10 things about 2017: part two

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 27.

This second part of my look back at the year in housing starts with the return of the S word and asks how much has really changed. Part one is here.

6) The year of social housing?

The Grenfell fire intensified a debate about the future of social housing that was already underway.

Under David Cameron and George Osborne, the government had relentlessly boosted the right to buy and pursue ‘affordable’ rather than the social housing they saw as a breeding ground for Labour voters.

The year began with an announcement of first wave of part of their legacy, the starter homes that critics warned would displace other affordable homes.

However, the tide was turning against that type of politics. Away from Westminster, protests about estate regeneration (and loss of social housing) had spawned Dispossession, a documentary shown in cinemas across the country.

But the impact was evident inside the village too. When Theresa May called a snap election her manifesto featured plans for ‘a new generation of social housing’. The reality has never quite matched the rhetoric but to hear a Conservative prime minister mention the S word was a change in itself.

The election backfired for the prime minister, who lost her majority, and for the pragmatic housing minister Gavin Barwell, who was among those to lose his seat. However, he quickly replaced Nick Timothy as her chief of staff and housing remained high on the political agenda.

Within a week of the election, everything changed with Grenfell. The new minister, Alok Sharma, has been consulting tenants ahead of a social housing green paper next year.

May used her party conference speech in October to dedicate her premiership to fixing housing and promised not just an extra £2 billion for affordable housing but also to allow bids for social homes within that.

‘Extra’ in this context turned out to be money reallocated from starter homes and other programmes but this in itself was a sign of how some things had changed. But not all: the conference also saw another £10 bn committed to Help to Buy.

Away from England it was a different story, as other UK nations abolished the right to buy and continued to build social housing.

7) Grounds for hope

The return of the S word was not the only positive political sign. The Conservative manifesto had also featured commitments on homelessness and rough sleeping and some surprisingly radical ideas on land reform.

The prospect of enhanced compulsory purchase powers for local authorities and land value capture measures owed much to Nick Timothy’s worship of Joseph Chamberlain but they also reflected a climate in which land had come back on to the agenda for the first time in years.

Appropriately enough, 2017 marked the 50th birthday of the last new town, Milton Keynes.

The best housing book of the year explained why land is at the heart of the housing crises and why some of the ideas behind the new towns might be needed again.

The best radio programme of the year made the links between new towns and the 20th century history of social housing.

8) The limits of hope

The run-up to the Autumn Budget was even more fevered than normal as investment bankers, right-wing think tanks and Conservative MPs called for something big on housing. Communities secretary Sajid Javid went public with a call for a £50 billion plan to build homes for rent to buy.

When the day came, Philip Hammond and the Treasury made a series of much smaller announcements that added up to rather less than the big number highlighted. He made limited concessions on universal credit and the LHA freeze and the Budget centrepiece reached back to the Osborne playbook with the abolition of stamp duty for first-time buyers.

Other parts of the 2010-2016 legacy remain on the table, but only just: the extension of the right to buy to housing association tenants will be piloted and the year ended with confirmation that the forced levy on council sales will not apply to 2018/19. What happens after that remains to be seen.

But all of that was put into perspective in November by the shocking news of the death of Welsh housing minister Carl Sargeant. A passionate champion of social housing and tackling homelessness and an effective minister who delivered more legislation than anyone else in the Welsh Government, he will be missed by everyone across the sector.

9) The state of housing

In March the English Housing Survey featured a continued decline in home ownership, some limited hope for Generation Rent, a continued housing cost squeeze on people on low incomes and the usual reminder that it is home owners rather than social tenants who have all the spare rooms.

Whether it’s owner-occupation, private renting or social housing, the housing system is not working for too many people.

One major reason for that was revealed in the UK Housing Review in September. Despite the change of tone and some extra money, public support for housing remains fundamentally titled in favour of the private market.

10) Looking to the long term

And so 2017 comes to an end with some grounds for hope but few real signs yet that our deep-seated housing problems will be tackled and that our housing crises will not continue to get worse.

Are we really prepared to face up to the challenge of housing an ageing population? Or the long-term consequences of falling home ownership? Or rising poverty and falling social mobility?

Much more immediately, and looming over everything, are the questions about Grenfell Tower that still need answers.


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