The taxing problem of property

If you think the row over business rates is bad, imagine for a moment what would happen if council tax went through a revaluation.

As I’m writing this, some sort of government climbdown seems inevitable after weeks of press coverage of the rates increases faced by shops and other small businesses.

Some of the furore seems justified. The business rates system seems stuck in the past, unable to cope with out-of-town supermarkets let alone internet retailers and almost seems designed to destroy High Street businesses. There are cliff edges built into the system, especially at the bottom end. It’s not clear why farms are exempt but hospitals are not. Exemptions for empty and unused property create incentives to keep it empty.

Much of it is not. The journalists reporting from the mean streets of Maidenhead and Weybridge seem much less inclined to travel to Merthyr or Wakefield to talk to people whose business rates will be cut. The government maintains that this is a revaluation with no net increase in the tax (though some Tory MPs dispute this). That means the benefits will be felt where they should be: in less affluent areas.

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Marks out of 10 for the housing white paper

Originally published on February 10 on my blog for Inside Housing.

So have Gavin Barwell and Sajid Javid finally grapsed the nettle on the housing crisis?

Critics lined up to call the white paper a damp squib, a white flag and (my personal favourite) like a wet Tuesday in Bognor. Some had even read it first.

Supporters called it a pragmatic shift away from policy under David Cameron and ‘a blueprint for change’. And there was the inevitable ‘cautious welcome’ from housing organisations.

In some ways, the responses of two of the architects of previous Conservative housing policies were the most interesting ones. Former housing minister Grant Shapps said previous plans had not made much difference and this one probably wouldn’t either. Former No 10 adviser Alex Morton revealed the cynical political calculation at the heart of previous policy when he warned that ‘if you get dragged into an argument about renting versus owning, it will quickly become about the need for more council homes’.

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Has the White Paper fixed it?

Originally published on February 7 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

As the advance press coverage showed, this is a White Paper with few big ideas but maybe that is no bad thing when you consider the ones that emerged the last time the government presented us with a range of ‘bold’ and ‘radical’ reforms.

The extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants, forced sales of higher-value council homes and Starter Homes have cast such a dark shadow over affordable housing for the past two years that they make a bit of timidity seem almost welcome.

I’ll come back to the White Paper as a whole another time. You can argue it’s a flimsy response to the housing crisis and there are sections that make you wonder if they’ve been watered down, but it does make a series of subtle changes with the potential at least to change the balance of power in housebuilding.

And there are two new ideas that are definitely worth welcoming: publication of information on land ownership and options over land, and allowing local authorities to participate in German-style land pooling for new development.

For now, though, I want to concentrate on the affordable housing side of the equation and what happened to those three big ideas that have dominated so much of the debate (and my blogs) since 2015.

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Prevention and cure

Originally posted on January 30 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

As the Homelessness Reduction Bill passes its final stages in the House of Commons, it is time to mix celebration with realism.

The cause for celebration is that, once the bill has passed through the Lords, more people facing homelessness are entitled to help and that they will get it earlier. A landmark piece of legislation will make it on to the statute book 40 years after the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.

Conservative MP Bob Blackmandeserves great credit for leading the way but the bill was backed by Crisis, drew support from the government and MPs of all parties and has also had extensive input from Shelter and local authorities. Poppy Terry has a useful summary of how the bill has evolved on the Shelter policy blog.

Crucially, the bill was not just backed by the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee, it also went through extensive scrutiny. The issues are fiendishly complex but the comparison with the ‘back of a fag packet’ Housing and Planning Act could hardly be more marked.

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Happy birthday MK

Originally posted on January 25 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

Even if 50 is the new 40 (I rationalised that one long ago) this week’s anniversary of the birth of Milton Keynes is a significant moment in the history of housing – and what was once its future.

MK, as locals call it, has come a long way since it was designated a new town in January 1967 with a brief to become a city. The population is now 250,000 and rising and it has even imported its own football team.In much of the birthday coverage this week it’s called “Britain’s last new town”, probably because it was the biggest and the last to be finished.

In fact, it was the first of the third wave of post-War new towns to be designated: Peterborough celebrates its 50th birthday in July, with Northampton, Warrington, an expanded Telford, and Central Lancashire to follow over the next three years.

But in a week when Theresa May’s cabinet met in Warrington for the launch of her industrial strategy, it’s worth asking why no more have followed. After all, one of the key problems that all three waves of the new towns programme were partly designed to address – how to cope with population overspill from London and other major cities – has not gone away.

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An unambitious ambition

Originally posted on January 19 on my blog for Inside Housing.

A new overview of housing in England from the National Audit Office (NAO) provides some revealing insights on the state of the nation ahead of the Housing White Paper. Here are some highlights.

Moving the goalposts

The NAO estimates that 174,000 net additional homes a year are needed to meet the government’s target of a million new homes by 2020.

That’s fewer than the 190,000 delivered in 2015/16, the first of the five years covered by the target.

Confused? How on earth can the government meet such an ambitious target by building fewer homes? The answer is that it has moved the goalposts twice.

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12 tests for the Housing White Paper

This is an updated version of a post originally published on January 12 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The moment is finally here but will radical plans to boost housing supply live up to their advance billing? Here are my tests.

  1. How half-baked is it?

In one very important way, ministers have already passed my first test. Publication of a White Paper seems to mark a return to an earlier era of government when policies went through consultation and scrutiny before they were enacted.

Contrast that with the way that half-baked ideas from thinktanks were turned into equally half-baked legislation in the back of a fag packet Housing and Planning Act.

Speaking of which, how much will we hear about the loose ends that still need tying up from the act? Pay to Stay may be dead in its compulsory form, and the extension of the Right to Buy delayed by another pilot, but we still don’t know what’s happening with forced sales of higher-value council houses or to the receipts they raise.

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