Prevention and cure

Originally posted on January 30 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

As the Homelessness Reduction Bill passes its final stages in the House of Commons, it is time to mix celebration with realism.

The cause for celebration is that, once the bill has passed through the Lords, more people facing homelessness are entitled to help and that they will get it earlier. A landmark piece of legislation will make it on to the statute book 40 years after the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.

Conservative MP Bob Blackmandeserves great credit for leading the way but the bill was backed by Crisis, drew support from the government and MPs of all parties and has also had extensive input from Shelter and local authorities. Poppy Terry has a useful summary of how the bill has evolved on the Shelter policy blog.

Crucially, the bill was not just backed by the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee, it also went through extensive scrutiny. The issues are fiendishly complex but the comparison with the ‘back of a fag packet’ Housing and Planning Act could hardly be more marked.

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Happy birthday MK

Originally posted on January 25 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

Even if 50 is the new 40 (I rationalised that one long ago) this week’s anniversary of the birth of Milton Keynes is a significant moment in the history of housing – and what was once its future.

MK, as locals call it, has come a long way since it was designated a new town in January 1967 with a brief to become a city. The population is now 250,000 and rising and it has even imported its own football team.In much of the birthday coverage this week it’s called “Britain’s last new town”, probably because it was the biggest and the last to be finished.

In fact, it was the first of the third wave of post-War new towns to be designated: Peterborough celebrates its 50th birthday in July, with Northampton, Warrington, an expanded Telford, and Central Lancashire to follow over the next three years.

But in a week when Theresa May’s cabinet met in Warrington for the launch of her industrial strategy, it’s worth asking why no more have followed. After all, one of the key problems that all three waves of the new towns programme were partly designed to address – how to cope with population overspill from London and other major cities – has not gone away.

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An unambitious ambition

Originally posted on January 19 on my blog for Inside Housing.

A new overview of housing in England from the National Audit Office (NAO) provides some revealing insights on the state of the nation ahead of the Housing White Paper. Here are some highlights.

Moving the goalposts

The NAO estimates that 174,000 net additional homes a year are needed to meet the government’s target of a million new homes by 2020.

That’s fewer than the 190,000 delivered in 2015/16, the first of the five years covered by the target.

Confused? How on earth can the government meet such an ambitious target by building fewer homes? The answer is that it has moved the goalposts twice.

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12 tests for the Housing White Paper

This is an updated version of a post originally published on January 12 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The moment is finally here but will radical plans to boost housing supply live up to their advance billing? Here are my tests.

  1. How half-baked is it?

In one very important way, ministers have already passed my first test. Publication of a White Paper seems to mark a return to an earlier era of government when policies went through consultation and scrutiny before they were enacted.

Contrast that with the way that half-baked ideas from thinktanks were turned into equally half-baked legislation in the back of a fag packet Housing and Planning Act.

Speaking of which, how much will we hear about the loose ends that still need tying up from the act? Pay to Stay may be dead in its compulsory form, and the extension of the Right to Buy delayed by another pilot, but we still don’t know what’s happening with forced sales of higher-value council houses or to the receipts they raise.

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The trouble with starter homes

Originally posted on January 3 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The new year ‘green light’ for Starter Homes raises yet more questions about the flagship Conservative policy.

The announcement covers 30 local authority partnerships that will get help from the £1.2bn Starter Home Land Fund to develop schemes with “thousands of new homes” on brownfield sites. These will then be sold at a discount of “at least 20% below market value” to first-time buyers aged between 23 and 40.

So far, so faithful then to the policy as it evolved under David Cameron and George Osborne. But note that vague reference to “thousands” and compare it with the very specific pledge to build 200,000 Starter Homes in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. The Starter Homes Land Fund was launched in the Spring Budget to deliver “at least 30,000 homes”. Note too that only five or six of the 30 areas are in the politically sensitive South East and that the announcement does not cover London.

What this looks like is the more acceptable end of the policy: a plan to get homes built on sites that might not otherwise be developed. True, the £1.2bn could be better spent in other ways but this is not yet the subsidy-hungry, Section 106-hogging ‘cuckoo in the nest’ of affordable housing specified in the Housing and Planning Act.

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Planting seeds

Originally published on January 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Two major housing announcements before most people have gone back to work sets some sort of record even by recent standards.

Late on Monday the government confirmed the go-ahead for the first of “thousands” of Starter Homes to be sold at a 20% discount to first-time buyers aged between 23 and 40. And on Monday morning, the government named 17 sites for new garden villages and garden towns. If only it were as easy to build homes as it is to put out press releases on a bank holiday.

I’ll come back to Starter Homes soon. But first off, those 17 garden towns and villages. As far as it goes, the idea is a welcome acknowledgement of the need for radical action to build more new homes.

But the emphasis on them being “locally led” only underlines the desperate need for national leadership if the response to the housing crisis is to go beyond leaving it to the market with a few extra bits tacked on around the edges.

As it is, Monday’s first government announcement of the year is eerily reminiscent of the “radical new policy shift” promised by David Cameron 12 months ago: initiatives that are promising in themselves and get media coverage but do not go remotely far enough to make any real difference.

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