Holding the government to account

Originally published on April 28 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The housing crisis could persist ‘for decades to come’ unless the government shows more urgency and ambition on supply.

That’s the verdict* from an all-party committee of MPs on Friday in one of a series of reports due to be rushed out in the next few days as Westminster clears the decks for the election.

The Public Accounts Committee says:

‘
We are highly concerned by this lack of urgency and ambition, most of all in view of the rising costs, both human and financial, of homelessness. Not only does becoming homeless people represent a terrible blight on people’s lives, it also places additional strain on public spending: councils’ spending on temporary accommodation amounted to £840 million in 2015–16, a real-terms rise of nearly half (46%) in just five years.’

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The price of everything and the value of nothing

Originally posted on April 27 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Sometimes a conjunction of different news stories shines a new light on things and makes the obvious more obvious.

That’s exactly what happened this week when two excellent long read features on housing and a select committee report made me see familiar issues in a slightly different way.

The first was in Tuesday’s Guardian, an investigation by Holly Watt into the scandal of the privatisation of Ministry of Defence housing.

The big picture is that in 1996 the MoD sold its housing stock for military personnel to Annington Homes for £1.67bn and then rented them back at a big discount to market rates for 25 years.

That may have made short-term financial sense but the long term is a different matter altogether. The homes are now worth £6.7bn and the 25-year discount runs out in 2021. After that there is nothing to stop Annington charging full market rents.

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How the LHA cap will target the poorest communities

Originally posted on April 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

If you were looking to design a policy to penalise the poorest families paying the cheapest rents, it would be very hard to come up with something better than the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap.

My feature in Inside Housing looks at the situation in Wales. I already knew that the impact would be severe in deprived areas like the South Wales Valleys because of their very low LHA rates but the more people I talked to the worse the implications seemed to be.

Even in areas with higher LHA rates there are growing worries about the long-term impact. Ask people what the number one threat to their business plan is and everyone will say welfare reform: for some universal credit is the biggest worry but others say the LHA cap because of its effect not just on tenants and business plans but also future development.

I’m talking here about the cap as it applies to general needs housing when the cap is introduced in 2019. There are three main problems: the impact on the under-35s who are single with no children; areas where social rents are already above or close to LHA rates; and the effect on pensioners.

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What the snap election could mean for housing

Originally published on April 18 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Here are some quick thoughts on what the snap General Election might mean for housing.

First, what about the campaign? Labour and Jeremy Corbyn will make a housing a big part of their alternative vision for Britain.

There will be lots about council and social housing and lots to appeal to private renters. Housing will be more prominent in the campaign of one of the two major parties than it has been for years.

But will any of that matter? Theresa May and the Conservatives will not need to say much about housing because their campaign will be all about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn.

Housing won’t matter much to any of the other parties either as the Lib Dems try to win back seats by appealing to Remainers and the SNP and Plaid use the looming Tory apocalypse in England to win votes in Scotland and Wales.

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The problem(s) with leasehold

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

Question: When is a home owner not really a home owner? Answer: When they are a leaseholder.

Leaseholders have the responsibilities of being an owner without having all of the rights. They own the bricks and mortar* of the homes they are living in – but only for the length of their lease – and they do not own the land it is built on.

They pay a mortgage but they also pay ground rent to the freeholder and a service charge for maintenance carried out by companies over whom they may have no control. They may see themselves as owners but in the eyes of the law they are tenants.

The issue has come to a head recently with the scandal of developers selling leasehold new houses and then selling on the freehold for a profit. Unwitting buyers have found themselves facing bills for ground rent that double every 10 years and an escalating bill for buying the freehold.

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Watching the benefit cap

Originally posted on April 6 on my blog for Inside Housing.

What did see when you watched last night’s Panorama on the benefit cap?

Most people reading this here will, I think, have seen the impact of an arbitrary policy that leaves thousands of people with 50p a week towards their rent.

But outside my timeline on Twitter the view was very different. Roughly 95 per cent of tweets with the hashtag #benefitcap were hostile, but to the people featured in the programme rather than the policy.

There is nothing new in this divide of course – exactly the same thing happened with Benefits Street and How to Get a Council House and a Dispatches documentary on the cap last month– but this was an hour on BBC One on primetime.

Part of the problem lay with the way that Panorama framed the issue. This was clear in the first two minutes.

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LHA: a reverse supermarket sweep

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

It’s easy to forget now but the original idea behind the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) was that it would give tenants an incentive to ‘shop around’ for a cheaper rent.

Rather than get their actual rent paid, tenants would get an allowance based on the median rent for the area and if they found somewhere cheaper they could keep what they saved. In effect they could be rewarded for shopping at Lidl’s rather than Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s.

The ‘shopping incentive’ was a key feature of a new system that was designed to be fairer and more transparent than the one it replaced. The (then Labour) government said it would give tenants more choice and a greater sense of personal responsibility, administration would be easier and there would be reduced barriers to work.

Fears about the impact of moving to direct payment to tenants were allayed in local pilot schemes and for a time it seemed like the new system really was working as intended.

Nine years on and that early optimism has disappeared along with the original idea. Labour restricted the shopping incentive to £15 a week in 2009 and the coalition eventually removed it completely in 2010.

And that was just the start of a series of cuts in the allowance justified by constant references to a handful of very large claims in London, inferring that some tenants were choosing to shop at Harrods and Harvey Nicholls.

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