The ides of November

Originally posted on October 31 on my blog for Inside Housing

The last four months have seemed to offer a series of new possibilities for housing from Theresa May’s new government. From the prime minister’s rhetoric about ‘a country that works for everyone’ to housing minister Gavin Barwell’s emphasis on the importance of all tenures, the signals have been pointing to a significant shift away from the stance of the previous Tory administration. Friday brought good news when the Homelessness Reduction Bill won a second reading with the support of the government.

But events in the next month or so will go a long way to determining where those signals are really leading us. For all the rhetoric we don’t know much more detail than when the government went back to work at the beginning of September. While the dates of some events are already set, others are expected “shortly”. Here’s a selected list:

November 7

A week today sees the start of the reduction in the overall household benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere.

An updated impact assessment published in August estimates that 88,000 households (107,000 adults and 244,000 children) will be affected by the lower cap, including 64,000 who would not have been covered by the original cap.

That is much less than in the original impact assessment, one reason being that the government has introduced new exemptions for guardians and carers in response to defeat in the courts. It also seems on the low side given that it means housing benefit will not cover the rent for families in more expensive areas and with higher rents and for larger families everywhere, even in social housing. And it will only encourage more landlords to restrict their lettings of ‘affordable’ homes to ‘working families’.

To borrow a line from Steve Hilditch, if October ended with the Homelessness Reduction Bill’s second reading, then November will kick off what can only be a homelessness expansion policy.

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Is the customer always right?

Originally published on October 24 on my blog for Inside Housing 

Whether we are talking about benefits or housing, a new Ken Loach film and a BBC documentary expose a system that’s failing. In the face of growing demand and shrinking provision, the safety net has gaping holes. Rising homelessness and the queues at foodbanks are the symbols of this. The basics of life – shelter, food and warmth – can no longer be taken for granted.

Seen from the outside this is obvious and so are the answers. Return to provision based on need. Build more social housing. Abandon the divisive rhetoric of strivers and scroungers. Follow the founding principles of the welfare state.

Most people working on the inside will agree with this. But they also have to work within the system as it is and they know that there is little chance of real political change any time soon. This dual reality is perhaps most obvious in the social/business divide within housing associations but it exists right across the public and voluntary sectors too.

Watching I, Daniel Blake and No Place to Call Home over the last few days, these divides were obvious. One is a documentary, the other a film, but both would claim to be revealing truths about life when the safety net fails. But they also beg a less obvious question for people working within the system: how do you know when you’ve crossed the line between doing your best in an impossible situation and making that situation worse? One answer, I’d suggest, lies in the language we use.

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Building the case

Originally posted on October 19 on my blog for Inside Housing

Sometimes powerful arguments for a change of direction in housing policy come from unexpected places.

The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model is a case in point. Before your eyes glaze over at the title, bear with me because it has profound implications not just for the way we build homes but also the sort of housing we build and who we build them for.

Subtitled Modernise or Die, the report was commissioned last year from the Construction Leadership Council by housing minister Brandon Lewis and skills minister Nick Boles. By the time it was published this week, both had moved on, but the policy context had also shifted on its axis.

Back then, the Treasury and George Osborne dominated housing policy and everything was about home ownership and Help to Buy. Now other departments have much more influence, we have a housing minister calling for a balanced approach to tenure and attention has turned to modern methods of construction for new homes.

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Ten steps to a housing crisis

Originally posted on October 14 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

How does somewhere that was built to solve the housing shortage end up being in the middle of one?

The place in question is Peterborough in Cambridgshire but events there in the last month resonate well beyond the city. Seen admittedly from the outside, this is the UK housing crisis in ten steps.

1) Build a new town

Peterborough was designated as a new town in 1967 to accommodate population overspill from London. Four new townships were added to what was already a Cathedral city, boosting the population from 83,000 to 190,000 over the last 40 years. The key, according to the former head of the development corporation Wyndham Thomas, was the acquisition of land at existing use values with debt repaid from finance generated by increased land values.

2) Watch the population grow

Housebuilding has failed to keep pace with a rising population in the south and east of England in general. In the case of Peterborough in particular add high levels of immigration. Cities Outlook 16, the regular survey by the Centre for Cities, shows that Peterborough was the third fastest-growing city in the UK for population with an annual growth rate of 1.5% a year between 2004 and 2014. The housing stock grew by the fourth fastest rate in the country between 2013 and 2014 but the rate was 1.1%.

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Beyond the fringe

Originally posted on October 11 on my blog for Inside Housing

Gavin Barwell has apparently spent the last two weeks telling old people who should inherit their property wealth and young people they should live in rabbit hutches.

The comments prompted outrage online and in the comment pages of the newspapers and the ones about inheritance saw him ‘slapped down’ by Downing Street. These were ‘personal comments’ and ‘certainly not policy’, said No 10.

But what did the housing minister actually say?

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Working for everyone

Originally posted on October 6 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

What would ‘housing that works for everyone’ look like?

Housing was a constant theme running through the Conservative conference this week. Communities secretary Sajid Javid said it was his ‘number one priority’ and announced a new(ish) £2bn fund for accelerated construction on public land plus ‘further significant measures’ in a white paper in the Autumn.

Housing minister Gavin Barwell is said to have addressed 17 different fringe meetings on housing and continued his charm offensive with more sensible comments about the need to encourage all tenures and tone down the obsession with home ownership and starter homes.

And Theresa May herself singled out housing as one example of market failure that requires government intervention to create ‘a country that works for everyone’ and an economy where ‘everyone plays by the same rules’:

‘That’s why where markets are dysfunctional, we should be prepared to intervene. Where companies are exploiting the failures of the market in which they operate, where consumer choice is inhibited by deliberately complex pricing structures, we must set the market right.’

‘It’s just not right, for example, that half of people living in rural areas, and so many small businesses, can’t get a decent broadband connection.

‘It’s just not right that two thirds of energy customers are stuck on the most expensive tariffs.

‘And it’s just not right that the housing market continues to fail working people either.’

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