10 things about 2019 – part two

Originally published on December 27 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The second part of my look back at 2019 runs from welfare homelessness to decarbonisation via housebuilding and permitted development.

5) ‘The systematic immiseration of millions’

The election result means that universal credit, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax and all the other welfare ‘reforms’ of the last decade are set to continue into the 2020s.

Chancellor Sajid Javid told us in the September spending round that austerity is over but the only hard evidence of this was an extra £40m for discretionary housing payments and previous cuts are still baked in to the system.

The election had delayed a full spending review until 2020 but better news came in November as the Conservative manifesto confirmed an end to the four-year freeze in most working age benefits, including the local housing allowance.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the government will restore the broken link with rents. It’s also worth noting that Esther McVey, the self-styled architect of Blue Collar Conservatism, called for part of housing benefit to be diverted into Help to Buy during her brief tilt at the Tory leadership.

I blogged about the deeper impacts on the housing system in a post from the Housing Studies Association conference in May that highlighted research on the ‘housing trilemma’ facing social landlords between their social mission, business imperatives and the impacts on tenants.

And the same month brought a damning external review from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty that warned of ‘the systematic immiseration of millions’.

Professor Philip Alston noted ‘a striking and complete disconnect’ between the picture painted by ministers and what he had heard and seen from people across the UK.

As for the chief architect of it all, the year finished with the decade summed up in four words: Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

7) When temporary becomes permanent

Away from Brexit, the year began with ministers questioned about what they were doing to reduce the appalling death toll among homeless people. The 597 deaths recorded in England and Wales in 2017 was an increase of 24 per cent in five years.

As housing secretary James Brokenshire reeled off his script about £100m for rough sleeping and £1.2bn for homelessness prevention, his Labour shadow John Healey told him that ‘we cannot stop homeless people dying if we do not understand the reasons why it is getting worse’.

In April, the UK Housing Review shone a light on some of the systemic issues involved as it revealed that the two fastest-growing forms of housing over the last decade have been temporary accommodation for homeless families and holiday lets via sites like Airbnb. It was tempting to join the dots between these two forms of short-term letting.

As ‘temporary’ accommodation became institutionalised into permanence, the Children’s Commissioner for England published an excoriating report on the use of shipping containers that are ‘blisteringly hot in the summer and freezing in the winter months’ and rooms in converted office blocks that were barely bigger than a parking space.

And all that came at an escalating cost. The Local Government Association said that the cost of keeping families in bed and breakfast had risen 780 per cent in a decade, while London Councils estimated the cost of the new homelessness prevention duty at almost five times higher than central government funding.

8) Shrinking homes to fit

The rise of temporary accommodation in converted office blocks was just one of the issues raised by the government’s relaxation of planning rules under permitted development.

Support for micro homes as a solution to the housing crisis came from the Adam Smith ‘Institute’ in January calling for local authorities to reverse their opposition. I blogged about how shrinking homes to fit was more likely to mean substandard conditions for tenants and fat profits for developers.

February brought a timely reminder of why space standards were introduced in the first place in a radio documentary on Parker Morris and Homes for Today and Tomorrow.

There were conflicting signals on permitted development in the Spring Statement, with the announcement of a review of ‘the quality of homes delivered’ under the reformed system matched by proposals for more relaxations on upwards extensions and the demolition and replacement of existing buildings.

One striking feature of Theresa May’s valedictory speech to the CIH conference in June was her call for national space standards to be made mandatory. ’I am no fan of regulation for the sake of regulation,’ she said. ‘But I cannot defend a system in which some owners and tenants are forced to accept tiny homes with inadequate storage.

As she acknowledged though, ‘it will be up to my successor in Downing Street to deal with this’.

Boris Johnson used to attack developers for building ‘hobbit houses’ when he was London mayor. What will the planning white paper say with him as prime minister?

9) Ambitions downgraded on new homes

One of the best bits of housing news of the year came with figures released in November showing that 241,000 new homes were provided in England in 2018/19.

True, this was on the government’s preferred measure of net additional dwellings and it includes some converted office blocks, but 214,000 of them were new build completions. This is the first time that output has exceeded the target of 240, 000 that the Barker report in 2004 argued was needed to restrict house price inflation.

Updated for increased population and unmet housing need, that had become a government target of 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s.

The National Audit Office (NAO) concluded in February that this would be ‘challenging to meet’, but the achievement of 241,000 showed that it was not out of the question and the target also helped to underpin the government’s commitment to homes of all tenures.

By the end of the year, though, Boris Johnson’s new government was starting to downgrade its ambitions.

The Conservative manifesto referred to both the new target and the previous one of ‘a million homes over the next parliament’ – 20 per cent less per year than last year – and the December Queen’s Speech dropped any mention of 300,000.

Help to Buy plus wider deregulation continued to underpin the drive for new homes even as evidence mounted of  the profits, dividends and bonuses it generated for housebuilders (prompting a critical internal review from Persimmon in December) and mounting scandals over leasehold and the quality of new build homes.

In September the Public Accounts Committee questioned wider aspects of the scheme such as the failure to exclude developers who sought to cut their contributions to affordable housing.

2019 also saw perhaps the most significant development yet in Homes England’s mission to disrupt the industry as it took a stake in a joint venture in modular construction between Urban Splash and Japan’s biggest housebuilder.

By September, new housing minister Esther McVey was enthusing about all things modular – but revealing her own ignorance – as she told the Conservative conference that ‘we have this new way of doing it, 3D architects, 3D visionaries, doing it on computer’.

10) Homes fit for the future

The final point in my review of 2019 covers a theme that I believe will become one of the dominant issues of the next decade: decarbonisation.

In February, the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s independent advisor, warned that ‘UK homes are not fit for the future’.

While the end of gas boilers made the headlines, the committee also warned of stalling energy efficiency improvements to existing homes and a worrying performance gap between the design of new homes and how they are actually built.

The first hint of changes to come came in the Spring Statement with the announcement of a consultation on a Future Homes Standard to apply from 2025 (a mere nine years after all new homes in England were originally meant to be zero carbon).

In June Theresa May committed the UK government to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

And, hidden in the small print of the Conservative manifesto in November, was significant new funding for a Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund and Homes Upgrade Grants.

A major report on decarbonisation published in Wales in August had shown the scale of what is required – but also the potential benefits for communities and the chance for social landlords to lead the way.

As Welsh Government accepted the recommendations in September it seemed part of a much bigger shift on climate change. Is the new Westminster government on board?

Read Part One of my review of the year here.


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