Shared vision

Shared ownership seems an obvious solution to the housing problems of people on low and middle incomes – so why does it remain on the margins?

A report out this week from Shelter looks at perceptions of and problems with the part rent-part buy tenure and ways that it could be reformed to take it into the mainstream.

In the process, it makes a pretty convincing case that the piecemeal, alphabet soup of government ownership schemes has done little to make housing more affordable for the squeezed middle and more to create confusion about the options available. In particular, it shows how shared ownership could make more homes in more places more affordable for more people than either version of Help to Buy. The report finds that almost eight out of 10 low to middle income families could not afford a family home with a 95 per cent Help to Buy mortgage.

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Give and take

Finally I’ve found somebody who thinks that Help to Buy 2 is a good idea: the private equity owners of Foxtons.

I’m obviously exaggerating for effect here (I was just reminded of Simon Jenkins too for starters) but the London estate agent is famous for three things: its flashy sponsored Mini Coopers; the pushiness of its staff; and the timing of its sale in 2007. The founder of the company sold out to private equity firm BC Partners for £360 million just months before house prices and transactions crashed.

After a rare apology from BC Partners to its investors, and a rocky road to recovery, Foxtons is set to return to the stock market next month with a valuation of up to £500 million.  That spectacular turnaround may have a bit to do with some canny financial engineering but, as the Financial Times reports this morning, it has far more to do with the fact that its timing could hardly be better.

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Whose benefit?

You know the formula by now: take a provocative premise, add three claimants selected to provoke different reactions, stir in the reaction on twitter, then stand back and watch the viewing figures mount up.

As with How to Get a Council House, Benefits Britain 1949 suffers from all the faults that are seemingly hard-wired into Channel 4 reality shows. The opening episodes showed them both at their worst (see me on HTGACH and Frances Ryan on BB49) but with time they evolved into something that went beyond the format and the premise.

I’ve just caught up with the second episode of Benefits Britain 1949 and if you haven’t seen it I recommend a viewing in conjunction with the third and final episode of How to Get a Council House because they neatly bookend the whole debate about social housing and its place in the welfare state.

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Tape measure

Plans to ‘end rabbit hutch homes’ made all the headlines but the government’s consultation on housebuilding ‘red tape’ is about much more – and maybe not even that.

The housing standards review was launched in the wake of the government’s housing and construction red tape challenge, which itself was part of a wider drive to eliminate over-regulation in the economy.

Don Foster duly hailed the results published this week as ‘cutting red tape to help build more affordable homes’. Rules on safety and accessibility would not be changed but the number of housing standards that councils are allowed to apply locally would be reduced from more than 100 to fewer than 10.

Nothing wrong with that, you might think. A patchwork of different requirements in different local areas increases design and construction costs for house builders and that means new homes cost more. Instead the Building Regulations will be backed by nationally agreed standards on issues such as security and accessibility.

If that steam rolls its way through the localist principles that supposedly unite the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, so be it. After all, the coalition did pretty much the same thing on planning with the national planning policy framework for councils that fail to agree a local plan.

But look a little deeper beneath the surface of the documents published this week and it becomes clear that the issues involved in ‘cutting red tape’ and ‘taking off the bureaucratic handbrake’ are highly complex.

First, as the consultation document acknowledges, the costs and benefits are about far more than just the construction cost of a new home. Any consideration of the standards of new homes has to balance a range of different policy considerations for society as a whole against that headline calculation. Sometimes requirements can vary between regions for good reasons and imposing a national standard can lead to increased costs in some areas.

Second, much of the patchwork of local standards that the coalition now wants to scrap is the direct result of its own actions. According to the consultation: ‘One key driver for the increasing adoption of space standards is the NPPF which requires that local authorities have due regard to the nature of housing development in relation to current and future demand.’

Meanwhile the adoption of higher minimum space standards for affordable housing in London than elsewhere followed the decision to hand the Homes and Communities Agency’s London operations over to the Greater London Authority in 2011.

Third, ‘red tape’ is very much in the eye of the beholder. The consultation that is supposedly reducing it actually proposes a new requirement on developers to provide waste storage for new homes to avoid bins dominating street frontages (reducing ‘bin blight’ is an obsession of Conservative communities secretary Eric Pickles) and raises the possibility of new national space standards (supposedly a victory for the Lib Dem half of the coalition). As ‘red’ tape is swept away, blue and yellow tape seems to be taking its place.

Fourth, those plans to ‘end rabbit hutch houses’ (presumably because ‘hobbit homes’ are Boris Johnson) are not at all that they appear to be. The section of the consultation paper on space states that the main purpose is to look at the issues in principle and ‘as a result, government does not have a preferred approach on space standards at this time’. However, six pages later the document states that:

‘The government’s preferred approach would be for market led, voluntary mechanisms such as space labelling, in order to meet consumer needs rather than mandatory application of space standards.’

Space labelling is a scheme put forward by house builders to allow consumers to compare different properties more easily but clearly it could work as an alternative or an adjunct to space standards. My guess is that the confusion could be down to the fact that the Conservatives support the house builders but the Lib Dems are refusing to give up on space standards. As the consultation points out: ‘The degree to which space standards should be developed or mandated is hotly contested and views for and against are very polarised.’

The impact assessment sheds further murky light on the space proposals. It does not include space standard impacts ‘because there is no firm proposal at this stage for a specific space element in the proposed nationally described housing standard and the evidence base on the costs and benefits of different standards is still at an early stage’. A preliminary analysis is tacked on to the end of the main statement. Space standards will be the subject of a huge battle over the next few months but supporters will have to overcome the presumption against them in the consultation.

Fifth, the consultation and impact assessment confirm moves to water down previous commitments on the sustainability and energy efficiency of new homes while still using the same terminology. The code for sustainable homes, which was set up to blaze a trail ahead of minimum standards laid down in the Building Regulations is seen as responsible for ‘a proliferation of local design standard requirements’ that have added to costs. It will now be phased out and the impact assessment states that ‘code levels 4, 5 and 6 do not now fit in with, or represent the government’s definition of zero carbon’. The Planning and Energy Act 2008, which allows local authorities to set requirements for on-site renewables, ‘may need to be amended or removed’.

The UK Green Building Council, founded by industry and environmental groups, argues that the proposals ‘fail to provide a vision for sustainable homes’ and exclude key sustainability requirements such as responsible sourcing of materials and ecology. Chief executive Paul King said these omissions plus the demise of the code risk ‘losing a momentum that has transformed the way homes have been built over the last seven years. The government claims its plans will take off the bureaucratic handbrake that holds back housebuilding, but it is in danger of letting key sustainability requirements roll away completely.’

Just as well then that my final point is that the environmental impact will not be as great as it seemed it would be when the UK-GBC was founded in 2007 and output of new homes was around 180,000. Completions are of course currently running at around 110,000 or half the level needed to achieve 250,000 net additions to the stock per year. The impact assessment includes an estimate of housing growth over the next 10 years. Under the (optimistic?) midpoint estimate of 4.5 per cent growth a year it will take until 2022 to get back to 2007 levels.

Communities and Local Government department ministers claim that policies to boost house building such as the elimination of ‘red tape’ proposed in this consultation are working. Their own civil servants estimate that England will fall at least another 500,000 homes behind the level needed to meet demand over the next 10 years.

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing

Half measures

For all the rhetoric from ministers, housebuilding in England is still running at half the level needed to meet demand.

Earlier this week communities secretary Eric Pickles boasted that housebuilding and new supply were ‘on the up’ and that the government had delivered ‘almost a third of a million additional homes in the last two years’.

He quoted NHBC registrations, gross affordable housing supply, net additional dwellings and the number of New Homes Bonus awards to justify that claim. Every housing statistic you can shake a stick at in other words with just one small exception: the housebuilding figures produced by his own department.

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On the rise

As the evidence for a housing market recovery mounts by the day, so is the impression that an old-fashioned dose of house price inflation is now seen as a very good thing by the government.

In a survey out this morning, members of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) report that activity is rising around the country and not just in London and the South East and that prices are up for the fourth month in a row. Yesterday, the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) reported that the number of loans to first-time buyers was up 30 per cent on a year ago to its highest level since the credit crunch in 2007. On Friday, the CML said buy to let lending topped £5.1 billion in the second quarter of the year, the highest since 2008.

And the DCLG published stats overnight showing that 10,000 people have registered for a help to buy equity loan in the last four months. Whether by coincidence or design, that was neatly calculated to capitalise on a housing market feel-good factor that was sent into overdrive by last week’s forward guidance from Bank of England governor Mark Carney that interest rates will stay at a record low until unemployment falls below 7 per cent (widely interpreted as meaning until 2016 at least).

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Doing good

How to Get a Council House broke free of its dodgy title and format last night. The same cannot be said for the reaction on Twitter.

The second episode in the series was set in Manchester and followed tenants and staff of Northwards Housing as the bedroom tax loomed earlier this year (watch again here). It gave some real insights into the way the system works and the good job that housing officers do in very difficult circumstances.

As I blogged last week, I felt the first episode also did well at showing the impossible situation in Tower Hamlets, where just 40 properties a week become available but 60 new families join the 24,000 families others on the waiting list. But I criticised the trivialising commentary and the lack of any context that might have explained why.

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Home banker

Mark Carney’s pledge on interest rates can only make buy to let look even more of a one-way bet for landlords and the banks who lent them a cool £5 billion in the second quarter of 2013.

Figures published by the Council of Mortgage Lenders a day after the Bank of England governor made his announcement show a new surge in loans. In the three months from April to June its members made 40,000 gross advances to buy to let landlords worth £5.1 billion. Both are the highest quarterly figures seen since 2008. The number of loans was up 19 per cent and their combined value was up 21 per cent on the previous quarter. Loans were up 19 per cent by volume and 31 per cent by value on a year ago.

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Choice viewing

A documentary about housing on Channel 4 is usually the cue for me to look what else is on TV. This time I watched the programme – and the reaction to it.

Inside my Twitter feed, the debate was about whether How to Get a Council House (watch again here) presented a realistic but depressing portrait of life on the waiting list or trivialised the issues by ignoring the reasons why the wait is so long.

Outside my feed, the racists, kippers and anti-welfarists were in full cry. Search under the hashtag #howtogetacouncilhouse and you will quickly see what I mean: in this world council housing is the preserve of immigrants and scroungers. All of the public prejudices against people on benefits are simply transferred to council tenants.

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Welfare, the bedroom tax and the battle of language

This week’s court ruling on the bedroom tax and BBC Trust verdict on the John Humphrys welfare reform documentary got me thinking again about the importance of language in the debate on both.

Language matters. You don’t have to be familiar with discourse analysis to know that there is a difference between ‘the bedroom tax’ and ‘the spare room subsidy’ or ‘welfare’ and ‘social security’. The words we use to frame ideas have a power that goes beyond themselves because of the associations, conscious or otherwise, that they bring with them. The battle of language is also a battle of ideas and of ideology.

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