10 things about 2016: part two

Originally published on December 29 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The second part of my look back at the year in housing as seen on my blog kicks off with the fallout from the referendum result. We may still not know what Brexit means apart from Brexit but the consequences were profound.

6. New government, new approach

The most immediate impact was political as the departure of David Cameron triggered not just a change of prime minister, but a change of virtually every minister with any say over housing and a real change of political tone. The debate during the brief Conservative leadership campaign and the winner’s rhetoric about “a country that works for everyone” suggested some potentially significant changes in the drivers of policy.

Brandon Lewis was confident Theresa May would stay true to the agenda of Right to Buy and Starter Homes but he was soon moved to a different job. Gavin Barwell quickly proved himself to be a more consensual and thoughtful housing minister and in his first major speech signalled a shift in focus to housing of all tenures rather than just homeownership.

I speculated on what this might mean for crucial elements of the Housing and Planning Act that were still unresolved, including Starter Homes, but that’s still not clear.

Conservative party conference speeches from Theresa May, Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid suggested a new approach with housing as a “number one priority”, but the question was whether the reality would match the rhetoric. However, the Autumn Statement did partially reverse the skewing of investment towards ownership rather than affordable rental.

7. The Housing and Planning Act

With so much left to secondary legislation, Royal Assent in May was far from the end of the process for the government’s flagship housing legislation. As 2017 approaches, we are still waiting to find out how key policies such as the sale of higher-value council houses will work. I’d blogged all along that the sums did not add up and despite concessions the decision to delay the extension of the Right to Buy with a second pilot suggests they still don’t. An 11th-hour climbdown made Pay to Stay a bit fairer but I argued it was also pointless because it would cost more to administer than it raised.

Under pressure from Conservative councils, the government eventually agreed and made it voluntary at the same time as it confirmed that fixed-term tenancies would be mandatory. This second climbdown was cloaked in the rhetoric of the new government, with Mr Barwell arguing that it no longer supported “ordinary working-class families who need to get by” .

On most of the rest of the bill, the details that were missing at the start of the year are still nowhere to be seen at the end. Pity the civil servants still working their way through Brandon Lewis’ “16 million pieces of data”.

My last word on the bill read between the lines on higher-value sales and replacement homes but we are still none the wiser seven months later.

8. The two-way street of devolution

The nations of the UK continued to diverge on housing in 2016 and devolution also began to have a real impact in the English regions. In May I blogged about the post-election prospects not just in Wales and Scotland but also London and Bristol under their new Labour mayors.

Devolution was also starting to have an impact in rural areas, with the referendum on second homes in St Ives stirring interest in other communities.

However, devolution only goes so far. As the year ended I blogged about the way that Wales is forging ahead with its own housing policies, including increased investment in social housing, but remains subject to significant control from Westminster via housing benefit.

Outside the UK but still close to home I also blogged about housing in Ireland. Facing a crisis even worse than here, the new government agreed plans to double housebuilding and significantly increase investment in social housing. An equivalent programme adjusted for England’s much larger population would see 540,000 social homes built or acquired over the next four years.

9. Still not coming home

The 50th anniversary of the first transmission of Cathy Come Home was always going to give homelessness a bigger profile in 2016. The issues exposed in Ken Loach’s TV drama – holes in the safety net, homelessness itself and children being taken into care because of it – have not gone away 50 years on.

The programme had lost none of its power when I rewatched it but I also blogged about the way that bureaucratic logic takes on a life of its own and contrasting perceptions of the housing crisis.

Mr Loach returned to the cinema in 2016 with I, Daniel Blake, and a BBC documentary, No Place to Call Home, exposed housing conditions in Barking and Dagenham and the plight of single homeless people who are not entitled to help under the current system. The year did at least bring the promise of progress on that at least, with the launch of a private members’ bill on homelessness prevention inspired by the system introduced in Wales.

However, the news elsewhere was bleak. At a local level, I blogged about Peterborough and how in 10 steps and 50 years it had moved from a new town accommodating a growing population to a place where homeless people were being evicted in the name of tackling homelessness. At a European level, I blogged about a league table measuring housing exclusion across the European Union showing that the UK was the biggest faller. As we languished in 20th place, only ahead of the countries worst affected by the Euro crisis and the poorest Eastern European nations, I wondered if we were leaving the EU before we were relegated.

The prospects for the future looked bleak as the year ended with homelessness and the use of temporary accommodation in England still rising remorselessly. The number of families with children in bed and breakfasts for more than the six-week legal limit is up 24% in a year and is 13 times what it was before the 2010 election.

10. No end to welfare reform

Cuts in housing benefit were the biggest single reason for the UK plummeting down that European housing league table and the pressure on the system continued to grow in 2016. In April I blogged on the turn of the screw – the start of the four-year freeze in working age benefits – and the likely impact of the reduction in the benefit cap and the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap.

The new government took power pledging that there would be no more cuts but those already planned threatened to undermine the help that Theresa May promised for ‘just about managing’ families while the two caps were an alarming prospect for social tenants and landlords alike.

In November I blogged about the start of the reduction in the overall benefit cap, threatening the finances of 116,000 families (on the Chartered Institute of Housing’s estimate) and leaving many with just 50p a week towards their rent. Ministers continued their efforts to devise a funding system for supported housing after the LHA cap but the uncertainty left projects on hold.

Introduction of the LHA cap was delayed until 2019 but will now apply to existing as well as new tenants. In general needs housing, that raises a huge issue about single tenants under 35, whose housing benefit will be restricted to the shared accommodation rate.

If 2016 was the year of surprises, the continuing impact of benefit cuts on tenants and landlords alike was no surprise at all.

For part one of this blog click here.

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