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.

November 15

A big day for the government’s ambition to deliver a million new homes in the five years to 2020. The required rate of 200,000 a year seems a long way off based on the 140,000 completions a year recorded in the housebuilding statistics in the last 12 months (an update is due on November 24). However, the government has always had a different measure in mind: the net supply of housing. This takes account of demolitions and change of use and conversions of other buildings to residential use but it also includes a higher count of housebuilding. Figures for net supply are only published once a year and the most recent total was 170,000 for 2014/15. If figures released today show something close to 200,000 for 2015/16, the first of the five years in question, prepare for lots of ministerial crowing, but bear in mind that the ‘ambition’ is not as ambitious as it seems.

November 16

The 50th anniversary of the first transmission of Cathy Come Home. The system in 2016 may not be as bad as the one exposed by Ken Loach’s TV drama in 1966 but as I blogged last week its failings are comprehensively exposed in No Place to Call Home and Loach’s new film I, Daniel Blake. In the context of the Homelessness Reduction Bill it’s also worth noting that the legislation that Cathy Come Home inspired – the 1977 Housing (Homeless Persons) Act – was also a private member’s bill.

November 23

The day of the Autumn Statement will be when we find out if Philip Hammond is prepared to put his money where Theresa May’s mouth is. As things stand, all but a tiny proportion of the affordable housing programme will go to starter homes and shared ownership. Action to correct that will require flexibility at the very least but ‘housing that works for everyone’ must surely involve extra investment and new borrowing freedoms for council housing. And one good way to reduce homelessness has to be more social housing at rents that people can afford to pay.

However, Hammond faces a series of competing pleas for help from the different interest groups: housing associations want funding for rent to buy homes; private landlords want tax increases reversed; the property industry wants extra concessions for build to let; and estate agents want cuts in stamp duty. He cannot possibly answer all of them but what will his priorities be?

And what will Hammond do about benefits? He already faces a Tory rebellion over cuts to universal credit. And rising inflation means that the four-year freeze in most working age benefits will be even harsher: rising rents plus frozen local housing allowance equals rising rent arrears and homelessness.

November

Also on the agenda, though not yet with a specific date, are:

The Housing White Paper – Communities secretary Sajid Javid promised ‘further significant measures’ to build a million homes in his Conservative conference speech earlier this month. At communities and local government questions last Monday, he said the White Paper would appear “later this year” and that the focus would be on ‘making the best of brownfield land and building new homes where people desperately need them’. Gavin Barwell told a Chartered Institute of Housing reception last week that the White Paper will set out a “detailed strategy” on housebuilding.

The Telegraph reported on Sunday that the White Paper will include support for small builders plus plans to build 100,000 prefabricated homes to help young people on to the housing ladder. That sounds like it could amount to a recasting of starter homes, which is just one aspect of the Housing and Planning Act for which we are still waiting for detailed regulations to be published. The big question is where the land will come from but previous reports have suggested a strong emphasis on public land.

The Local Housing Allowance cap – A written statement in September from work and pensions secretary Damian Green about the impact on supported housing begged as many questions as it provided answers, not least when it emerged a week later that the cap will apply to all tenants (not just new tenants) from the new start date of 2019.

Communities minister Marcus Jones told MPs last Monday that a consultation on the long-term funding settlement for supported housing will be released ‘very shortly’ together with the evidence review that informed it. Mr Jones said:

‘I have met the chief executive of the National Housing Federation and discussed this issue with him at some length. We are giving confidence to the sector that funding will be devolved to local authorities, and that that funding will be ring-fenced. Save for the changes to social rent increases, the quantum of funding to the sector will be the same. The chief executive seemed reasonably reassured on that point.’

Details are desperately needed since vague assurances of local top-ups to the national cap will not be enough to prevent projects closing or stop new ones being built. We’ll have to wait and see what ‘the quantum of funding… will be the same’ means in practice.

I’ll be coming back to all of these issues when more details are available. Watch this space.

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