Changing the culture

As a new report from Shelter shows that private rents continue to rise, politicians are starting to accept the need for reform.

The charity published figures this morning showing that rents rose by an average of 2.8 per cent in the last 12 months. That’s faster than the 1.7 per cent increase in house prices in 2012 revealed by the Land Registry this week and comes at a time when wages are at a standstill.

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The state of self-employment

The conjunction of the deadline for self-assessment tax returns and the start of my 21st year as a freelance has got me thinking about self-employment.

Like most people I’ve found there are good and bad sides to working (at least in theory) for yourself. The feeling of not being tied to one particular employer and of (at least in theory) being free to do anything you want are both potentially liberating. Not being dependent on one organisation for your living should mean you’re better off than its employees in a downturn (at least in theory). You can offset your (legitimate, please note, HMRC) expenses against income and if you are more high-powered than me you can even found your own personal service company and employ yourself. A combination of self-employment and technology has enabled me to live and work in a part of the country where reasonably paid full-time jobs are a rarity.

On the downside, if you work mainly at home self-employment can leave you isolated from the sort of workplace life that everyone takes for granted. If you work mainly inside workplaces a thick skin is sometimes required when you have to watch complete idiots take charge (in my case thankfully not for several years, I hasten to add!). If you’re doing well, your leisure time can get squeezed. If you’re doing badly, it will be spent worrying that someone will pay you on time to pay the bills. You have few legal rights, though I’ve only been let down badly a couple of times and the rights of employees are steadily disappearing too. Your debts may well be higher than those of an employee. And if, say, a government comes along determined to cut public spending in the middle of a recession you can find sources of income rapidly drying up because the freelancers are the easiest people to cut. Thanks, George!

But enough about me: what about the state of self-employment as a whole?

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Going spare

With just 62 days left the bedroom tax has gone mainstream in parliament and the national press.

The last week alone has seen three different debates in the Commons, a DWP questions in which it was the main issue, and stories in the Sun and Mail as well as, more predictably, the GuardianDaily Record and Mirror.

Meanwhile virtually every local paper in the UK seems to be finding families affected by the tax that few of their readers would consider to have a ‘spare room’. From Bute to Torfaen and from King’s Lynn to Northampton to Hartlepool the bedroom tax is big news. In Hull, a family of seven in a four-bed house say they face losing £20 a week because of the rules on how old children have to be to get their own room.

But will any of it make any difference to what happens from April 1?

Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing

How renters will pay to keep mortgages low

One of the first things that any child learns is that 1+1 = 2. Not any more it seems. In the world of austerity 1+1 = 0.5.

That was the thought that struck me after reading work and pensions minister Steve Webb sum up for the government in the committee stage of the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill this week. Thanks to his widely applauded work on pensions reform, Webb would come close to the top of many people’s lists of effective coalition ministers and he also knows his brief better than most people in Westminster. Yet for me he has always tried too hard to defend the latest piece of indefensible welfare ‘reform’.

And that’s exactly what happened on Monday as the Uprating Bill was rushed through its committee and third reading stages with debate severely limited and time to consider just one amendment.

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Tall story

You don’t have to look very hard for the hidden agenda in a report from the Conservatives’ favourite think-tank calling for the demolition of high-rise social housing in London.

Create Streets is a joint report from Policy Exchange and a company of the same name which campaigns for low-rise development in streets and against multi-storey developments. As usual in a Policy Exchange report it starts with a grain of truth and then adds a range of questionable assertions to advance a political agenda.

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Lack of support

After a u-turn by the Welsh government, England is the only UK nation still planning to cut council tax benefit in April – and not all of England either.

As tenants and landlords gear up for the bedroom tax and the household benefit cap in April and the start of the universal credit in October, it’s all too easy to forget the cut that will see affected households lose another £2 to £3 a week. The cut will see administration of council tax benefit transferred from the UK government to devolved administrations and English local authorities but with a 10 per cent cut in funding that will save the Treasury £470 million.

Wales had been planning to implement a national scheme but late on Thursday the devolved administration revealed that it had found an extra £22 million to help with bills in 2013/14.

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Ignoring the obvious

Without local authorities, England has only seen more than 200,000 housing starts three times since the war. So why is council housing being ignored now?

As John Perry argues in Inside Housing, councils are currently building around 3,000 homes a year but they could build 15,000 if they were given more freedom to borrow. ‘A government that is desperate for house building shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth,’ he says.

Desperate is exactly the right word for our current performance on housebuilding: just 105,000 starts in England in 2011/12, down from a miserable 112,000 in 2010/11 and less than half the level needed to meet demand and prevent an ever-increasing spiral of rising prices and rents.

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Nudging the nimbys

The minister introduces a ‘powerful new incentive’ for local communities to approve new homes. Sound familiar?

I am of course not talking about planning minister Nick Boles and his scheme to give local communities a share of the community infrastructure levy but former housing minister Grant Shapps and the new homes bonus.

As quickly became clear, this wasn’t a bonus and it didn’t have much to do with new homes either. It was more a mechanism for creating winners and losers (affluent areas and deprived ones). In the year before the first payments were made, there were a miserable 113,000 housing starts in England. In the year after, there were 105,000.

So what’s the difference between the Shapps Sweeteners and the Boles Bungs? The planning minister could quite reasonably point out that his cash will get closer to local communities because it will go to parish and town councils whereas the bonus goes to local authorities. In theory at least that should cut out the middle man and make the bribe more persuasive.

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Direct impact

Housing is barely mentioned in the DWP impact assessment of the Welfare Benefits Uprating Bill but there is little doubt that the impact will be huge.

The technical reason for the omission appears to be that the Bill only covers benefits and tax credits for which primary legislation is needed to change the uprating method. The 1 per cent increase also applies to the local housing allowance but this can be done by regulation and so is not included in the assessment.

The obvious direct impact will be on private tenants. The 1 per cent uprating in LHA effectively amounts to a cut within a cut within a cut within a cut. More on this aspect below.

However, the impacts do not stop there.

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Second half

The coalition’s Mid-Term Review is as coy about what was billed as ‘the most radical reform of social housing in a generation’ as it is about what else will be done to tackle the biggest shortage of new homes in four generations.

The section of The Coalition: together in the national interest on Communities and Local Government is one of the shortest in the whole document. The five claims on what’s been done in the first half of the coalition may be many things but none of them involve housing.

Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing