‘A striking and complete disconnect’

Originally posted as a blog for Inside Housing on May 22.

Not much in today’s report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty will surprise anyone who has worked in housing over the last decade.

The coruscating criticism of universal credit, the benefit cap, the benefits freeze, the under-occupation penalty and all the other welfare ‘reforms’ seen since 2010 arrives at a time when we have almost become immured to their impact on tenants in general and lone parents and disabled people in particular.

And it was only last week that the latest Homelessness Monitor from Crisis showed the effect of all that on the wider housing system, giving social landlords an incentive not to rent to the poorest people and driving them into a private rented sector in which housing benefit no longer covers their rent.

Yet the final report from Professor Philip Alston is still a shocking reminder of dire consequences that he says are ‘obvious to anyone who opens their eyes’ and of a government response that hovers between hostility, indifference and complacency.

Part of this is due to the Special Rapporteur’s vivid turn of phrase about what he calls ‘the systematic immiseration of millions’. Some choice examples include:

  • ‘Much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.’
  • ‘The driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering – a dramatic restructuring of the relationship between people and the State.’
  • ‘The British welfare state is gradually disappearing behind a webpage and an algorithm, with significant implications for those living in poverty.’
  • ‘It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens.’

But what really struck me reading this final report was how completely he skewers the government’s response to criticism.

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What will a new PM mean for housing?

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

What are the chances that the government’s shift to a more pragmatic position on housing will survive a change of Conservative leader?

The papers are already full of news and polls about the leadership race before Theresa May has even resigned, mostly reporting Boris Johnson as the overwhelming favourite but also noting the poor record of overwhelming favourites in previous Tory elections.

The stakes for housing start with the record of May’s government. While much of it is about rhetoric and saying the right things, especially since Grenfell, there is also some substance: the first funding for social housing since 2010; u-turns on key elements of the 2016 Housing Act; reforms to private renting culminating in the consultation on ending Section 21; and a willingness to consider new thinking on issues like land.

Does all of this represent a permanent shift in Conservative thinking on housing or will the Tories revert to type once May and her chief of staff, former housing minister Gavin Barwell, have vacated Downing Street?

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Making a housebuilding splash

Originally posted on insidehousing.co.uk on May 14.

The entry into the UK market of an overseas company that last year built almost as many homes as Barratt, Taylor Wimpey and Persimmon combined is by any standards a big deal.

That’s even before you add what looks like a major step forward for modular building in the UK and one of the most eye-catching individual investments yet by the self-styled disruptors at Homes England.

The £90m deal involves Sekisui House, the biggest housebuilder in Japan, taking a 35% equity stake in Urban Splash’s modular House business. The Manchester-based developer will retain 60% with Noel McKee, one of its existing investors and founder of We Buy Any Car, taking what’s described as an incremental 5% stake

Homes England will take a 5% stake worth just over £3m in the company and will also be providing a £27m loan from its £4.5bn Home Building Fund.

Sekisui House built almost 44,000 new homes last year, almost 5% of all those built in Japan, where new build numbers and demolitions alike are much higher than in the UK.

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The devolution dynamic in housing policy

Originally published on May 9 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Devolution to Scotland and Wales is 20 years old this week and amid the celebrations it’s worth taking a moment to consider its significance for housing.

Since May 1999, when the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly met for the first time, devolution has evolved at a different pace in each country and the Barnett formula has given Holyrood more resources than Cardiff Bay.

Politically, the Scottish Parliament was run by Labour with Lib Dem support for its first eight years before the SNP won power in 2007 and then an overall majority in 2011 and the No vote in the independence referendum. The Welsh Assembly has been run by Labour for the last 20 years, though it has needed the support of either the Lib Dems or Plaid Cymru along the way.

However, it was the election of a Conservative-led coalition government at Westminster in 2010 that led to a new phase for the devolved administrations.

For a while, all they had to do to be progressive on housing was nothing – refusing to follow the English swing away from social rent and towards the market created a clear divide.

Both have still had to cope with the impacts of austerity and benefit cuts largely imposed from London, although Scotland has used its extra resources to mitigate the bedroom tax and has been able to make some tweaks to universal credit.

In the areas that they can control, the devolved administrations have tended to devise policy in partnership with the sector, as exemplified by the ambitious target for affordable and social homes in Scotland and the independent review of affordable housing supply published in Wales last week.

But it is in legislation that a really distinctive approach to housing has emerged and it is one that I’d argue has created a new dynamic in housing policy across the wider UK too. Read the rest of this entry »


The housing trilemma

Originally posted on May 1 on my blog for Inside Housing

The pace of change in housing seems to accelerate every year, especially in the last decade.

There may be better known conferences than the one organised by the Housing Studies Association but there are few if any give you a better opportunity to try to make sense of it all.

Held in Sheffield last month, the theme of this year’s conference was Home Struggles: Politics, Marginality and Resistance in the Contest for Housing. This was a title designed to cover everything from the financialisation and homelessness we are familiar with in Britain to the more informal struggles associated with the Global South.

The conference brings together the growing number of academics working on housing issues from this country and overseas but housing professionals and tenants were there too in the audience and with papers of their own.

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