Tories out on a limb at housing hustings

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

The most illuminating answer in Wednesday night’s housing hustings came with the final question.

Politicians at the event organised by a coalition of different housing organisations were asked: ‘How much of your income do you think it’s reasonable and right to spend on housing?’

They were asked for a quickfire answer to an affordability question that covers lots of complicated issues. What counts as income and what as housing costs? Do you include housing benefit? Do you account for differences in incomes and tenures?

The standard answer is a maximum of a third – and that was the one given by John Healey for Labour, Sian Berry for the Greens and Tom Brake (who said 30%) for the Lib Dems.

But Luke Hall, junior housing minister in the last Conservative government, went first and went out on a limb with 50%.

That was a sign perhaps of his inexperience (an MP since 2015 but only a minister since July) but it also seems to speak to the big difference between the Conservatives and the other parties on housing.

No wonder the Tories have spent the last decade routinely conflating the figures for affordable and social housing while boasting about the former and building next to none of the latter.

And no wonder they can claim that affordable rents of up to 80 per cent of market rents really are affordable.

But how much it’s reasonable to spend, and how affordable your housing is, is also a reflection of how much you earn.

Those with higher incomes may choose to spend a greater proportion of them to get the sort of home they want but those on low incomes may have no choice and on average spend a far greater proportion of them on their rent.

What’s reasonable also depends on whether you are talking about a mortgage, where costs may start high but will reduce over time, or a rent that will carry on going up.

At lower incomes it also depends, crucially, on how much support you get from housing benefit and local housing allowance (LHA) – and all the cuts of the last decade have ensured that they cover an ever smaller proportion of the rent.

On that, at least, Luke Hall had a bit of good news as he confirmed that the Conservatives would end the LHA freeze in particular as opposed to the end to the benefit freeze in general promised in their manifesto.

He also confirmed the new Tory target of ending rough sleeping by 2024 – three years earlier than before.

Otherwise he seemed to have little new to offer and also appeared to confirm that the Tories have downgraded their ambitions on new homes to ‘at least a million in the next parliament’, an annual rate 20% below that achieved last year and 50% below their previous ambition of 300,000 a year by the mid-2020s.

John Healey made the case for Labour having the best programme – if we could get to 150000 council houses a year within three years of the end of the war, we can certainly to it by the end of a five-year parliament, he said.

In answer to the first question from a woman living in temporary accommodation in London, he pointed out that if the coalition and Conservative governments had maintained the social rent programme at the level of 2010 (when he was housing minister) there would now be 180,000 more genuinely affordable homes – enough to house all the families currently in temporary accommodation as well as tackling rough sleeping and wider homelessness.

Tom Brake made the case for the Liberal Democrat target of 100,000 social rent homes a year as being financially deliverable – and he also referenced the Resolution Foundation’s verdict that the party has the most progressive policies on benefits.

Sian Berry hailed the Greens’ role in shifting the housing agenda of the other parties, not least on regeneration in London, and made a passionate case for an alternative, community-led approach to development.

She also highlighted the disparity between the £100bn a year the Greens would spend on retrofitting existing homes with Labour’s £40bn, the Lib Dems’ £10bn and what seemed to be nothing from the Tories

Luke Hall did his best without much to work with and the fact that the Conservatives had sent a much more junior representative than the other parties underlined the fact that they see few votes in housing.

In answer to an architect’s question about what the parties would do to tackle fire safety, he was reduced to repeating the familiar soundbites about £600m of support for ACM removal.

John Healey said this was only ‘the tip of the iceberg’ and highlighted the ACM blocks still to be tackled, the other forms of combustible cladding still to be addressed and the legislation that had still not been passed. He repeated Labour’s manifesto promise of a £1bn fire safety fund.

You can watch the full debate below to get more on the politicians’ answers to all of the questions above and much more besides.

The hustings showed why the one housing question in mainstream Question Time events never gets answered properly – it’s all too easy for the politicians to avoid being pinned down – but even in 90 minutes there were some important subjects like renters’ rights that did not get covered.

Full credit should go to the organisers both for the event itself and for streaming it to a wider audience on the internet.



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