10 things about 2014: part 2

The final part of my look back at the issues I’ve been blogging about this year also looks forward to 2015.

6) Maybe to homes

If words were bricks the housing crisis would have been over long ago. Instead housebuilding continued to flatline in 2014 even as the political rhetoric soared.

In January I compared politicians arguing about who had the worst record since the 1920s to bald men squabbling over a comb. A month later Eric Pickles perfected his combover by claiming that in 2013 the coalition had built the most homes since 2007. He’d chosen to emphasise housing starts rather than housing completions. That was understandable but you can’t live in a start and completions were lower than in 2012, 2011, 2009 and 2008 and still less than half the level needed to meet demand.

In the meantime the government continued to wage war on what it called red tape, but others called affordable housing and energy efficiency. In France a fall in completions to 300,000 a year sparked a political crisis. Back in the UK Pickles boasted at the Conservative conference that ‘the thing I’m most proud of – and it’s been the most difficult to deliver – is what we’ve achieved in housing’.

A month later though even the housing starts figures were starting to stutter. Ministers responded with a new measure of stunning coalition success: ‘700,000 homes under this government’. You had to be playing very close attention to spot that the goalposts had been moved again: the figure is for the increase in new homes on the council tax database and you can only get to 700,000 by starting from September 2009, eight months before the coalition was elected.

However, 2014 did also bring some good news ahead of an election year and the sector’s Homes for Britain campaign. In July a survey showed a dramatic shift in public attitudes to housebuilding between 2010 and 2013. And while housing remained outside the top 10 political issues, there were also signs that the message was sticking with politicians. In October the long-awaited Lyons review set out a road map of how a Labour government would get to 200,000 new homes a year in 2020. The Lib Dems said 300,000 and there were also influential advocates of new homes within the Conservative party. Everything has its limits though: no sooner had the winner of the Wolfson Prize suggested a new way forward on garden settlements within existing cities than housing minister Brandon Lewis was dismissing the idea as ‘urban sprawl’.

7) Pumping up the market

Speaking of political rhetoric, we heard lots more about ‘help for first-time buyers’ in 2014 that turned out to help house prices and existing home owners a lot more. The Conservatives were the main offenders and the year had barely begun before the symbolic moment when David Cameron had tea with the lucky first-time buyer of a home who was also the sales director of the estate agent that sold it. However, Labour couldn’t resist the temptation either as Ed Miliband made an empty conference pledge to double the number of first-time buyers.

Cameron claimed that ‘home ownership is in our blood’ and racked up £25 billion worth of financial instruments to support various different schemes. However, the reality was that the shift in tenure away from home ownership and towards private renting continued to gather pace. Sensible reforms of the mortgage market designed to avoid a repeat of the lax lending of the past also threatened to tilt the table even further in favour of the housing haves. In September, a survey revealed the last affordable district of England: Sellafield.

The Conservative conference saw more rhetoric and yet another government scheme that yet again was brought forward in time for the election. The starter homes initiative, essentially an extension of rural exceptions schemes to urban areas, wasn’t the worst idea in the world but it still raised more questions than answers.

8) All over bar the shouting?

Apart from welfare reform, the thing I’ve blogged about most since 2010 is the (not so) slow death of social housing. The year began with the launch of a prospectus for the new affordable homes programme that seemed set to tie the sector even further to ‘affordable’ rent with new requirements on the conversion of existing homes. Persistent calls for more financial freedom for council housing met with disappointment as the coalition made limited moves with strings attached and continued to blur the distinction between social and affordable. Social rents also continued their relentless rise ahead of prices and earnings.

More hopefully, 2014 saw the launch of the SHOUT, a campaign for social housing formed by housing professionals in response to a warning about the threat to its future from former housing minister John Healey. However, despite good arguments making the case for social housing, it needed all the help it could get. By the end of the year Policy Exchange had called for the effective privatisation of housing associations through a deal to buy out historic debt and Labour seemed to have ruled out lifting the borrowing cap on council housing let alone a more radical reform of the borrowing rules.

9) Who will house the poorest?

The housing crisis proved all too much for foreign office minister Mark Simmonds. In August he resigned as a minister and announced he would stand down as an MP at the next election because he couldn’t find anywhere to rent in London on his £35,000 a year housing allowance plus £89,000 a year salary. If even a minister was feeling the housing pinch, what about the 1.6 million households that the Resolution Foundation revealed were spending more than half their net income on their rent or mortgage?

And what did that say about the housing situation for the very poorest? 2014 saw scandals about anti-homeless spikes in doorways, ‘poor doors’ in new developments and forced out-of-area moves by homeless families. At the end of the year three reports revealed how the poorest households are coping – or not coping – with ever higher housing costs. However, there were also some bleak glimpses into the future. The government’s Social Mobility Commission singled out the housing market in a warning that Britain risks becoming ‘a permanently divided nation’ . The Joseph Rowntree Foundation looked forward to 2040 and warned that if current housing trends continue the results will not just be frustrated aspirations to home ownership but a surge in poverty among renters.

10) Changing the conversation

All it took was a famous comedian and the forces of international capitalism were scattered. With due respect to the Financial Times and New York Times, December’s reprieve for the New Era estate in London wasn’t quite as simple as that: the determination of tenants and the work behind the scenes of local politicians may just have had something to do with it too. Yet whatever the future may hold for the estate – and Colin is probably right to argue that rents will still rise in the longer term – the successful campaign meant that 2014 ended on an optimistic note. New Era 4 All became the most visible face of a grassroots movement that embraced the single mothers of Focus E15, a plethora of local groups and a national campaign, Generation Rent, for the rights of private renters.

The sense of a disconnect between politicians and the electorate on housing was not confined to activists. In June an audience at the London School of Economics were asked how many of them thought our political leaders were doing their best to solve the housing crisis. They responded with complete silence. A case in point came when Fergus and Judith Wilson, the King and Queen of Buy to Let, evicted all their tenants on housing benefit on the grounds that ‘we are not a charity’. The hapless Kris Hopkins told Panorama that it was a commercial decision and ‘perfectly legitimate’. Labour’s Emily Thornberry lost her job when she tweeted a picture of a house festooned in England flags but was there a deeper point about property and the political elite? It certainly seemed that way when Conservative backbenchers succeeded in talking out modest measures to protect private renters from retaliatory eviction.

Yet for all that 2014 ends with a sense of change in the air. Rights for private tenants are back on the political agenda in a way they have not been for a generation. Labour proposals to encourage longer tenancies were dismissed as Venezuelan-style rent control by the Conservatives, but the ludicrous comparison showed how far the debate had moved and how much the votes of private renters may matter at the next election.

The tenants on the New Era estate are private renters too but their campaign reflected wider anxieties among social tenants, especially in London. In Newham, Southwark, Lambeth, Barnet and above all in Hammersmith and Fulham, residents of social housing estates have come to realise that what they regard as their homes are development opportunities to others. The struggle over the terms for regeneration looks set to become a defining issue for housing for the rest of this decade.

Originally pubished on my blog for Inside Housing


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