The rebel and the ponytail

When David Cameron and Nick Clegg are in town on two successive days you know that the election campaign is serious.

The battle for St Ives, the most southerly constituency in Britain stretching round from the Lizard to Land’s End and then out to the Isles of Scilly, is very close. And it is part of a wider struggle in Cornwall and the South West between the two coalition partners (though Labour does have seats in Exeter and Plymouth and hopes of more) that could have a big impact on the result next week. It’s one of the 23 seats the Tories need to win for an overall majority and one the Lib Dems must hold if they are to have a hope of influence in the next parliament.

St Ives is one of three Lib Dem seats in Cornwall, and 14 in the wider South West, that could be vulnerable. The Western Morning News reported on Wednesday that the Tories are now even targeting Yeovil (held by David Laws but former constituency of Paddy Ashdown) in a sign of rising confidence in the blue camp.

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The B word

Here’s a number that should embolden whoever wins the election: 54% of voters support government borrowing to fund more affordable homes.

A MORI opinion poll for the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) found that just 21% would oppose borrowing to fund affordable housing for sale or rent and 24% neither support not oppose it. Support was unsurprisingly strongest among renters (60 per cent) and Londoners (66 per cent).

The results are in line with a series of other recent polls showing a significant shift in public attitudes to housebuilding. However, the election campaign seems so fixed that it’s difficult to imagine any of the major parties trying to win majority support by advocating a policy that actually has it. It would simply play into the Conservative narrative that it was not the banks but the last Labour government that caused the economic crisis by borrowing too much.

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Rentier nation

For all the political rhetoric about home ownership, official figures released today confirm that England continues to become a nation of private tenants.

The dwelling stock estimates published by the DCLG show that 137,000 homes were added in the year to March 2014. Of these, an astonishing 90 per cent were private rented (123,000). The owner-occupied stock increased by 24,000 but the social and affordable stock fell by 1,000 and the other public sector stock by 9,000. These figures reflect net changes in the stock, so they include existing homes changing tenure as well as new homes.

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Right to sell?

Can two former housing ministers, a flagship Conservative local authority and David Cameron’s favourite think tank all be wrong?

Conservatives may dismiss as self-interested scaremongering the hostile reaction to their manifesto plan to extend the right to buy to all housing association tenants. What happens when you deconstruct the plan using the statements and actions of people on their own side?

1) Because two former Conservative housing ministers say so…

We already knew that Grant Shapps told the 2012 CIH conference that it was not viable in the current financial climate. ‘If I wanted to extend right to buy, which I do, we would have to find billions of pounds,’ he said.

Over the weekend, the Observer reported that Kris Hopkins told Lib Dem MP Tessa Munt in a letter in late 2013 that:

‘Unlike local authorities, housing associations are independent, not-for-profit voluntary bodies and if they are obliged to consistently sell off their stock at less than market value they might find it difficult to borrow which could impact adversely on their repair and maintenance programmes and affect the future provision of affordable housing.

‘The government does not consider that it would be reasonable to require housing associations to sell these properties at a discount. Any increase to the discount available under the Right to Acquire would only be possible through upfront central government subsidy, potentially incurring a high liability for the public purse.’

The policy that was not viable as part of the ‘long-term economic plan’ now seems to make perfect sense in the financial climate of an election campaign. Little wonder that opposition to it is not confined to the usual suspects.

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Housing at the hustings

So is housing finally cutting through as an issue at this election? Yesterday has convinced me that it is.

The day started with housing featuring as the election issue of the day on Today on Radio 4 – good news in itself but just an indication of the programme’s agenda. The report by John Humphrys was about Shepherd’s Bush and how it’s changed from the setting for Steptoe & Son to a place where a couple on a joint income of over £100,000 cannot afford a deposit, let alone a home, and foreign investors are buying new apartments eight at a time.

An interview with Brandon Lewis and Emma Reynolds followed (listen again here at about 8.30). But it quickly degenerated into bald men squabbling over a comb mode as they traded statistics about who has the worst record in government. Lewis trotted out the usual lines about Help to Buy while Reynolds repeated her better ones about Lyons. Maybe I’ve heard it too many times before, maybe they’ve said the same thing too many times before, but it hardly seemed like housing was at the centre of the election. Depressingly, the focus was entirely on first-time buyers. They do face huge problems but this is an indication I think that the main parties still see home ownership as the issue on which elections are won and lost. It’s a sense of aspiration, rather than housing as such, that is the real issue.

That was enough to lower my expectations for my local hustings. BBC Cornwall is organising them across the county and last night it was the turn of St Ives. The Lib Dems held off the Conservatives by just 1,700 votes in 2010 and it’s one of the 23 seats the Tories need to win to form an overall majority.

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From One Planet to Dr Earth

Part 2 of my blog on what housing could expect from a multi-party government looks at what the Greens and UKIP are saying.

I suspect many Inside Housing readers would welcome a Green housing minister committed to implementing its manifesto pledges to ‘provide 500,000 social homes for rent over the five-year parliament, control excessive rents and achieve house price stability’.

The manifesto is the only one from the English parties already represented at Westminster that offers a genuine alternative to the current system. While many will question its feasibility, few would quarrel with its principle of ‘making property investment and speculation less attractive and increasing housing supply’. Among the policies on offer are the removal of borrowing caps on councils, the end of the right to buy at a discount, more rights to homeless people, five-year private tenancies with rent increases limited to CPI, removal of tax relief for buy to let landlords and preparations for a land value tax.

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Heart, brain and Clegg

What could housing expect from a government influenced by parties other than the Conservatives and Labour? Part 1: the Lib Dems.

Assuming the polls are right and there will be another hung parliament,  any of the other five parties who took  part in the first TV debate could have an influence. The SNP and Plaid Cymru would seek concessions for Scotland and Wales while demanding less austerity from a Labour government, especially on welfare [though later the SNP reached out to the rest of the UK with a call for 100,000 affordable homes]. However, most housing issues are devolved from Westminster, so I’ll concentrate in this two-part blog on the other three parties. Power may matter a lot more than policies, there are some hints in the Lib Dem, Green and UKIP manifestos of what might offer common ground with one of the bigger parties.

So first, the Lib Dems. Assuming enough of them keep their seats, they could be a coalition partner (or a less formal supporter) for either a Tory or Labour government and they are the only party with a track record in coalition at Westminster.

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