U-turns but no vision in social housing green paper

Originally posted on August 14 on my blog for Inside Housing.

For all its faults (and there are many), the social housing green paper is still a remarkable document.

What I think it is the first-ever housing green paper from a Conservative government represents progress in itself: rather than taking half-baked ideas from right wing think tanks and putting them straight into legislation, the government is actually consulting us on its policies.

But that is just for starters: the green paper runs up the white flag on two of the barmiest and most controversial elements of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and goes on to propose what amounts to a rewrite of much more of what the government has done since 2010.

The two explicit u-turns mean that local authorities will no longer be required to pay a levy on higher-value council homes as they fall vacant and fixed-term tenancies will no longer be mandatory for new council tenants.

This is not a complete surprise – neither policy had yet been implemented – but it is an indication of just how much the Grenfell Tower fire has changed the politics of social housing.

And the non-implementation (or even repeal) of the forced sales levy means that there is no source of funding for a third policy that was a flagship Tory manifesto pledge in 2015 -the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants.

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‘Housing week’ off to an uncertain start

For once this is a silly season that has some substance. If you can tear yourself away from the sun lounger or the latest pronouncement by the Etonian Katie Hopkins, mid-August sees a trio of government announcements that are crucial for housing and homelessness.

Last week featured another big benefits u-turn: confirmation that housing benefit will continue for supported accommodation removes a cloud that has been hanging over projects including homeless hostels and women’s refuges.

Monday saw the launch of the strategy that the government says will enable it to meet its target of halving rough sleeping in England by 2022 and ending it by 2027.

And what is billed as ‘housing week’ is set to continue on Tuesday with the launch of the social housing green paper – originally promised in the Spring, then before the parliamentary recess last month, but now appearing while most MPs are on holiday.

The timing does at least ensure some media attention, including an uncertain performance by James Brokenshire in the TV and radio studios on Monday morning.

After a lively appearance on Good Morning Britain, the housing secretary struggled on the Today programme when asked whether government policies are to blame for the relentless rise in rough sleeping and floundered when asked how much of the promised ‘£100 million plan’ is new money. (Somewhere between none and not much was the eventual answer).

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What the English Housing Survey says about owner-occupation

The third in a series of blogs looking at the latest English Housing Survey considers the state of home ownership in 2016/17.

Home ownership has stopped shrinking

The survey says 62.6% of households owned their home in England in 2016/17, down from 62.9% the previous year. Coming after a 10-year decline from a peak of 71% in 2004, that represents relative stability and the rate is now little changed since 2013/14.

The last time home ownership was lower was in 1984, just as the Thatcher right to buy boom was at its peak.

Or has it?

However, some more profound changes are going on beneath the surface. First, it depends whether you are talking about owner-occupation or home ownership – many more of us now own more than one home thanks to buy to let.

Second, it conceals the widening divide within ownership. Traditionally owner-occupation has been about first-time buyers getting on to the housing ladder but the tenure has matured as baby boomers get older and there are now more outright owners (34%) than people buying with a mortgage (28%).

Owner split

In line with that, the proportion of owners who are under 35 has halved in the last two decades from 18% to 9% and even buyers with a mortgage are older than they once were (only 46% are under 45). By contrast, 61% of outright owners are over 65.

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What the English Housing Survey says about private renting

Originally posted on August 2 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The second in a series of blogs looking at the latest English Housing Survey considers the state of the private rented sector in 2016/17.

Home to a fifth of us

The private rented sector has doubled in size over the last 20 years from 10% of households in 1996/97 (2.1m) to 20% in 2016/17 (4.7m). Most of the growth took place after 2003.

To put that growth into perspective, the private rented sector now accommodates a greater share of households than at any time since 1970. As recently as 1997, following rapid decline in the 1970s and 1980s, it was half the size of the social rented sector.

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New NPPF but no green paper

Originally published on July 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Pick your moment: the appointment of a new housing minister only two weeks ago; the non-appearance of advance trails in the Sunday papers; or the failure of housing secretary James Brokenshire to rise to Labour’s bait in the Commons on Monday.

They were all strong signals that the social housing green paper, first promised early this year, then in the Spring and then before the recess, would fail to make its appearance by the time MPs went on their summer break on Tuesday.

Challenged over the decision by the BBC’s Mark Easton, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said that: ‘Providing high quality and well managed social housing is a top priority for this government. Shortly we will publish a Green Paper that sets out a new deal for social housing tenants.’

‘Shortly’ in this context might mean over the recess or (more likely) when MPs return in September (though there is some speculation that tensions over Brexit could see this delayed until October).

Either way, social housing seems to be just as much of a ‘top priority’ as it was when Kit Malthouse became the third different housing minister this year, leaving none of the politicians in place who personally assured tenants that they were ‘listening’ to their concerns.

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The rise of working homelessness

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on July 23.

Ever since 2010 the government has assumed that work is the solution to poverty and problems with housing.

It’s an assumption that underpins universal credit and it’s been nourished by a steady drip of propaganda from right-wing think tanks and newspapers about the alleged role of social housing in encouraging worklessness.

Anyone with experience of the benefits system knows that this is at best a simplistic and at worst a dangerously inaccurate interpretation of what is going on.

For all the government’s proclamations of a ‘jobs miracle’, work alone is not a guaranteed route out of poverty or poor housing or even, it now seems, homelessness.

A report out today from Shelter shows a 73% rise in the number of families who are in work but homeless and in temporary accommodation over the last five years: from 19,000 in 2013 to 33,000 in 2017.

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What the English Housing Survey says about social renting

Originally posted on July 18 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The first in a series of blogs looking at the detailed findings of the latest English Housing Survey considers what the social rented sector looked like in 2016/17.

Nothing has changed

For the third year in a row the survey shows that there were slightly more social homes than 12 months before but the sector is still housing a steadily smaller proportion of the population.

Social housing’s tenure share was down to 17.1% in 2016/17, with housing associations accounting for a slightly higher 10.3% and local authorities falling again to 6.8%. The slow decline – from 21% in 1997 – means that social housing now houses a smaller share of the population than at any time since the early 1950s.

Everything has changed

The survey obviously covers the year before the Grenfell Tower fire and so only hints at some of the issues that will be covered in the imminent (we hope) social housing green paper.

The positive news for landlords and tenants is that the survey shows that fire safety in social housing is generally higher than in other sectors: 1% of housing association and 2% of local authority homes had a significantly higher than average risk of fire compared to 4% of owner-occupied and 6% of private rented homes.

But that will not be of much comfort when the pre-2017 system did not even consider the possibility of inflammable cladding, shoddy construction work and (as the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee points out today) a regulatory system riddled with conflicts of interest.

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