Coming soon: the sequels to housing association reclassification

Originally posted on October 30 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Few blockbuster franchises stop at just two films and the reclassification of housing associations in England as public sector will be no different.

The implications from Friday’s decision by the Office for National Statistics (dubbed Judgment Day II: the Reckoning by Pete Apps in his blog yesterday) are multiplying by the hour and are far too numerous for one blog. But here are some quick thoughts on the decision itself – and on possible sequels to come.

So what does it mean? First, and most seriously for George Osborne, it will add £60 billion of previously private sector housing association debt to the public sector balance sheet. The ONS decision says that this is likely to happen just in time for Budget 2016. Whoops! No wonder the chancellor sounded so relaxed/resigned about the prospect when questioned in a House of Lords committee last month (see my blog here).

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The Pay to Stay work tax

Originally posted on October 29 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The impact assessment of the Housing Bill reveals two devils buried in the detail of proposals for a compulsory Pay to Stay.

First, the principles. The assessment says ‘the Government believes that those on higher incomes should not be subsidised through social rents’. There are 350,000 social rented tenants with household incomes over £30,000 a year including 40,000 with incomes over £50,000. Higher rents for these High Income Social Tenants (HISTs) are justified by the fact that they ‘benefit from a subsidised rent that could be as much as £3,500 less, on average, compared to equivalent rents in the private sector’. 
Needless to say, neither of these figures is sourced. The government has form when it comes to changing its estimates of high earners (not to mention statistics in general) but:

‘This intervention is designed to remove an unfair subsidy. Households with a sufficiently high income do not require this, as they are able to access market housing.’

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Look on the back

Originally posted on October 20 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

A few answers and yet more questions: my round-up of the latest developments on the Housing Bill.

An ex-colleague used to speak in awed tones about the time he saw an old-school football reporter compose his match report for the Football Pink as the final whistle sounded. He took a cigarette packet out of this pocket, drew lines on it in the shape of paragraphs, and then dictated a word-perfect report down the line to the copy takers.

Much has changed since the olden days: smoking in public places; laptops and the internet have replaced phones and copy takers; and Pink ‘Uns died out long ago in most cities. But looking back at the events of the past week it seems that cigarette packets remain as popular as ever for drawing up plans – and for things infinitely more complicated than football matches.

This was exactly the metaphor used by an anonymous source in Jill Sherman’s story in The Times last week that the government is set to phase in the extension of the right to buy because of concern over the costs. ‘The Treasury people are hanging their heads in despair,’ the source said. ‘How did this policy that was made up on the back of a fag packet get adopted during the election campaign?’

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Under new ownership

Originally posted on October 7 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Forget social housing, any kind of affordable rented housing is living on borrowed time in the wake of this year’s Conservative conference.

In his speech on Wednesday David Cameron announced ‘a national crusade to get homes built’ and go from ‘Generation Rent into Generation Buy’.

The headline policy of starter homes does not look any better than it did the first two times he announced it (in December 2014 and again when he doubled the target in March). The original policy had potential because it offered the prospect of additional homes on sites that would not have got planning permission before. Though there were potential problems, what would amount to urban exception sites looked like a good idea, especially if the uplift in land values could be captured to pay for infrastructure.

But the idea has looked worse and worse the more it has evolved. Research by Shelter has shown that even at a 20 per cent discount the homes will not be affordable in most of the country. Despite an advisory committee on design, there’s not much to stop housebuilders cutting costs by making them starter hutches rather than homes and no mechanism has been suggested so far to check that the discount really is a discount. And even if there is a deal to be had for Generation Rent some of the benefits will go to people who could have afforded to buy at the undiscounted price.

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Beyond the deal

Originally posted on October 13 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

If the result of the NHF ballot was a foregone conclusion, just about everything else about the extension of the right to buy remains unclear.

With a majority of 93% by stock and 86% by membership, the NHF has a result it can present to the government as a resounding endorsement of its voluntary deal. True, it’s only 55% of those eligible to vote (or, as Joe Halewood argues, 20% of all registered providers) but that presentation is what really counts. Given the dubious nature and timing of the vote, this was always going to be the result (see my related post Deal or No Deal?).

But anyone looking for a response from Greg Clark at the Conservative conference on Monday will have come away disappointed. The communities secretary extolled the virtues of the right to buy, argued housing association tenants have the same ambitions to own as everyone else and delivered the line Tories wanted to hear: ‘We are doing what we promised, we are extending the right to buy to housing association tenants.’ But there was no explicit reference to the deal rushed through in time for the conference.

The omission may just be a demonstration of the political sensitivity involved. Early reports said Clark had watered down the manifesto pledge (something he denied, though the voluntary arrangement may result in the right to a discount rather than a right to buy for some tenants). However, it’s also a reflection of how much has still to be resolved.

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Deal or no deal?

Originally posted on September 28 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

As the clock ticks down to 5pm on Friday, what should really count in the momentous decision to be taken by housing associations?

My first thought was this is like the ‘offer he can’t refuse’ scene in The Godfather. Vote No to the ‘voluntary’ deal on the Right to Buy and you may not wake up in bed next to the head of your favourite horse but you will be inviting Osborne to do his worst in the spending review in November.

Then I thought of the BBC. Looked at in terms of narrow self-interest it seems a no brainer. Better, surely, to strike a deal on the most generous terms you can now than wait for the government to impose the same thing on much worse terms later. That’s exactly what the BBC did before the Budget when it ‘voluntarily’ swallowed the cost of free TV licenses for the over-75s in return for an increase in the license fee.

My next thought was more cynical. Isn’t the NHF a bit like the Premier League when it signed the deal with Sky that excluded the rest of football from its TV billions? Even Sky didn’t make the other clubs sell their best players to pay for it.

And then I came back to the comparison that defenders of housing associations in the House of Lords spent the Spring and early Summer making: the complaint that this is the biggest seizure of charitable assets since the dissolution of the monasteries. Except that as far as I know the monastic orders did not voluntarily agree to the seizure provided they received full compensation paid for by the forcible sale of convents.

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