Book review: The Rent Trap

How did we end up with a housing system dependent on at least 1.5 million small-scale private landlords offering millions of tenants little or no security and costing billions in housing benefit?

You couldn’t do much better if you set out to design the worst possible way of housing the nation in general and young people in particular. But the changes that now seem set in stone – a private rented sector that’s grown so fast it is now bigger than the social sector and home ownership shrinking back to the levels last seen in the 1980s – have happened in the space of one generation.

The Rent Trap, a new book by Samir Jeraj and Rosie Walker, is the best attempt I’ve yet read to explain how and why this has happened to a general audience. The subtitle – How We Fell Into It And How We Get Out Of It – reflects an even more ambitious aim.

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Paying the price for Pay to Stay – Part 2

Originally published on March 22 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

This concluding part of my blog on Pay to Stay follows up more clues on how the government wants the policy to work. Part 1 focuses on how the tapers will work plus issues about the assessment of incomes and market rents.

Just to confuse things even further, a statutory instrument on social housing rents published on Friday stipulates that the four-year 1% rent cut that applies from April 2016 does not apply to households with incomes of more than £60,000 (in the current or previous year). This is a reference to the existing voluntary Pay to Stay and I assumed at first it simply meant that the relatively few landlords who have implemented it would not reduce the rents of ‘high income’ tenants who are already paying higher rents. However, it seems that as drafted it means that landlords would have to exclude all tenants with an income of more than £60,000 from the cut  – even though there is currently no obvious way for them to find them all. Appropriately enough the regulations come into force on April 1.

The Housing and Planning Bill makes Pay to Stay compulsory for local authorities but reduces the household income thresholds to £30,000 outside London and £40,000 in London. Any increased rental income has to be paid to the Treasury. It remains voluntary for housing associations. Here are five more issues raised in the Lords.

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Farewell to the Great Social Reformer

You go away for the weekend and suddenly everything goes mad: it turns out that Iain Duncan Smith was really a Socialist or a Liberal Democrat all along.

The Great Social Reformer (this is what the many ‘friends of’ IDS speaking to journalists call him) has not just resigned, not just skewered George Osborne, he’s also questioned the fundamentals of the post-2010 Conservatives narrative. We are not ‘all in this together’, the most vulnerable will not be ‘protected’ and the deficit reduction target is ‘more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest’.

Yet this (apparent) modern day heir to Tory Great Social Reformers like Shaftesbury and Wilberforce is also the same Iain Duncan Smith responsible for punitive benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, the £30 a week ESA cut and all the other salami slices taken out of the social security system in the last six years that were not ‘compromises too far’. The man who took the moral high ground about cuts that benefit the better-off is the same one who stood on a manifesto of cutting inheritance tax and £12 billion from benefits.

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Paying the price for Pay to Stay – Part 1

Originally posted on March 18 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Thanks to the persistence of a group of peers, we now know a little bit more about how the government wants higher Pay to Stay rents to work for tenants.

The details emerged on the sixth day of the committee stage of the Housing and Planning Bill on Monday (see Hansard here).

That followed confirmation in a government consultation response last week that there will be a taper and that tenants on housing benefit claimants will be exempt. As I blogged the next day, this was presented as a climbdown. The government says tenants on incomes just above the thresholds ‘will see their rent rise by only a few pounds each week’. However, it also begged yet more questions. Read the rest of this entry »


Filling in the blanks in the Housing Bill

Originally posted on March 10 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Key elements of the Housing and Planning Bill have faced serious scrutiny in the last couple of days but we’re still not much nearer to knowing how or if they will work.

The frustration of MPs and peers is palpable as they repeatedly ask for more detail and are just as repeatedly told that it will be available shortly. It was all too much even for a Conservative MP on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Wednesday afternoon. ‘You’re treating the parliamentarians around this table with contempt,’ Stephen Phillips told two senior Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) civil servants. ‘You’re asking us to take this on faith. Why not do the work first and then bring the legislation forward?’

The answer is of course that it’s much easier for ministers if it works the other way around. Under current plans, the crucial detail will appear in secondary legislation only after the bill has Royal Assent.

The PAC was investigating the value-for-money aspects of the extension of the Right to Buy to housing associations and the levy on forced sales of council houses that is meant to fund it. But members didn’t get far asking for detail. ‘The timings have yet to be determined,’ ran one senior civil servant answer. ‘The amounts have yet to be determined. The formulae have yet to be determined.’

The National Audit Office (NAO) is not impressed either. Here’s its assessment of the government’s impact assessment of the bill:

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United nation

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

Campaigners gather in the capital city for a pre-election rally to call for decisive action on the housing crisis. Sound familiar?

But this is not Homes for Britain or London and it’s no longer March 2015. Instead this happened on Friday in Cardiff and it’s Homes for Wales.

The campaigns are clearly related – both are aimed at all the political parties, both are supported by a coalition of housing associations and other housing organisations – but there are differences too.

The Homes for Britain rally happened in a big hall with speakers from the housing world and beyond and from all the main political parties. For all the energy and enthusiasm of the day, it left itself open to the accusation that this was just another example of the sector gathering to congratulate itself about how wonderful it is.

In contrast, campaigners for Homes for Wales gathered on the steps of the Senedd Building in Cardiff Bay for speeches before marching through the streets of the capital for a rally in the heart of the pedestrianised city centre. For a couple of hours, shoppers could watch video messages from the political parties, Welsh celebrities such as Michael Sheen and people with personal experience of the housing crisis. Up to 700 people took part and it was the first housing march that anyone could remember in Wales. For more about the campaign see this piece by Kevin Howell.

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Mind the gaps in the Housing Bill

Originally published on March 1 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

For a piece of legislation that’s already faced hours of scrutiny from MPs and peers, there are still gaping holes at the heart of a Housing and Planning Bill that started life on the back of a fag packet and hasn’t moved much beyond it in several important respects.

Opposition demands for more detail about legislation are nothing new of course, but I’ve argued before that the lack of clarity here is deliberate in a bill that is designed to allow the government to do what it wants in future. To take one example, after stretching the definition of ‘affordable’ to breaking point to include £450,000 Starter Homes, the bill adds that the secretary of state ‘may by regulations amend this section so as to modify the definition of affordable housing’.

Many of the gaps were highlighted in the Commons late last year. The last two months have brought little further detail but now it’s crunch time: as peers debate a series of amendments, ministers are bound to come under increased pressures to say exactly what they mean.

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