Prospects for real change go backwards

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on June 21.

A scaled down Queen’s Speech with a dressed down monarch still left some room for housing but this is a humbled government with limited ambitions.

Left rudderless by the loss of its majority and the departure of key personnel from Downing Street, this is a legislative programme dominated by Brexit but with the dark shadow of Grenfell Tower looming over it.

There is room for a Draft Bill to end letting agent fees to private tenants and lots of warm words about the Housing White Paper but this is a very different Queen’s Speech to the one that seemed likely before the night of June 8 and the events of June 14.

Why a Draft Tenants’ Fees Bill? Yes, the government is still considering responses to a consultation paper before the election but that implies it might not become law in a parliamentary session that will last two years.

The background briefing on the Queen’s Speech also makes clear that this is about ‘tackling unfair [my emphasis] tenant fees’, which could imply that there will still be ‘fair’ fees.

Landlords and agents would be banned ‘from requiring tenants to make any payments as a condition of their tenancy with the exception of the rent, a capped refundable security deposit, a capped refundable holding deposit and tenant default fees’.

That sounds like it covers most things but could there still be a loophole for payments that are not a condition of their tenancy and could tenants be charged for the insurance policies that landlords take out against them defaulting on their rent.

The Draft Bill would enforce the ban with provision for tenants to be able to recover unlawfully charged fees.

And it would ‘cap holding deposits at no more than one week’s rent and security deposits at no more than one month’s rent’.

Subject to those caveats, the Draft Bill is a little bit of good news for private renters, who swung decisively to Labour at the last election according to several different polls.

Fees averaged £223 per tenancy in the 2014/15 English Housing Survey and had increased by 60% in the previous four years. The government also quotes evidence that one in seven tenants pay more than £500.

Elsewhere in a legislative programe dominated by Brexit are a Draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill and a Financial Guidance and Claims Bill that will clamp down on claims management companies.

However, the speech also includes non-legislative measures, with the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire top of the list. Commitments on this include:

  • Residents and families or the deceased will be consulted on the terms of reference and will get funding for legal representation
  • The judge chairing the inquiry will determine who to call to give evidence on oath and the call for papers and their interim findings will provide a basis for action
  • People who lost their homes will be rehoused as soon as possible and the government will aim to do this within three weeks of the fire
  • The government will guarantee that people will be rehoused ‘as close as practically possible’ to where they lived before, close to schools and GPs, and within Kensington & Chelsea or a neighbouring borough.
  • ‘We will be assessing the position on Building Regulations, recognising the need to take account of public inquiry interim findings and conclusions’.

That last one in particular begs the obvious question about what the government has been doing up to now but it has at least begun to act on rehousing people.

Sajid Javid announced earlier that 68 flats in the nearby Kensington Row have been acquired as ‘permanent new homes to rehouse residents from Grenfell Tower’ with construction accelerated.

According to The Standard, the homes were bought by the City of London Corporation and presented to Kensington & Chelsea in a deal brokered by the Homes and Communities Agency.

What we don’t know is whether these were part of, or are additional to, the original affordable housing element of the development, and on what sort of tenancies and rents they will be let.

And will they be exempt from legislation on the forced sale of council houses when they fall vacant – since they will surely count as ‘high-value’?

The Queen’s Speech also says that proposals will be brought forward to help ensure more homes are built.

What’s very noticeable though is that the proposals are all about the Housing White Paper and that the more radical proposals in the ill-fated Conservative manifesto are missing (equally, there is no mention of flagship 2015 pledges on extending the Right to Buy and forced sales).

There are warm words about releasing land and getting homes built quicker and there is a renewed commitment to a consultation of greater transparency and fairness for leaseholders, especially on new developments.

However, there is no mention of several things that were in the manifesto: the target of 1.5m new homes by 2022; the new generation of ‘social’ [sic] housing; reform of compulsory purchase orders; and working with the public and private sectors on land value capture.

Maybe some of this is just coincidence but the background briefing to the speech mentions all the evidence quoted in the manifesto about the shortfall of new homes but without the target.

Above all, perhaps, there is a blank space where the pledge to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it by 2027 should be.

Given that all three main parties had something like this in their manifestos and so could be expected to vote in favour of measures needed, this is a surprising omission to say the least.

Perhaps this just says that Brexit will inevitably dominate everything for the next two years but perhaps it also reflects the departure of key advisors from No 10 since the election.

They include not just Nick Timothy, the joint chief of staff, but also the head of the Downing Street policy unit, John Godfrey, and most of his team.

That means the end of most of the backroom team with a connection to the manifesto but it could also dilute scope for new thinking on housing: Timothy was inspired by the municipalist radicalism of Joseph Chamberlain while Godfrey was previously at Legal & General and heavily involved in its innovative work on housing.

Even two years ago it would have been impossible to imagine a Conservative government proposing to ban letting agent fees in a Queen’s Speech.

Two weeks ago the horrors of Grenfell Tower were unimaginable to everyone except those who warned that a fatal tower block fire was inevitable sooner or later.

For the moment it feels as though the prospects for real change on housing have gone backwards but the need for it is bigger than any Queen’s Speech or government.

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