The decade in housing

Originally published in Inside Housing on January 10.

It was a decade of four elections, four prime ministers and three referenda. It began in the midst of a Global Financial Crisis and ended with the political crisis of Brexit. It was scarred by the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

All but 15 of the 520 weeks in the 2010s had a Conservative prime minister but four different governments brought four different approaches. David Cameron was all about cuts in coalition followed by radical (but mostly failed) marketising reforms once he had elbowed Nick Clegg aside. Theresa May brought a profound change in rhetoric and some significant changes of substance. Boris Johnson shifted the emphasis back to home ownership.

Here is the decade summed up in 10 headings:

1) Fire safety

Any review of the decade in housing has to start with the 72 lives lost at Grenfell Tower in June 2017. Even before the start of the second phase of the inquiry, it seems clear that the system failed on just about every conceivable level amid what one expert witness called a ‘culture of non-compliance’.

With hindsight for most, though foresight for some, it is clear that fire safety should have been top of the agenda long before 2017. The Lakanal House coroner’s recommendations made in 2013 were not acted on and warnings from other major fires at home and overseas were ignored.

The immediate trauma for Grenfell families and survivors was followed by a broader crisis. There are still more than 300 buildings with the same sort of cladding as Grenfell and thousands more with material that may be just as combustible. With residents in fear in homes that are currently worthless, the sense was of a government running to catch up in its response – and failing miserably so far.

2) Social housing

The spending review in 2010 was seen by many people as the start of the slow death of social housing. Investment was cut by two-thirds and funding diverted from new homes for social rent into a new affordable rent programme at up to 80 per cent of market rents. Landlords were encouraged to convert tenancies of existing social rent homes to affordable rent as they fell vacant.

The majority Conservative government elected in 2015 seemed set to administer the coup de grace with a manifesto promising to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants, sell off the most valuable council homes and introduce fixed-term tenancies and higher rents.

And yet much of that 2015 agenda dissolved as it confronted the practicalities of funding the right to buy discounts and the implications of forcing tenants into more insecure and expensive homes. In the wake of the Brexit vote, a change of prime minister and Grenfell the government restored some funding to social housing and abolished the borrowing cap for council housing.

3) Housebuilding

Across all parties targets of first 200,000, then 250,000 and finally 300,000 new homes a year were seen as the key to moderating house price inflation and making homes more affordable. There was even talk of radical land reform.

The results were certainly impressive on one level. There were 241,000 net additional dwellings in 2018/19, almost double the level of six years ago.

Still more so for housebuilders. Fuelled by billions of pounds worth of subsidies from Help to Buy and cuts in red tape, profits, dividends and executive bonuses soared.

And with success came more caveats. That lost red tape included allowing developers to evade contributions to affordable housing to convert offices into tiny flats via permitted development. The rise in new build was accompanied by leasehold scandal as housebuilders used freeholds and ground rents as a source of more profits.

The decade ended with a Conservative manifesto that seemed to downgrade the government’s ambitions to a million new homes over the next five years – an annual rate 20 per cent lower than last year.

4) Benefit cuts

The 2010 spending review introduced the first in a wave of welfare ‘reforms’. For private renters  that meant restrictions on the Local Housing Allowance from 2011. For social tenants it started with what became known as the bedroom tax in 2013.

For both it meant an overall benefit cap and cuts and then a four-year freeze in most working age benefits. Above all, it meant universal credit, the radical reform that Iain Duncan Smith insisted would make the poor better off in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

For social landlords, it meant engaging with their tenants to stop those cuts turning into rent arrears. It also raised new moral dilemmas about access to tenancies and evictions.

While some planned cuts were withdrawn, the overall impact of the 2010s was to break the link between benefits and rents. And, despite repeated proclamations of ‘an end to austerity’, the effects will continue to be felt long into the 2020s as the roll-out of universal credit continues.

5) Homelessness

Benefit cuts translated directly into big increases in homelessness.

The number of families in temporary accommodation in England rose from 50,000 to 85,000 over the decade, with disproportionate increases in bed and breakfast and out-of-area placements.

Rough sleeping returned to towns and cities all over the country. On the official count, the numbers rose 164 per cent between 2010 and 2018 to 4,677 on a single night.

In 2018, the Office for National Statistics estimated that there were 726 deaths of homeless people, an increase of 51 per cent in the six years it had collected the statistics.

Political responses included the abolition of priority need in Scotland a new system of homeless prevention in Wales. England introduced a Homelessness Reduction Act with all-party support but also warnings of inadequate funding.

6) Devolution

Responses to homelessness showed different approaches in the different UK nations. In social housing, Scotland and Wales abolished the right to buy. In the private rented sector, Wales introduced registration and licensing for landlords and Scotland open-ended tenancies and the first steps towards controls on rent increases.

The decade began with ‘localism’ the watchword in England but only extending to areas carefully prescribed by central government. However, funding for affordable housing was handed over to the London mayor and a devolution deal followed for Greater Manchester.

7) Tenure

The slow death of social housing was accompanied by a continuing decline in home that became headline news in the 2010s. By 2018 total ownership had fallen from a peak of 71 per cent to just 63 per cent and the decline in mortgaged ownership was even steeper, reflecting a halving in ownership rates among the under-35s.

By contrast the private rented sector boomed to overtake social housing in 2012 and become home to 20 per cent of households by 2017.

Politicians became alarmed about the long-term costs of housing benefit for retiree renters and the shorter-term electoral impact of Generation Rent. From 2015, the government began to cut tax reliefs for private landlords. By the end of the decade, the government was consulting on the previously unthinkable end of no-fault evictions.

8) Housing associations

The talk early in the coalition government was of ‘a decade of sector-led solutions’ as austerity and welfare reform forced landlords to go it alone.

One response to that was a wave of consolidation among housing associations that reached a peak with the mega-merger between Circle and Affinity Sutton (themselves the products of several previous mergers) to form Clarion in 2016 with 125,000 homes across 170 local authorities.

Merger mania cooled off a bit after that and there are still many landlords who look much the same as in 2010. However, the sense was still of a sector moving in two different directions. One way pointed to ever closer union, with larger landlords exploiting the benefits of economies of scale and greater borrowing capacity to build more new homes. The other pointed to the importance of retaining a local focus.

The decade also saw significant reforms to regulation in response to the reclassification of associations as public sector and then back to private sector, the creation of Homes England and a separate Regulator of Social Housing and more changes on the agenda.

9) Tenants

Ministerial rhetoric about ‘strivers and scroungers’ was matched by media hostility towards benefit claimants and social housing and its residents. TV programmes like Benefits Street played on the stereotypes.

However, the decade was also marked by the rise of grassroots campaigns. Estate residents resisted regeneration. Social housing professionals started SHOUT. Benefit to Society (now See the Person) called for an end to social housing stereotypes. Private tenants formed Generation Rent to lobby for their interests. Grenfell United became a powerful voice calling not just for justice for relatives and survivors but dignity and respect for all social tenants.

The decade began with the housing minister abolishing the Tenant Services Authority and restricting regulation of landlords to governance and financial viability. It ended action promised to implement fine words on consumer regulation  in the social housing green paper.

10) Salience

The widespread perception of a housing crisis affecting groups across society made housing more politically important. In 2010 just 5 per cent of people told Ipsos MORI that housing was one of the most important issues for them. In 2019 it was 15 per cent.

However, that was down from a peak of 22 per cent in early 2018, and Brexit and the NHS dominated the index on the eve of the election. If the decade ends with housing seemingly set to be downgraded under a new Conservative government returning to a traditional Tory focus on home ownership. The in-tray for the new housing secretary, though, is piled high with files marked urgent.

TIMELINE OF KEY EVENTS

2010

Conservative form coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Deep cuts in capital investment in housing cut and in housing benefit and plans for new universal credit.

2011

First round of cuts to Local Housing Allowance

2012

Self-financing introduced for council housing in England and Wales

2013

Start of bedroom tax and overall benefit cap

Help to Buy introduced

2014

Launch of Generation Rent and Social Housing Under Threat (SHOUT) and local campaigns against estate regeneration proliferate

2015

Conservatives win overall majority on manifesto promising the extension of right to buy to housing association tenants and sale of high-value council houses. Spending review includes four-year benefits freeze

2016

Theresa May takes over as prime minister after the vote for Brexit promising ‘a country that works for everyone’

2017

72 people die in Grenfell Tower fire

2018

Housing in the title of a full member of the Cabinet for first time since 1970 as Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government formed. Homes England established with a separate Regulator of Social Housing

Cap on council housing borrowing scrapped

Green paper promises ‘a new deal for social housing’

2019

Boris Johnson takes over as prime minister and wins December election. Signals point to shift of focus back to home ownership



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