Gove’s grand plan leaves gaps to fill

As one MP put it, we welcome the steps forward in ministerial statements on building safety only to find problems in the steps backward that follow.

Michael Gove’s plans to ‘make developers pay’ represent the most positive steps seen so far but there are still major concerns over what comes next.

For starters, how exactly will he ‘make’ them? The initial plan in talks before Easter seems to be persuasion but the levelling up secretary has limited levers that he can pull and why would companies that have previously resisted calls to ‘do the right thing’ change their minds now?

He cited the way that Rydon Homes, sister company of the main contractor in the Grenfell refurbishment, was barred from Help to Buy but the scheme ends in 2023 and most of the £29 billion in equity loans has already been committed.

This highlights yet again a major flaw in the government’s support for housebuilders that I highlighted even before the creation of Help to Buy: its failure to get a quid pro quo for all that help for profits, bonuses and dividends.

Short of another support scheme, which may ironically be needed if supply plummets, that leaves blacklisting from Homes England programmes and naming and shaming as his principal weapons. Neither is a negligible threat but will they be enough?

That leaves coercion, legal action or the ‘high-level threat’ of a new tax that Gove is authorised to make in the letter leaked to Newsnight from chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke.

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Crazy lending v insane housing system

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It sounds crazy and it is. New mortgages at up to seven times a person’s income look like a reminder of the excessively loose lending seen before the financial crisis and the collapse of Northern Rock.

At the end of a year in which house prices have risen at their fastest rate since 2006 and interest rates began to rise from record lows, and at the start of one in which household incomes face a squeeze, the timing of the new deal from online broker Habito looks, shall we say, interesting.

Take that seven times income and add five times a partner’s salary and a couple each earning £25,000 could borrow £300,000 to buy a £330,000 home, well above the Nationwide’s new UK average of £255,000. Take out the loan for 40 years rather than the traditional 25 and they can reduce their monthly payments too.

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Putting the interest rate rise in perspective

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

‘Millions hit by higher mortgage bills,’ ran the headlines after the Bank of England raised interest rates for the first time in three years.  

‘Worst blow to first-time buyers since financial crisis,’ was the Telegraph’s verdict on the increase from 0.1 to 0.25 per cent. The move had been long expected but it was still enough to send shares in housebuilders lower and banks higher.

Most mortgages are now on fixed-rate terms so most borrowers will not see an increase immediately, although the decision will add around £10 a month to repayments for someone on the standard variable rate and £15 a month for a tracker mortgage customer.

With energy bills already rising, council tax bills going up next year and price inflation at 5.1 per cent and rising that can only add to the worry for those borrowers who are already stretched.

Another way of looking at the interest rate rise is that 0.25 per cent is 20 times lower than what would have been considered a ‘low’ rate before 2008. The record lows since the financial crisis have now lasted for more than half the term of what used to be a standard 25-year mortgage.

Little wonder that house prices have boomed and the wealth of home owners has rocketed and that first-time buyers have faced a ‘worst blow’ more or less every month.

Nevertheless there are bigger questions that lie behind what is largely a symbolic decision driven by the Monetary Policy Committee need to meet market expectations about a rent increase to tackle inflation that is now far above its 2 per cent target.

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The £3 trillion question

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It has so many zeros in it that it’s worth writing it out in full: £3,000,000,000,000.

That’s the increase in the housing wealth of British households since 2000, according to new analysis from the Resolution Foundation. Perhaps even more remarkably, as the graph below shows, around half of that has been (un)earned since 2012, in the wake of a Global Financial Crisis that seemed set to bring the whole market crashing down.

The distribution of all that housing wealth has been startlingly unequal. Londoners gained almost four times as much (£76,000) as those in the North East (£21,000) and the over-65s eight times as much as 30-34 year olds and more than three times as much as 35-39 year olds.

Where the least wealthy third of households gained less than £1,000 per adult, the wealthiest 10 per cent chalked up an average gain of £174,000.

Needless to say, the gains for anyone who has remained a social tenant or a private renter are zero and zero – and less than zero for leaseholders unlucky enough to be stuck in unmortgageable and unsaleable flats.    

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How sorry is ‘deeply sorry’?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Where does the buck stop? It’s the question that has hung over much of the Grenfell Tower inquiry ever since phase two opened with what lead counsel Richard Millett called a ‘merry-go-round of buck passing’ between the organisations and companies involved.

The opening statements in the latest part of module 6 this week  take us at last to where, how and why decisions were made within government. 

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) admits in its opening statement that it ‘presided over an overarching building safety system that has been shown to be unfit for purpose with catastrophic consequences’.

It acknowledges a series of failures in its oversight of the regulatory system, internal governance, and the nature of its responses  to the recommendations of the Lakanal House coroner and issues raised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on fire safety.

And it says that: ‘Cumulatively these failings helped to create an environment in which non-compliance was widespread and such a tragedy was possible. For that it is deeply sorry.’

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Parallel scandals

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

The building safety and leasehold scandals have run in tandem for some time but the parallels really hit home in parliament this week.

The parallels between the two issues go well beyond the fact that both concern leaseholders and the power imbalance between them and freeholders.

While the government is acting to change things for the future, progress on protecting existing leaseholders and residents of buildings with safety issues has been slow. Ministers have repeatedly promised action only to lament the complexities of the issues involved.

Building safety dominated the initial exchanges in Commons questions on Monday as MP after MP asked Michael Gove about the plight of leaseholders in their constituencies.

The levelling up secretary dropped yet more hints of a series of new measures to tackle the ‘invidious vice’ in which leaseholders are caught that will be announced ‘shortly’, ‘in due course’ and eventually ‘before Christmas’.

Adopting the more aggressive tone towards developers and the construction industry that has marked his approach to the issue since the reshuffle, he said that ‘my Department are looking at every available means to ensure that the burden is lifted from leaseholders’ shoulders and placed where it truly belongs’.

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Smoke, mirrors and broken promises

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

This is definitely not the first government to hype up its policies, break its promises and sneak out inconvenient announcements as quietly as possible but it is one that has taken its game to a new level.

Anyone in housing has become wearily familiar with the semantics of ‘affordable’ housing and the ‘spare room subsidy’ but the trend is now evident across government.

The thought was prompted by watching Boris Johnson bluster his way through a TV interview in which he denied he was breaking his repeated pledge to build Northern Powerhouse Rail between Liverpool and Leeds.

That scheme, plus the eastern leg of HS2, have indeed been scrapped in the Integrated Rail Plan but the prime minister’s dodgy claim was based on small sections of them going ahead.

Boris Johnson pulled a similar trick with his promise to build ’40 new hospitals’. Most of them are merely new buildings at existing hospitals – and the infrastructure watchdog now says most are ‘unachievable’ in any case -but that has not stopped the hype.

Aside from the transport issues, the importance of (take your pick) ‘the biggest ever public investment in Britain’s rail network’ or the ‘Great Train Robbery’ is of course the link with levelling up.

That policy is due to be fleshed out in a white paper before Christmas but its success as a slogan is based on the implication that everyone can be a winner without anyone losing out.

That was also the claim implicit in the policy on social care that Boris Johnson (him again) promised would mean that nobody will have to sell their home.

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Cutting the Goveian knot

Originally published on November 10 as a column for Inside Housing.

In a two-hour appearance before MPs, Michael Gove made most of the right noises but can he really come up with meaningful solutions to the intractable problems that come with his new job?

The man in charge of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) was facing questions from what is still called the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. You can watch it back here.

The reorganisation of his department added responsibilities for levelling up and preserving the union to the tangled threads of building safety, planning, home ownership and homelessness that were already crowding his in-tray. You might almost call it a Goveian Knot.

What was striking was not just Mr Gove’s willingness to engage with committee members but also his multiple hints of bolder answers on the way.

The levelling up secretary signalled pauses and rethinks and resets on several of the most contentious issues he faces. This is reflected in this morning’s press coverage of his hints that housebuilding targets will be scrapped, his pledge that controversial fire safety advice will be withdrawn soon and his criticism of ‘overcautious’ lending by banks to first-time buyers.  

It also became clear that he sees a direct link between levelling up and the H side of his brief.

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How DLUHC and DWP mark their homework

With a new secretary of state, a new department and a new name, what are the government’s real priorities when it comes to housing?

Some big clues dropped in an intriguing supplementary document published alongside the Budget and Spending Review this week.

Spending Review 2021 – Policy outcomes and metrics is meant to tie spending and performance together. Each department has an Outcome Delivery Plan that sets out their priority outcomes and the metrics they will use to measure their performance against them. Effectively, this is their homework how they want it to be marked and the measures used are highly revealing.

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Behind the Spending Review’s smoke and mirrors

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

This was a spending review that didn’t really feel like a spending review as far as housing is concerned.

It’s the first multi-year review since 2015 but compare it to the austerity seen then and in 2010, the cuts of 1998 and even the relative largesse of 2007 and it seems to contain little that is really new.

Aside from what is claimed to be an additional £1.8 billion for brownfield land, almost everything in it has already been announced, in some cases several times.

The 2021 spending review (SR21) ‘confirms’ £5 billion for cladding removal and ‘reconfirms’ £11.5 billion for the Affordable Homes Programme alongside an existing £10 billion for housing supply but the numbers in it play fast and loose with the difference between the five years of this parliament and the three covered by the review (2022/23 to 2024/25).

A classic example is the claim in the Red Book  that: ‘SR21 demonstrates the government’s commitment to investing in safe and affordable housing by confirming a settlement of nearly £24 billion for housing, up to 2025-26.’ Rishi Sunak also used this impressively large number in his Budget speech.

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