to lead out an independent review of the slow pace at which homes get built. Letwin quickly focussed on slow-build out rates on large sites but concluded that the reason why they take an average of more than 15 years to complete has less to do with landbanking (hoarding land with planning permission) than the absorption rate (the fact that developers only build as fast as they can sell for a required profit in local markets).

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10 things about 2018 – part one

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 21.

It was the year of three housing ministers and two secretaries of states (so far), the year that the department went back to being a ministry and a new government agency promised to ‘disrupt’ the housing market.

It was also the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, of Sir Oliver Letwin and Lord Porter and of some significant anniversaries.

Above all, it was the year after Grenfell and the year before Brexit. Here is the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about in 2018.

1. New names, new ministers

January had barely begun when the Department for Communities and Local Government became the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The name harked back to the glory days when housing was ‘our first social service’ and housing secretary Sajid Javid became the first full member of the cabinet with housing in his title since 1970.

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