April arrives with some rare good news

Originally published on March 29 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve written a blog at this time every year with the headline ‘April is the cruellest month’.

It’s not that I have a TS Eliot fixation nor (I hope) that I endlessly repeat myself but because ever since 2010 the start of the financial year seems to have meant yet another benefit cut or housing policy change to cope with.

This year is a bit different not so much because there is no bad news but because there is some good news as well. Here are some examples:

  • The u-turn on the withdrawal of support for housing costs for 18-21 year olds under universal credit announced on Thursday. This was a cumbersome policy that required significant exemptions and barely saved any money but it’s still a significant change to the original pledge to make young people ‘earn or learn’.
  • The Homelessness Reduction Act passed in 2017 applies from April 3. The legislation should be a big step forward in ensuring that more people get help earlier but despite a recent announcement on funding there are still well-founded concerns about whether councils have the money to implement it.
  • Claimants already getting housing benefit who move on to universal credit will from April be paid an additional two weeks of housing benefit. That may not be much consolation for the (in theory) five-week wait for their first universal credit but the payment (worth an average of £233) should ease the transition a bit –and it is not recoverable.
  • It will be unlawful for landlords to give new tenancies on the least energy efficient property from April 1 – all rented property will have to qualify for at least an Energy Performance Certificate rating of E so (in theory) tenants will no longer be stuck paying high heating bills for the worst F and G property.
  • More measures introduced against rogue landlords in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 come into force, including powers for councils to issue banning orders against the worst offenders and implementation of a database of landlords and letting agents convicted of some offences.

Bear in mind too that it’s not so long ago that I would have been writing about plans to apply a Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap to social and supported housing from…April 2018.

For all that good news, though, the suspicion remains that it will at best mitigate the impact of policies already implemented and still in the pipeline.

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What – and who – is social housing for?

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

I’ve lost count of the number of inquiries taking place into the future of social housing.

Sajid Javid wanted his forthcoming green paper to ‘kick off a nationwide conversation’ only to see Alok Sharma reshuffled in the middle of hearing what tenants had to say.

But the conversation is at least taking place. Whether it’s Labour, the Chartered Institute of Housing, Shelter or similar initiatives in the devolved nations, everyone is set to have their say.

The content will range far and wide from governance to safety, quality to quantity and accountability to tenants’ rights but there are also basic questions to be answered about what and who social housing is for.

Some vital context for this comes in the latest edition of the UK Housing Review published on Wednesday.

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Where the money really goes in housing

Three comparisons leap out from the latest edition of the indispensable UK Housing Review published on Wednesday.

The first two are not new in themselves and the third is only a crude estimate but all three need repeating again and again for a real appreciation of where spending on housing goes and exactly who is subsidising who.

First comes the main one highlighted by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH): the shift from bricks and mortar to personal subsidies, or from grants for new homes and repairs to old ones to housing benefit.

This series of pie charts from the Review shows the change over the last 40 years and the total amount of housing subsidies in real terms:

Chapters tables charts 2018

Note first that supply subsidies have sunk to just 4.3 per cent of the total pie – this despite all the cuts in housing benefit seen since 2010 and the fact that the figures to not include continuing tax reliefs for home owners (see below for more on that).

Second, note that this does not save money. Total subsidies are now 48 per cent higher in real terms than at the turn of the century (when admittedly social housing investment was very low) but they are also approaching the levels of 30 years ago (when investment was significantly higher and the unemployment rate was three times what it is now).

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Will Letwin be worth the wait?

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

So, with unintentional irony, the inquiry into why it takes so long to get new homes built is itself taking longer than expected.

For all the advance speculation and ministerial statements in the last few days, the Letwin Review of build-out rates was not published alongside today’s Spring Statement.

Instead the former Conservative Cabinet minister published a four-page letter offering housing secretary Sajid Javid an interim update on the work of the inquiry focusing on what is happening on large sites operated by large housebuilders.

A ‘draft analysis’ will follow by the end of June offering a description of the problem and its causes but final recommendations will only be made in time for the Budget in November.

In truth, expectations that Letwin would be able to offer instant solutions within a few months were always likely to be dashed – not that this stopped ministers from pre-emoting it with warnings to housebuilders to ‘do their duty’ in the planning announcements last week.

Perhaps significantly, the draft update has only one mention of the supposedly crucial issue of ‘land banks’, the nefarious practice by which housebuilders allegedly hoard land with planning permission until they can make the most money.

However, Letwin rejects most of their usual excuses too – everything from shortages of labour, materials and capital to problems with transport infrastructure, utility connections and constrained logistics on site.

He argues instead that the ‘fundamental driver of build out rates once detailed planning permission is granted for large sites appears to be the “absorption rate”.’

This is ‘the rate at which newly constructed homes can be sold into (or are believed to be sold successfully into) the local market without materially disturbing the market price’.

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Steps in the right direction that don’t go far enough

Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing on March 5.

Theresa May is a politician with a gift for saying the right things but somehow in the wrong way.

I’m thinking here not just of the obvious examples such as the ‘nothing had changed during the election campaign’ and the collapsing lettering of ‘Building a Britain that Works for Everyone’ during her Conservative conference speech last year. She does it even when she is most in control of what she is saying.

She did it in her first speech as prime minister when she dedicated herself to tackling ‘burning injustices’ but only succeeded in drawing attention to the fact they were the legacy of the previous six years of Conservative rule.

She did it on Friday when her big speech on Brexit rightly pointed out that ‘we can’t have everything’ only to prompt a German journalist to ask ‘is it all worth it?’.

And she did it again in her speech on Monday launching the new version of the National Planning Policy Framework.

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