More housing questions than answers

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on December 11. 

As Westminster grinds to a halt over Brexit at least some progress is still being made on housing – or is it?

In the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, some things have undoubtedly moved but the signs at Housing Communities and Local Government questions on Monday were that others are grinding to a halt.

First up was the land question and specifically the way that MHCLG dashed hopes of radical reform of land value capture in its response to a Housing Communities and Local Government Committee report recommending big changes to a system that sees planning permission for housing increase the value of agricultural land by 100 times.

Why would the government not go further, asked committee chair Clive Betts, when support for a change to the Land Compensation Act 1961 was coming from across the political spectrum?

Housing secretary James Brokenshire said it was ‘worth bearing in mind’ that section 106 and the community infrastructure levy already capture £6 bn of value. (Worth it, yes, but what about the remaining profit of £13 bn a year that goes to landowners?).

The government is ‘reflecting’ on Sir Oliver Letwin’s recommendations, which do not go far enough for reformers but are too much for housebuilders and landowners, so it will be interesting to see the response in the New Year.

But his answer to a question from Tory MP Scott Mann about value capture for sites not already earmarked for development did not inspire confidence. It was all about getting more homes, said Brokenshire, and ‘the best way to do that is through local plans’.

That set up his Labour shadow John Healey to draw an explicit parallel with the wider chaos at Westminster to claim that ‘this is a government who delay and duck the big decisions on housing, because they are too dysfunctional and too divided, just as they are on Brexit’.

For all Brokenshire’s protestations about the government’s policies being ‘not about the many, not about the few; they are for everyone’ it was hard to disagree.

The same sense of attention focussed elsewhere came as MPs pressed ministers about the response to Grenfell. Brokenshire hailed ‘progress’ on getting families from the Tower and Walk rehoused but Labour’s Sarah Jones said that 18 months after the fire a quarter of them are still in temporary accommodation.

She also pressed him on sprinklers, which are required in new tall buildings but have only been fitted in 4% of council blocks in London. ‘The Government have brushed away every single request for help as non-essential,’ she said. ‘Why do the Government continue to stigmatise and discriminate against social housing tenants?’

The housing secretary referred back to green paper proposals to tackle stigma but resorted to the standard and non-committal form of words about sprinklers used by ministers over the last 18 months: ‘if local councils require flexibilities to be able to assist with that, we will certainly consider that fairly’.

However, it was not just Labour calling for action on fire safety as two senior Conservative backbenchers pressed him for action on cladding and who pays for its replacement.

While the government has moved to ban combustible cladding on new buildings, Bob Blackman said 543 buildings were being built or refurbished with combustibles and ‘worse still, 1,338 buildings have combustible cladding’. What was the minister doing to enforce the ban and ensure that leaseholders do not pay?

The response from Brokenshire was more standard stuff but he stopped well short of claiming that the government’s recent move to back local authorities in enforcement action on private blocks with combustible cladding will ensure this:

‘I have made it clear that building owners are responsible for the safety of their buildings and they should protect leaseholders from costs. Local authorities have our full support to take enforcement action to make buildings safe, and it is our priority to ensure that people are safe and secure in their homes.’

Bob Neill put his finger on the problem. While the government has given local authorities the power to carry out emergency cladding replacement work and charge the owners, ‘many owners are able to claim against the leaseholders for the costs under the terms of their leases, and that anomaly defeats the government’s policy’.

Brokenshire said he would meet him to discuss this and added none too convincingly that: ‘Many people are meeting those costs, but where that is not happening, I shall also be happy to challenge those concerned and make the point clear.’

The same sense of doubt surrounds the wider issue of leasehold reform, with Brokenshire promising a consultation response ‘in due course’. Asked by Labour’s Justin Madders why he had met developers and freeholders but not the National Leasehold Campaign, he said ‘I look forward to engaging with leaseholders and everyone across the sector to see that reform happens’.

The government would not hold the inquiry into leasehold mis-selling backed by Labour because ‘having a review…is about deferring things’.

However, there was also a reminder that concerns about leasehold are not just about greedy housebuilders. Labour’s Seema Malhotra raised the case of A2 Dominion presenting leaseholders in her Feltham and Heston constituency who were presented with water bills of £900 per flat payable within 90 days ‘with the only explanation being that it had not read the water meter for two years’. Brokenshire called this ‘especially appalling’.

And one final reminder of government (in)action came when Conservative MP Laurence Robertson asked about carbon neutral homes. ‘At a time when the Government are urging more house building and looking at climate change as well, would it not be a good time to change building regulations so that all houses are self-sufficient in electricity?’

Older readers may remember a time when the government was planning to do exactly that with a bold plan to make all new homes zero carbon by 2016.

After that was watered down and abandoned, this one, said Kit Malthouse, is planning a consultation in the spring on ‘an uplift to the energy efficiency requirements for new homes’ but only ‘where there are safe, practical, cost-effective and affordable opportunities to do so’.

This year is drawing to a close with the government due to respond to several other key consultations on housing, including longer tenancies in the private rented sector(and even hints in a debate last week that reform of section 21is under consideration) and the sweeping package of good intentions in the social housing green paper.

Next year could therefore see action could improve the lives of millions of tenants – or just the appearance of it. Has this government got the energy left for anything other than Brexit?

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