‘Stay alert’ proves to be good advice

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on May 14.

So it turns out that the change in prime ministerial messaging was more finely tuned than we thought.

When Boris Johnson told us to ‘stay alert’ rather than ‘stay at home’ in his broadcast on Sunday, the sense was of a change of emphasis that signalled a slow release from the lockdown in England.

Most immediately that seemed to mean builders returning to work on construction sites on Monday, which it then turned out meant Wednesday.

By Wednesday, with only a few hours’ notice, the government was reopening the housing market in England with profound implications for anyone buying, selling or renting a home.

In a country in which we are still prevented from visiting our elderly parents or friends there was detailed guidance for any number of strangers working in other people’s homes.

In a sales market caught on the hop, we will now start to find out the impact of the crisis on prices as buyers decide whether to go ahead with deals they agreed before March 23, lenders decide whether to revise their mortgage offers and developers find out whether they can sell stock they can now work till 9pm to complete.

The sense in housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s statement to parliament on Wednesday was of a government desperate to restart a key part of the economy, as home sales feed into construction and all the other industries that follow in its wake.

In the private lettings market, the decision will be good news for all those who want to move but the secretary of state had nothing new to offer to reassure all those worried about losing their homes when the evictions cliff edge arrives at the end of June.

For social landlords, the opening up means all kinds of decisions about who can return to work, what work can safely be done inside tenants’ homes and how to reconcile Wednesday’s decision within other guidance, in addition to much of the above.

Worryingly, one element of the drive to restart construction sites will see small and medium sized allowed to defer their Community Infrastructure Levy and Section 106 contributions, though Jenrick said ‘that does not mean that there will be an impact on social infrastructure or affordable homes in the longer term’

Much of the detail of what can and cannot safely be done in day-to-day operations still seems to be in the realm of ‘seeking urgent clarity’.

For homelessness organisations, it will add even more urgency to the drive to find permanent accommodation for former rough sleepers before hotel rooms and other temporary refuges start to disappear.

For what it’s worth, this seems to be high up the Tory priority list. At prime minister’s questions on Wednesday, Boris Johnson said:

‘We will be investing considerable sums to make sure that we build the housing and address the social issues to tackle that problem for good.’

But lurking not so far in the background, as unemployment and rent arrears start to mount, is the need to prepare for a potential new wave of homelessness in the Summer and Autumn.

This at a time when the councils that will need to play a leading role in the work fear they will have to make 20 per cent budget cuts as ministers’ promises to reimburse their costs turn out to be less than watertight.

For all the progress so far – getting 90 per cent of rough sleepers off the streets and into safe accommodation and restoring the Local Housing Allowance to the 30th percentile are steps that would have seemed astonishing only two months ago – questions about the future are only growing louder.

The Housing Communities and Local Government Committee heard evidence on Monday of about the pressures that are already building within the system.

London boroughs have placed 3,600 rough sleepers in safe accommodation since the crisis but saw 2,634 homeless presentations last week and London Councils estimates that there are still 500 rough sleepers on the streets at any one time.

And there are stark predictions of what could happen when the three-month ban on evictions comes to an end on June 26: Citizens Advice estimates that 2.6m renters have  already either missed or expect to meet a rent payment while Shelter estimates that 1.7m renters may become unemployed by the end of July.

So what comes next? Robert Jenrick told the committee last week that the government is looking to extend a pre-action protocol in possession proceedings to the private rented sector and appealed to landlords to ‘act in good faith’.

But he knows that any protocol will be operating on an environment of Section 21 no-fault evictions and Ground 8 possession proceedings on rent arrears that give judges no discretion to take the current circumstances into account.

He has the option to extend the evictions moratorium by three months but said that the decision will ‘very much depend on the medical advice we are receiving on the passage of the virus and the lockdown measures that may or may not be in place at that time’.

Wednesday’s re-opening of the housing market is a significant relaxation of the lockdown so a cynical view might be that it will allow landlords time to find new tenants to replace those they are about to evict.

In the debate that followed his statement, Jenrick was asked about the evictions issue by Labour’s shadow housing secretary Thangam Debbonaire.

He first emphasised the positive element of the reopening:

‘Every month, 300,000 tenancies come up for renewal. Many of those individuals need or want to move house. Today will enable them to do just that and to do it safely, which is the most important consideration.’

He added that he has the option to extend the evictions moratorium and ‘we will be taking that decision very carefully’ while work continued on the pre-action protocol ‘to ensure that that provides an added degree of protection for those individuals’.

Labour’s plan to give renters two years to pay off arrears would mean ‘their credit rating would be shredded and they would be in a very difficult financial position’, he argued.

He concluded: ‘We are developing a much more credible plan to protect renters and to help shield them through this crisis.’

But the secretary of state revealed no more details about his ‘much more credible plan’ in the rest of the debate.

Challenged by Labour’s Clive Betts to explore a Spanish scheme of low-interest loans to tenants to allow them to pay their rent, he said merely that ‘we will think very carefully’ about what to do.

As the clock ticks down to the end of June, this is just one of the many issues confronting ministers over the short, medium and long term that will play out in an infinite number of different ways for everyone involved in housing.

Stay alert.


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