Home thoughts

Originally published on July 28 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

A housebuilding slump? Rising homelessness? Unaffordable house prices and rents? The housing crisis faced by the new government in Ireland is every bit as serious as the one confronting the new administration on this side of the Irish Sea – but then the similarities start to break down.

Just 75 days after coming to power, the coalition government in Dublin has published a comprehensive plan and a Cabinet-level housing minister is in charge of delivery. If that’s some indication of the priority it gives to housing, then the housing, planning and local government minister Simon Coveney compares the task of proving affordable and accessible homes for all to the introduction of free education 50 years ago.

Allowances have to be made for political hype and the plan has also been criticised for its failure to be more radical, but the contrast with England is still glaring even though the government is led by the closest equivalent Ireland has to the Conservatives. One reason could be that it took two months after a stalemate election In Ireland to form a government: the plan has been developed with the help of an all-party parliamentary committee; and Fine Gael depends not just on independents for support but also the rival Fianna Fail not to vote against its plans.

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Looking for clues

Originally published on July 26 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

After a month of turmoil and political change, suddenly everything is on hold.

I was on holiday for the week that saw yet another new housing minister and a concerted effort by housing organisations to persuade Theresa May’s new government to change course but also the non-appearance of crucial details of previous policies.

The delays obviously reflect the political fall-out from the Brexit vote followed by the appointment of a new prime minister and an almost entirely new Cabinet. Old certainties have gone, apparently including the entire economic framework for policy, but the outlines of the new approach remain unclear.

As I blogged before I went away, Theresa May’s speeches during the brief Conservative leadership campaign can be read in two different ways. Signs of change on, for example, workers on company boards do not necessarily mean change everywhere.

Do her comments on housing signal a new ‘One Nation’ approach or one that continues to see the housing crisis solely in terms of home ownership? Is it to be business as usual or will the government listen to the critique of the previous Tory government published by an influential House of Lords committee?

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Peer review

Originally published on July 15 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Take your pick: targets for new homes are much too low; the private sector cannot deliver them; and policy is too focussed on home ownership.

A report published on Friday by the all-party economic affairs select committee of the House of Lords does not so much criticise the government’s approach to building more homes as skewer it.

And one of the clearest explanations I’ve yet read of why current policy cannot, and will not, work does not come from just any old committee. The group of Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and Crossbench peers includes two former chancellors of the exchequer (Lords Lamont and Darling) and two former permanent secretaries of the Treasury (Lord Burns and Lord Turnbull) with more cabinet ministers, senior mandarins, special advisors and business people also in the mix. They are drawing on decades of experience of previous failures in housing policy.

The report is also brilliantly timed, just at the point when Theresa May’s new government is getting down to work and preparing for life after the referendum and George Osborne’s budget surplus targets.

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May day

Originally published on July 12 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Where does housing fit into Theresa May’s vision of ‘a country that works for everyone’.

The home secretary launched her campaign for the Conservative leadership with a speech in Birmingham on Monday. Within two hours she was certain to be prime minister. And by Wednesday night she will be in Downing Street.

Whether Monday’s events were choreographed with Andrea Leadsom or not, May’s speech sounded like one made by a leader in waiting. So much so that, as many people have noted, the bits about predatory capitalism and the cost of living read like they were lifted from one of Ed Miliband’s speeches before the 2015 general election.

After six years at the Home Office, May is still something of an unknown quantity on housing. A speech from 2013 that was widely seen as positioning herself to run for leader did not even mention the word.

The Birmingham speech fills in some but not all of the blanks – and once you strip away the rhetoric it begs all sorts of questions about how much she will really change.
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Blue futures

Originally published on July 5 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

I wouldn’t pretend for a second that housing is anywhere near top of the to do list for the five contenders to be the new Conservative leader and prime minister – or that the winner will mean a radical change in approach.

But so many political certainties have been overturned in the last week or so that nothing can be ruled out. Not least, George Osborne’s decision to abandon his budget surplus target changes the financial parameters for housing policy in ways that are only just beginning to be thought through.

This could open up new possibilities for housing in the Autumn Statement under a new prime minister and quite possibly a new chancellor. However, it’s also likely to mean that austerity will continue into the 2020s.

The background of the contenders alone will be a change. Unlike David Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson, all five of them are state-educated. Two (Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox) were even brought up in council housing.

So what about housing? There are divisions between the contenders on their attitudes: some are ready to concede a role for social housing while others focus completely on the market and three of the five appear to be saying that housing will be a bigger priority with a bigger budget.

However, the main dividing line is between supporters of and objectors to new homes. This tension between ‘supporters’ and ‘objectors’ has been evident throughout the coalition and Conservative governments and reached uneasy compromise in the National Planning Policy Framework, with ‘localism’ balanced by the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

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