A massive relief to social landlords and tenants, but what now?

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 26.

So finally even the prime minister accepts that plans to impose a local housing allowance (LHA) cap on supported and social housing are unworkable.

Theresa May’s announcement at prime minister’s questions that the cap will not be implemented represents a massive u-turn that will be an equally massive relief to social landlords and tenants.

Statements from a succession of different ministers over the last few weeks had signalled the move for supported housing in the face of overwhelming evidence of postponed investment and knock-on costs for the health and social care sectors.

The decision to scrap it for social housing too was more of a surprise, though it may have been influenced by the difficulty of distinguishing social from supported homes.

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Are things moving at last on housing?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on October 23.

Two of the many things about housing that have been obvious since 2010 could be set to change at last.

First, at a time when interest rates are at a record low, it makes sense to borrow to invest in homes and the infrastructure for them.

Sajid Javid committed this heresy against austerity when he told the Marr Show on Sunday that: ‘Investing for the future, taking advantage of record low interest rates, can be the right thing if done sensibly.’

Second, private housebuilders will build homes only as fast as they can sell them, so if we want more homes the state needs to intervene.

As I’ve argued many times before, it makes financial sense even for a government committed to austerity to commission homes directly, rent them at first and then sell them to recoup the money.

Ministers have taken tentative steps towards this position in the last few Budgets but according to a report in The Sunday Times a giant leap towards it is under consideration for November 22.

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Starting with the evidence

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 20. 

Almost everyone agrees there is a housing crisis, that the housing market is broken and dysfunctional and that urgent action is required – but why and what exactly should be done about it?

For most of the last seven years, the answers to these questions seem to been scribbled on the back of a fag packet at Policy Exchange or emerged fully-formed from the brilliant mind of Iain Duncan Smith.

Any idea of evidence-based policy disappeared after 2010, with evaluations of policy published only reluctantly and ignored when their conclusions are inconvenient.

That has begun to change under Theresa May, who became prime minister with a reputation for taking her time over decisions and insisting on looking at the evidence for herself before she took them.

With the Conservatives apparently prepared to consider some ideas that were previously off limits, and even to fund social rent once again, the political consensus about the need to do something about housing is growing.

So the timing could hardly be better for a new initiative dedicated to supplying the evidence to help diagnose the problems with the housing system and come up with solutions.

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The turn of the screw

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on October 13.

As universal credit understandably took all the headlines, the scale of the threat posed by restrictions on the local housing allowance (LHA) has come into even sharper focus.

The mood music this week suggested that ministers are set to make concessions over their plans to apply LHA caps to supported housing but the rest of social housing is still right in the firing line.

In a packed Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday and at the Communities and Local Government committee, ministers gave strong hints of flexibility to come.

The debate was called by Tory MP Peter Aldous, who called on the government to give ‘full sand serious consideration’ to recommendations made by two select committees for a supported housing allowance rather than LHA plus local top-ups.

Communities minister Marcus Jones said:

‘This matter is a priority for the Government, and we will announce the next steps shortly—later this autumn. I believe that when those proposals are introduced, they will show that we have listened and have understood the important issues at hand and the important situation. What is at stake is helping and supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.’

It remains to be seen exactly how much ministers have listened and understood about a system that would create a postcode lottery and has already halted development plans.

But at stake too is the government’s attempt to impose a flawed system originally designed to reflect private rents to control a very different combination of rent and care costs in supported and social housing.

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May dedicates her premiership to fixing housing

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 4.

You wait a lifetime for a prime minister to make housing their priority and then she gets her P45 while losing her voice with the conference set falling apart behind her.

With all that happening around her it was easy to ignore the substance of Theresa May’s speech.

You may have missed it between coughs but for the first time since the 1950s here was a prime minister promising to put housing at the heart of their premiership.

And here was a Conservative prime minister not just promising an extra £2bn for ‘affordable’ housing but even allowing bids for social rent too.

But as the letters slowly dropped off the conference slogan about ‘BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE’ you wondered how long she will have a premiership to put anything at the heart of.

And even then it is hard to avoid drawing the obvious conclusions from the comparison between an extra £2bn for affordable housing and an extra £10bn for Help to Buy.

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The political heat on association executive pay is off – for now

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 2.

For the first time since I can remember average housing association chief executive pay has fallen in real terms.

After years of spurious justifications for bumper pay rises and bonuses that alone is enough to make this year’s Inside Housing salary survey worthy of note.

Beyond that, though, the arguments for and against high pay and the legacy of past increases remain largely the same as in any other year.

No, it’s impossible to defend one pay package of almost £600,000, four more of over £300,000 and another four of over £250,000 at a time when tenants face austerity, the bedroom tax and universal credit.

And, no, boards should not be pretending that they are only paying what the market demands when that market rate is set mostly by housing associations themselves.

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