More is less

There are at least three contrasting and sometimes conflicting imperatives at the heart of the prospectus for the Affordable Homes Programme published this week.

The first (let’s call it the HCA one) is a pragmatic desire to do more with less in difficult circumstances. The second (the political one) is the imperative of big numbers to be able to quote in press releases and in parliament. The third (the ideological one) is a determination to exploit these circumstances to accelerate the slow death of social housing. Amid the tensions between these three aims several vital issues are barely addressed or else ducked completely.

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Taking the pledge

The weekend’s big speech by Ed Balls looks like significant news for housing under a future Labour government – and not just for the obvious reasons.

The national headlines from the shadow chancellor’s speech to the Fabian conference were taken by his pledge to restore the 50p rate of tax and subsequent accusations that Labour is therefore anti-business. The undoubtedly good news for housing was that it will be ‘a central priority’ if Labour wins power in 2015.

But it was Balls’s message about ‘fiscal discipline’ that was more interesting to me:

‘We won’t be able to reverse all the spending cuts and tax rises that the Tories have pushed through. We will have to govern with less money, which means the next Labour government will have to make cuts too. No responsible Opposition can make detailed commitments and difficult judgments about what will happen in two or three years time without knowing the state of the economy and public finances that we will inherit.

‘But we know we will face difficult choices. The government’s day-to-day spending totals for 2015/16 will be our starting point. There will be no more borrowing for day-to-day spending. Any changes to the current spending plans for that year will be fully-funded and set out in advance in our manifesto.’

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Mixed messages

So are private landlords about to pull out of the housing benefit market or not?

It’s one of the most crucial questions for the future of the housing system but the answer may be more complex than recent publicity suggests.

The alarm was raised when Fergus and Judith Wilson, the King and Queen of buy to let, revealed that they were evicting all of their tenants on benefit. A poll yesterday by the website spareroom.co.uk found that only 18 per cent of landlords currently rent to claimants, down from a third two years ago.

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Garden griping

So Nick would like two, Eric (through clenched teeth) one or two, Emma five and Boris none. It’s time to play the garden cities game.

A quick look at the electoral map of constituencies around London tells you most of what you need to know about the politics involved. You’ll find a sea of Tory blue in the swathe of seats closest to the capital with only Labour Slough, Luton and Oxford and Lib Dem Lewes and Colchester anywhere near to being affected.

It also explains why David Cameron’s interest has waned and a government-commissioned study on new towns has allegedly been blocked. According to the FT, a Downing Street official has even joked that the only possible sites should be Buckingham and Mid Bedfordshire, the seats of Tory outcasts John Bercow and Nadine Dorries.

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Incentives, bribes, fracking and housing

The prospect of local communities gaining an estimated ‘£10 million per wellhead’ if they approve plans for fracking in their area got me thinking about the role that incentives (or bribes) can or should play in countering opposition to controversial development.

As far as fracking goes, local authorities will be able to keep all of the business rates they collect from shale gas schemes rather than having to give half back to central government. The government estimates that the concession could be worth up to £1.7 million a year for each fracking site approved.

On top of that, energy companies have pledged to give local communities £100,000 for test drilling and a further 1 per cent of revenues if shale is discovered. The double payment seems calculated to forestall opposition to an industry that could potentially affect every county in England except Cornwall but which ministers believe is vital to the future of the economy.

However, that seems not to be enough for many councils and MPs and an all-party group in the North West is demanding that the Treasury give up a share of its tax revenue so that even more of the profits go local.

I’m interested here not so much in the pros and cons of fracking (and I do live in Cornwall) as in the wider relevance of these sort of incentives.

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The hardest word

A remarkable thing happened iyesterday: Iain Duncan Smith used a five-letter word beginning with S.

Apologising for a mistake is just about the last thing any minister wants to do, but IDS got his chance when Labour’s John Healey asked him at work and pensions questions about the DWP’s bulletin admitting the pre-1996 under-occupation penalty error. Healey quoted the latest survey from the Northern Housing Consortium that ‘nearly half of all frontline housing workers have dealt with someone who has threatened to commit suicide’ largely because of the government’s welfare changes. ‘Will he apologise this afternoon to those people for the concern and chaos that he is causing?’

Duncan Smith replied: ‘I said it all right, and I say it again: the Department is, and I am, absolutely sorry that anybody may have been caught up in this who should not have been.’ So not just an apology but a double ‘sorry’ from both the secretary of state and his department. But before anyone gets too excited, he went on:

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Bald truths

Like bald men with a comb, the politicians squabbled yesterday over who has the worst record on housebuilding.

The ghost of Stanley Baldwin occupied the green benches once again as Hilary Benn and Eric Pickles traded stats to show that each other’s governments had built the fewest new homes (in England) since the 1920s.

So where Benn opened the opposition debate with the accusation that ‘in the three years for which he has been in charge, the number of homes completed in England has fallen to its lowest level since Stanley Baldwin was first prime minister’, Pickles countered with ‘when I walked through the door of Eland House the spirit of Stanley Baldwin and those figures met me. That was our baseline—that is what we actually started from.’

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