The housing-shaped hole at the heart of the Queen’s Speech

Originally posted on October 15 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Granted, the Queen’s Speech was more pre-election political broadcast than genuine legislative programme for the year to come but it still sends some worrying signals about  where the government’s priorities lie.

Given Boris Johnson’s Commons majority of -45, Her Majesty’s utterances could be voted down for the first time since 1924 and even if the government somehow stumbles through its own desire for an election only the most uncontroversial bits of it are likely to make any progress.

it’s still good news that the Queen’s Speech proposes building safety standards legislation that would implement the Hackitt review by establishing a new safety framework for high-rise residential buildings.

Although, as Jeremy Corbyn pointed out in his response, progress on blocks with Grenfell-style cladding has been so slow that ‘not a single private block has been made safe under this prime minister’.

While the details of the new system will be debated, few would doubt the central purpose of developing a new system to oversee the whole built environment or the principles of clearer accountability for building owners, designers and constructors, a stronger voice for residents in the system, stronger enforcement and sanctions and a clearer framework for national oversight of construction products.

And if many will doubt that a New Homes Ombudsman will be enough to bring developers into line, the fact that the proposal is tacked on to the new Bill means it can still be improved.

However, with one other small exception, housing was otherwise entirely missing from the Queen’s Speech.

That absence was felt not just in a lack of action on housing and homelessness in general but also in missing specific measures that had been anticipated across different parts of the housing system.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick tweeted this about the legislation that has been promised to ensure that new houses cannot be sold as leasehold and require ground rents to be set to zero.

I could just as easily say that I remain committed to tidying my desk but that does not mean it is going to happen any time soon.

The government is proposing legislation to force developers to install fast broadband in new developments but when will it finally deliver the leasehold reform it’s promised for new homes – let alone deliver retrospective help for existing owners with onerous leases?

It’s a similar story for private renters, with no mention of plans to end Section 21 that have just been out to consultation.

A Draft Bill at the very least would have addressed the suspicion that the Johnson government has gone cool on a plan advanced by the May lot.

As Generation Rent tweeted in response:

Finally, what of the new deal promised in the housing green paper to restore fairness, dignity and respect to social housing tenants?

The green paper was finally published in August 2018 but more than a year and another housing minister later and, to widespread frustration, the government has still not published its response or a white paper.

In her speech to Housing 2019 in June, Theresa May promised an action plan for implementing it in September. It’s now mid-October.

One big test of the whole thing will be whether the government sticks to warm words about empowering tenants or legislates to make it happen.

The green paper proposed measures that would require legislation to do exactly that: new powers for the Regulator of Social Housing on consumer regulation; and reform of the ‘democratic filter’ stage in complaints to the Housing Ombudsman.

Many have argued that this does not go remotely far enough, with calls for a specialist consumer/tenant regulator and a new accountability framework backed by law.

Maybe it’s still too early to expect a detailed plan but there was not even a tweet from Mr Jenrick that he ‘remains committed’ and it’s now 28 months since Grenfell.

Remember too that the green paper promised to repeal provisions in the Housing and Planning Act effectively forcing councils to sell off their higher-value homes  ‘when parliamentary time allows’. Until then they remain on the statute book ready to be activated.

Given the chances of any of it actually happening, the Queen’s Speech offered a cost-free chance for the government to signal that it is serious about tackling the housing crises.

Maybe specific proposals on all of the issues I’ve identified will emerge in the next few weeks with plans for implementation attached.

Leasehold reform and new deals for private and social renters all raise complex issues so perhaps you could make a case on any one of them that they require more consideration before legislation.

The absence of a Bill, or at the very least a Draft Bill, on any of them sends a very different message.


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