Bedroom cracks

Northern Ireland could be set to scrap the bedroom tax as fears grow about the impact on tenants when it is imposed elsewhere from Monday.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has still not approved the Stormont Welfare Reform Bill and is not due to discuss it again until April 16.

However, housing organisations believe the Northern Ireland government is now increasingly likely to decide not to impose the size criteria despite the fact that it will have to meet the £17 million cost from elsewhere in its budget.

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So, shockingly, it turns out that the government’s ‘powerful new incentive’ to councils to approve more homes may not be working out quite like that.

A damning report on the New Homes Bonus published today by the National Audit Office (NA0) is deeply embarrassing for the DCLG and former housing minister Grant Shapps but it hardly comes as a huge surprise.

The flaws were pretty clear right from the beginning. As I argued when the first allocations were made, it is not really a bonus and it amounts to a mechanism for transferring funding from deprived areas of the north to affluent areas of the south for homes that would have been built anyway.

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Local priority

David Cameron’s speech about social housing and immigration today demonstates yet again the gap between perception and reality on the issue.

The prime minister says he wants to introduce an ‘expectation’ that local authorities will introduce a local residency test determining who should qualify for social housing:

‘New migrants should not expect to be given a home on arrival. And yet at present almost one in ten new social lettings go to foreign nationals. So I am going to introduce new statutory housing allocations guidance this spring to create a local residence test. This should mean that local people rightly get priority in the social housing system. And migrants will need to have lived here and contributed to this country for at least two years before they can qualify.’

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Osborne’s choice

Here’s my take on the four key questions for housing coming out of the Budget so far.

1) Is Osborne just blowing bubbles? There are sound reasons why the government might want to help people buy new homes or help first-time buyers get mortgages. The equity loan and mortgage guarantee schemes under Help to Buy are extensions of the existing FirstBuy and NewBuy schemes.

However, put them together and you have new schemes that will go to more people and go further up the income scale (a mortgage of up to £600,000 would suggest a household income of getting on for £200,000) without any guarantees that they will result in any more new homes being built. The equity loan option will be available on all homes but is designed to exclude second home owners and buy to let landlords. However, where NewBuy only applied to new homes, the mortgage guarantee will apply to the whole market.  And on the Today programme this morning George Osborne repeatedly ducked questions about whether second and multiple home owners would be able to apply. It seems that any attempt at targeting new supply or first-time buyers has been abandoned in a desperate attempt to get the housing market moving before the next election.

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The name game

So three weeks left until the start of the bedroom tax: is there a still a chance of last-minute concessions?

Thanks to a steady stream of heartbreaking real-life cases in the national media, the issue is not going away for the government. Attempts by ministers from David Cameron down to make the fairness argument for the policy continue to founder on inconvenient facts.

Later today Iain Duncan Smith faces an uncomfortable time at work and pensions questions and on Wednesday Cameron is certain to face another grilling at prime minister’s questions.

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The rise of the property-owning plutocracy

If you had to think of one article of faith for the Conservative Party, a property-owning democracy would come pretty close to the top of the list.

David Cameron reached back to the idea in his ‘magic money tree’ speech yesterday:

‘It is important that people who work hard and do the right thing are able to buy a home. As I said in my party conference speech – it is a rebuke to those of us who believe in property owning democracy that the average age for someone buying their first home today, without any help from their parents is 33 years old. And we are determined to tackle that.’

The prime minister was clearly hinting at something to come either in the Budget or the housing announcement he’s planning just before it. Whether that’s a new stamp duty holiday, or an extension to FirstBuy or even perhaps making existing homes eligible for NewBuy remains to be seen.

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Dynamic duo

So will the next big housing announcement from David Cameron and Nick Clegg amount to any more than the last three?

The Financial Times reported yesterday that the coalition double act are ‘drawing up schemes to revive the flatlining housebuilding industry and help people get on the housing ladder’. On the eve of the Budget on March 20 they will make a series of announcements including measures on shared equity schemes, social housing and support for first-time buyers.

Despite the scoop, even the FT admits that this ‘may be treated with some scepticism given that such announcements on housebuilding have become a regular feature of the coalition – while the industry has continued to stagnate’.

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Owning fall-out

Should we simply be accepting the continuing shift from home ownership to private renting as somehow inevitable?

That’s one of the many housing questions posed in the latest edition of the UK Housing Review. Now in its 21st edition and published by the Chartered Institute of Housing, the review has long been the bible for housing nerds but it is the best source of authoritative information on tenure and any other aspect of housing you care to think of.

The CIH has press released the story that home ownership has slumped among the young: from 39 to 14 per cent for the 16-24s and 67 to 43 per cent among the 25-34s. However, the rate is falling for older people too.

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