The charge of the Brexit brigade

For some strange reason, these lines are running through my head ahead of the triggering of Article 50.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

It’s not so much because I think we will be metaphorically blown to pieces by the guns of the other 27 EU members. Nor because that verse is a pretty accurate description of MPs trooping through the lobbies to vote for something they know is a historic mistake. It’s because our generals seem to think those are reasons to send us even faster into the valley.

Without stretching the metaphor too far, the famous charge into the Russian guns at the Battle of Balaklava was the result of ambiguous orders, arrogance and personal rivalries. Lord Raglan probably said something about ‘having a punt, having a go, that’s what pumps me up’, Lord Lucan (yes, really) gave a speech in front of a bus and the Earl of Cardigan obeyed an order he knew was suicidal while mumbling something about a country that works for everyone.

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Relegation zone

Originally published on March 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

No wonder Sajid Javid wants to go to Finland: a report out today confirms it as the only country in the European Union where homelessness is falling. The remarkable performance compared to the other 27 EU members is attributed to 20 years of implementing housing policies based on Housing First.

That will only add to the attractions of the approach highlighted in a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice that apparently made the communities secretary so keen to go to Helsinki.

But as his boss gets ready to trigger Article 50, something else in today’s report may also give him pause for thought: the UK has fallen badly behind other EU nations in its performance on housing and homelessness.

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The end of the Right to Buy in Wales

Originally published on March 13 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Wales is set to join Scotland in consigning the Right to Buy to history.

Readers in that country east of Offa’s Dyke and south of Hadrian’s Wall may want to look away as the Welsh Government introduces a bill into the National Assembly on Monday to abolish the Right to Buy, Right to Acquire and Preserved Right to Buy.

The aim is to protect social housing from further reduction and encourage the development of new social rented homes.

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Tax and the self-employed

For all the sound and fury over national insurance and the self-employed, it is still a sideshow in wider debates about tax, employment status and rights at work.

Philip Hammond’s unraveling Budget matters politically and it signals both the strength and the weakness of the government. Only a chancellor facing the worst opposition in decades could even consider a measure that breaks four separate commitments in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. Only a prime minister with a small majority could be forced to retreat at the first sign of Tory dissent and newspaper headlines about white vans.

hammond

Much of the blame lies with the ex-chancellor now trousering £1m a year on top of his MP’s salary for his advice and speeches. It makes you wonder how George Osborne is being paid for all that hard work and hope that he’s about to get clobbered for tax because it’s through a personal service company.

It was Osborne who in 2015 abolished Class 2 national insurance contributions (NICs) for the self-employed (from 2018) and gave them access to the higher state pension via Class 4. If he had introduced an increase in Class 4 contributions at the same time, few people would have complained. Instead he posed as the great reforming chancellor, agreed the manifesto pledge and left Hammond to fill the holes in his spreadsheet.

Combine these different measures and the treatment of the self-employed looks (reasonably) fair: most of the lowest paid will pay less, there’s a better state pension than before, and the burden falls heaviest on people earning more. But try and defend this week’s Budget announcement using that argument and you look like a shifty betrayer of ‘ordinary working families’ and ‘entrepreneurs’.

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Don’t mention the benefits freeze

Originally posted on March 8 on my blog for Inside Housing.

For once this was a Budget that was more significant for what it did not say about housing than for what it did.

In one sense the lack of announcements was nothing new. Chancellor Philip Hammond had already announced that this would be his last Spring Budget and that the main event will be in the Autumn.

The extra money for social care was inevitable if inadequate and it will have an impact on housing organisations.

Housing itself got a single mention in Hammond’s speech in the section on the next generation. ‘Will they be able to get on the housing ladder?’ was the rhetorical question that did not get any answer. (Nope, not unless they’ve got rich parents, since you ask.)

For once (unless I’ve missed something) the background Budget documents revealed little more than an intriguing consultation on a redesign of Rent a Room Relief, the tax relief that homeowners can claim when they let out a room.

The aim is ‘to ensure it is better targeted to support longer-term lettings. This will align the relief more closely with its intended purpose, to increase supply of affordable long-term lodgings’. Presumably the plan is to stop people avoiding tax on AirBnb earnings?

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) Economic and Fiscal Outlook has some background on the profile of housing association spending spending and borrowing, which was less than it expected last year but is being brought forward at the end of the spending review period.

But what really caught my attention were some graphs on the scale of the continuing squeeze on benefits. This reflects the decisions that Hammond did not take to ease the effects of the four-year freeze on most working-age benefits announced by George Osborne in 2015.

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The country that works a lot better for some

Originally published on March 6 on my blog for Inside Housing.

If you are under 22 and you need help with your housing it all depends on who your parents are.

Three measures from George Osborne Budgets apply from next month: the cut in housing support for 18-21 year olds; the Lifetime ISA; and the cut in inheritance tax on main residences.

This time last week hopes were high that the government would row back on the first of these. A government source told The Observer that ministers and civil servants dealing with the cut in housing support ‘hate the policy’. Despite this the regulations implementing it were laid on Friday, a day when parliament was not sitting.

There is no official explanation of the move on the DWP website but a spokesman repeats previous lines about ensuring that 18-21 year olds ‘do not slip straight into a life on benefits’.

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Five things we learned from the English Housing Survey

Originally published on March 2 on my blog for Inside Housing.

So what have we learned from the new English Housing Survey? The largest annual survey of households and housing conditions is just out for 2015/16 and here’s what caught my eye.

1) ‘The fall in owner-occupation has abated’

The official story is one of relatively little change this year: the number of owner-occupiers seems to have stabilised at 14.3m and there were still 3.9m social renters. The survey says that ‘the rate of owner occupation has not changed since 2013-14, indicating that the fall in owner occupation has abated’. Here’s the graph summing up the trend:

However, that’s not the full story. First, a note of caution: the 2013/14 survey had sampling issues that probably exaggerated the fall in home ownership and rise in private renting in that year. As a result last year’s survey showed a surprise fall in private renting and slight rise in owner-occupation that was hailed as a turning point by the government. Private renting resumed its rise in 2015/16, with the number of private renters up 250,000 at 4.5m.

2) But mortgaged ownership falls below 30%

The picture changes again if you look at the proportion of households in each tenure rather than the number. The survey shows that the owner-occupation rate fell to 62.9%, the lowest it’s been since 1985, while private renting rose from 19.0% to 19.9% and social renting fell slightly to 17.2%. Decline abated? Not so much.

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