The politics of planning reform

Originally published by Inside Housing on October 26.

Remember when a newly elected Conservative-led government was determined to put an end to top-down planning and scrap Labour’s ‘Stalinist’ housebuilding targets?

It may be only 10 years ago but all that ‘localism’ seems a long time ago in the wake of a planning white paper that Boris Johnson says will deliver ‘radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War’.

But that 2010 rhetoric from Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps is a reminder of the tensions that are inherent in the conflict between Conservative determination to deliver more homes from the centre and the conservative impulse to resist them at a local level.

For all the lofty promises about ‘big, bold steps so that we in this country can finally build the homes we all need and the future we all want to see’, that struggle has never gone away.

In the final few weeks of consultation on the white paper, ministers were already signalling a u-turn on a key part of it after a revolt by Tory backbenchers.

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The problems with Johnson’s housing priorities

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing on October 6.

You are prime minister. You have £5.8 billion to spend on housing. What do you do?

Before you answer there is a catch. You are a Tory prime minister. So this has to be all about home ownership.

This is not about the Affordable Homes Programme either – although the modest increase in that is tilted towards home ownership too.

You may have guessed by now that this is about decisions already taken by Boris Johnson’s chancellor Rishi Sunak, decisions that are looking worse and worse the more time goes on.

That thought was prompted by the only ‘new’ idea that I’ve seen emerging from the Conservative Party conference: a plan to create ‘Generation Buy’ by encouraging low-deposit mortgages to help young people on to the housing ladder.

The idea revealed by Mr Johnson in a Telegraph interview on Saturday is not especially new – essentially it’s a rehash of the mortgage guarantee part of Help to Buy and it harks back to the days when Gordon Brown wanted to encourage long-term, fixed-rate mortgages – and it seems to be inspired by a report published by the Centre for Policy Studies last month.

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Where is the Winter Housing Plan?

Originally written as a column for insidehousing.co.uk.

In March housing secretary Robert Jenrick promised that nobody will lose their home because of the pandemic. In June that turned out to mean that nobody will lose their home ‘this summer’.

The evictions moratorium was extended twice at the 11th hour but there was no movement this time and it ended last Monday – a day before the Autumnal equinox – with an empty promise of ‘comprehensive support for renters’.

If the moratorium had expired a week later – after the new pandemic restrictions for the next six months announced by Boris Johnson on Tuesday and after the new Job Support Scheme announced by Rishi Sunak on Thursday – the pressure for it to be extended would have been overwhelming.

Instead, with promises of Christmas truces, exemptions for areas in lockdown and prioritisation of cases, we have lurched into a situation that ensures that lots of people definitely will lose their homes in the next few months.

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A route map that leads nowhere

Originally published on September 15 as a column for Inside Housing.

In the wake of Boris Johnson, Brexit and Covid-19, where next for affordable housing?

The last month has revealed the outlines of a government route map that combines some of Theresa May’s commitments on social rent with an update of David Cameron’s vision for home ownership and adds a big dose of planning reform to housebuilding targets.

On the plus side, housing secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed that the new Affordable Homes Programme will include homes for social rent, and more of them than in the previous one.

As expressed in a speech to the virtual Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) conference and an announcement last week, that is definitely more May than .

However, it still falls way short of the 90,000 social rent homes a year called for by the Conservative-controlled housing select committee in July or likely demand from 1.6 million households revealed in research for the National Housing Federation on Tuesday.

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Facing up to the cladding crisis

Originally published on September 7 as a column for Inside Housing.

All through the cladding saga, the government has dragged its feet and resisted spending money before finally being forced to act.

Think back to the way ministers resisted any kind of fund for replacement of Grenfell-style ACM cladding, then insisted private building owners should pay, then denied the need for any help for non-ACM cladding and you see a pattern repeating itself.

It took the government almost a year after Grenfell to announce a £400m fund for the removal of ACM on social housing blocks, almost two years to find £200m for private blocks and almost three years to announce the £1bn Building Safety Fund for the removal of non-ACM cladding.

All this while the cladding scandal continued to escalate, dragging in more and more blocks and more and more residents and eventually wrecking the whole market in recently built flats.

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England gets there in the end with evictions climbdown

Originally written on August 24 as a column for Inside Housing.

The u-turn was not as dramatic as the one over exam results and it means Robert Jenrick will not for now be joining Gavin Williamson in detention after the politics class.

But, now that it’s happened, does the 11th-hour climbdown over the Coronavirus evictions ban foreshadow a more permanent improvement renters’ rights after the pandemic?

The package announced on Friday following consultation with the judiciary extends the ban by four weeks from August 23 to September 20 in England and Wales. It also extends the notice period for tenants in England from three to six months in all cases except those involving anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse.

This is the second extension to the ban announced at the 11th hour, as it was originally only meant to last until June, then extended to August.

You still have to wonder what took so long: the Welsh Government introduced a six-month notice period under its devolved housing powers a month ago but is reliant on decisions in Westminster about the evictions ban because judicial affairs are not devolved.

It has also announced low-interest loans for tenants in arrears worth £8 million (the equivalent of £140 million in England given its far larger population) and maxed out discretionary housing payments but is still facing pressure to go further.

At least England got there in the end, though. The question now, given that four weeks is not very long, is what comes next?

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Jenrick faces evictions exam

Originally published on insidehousing.co.uk on August 24 – before the extension of the evictions ban the following day. Post on that to come.

Just like with Coronavirus and the A levels fiasco, ministers cannot say they have not been warned.

As the clock counts down to the restart of evictions, they can turn a deaf ear to claims from Shelter, Citizens Advice and Generation Rent, the shadow housing secretary and now a range of public health organisations about the wave of evictions and homelessness that is about to hit them.

They can turn a blind eye to the action taken by their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and now Northern Ireland to get ahead of the situation and deliver more help for renters.

And they can choose to ignore what’s already happening in parts of the United States, where some cities have turned convention centres into huge court annexes to cope with the surge of cases there.

As I write this on Thursday morning, nothing, including a last-minute u-turn, can be ruled out with this government, but as it stands things will return to insecure normality for renters from the start of next week.

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Benefit cap surge is a warning of worse to come

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 7.

Step away from planning reform for a few moments and grim news out today (Thursday August 6) reveals a more immediate crisis in the benefits system with even more alarming implications for the future.

Figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show that the number of households subject to the benefit cap almost doubled to 154,000 between February 2020 and May 2020. Of those, 140,000 had children.

More households have moved on to Universal Credit over time so the grey line for total capped households is the one to watch – note that the increase is much bigger than when the benefit cap was reduced in 2016.

Capped households

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Conservative backbenchers are listening but are ministers?

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing on July 27.

Today’s report from the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Committee feels like the political fruit machine has finally come up with three social rented homes in a row.

That a committee with a Conservative majority should come out in full support of 90,000 social rented homes a year is significant enough in itself. That it should give its full backing to the case that such a programme will pay itself back in full to the Exchequer over the long term should feel like a vindication for those who conducted the sometimes lonely campaign for social housing.

That it should do so now, and argue that a social housebuilding programme should be ‘top of the government’s agenda to rebuild the country from the impact of COVID-19’, makes it feel like an idea whose time really has come round again.

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Sins of permission

Originally published on July 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Your own independent evaluation shows that the existing regime of permitted development rights (PDR) delivers poor quality homes that raise serious concerns about ‘the health, wellbeing and quality of life of future occupiers’.

Your own consultation showed that an overwhelming majority of consultees opposed major extensions of it.

You’ve previously declared your commitment to the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission’s ‘fast track to beauty’ without apparently heeding its report warning that PDR has ‘inadvertently permissioned future slums’.

So naturally enough housing secretary Robert Jenrick has decided to go ahead and allow upwards extensions and demolition and replacement of existing buildings via a PDR system that allows minimal scrutiny by local communities.

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