Going rogue

Originally published on January 9 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

This week’s Communities and Local Government questions featured rogue policies, rogue landlords and a rogue house builder.

Rogue policy number one is the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap and its impact on supported housing. As Labour MPs lined up to criticise it, housing minister Brandon Lewis pointed to the review expected in the spring and pledged:

‘The changes will come in in 2018, but we are very clear, and have always been very clear, that we will make sure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected.’

That was not good enough for Labour’s Roberta Blackman-Woods, who quoted estimates by Newcastle-based Changing Lives about the losses it and other providers will suffer and argued that the discretionary fund will be inadequate. Lewis responded by pointing to the £400m of funding for new specialist affordable homes in the Spending Review (not much use if housing benefit won’t cover the rent) and the £5.3bn Better Care Fund (which is about health and social care, not housing).

But it was not good enough for Tory MP Peter Aldous either, who called for urgent clarity on whether the cap applies to homeless hostels and foyers. ‘If it does not, there is a real worry that many will close and that, as a result, there will be an unnecessary rise in the numbers of young homeless people.’

Cue more bluster from Lewis. ‘Preventing youth homelessness is a priority for this government,’ he said, pointing to a £15m payment-by-results Fair Chance Fund. What exactly the results will be remains to be seen, since young people face a whole series of cuts on housing benefit, but pressure is growing on the government on supported housing.

The government also faces pressure from its own side on rogue policy number two: the extension of the Right to Buy. A group of Tory backbenchers are pressing for the extension of Zac Goldsmith’s Housing and Planning Bill amendment on ‘two-for-one’ replacements for forced council house sales to their constituencies outside London. Bath’s Ben Howlett asked: ‘Will the secretary of state meet me, and other members whose constituencies contain high-value areas, and will he undertake to roll out the two-for-one guarantee in those areas?’

Agreeing to that risks undermining the sums behind the funding of the extension of the Right to Buy even further, since even less will be left over for low-value areas. Clark agreed to a meeting but he did not give an undertaking beyond a vague statement saying: ‘It is essential for homes to be built in every community, so that young people and rising generations throughout the country have a chance to continue to be part of the communities in which they were born and raised.’

Rogue landlords featured in a series of questions on the private rented sector. Labour’s Karen Buck said local authorities lacked the resources to take action and on average were prosecuting only one rogue landlord a year. And she highlighted the government’s refusal to allow tenants to take action against landlords whose homes are not fit for human habitation.

Lewis said there was already a requirement for homes to be fit and proper and the Housing and Planning Bill would increase resources beyond anything the Labour government ever did. The bill would enable councils to issue civil penalties of up to £30,000 (increased from a negligible £5,000 in one late amendment to the bill that was good news) and remedy payment orders for up to 12 months.

Finally, the rogue house builder made a surprising (to me anyway) appearance in the headline bout between Brandon Lewis and his Labour opposite number. John Healey came to the Commons fresh from last week’s launch of the independent Redfern Review into the decline of homeownership and opened with this:

‘One of the many proud achievements of the last Labour government was the rise in the number of families able to realise their dream of owning their own home – the number was up by one million over 13 years. Will the minister tell us what has happened to the number of homeowners since Conservative ministers took charge in 2010?’

It just so happened that Lewis would rather talk about Healey’s statement when he was housing minister that a fall in ownership might not be a bad thing. “I disagree with him on that, as I do on other things. I think homeownership is something people aspire to, and we should support it. I am proud that the number of first-time buyers has doubled since 2010.”

Healey came back with the numbers: up by a million under Labour, down by 200,000 since 2010:

‘For young people, it is now in free fall, and they have little or no hope of ever being able to buy their own homes. Never mind the spin or short-term policies, the minister has no long-term plan for housing. That is why I have commissioned the independent Redfern Review to look at the decline in homeownership. We would welcome evidence from ministers, but will the minister at least agree to look at the review’s findings, so that five years of failure on homeownership do not turn into 10?’

In truth, when you look at the proportion of owners rather than the numbers, homeownership fell under both Labour and the coalition. However, Lewis raised the stakes by hitting back with:

‘Coming from somebody who oversaw the lowest level of housebuilding since roughly 1923, that was interesting, particularly as the Redfern Review is being led by Pete Redfern of Taylor Wimpey, who has called for an end to Help to Buy – the very product that is helping tens of thousands more people into homeownership. Perhaps the right honourable gentleman is about to tell us that the Labour party will end Help to Buy, which is helping so many people.’

Such a personal attack on the chief executive of Britain’s second biggest house builder is astonishing to me on a number of different levels. First, it’s an independent review – just like the Lyons Review before the election that featured Mark Clare, chief executive of the biggest house builder Barratt.

Second, if you read what Redfern actually said, it seems entirely sensible: ‘I absolutely would not advocate any long-term extension to Help to Buy. Any industry which has long-term government support tends to suffer in the longer term. I would reduce it over 12-18 months so it gets tapered slowly rather than going from 100% to zero.’ As I blogged last week, the Conservatives used to believe something similar.

Third, the attack is a remarkable political turnaround. Neither of the two big house builders makes political donations any more but back in the 1980s the companies and their founders were among the staunchest supporters of the Conservatives. Margaret Thatcher famously bought one of Sir Lawrie Barratt’s houses and she made Sir Frank Taylor a peer.

Finally, while the big house builders can’t do it on their own – the government needs them to make a major contribution to the promised million homes by 2020. Perhaps ministers believe they are biting the hand that feeds but publicly attacking one of them for expressing concern seems ill-advised to say the least.

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