10 things about 2019 – part one

Originally posted on December 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.

It was the year of interminable votes on Brexit, two prime ministers and finally a decisive election victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

It was also the year that the housing crisis continued to intensify and the year that previous fixes were exposed for the sticking plasters that they really were.

Here is the first of a two-part look back at what I was blogging about in 2019.

1) The politics of housing

Regime change at Downing Street brought a new housing minister heavily implicated in welfare ‘reform’, a renewed focus on home ownership and what I called ‘a great leap backwards’ at the Conservative conference.

At the December election 15 per cent of voters told Ipsos MORI that housing was one of the most important issues for them – down from 22 per cent in 2018 as Brexit and the NHS dominated but three times more than in 2010.

And yet the politics of housing did not seem to matter much as the Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won a big majority away from the big city seats where Generation Rent, homelessness and the cladding scandal had seemed to offer fertile ground for Labour and the Lib Dems.

It was a year that ended with a decisive victory for the leader that promised Brexit and crushing defeat for the parties whose policies might just have fixed the housing crisis.

The bigger question was how far The People’s Government will diverge from Theresa May’s focus on housing and renter issues. The December Queen’s Speech confirmed some continuity, but the Tory manifesto offered few clues and far more emphasis on home ownership seems a given.

2) The return of home ownership

Not that it ever really went away of course, as billions of pounds worth of financial instruments poured into Help to Buy, but 2019 was a year of two halves for home ownership.

In June, even as Theresa May was telling the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) conference that she had moved away from concentrating ‘solely on boosting home ownership’ with action to help private and social renters, the contest to replace her was already underway.

As Boris Johnson prepared to take office, Conservative think tanks were sensing the moment. Onward called for a £3.3 bn cut in stamp duty on main homes while, in a pamphlet for the ‘Institute’ of Economic Affairs, Jacob Rees-Mogg demanded an end to ‘socialist’ interference in the housing market.

In August, chancellor Sajid Javid was forced to deny reports that he planned to make sellers rather than buyers pay stamp duty in his first Budget – one that, thanks to Brexit, has still not properly happened.

The first big announcement from new housing secretary Robert Jenrick  was a plan to allow shared owners to buy an extra 1% at a time but he hinted at more radical things to come with a call for discounted homes to be sold at a discount to local buyers.

By late September and the Tory conference, his rhetoric had escalated to a pronouncement that ‘the property-owning democracy is a perpetual goal for which our party strives’ and that first announcement had become a ‘right to shared ownership’ threatening financial damage to landlords but offering dubious benefits to tenants.

The second duly become a manifesto commitment to a scheme offering First Homes at a 30 per cent discount to local buyers, with the discount financed by developers’ affordable housing contributions and remaining in perpetuity for the next buyer.

The ambitions were more modest than for Starter Homes but it will not take much to beat the number built under David Cameron’s original big idea: zero.

3) Rights for renters

Perhaps the most dramatic housing announcement of 2019 came in April as the government pledged to end Section 21 no-fault evictions in the private rented sector.

A consultation that had originally proposed three-year tenancies was surprising enough in itself – reflecting a wider shift to renter rights – but this outcome was a stunning victory for campaigners and another example of the devolution dynamic in UK housing policy.

Big questions about whether the Johnson government would follow through were mostly answered in the Conservative manifesto and a December Queen’s Speech promising a Renters Reform Bill including both the end of Section 21 and a new ‘lifetime’ deposit.

However, one of the big questions for 2020 will be the balance between these pro-renter reforms and simultaneous pledges to give landlords more rights to gain possession and make it easier to get their property back through the courts. And what about rent increases?

In the social rented sector, big landlords continued to turn away from the use of fixed-term tenancies.

However, the abolition of Section 21 will also have major implications for those that make extensive use of assured shorthold tenancies.

And the year brought them a warning from Berlin of what can happen when public and political opinion turns against you.

The December Queen’s Speech promised a social housing white paper that would ‘provide greater redress, better regulation and improve the quality of social housing’.

However, it remained to be seen if it would follow through on the green paper’s policy u-turn mandatory fixed-term tenancies for new council tenants.

And there were still huge questions about the extent of the government’s commitment to giving tenants a real say in the process.

4) 100 years of council housing

It was the year that marked the centenary of perhaps the most significant legislation in the history of housing –  the Housing Act of 1919 that created council housing as we know it.

Named after the Liberal health minister Christopher Addison, the Act was designed to deliver on Lloyd George’s promise of homes ‘fit for heroes’ after the First World War and it gave local authorities the responsibility for assessing housing needs in their area and the resources to address them.

I blogged in January about the 1919 centenary and plans to celebrate it around the country and in July about the sense of betrayal felt by Addison himself about the cuts that destroyed his plans just two years later.

After 100 years of ups and downs, council housing is currently undergoing a revival along with social housing more generally. The year also saw publication of the report of the all-party Social Housing Commission convened by Shelter that called for 150,000 social homes  a year..

The rise of new ways of measuring the value of public investment, which influenced Labour’s John McDonnell, was in stark contrast to the way that years of focussing narrowly on value for money had created the environment that led to the miserable failure on public land and Treasury suspicion of local authorities.

The attitude of the new government remained uncertain after a Conservative manifesto containing a pledge merely to ‘renew’ the affordable homes programme.

And advocates of affordable housing were left open mouthed when junior housing minister Luke Hall told a hustings that he thought it was reasonable to spend 50 per cent of your income on housing costs.

5) Running to catch up on fire safety

Two and a half years on from Grenfell and the clock is still ticking on the government’s response.

November brought Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s phase one report and criticism of the London Fire Brigade strong enough to prompt the commissioner to step down on December 31.

The report found that the cladding was ‘the primary cause of fire spread’ and underlined the questions facing all those who were involved in the refurbishment of the tower and who were responsible for the fire safety regulations in phase two.

Away from the inquiry, though, the wider cladding and fire safety crisis was escalating faster than the government’s inadequate response.

A year in politics dominated by Brexit began with the then housing minister facing severe criticism over the government’s pleas to private building owners to ‘do the right thing’.

It ended – eventually – with a Fire Safety Bill promised in the Queen’s Speech to implement recommendations made by the Hackitt review 18 months ago and counting.

In the meantime, a succession of fires involving cladding highlighted that the risks were not confined to buildings above the 18m threshold for the ban on combustible materials.

In June a huge blaze at a block of flats in Barking prompted angry MPs to warn that ‘it is only a matter of time before one of these fires is not put out’.

By November work to remove Grenfell-style cladding had not even started on up to 200 blocks and there are thousands around the country with other types of dangerous cladding.

As insurers and lenders reacted to government advice, the owners of around 500,000 flats found that they could not sell or remortgage them.

For all the warm words from ministers, the message from the UK Cladding Action Group was that: ‘The government refuses to engage with us and seem set on repeating the mistakes of the past. Fire does not distinguish between different types of dangerous cladding.’

Part two of my review of the year follows soon. 


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