What the snap election could mean for housing

Originally published on April 18 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Here are some quick thoughts on what the snap General Election might mean for housing.

First, what about the campaign? Labour and Jeremy Corbyn will make a housing a big part of their alternative vision for Britain.

There will be lots about council and social housing and lots to appeal to private renters. Housing will be more prominent in the campaign of one of the two major parties than it has been for years.

But will any of that matter? Theresa May and the Conservatives will not need to say much about housing because their campaign will be all about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn.

Housing won’t matter much to any of the other parties either as the Lib Dems try to win back seats by appealing to Remainers and the SNP and Plaid use the looming Tory apocalypse in England to win votes in Scotland and Wales.

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The problem(s) with leasehold

Originally published on April 13 on  my blog for Inside Housing.

Question: When is a home owner not really a home owner? Answer: When they are a leaseholder.

Leaseholders have the responsibilities of being an owner without having all of the rights. They own the bricks and mortar* of the homes they are living in – but only for the length of their lease – and they do not own the land it is built on.

They pay a mortgage but they also pay ground rent to the freeholder and a service charge for maintenance carried out by companies over whom they may have no control. They may see themselves as owners but in the eyes of the law they are tenants.

The issue has come to a head recently with the scandal of developers selling leasehold new houses and then selling on the freehold for a profit. Unwitting buyers have found themselves facing bills for ground rent that double every 10 years and an escalating bill for buying the freehold.

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Watching the benefit cap

Originally posted on April 6 on my blog for Inside Housing.

What did see when you watched last night’s Panorama on the benefit cap?

Most people reading this here will, I think, have seen the impact of an arbitrary policy that leaves thousands of people with 50p a week towards their rent.

But outside my timeline on Twitter the view was very different. Roughly 95 per cent of tweets with the hashtag #benefitcap were hostile, but to the people featured in the programme rather than the policy.

There is nothing new in this divide of course – exactly the same thing happened with Benefits Street and How to Get a Council House and a Dispatches documentary on the cap last month– but this was an hour on BBC One on primetime.

Part of the problem lay with the way that Panorama framed the issue. This was clear in the first two minutes.

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LHA: a reverse supermarket sweep

Originally published on April 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

It’s easy to forget now but the original idea behind the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) was that it would give tenants an incentive to ‘shop around’ for a cheaper rent.

Rather than get their actual rent paid, tenants would get an allowance based on the median rent for the area and if they found somewhere cheaper they could keep what they saved. In effect they could be rewarded for shopping at Lidl’s rather than Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s.

The ‘shopping incentive’ was a key feature of a new system that was designed to be fairer and more transparent than the one it replaced. The (then Labour) government said it would give tenants more choice and a greater sense of personal responsibility, administration would be easier and there would be reduced barriers to work.

Fears about the impact of moving to direct payment to tenants were allayed in local pilot schemes and for a time it seemed like the new system really was working as intended.

Nine years on and that early optimism has disappeared along with the original idea. Labour restricted the shopping incentive to £15 a week in 2009 and the coalition eventually removed it completely in 2010.

And that was just the start of a series of cuts in the allowance justified by constant references to a handful of very large claims in London, inferring that some tenants were choosing to shop at Harrods and Harvey Nicholls.

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The charge of the Brexit brigade

For some strange reason, these lines are running through my head ahead of the triggering of Article 50.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

It’s not so much because I think we will be metaphorically blown to pieces by the guns of the other 27 EU members. Nor because that verse is a pretty accurate description of MPs trooping through the lobbies to vote for something they know is a historic mistake. It’s because our generals seem to think those are reasons to send us even faster into the valley.

Without stretching the metaphor too far, the famous charge into the Russian guns at the Battle of Balaklava was the result of ambiguous orders, arrogance and personal rivalries. Lord Raglan probably said something about ‘having a punt, having a go, that’s what pumps me up’, Lord Lucan (yes, really) gave a speech in front of a bus and the Earl of Cardigan obeyed an order he knew was suicidal while mumbling something about a country that works for everyone.

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The problem with the Bank of Mum and Dad

Originally published on March 27 on my blog for Inside Housing.

‘The Bank of Mum and Dad’ is one of those phrases that sound benign until you ask yourself what it really means.

What, after all, could be more natural than parents helping their children to buy a first home? And what could be wrong with mum and dad dipping into their pockets, or extending their mortgage, to get their son or daughter on to the housing ladder?

If we were just talking about some people being able to buy at a younger age than others, maybe not too much. But two reports out today show that the Bank of Mum and Dad is symptomatic of a much bigger problem in the housing system that is anything but benign.

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Relegation zone

Originally published on March 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

No wonder Sajid Javid wants to go to Finland: a report out today confirms it as the only country in the European Union where homelessness is falling. The remarkable performance compared to the other 27 EU members is attributed to 20 years of implementing housing policies based on Housing First.

That will only add to the attractions of the approach highlighted in a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice that apparently made the communities secretary so keen to go to Helsinki.

But as his boss gets ready to trigger Article 50, something else in today’s report may also give him pause for thought: the UK has fallen badly behind other EU nations in its performance on housing and homelessness.

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