A not so humble address

Originally a column for Inside Housing.

Affordable and safe housing for all’. Who could argue with that?

Pretty much everyone, funnily enough, because this was the title of the housing part of the House of Commons debate on the humble address following the Queen’s Speech.

Catching up with last week’s debate, two things struck me really powerfully: first, just how much politics has been turned on its head; and second just how riddled with contradictions the government’s position on housing really is.

In the post-Brexit and (hopefully) post-Covid world, the more that the blanks in the empty slogan of levelling up are filled up, the clearer the first becomes.

That is most evident in the debate on the Planning Bill, with the government seemingly set on over-riding clear objections from backbench Tories in the south on the back of votes from their new MPs in the north.

Though my bet is still on a compromise that protects Tory seats in the South East, in theory the government has the votes elsewhere to back up the fighting talk of housing secretary Robert Jenrick.

He had a good line about Labour being ‘tough on homes, tough on the causes of homes’ – a reference to the new politics of planning – but does that talk really add up? Here are some quotes from the rest of the debate that suggest not.

‘The property-owning democracy is one of the foundations of this country—the belief that home ownership should be achievable for all who dream of it, and that young people, irrespective of where they are born, should be able to own the keys to their own home.’

This routine Tory rhetoric has never really been true but what kind of property-owning democracy is it when at least 5.5 million people, including the housing secretary himself, have more than one vote?

‘For too many, this uniquely British dream has proved to be out of reach, and we face a generational divide between those who own property and those who do not’

Uniquely British? In a European Super league of home ownership rates, Britain would be flirting with relegation.

‘Last year alone, more homes were delivered— 244,000—than in any year in my lifetime. Were it not for the pandemic, more would have been delivered than at any time since Harold Macmillan stood at this Dispatch Box as Housing Secretary.’

If that’s true, why bother with the Planning Bill at all? In 1954, Macmillan’s final year as housing minister, 293,000 homes were completed in England.

They were very different times but 193,000 of those were council houses. The Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, which has a Conservative majority, said last year that 90,000 social rent homes a year are needed to meet the government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year.

But other Jenrick policies such as First Homes and the Right to Shared Ownership directly threaten funding arrangements for new social housing.

‘We have brought forward the biggest affordable homes programme for at least 10 years—£12 billion, a very substantial sum. At the moment, there is no sign that the market is even capable of building more homes than that. If it can, I will be the first person to be knocking on the door of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor asking for more money so that we can build more affordable homes of all types’

This was perhaps the most revealing comment by the housing secretary. I assume by ‘the market’ he means housing associations and local authorities and that they lack the capacity to build more.

If there is anyone out there who would like to dispute that, here is an open door to bid for more cash in the next spending review – and Robert Jenrick will apparently be first in the queue.

‘Since 2010, we have delivered over half a million new affordable homes, including 365,000 affordable homes for rent, many of which—148,000—are going to social rent.’

Even taken at face value, that is not much of a boast over ten years – on an annual basis that’s about a sixth of what the HCLG committee says is required.

But this is the same boast made by successive Tory housing ministers since 2010 and, as they all know, most of those social rent homes were funded by the last Labour government’s National Affordable Housing Programme. The years between 2012 and 2020 saw a net loss of 210,000 social rent homes.

‘My Department has a unique opportunity to achieve transformational change that will improve the lives of millions of people. We will be working on the most substantive reform of leasehold, property rights, building safety, renters’ rights and planning in a generation.’

All this is good news but with some caveats. Leasehold reform is on the way but there are still big challenges for existing leaseholders, renters’ rights will be reformed ‘in due course’ and the change in building safety seems more provisional than transformational.

‘We are also backing a fairer deal for the millions of renters. To that end, we will publish our consultation response on proposals to abolish section 21 no-fault evictions and improve security for tenants in the private rented sector, while strengthening possession grounds for landlords when they need that for valid reasons.’

The government first promised to abolish Section 21 in April 2019 but the real battle over details such as those strengthened possession grounds for landlords has not yet started. Generation Rent published its ideas yesterday.

‘It feels especially poignant to be introducing the Building Safety Bill so close to the fourth anniversary of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower.’

Poignant? The Bill does make long-overdue improvements to the building safety regime but I can think of other adjectives to describe the fact that it’s taken four years to get to this stage.

‘As Members are aware, leaseholders in high-rise, high-risk building over 18 metres will pay nothing, with their costs being paid either by developers, insurers or warranty providers, or by the taxpayer through our £5 billion Government fund—the largest ever Government investment in building safety, and five times the size of the building safety fund set out in the Labour party’s 2019 manifesto.’

This seems a point well made but the Labour manifesto’s fund was actually designed to fit sprinklers and other fire safety measures in social housing blocks.

As MP after MP pointed out, the government has resisted all attempts to protect leaseholders from fire safety costs and only offered partial solutions to problems that the all-party HCLG committee says will cost £15 billion to fix.  Meanwhile the larger EWS1 problem is still unresolved.

Robert Jenrick is not the first housing secretary or minister to ramp up the rhetoric to distract attention from the gaping holes in his policies and he will certainly not be the last.

How about ‘affordable and safe housing for all’?  



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