Housing in the Queen’s Speech

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It certainly looks like Her Majesty’s Government is doing something on housing – but is that the limit of the ambitions expressed in the Queen’s Speech?

As ever, background briefing notes provide more detail than the speech delivered this year by the future King.

Two promised headline Bills fulfil commitments to reform private renting and the regulation of social housing but both are long overdue.

A third pointedly does not include plans announced in the 2021 Queen’s Speech to reform the planning system to deliver more homes.

And there are vague promises of further ‘housing reform’ but no specifics or commitments to legislation to back them up.

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The Housing Question

If you follow my blog here, you might be interested in my new newsletter published on Substack.

The Housing Question is a newsletter about housing, but not just housing… politics, social policy, economics, history and anything else that helps makes sense of how we got here.

I’ll still be posting blogs here but mainly as an archive of articles I’ve published elsewhere. The Housing Question will explore issues in more depth, with more of a sideways look and with a bit more context and evolve over time.

You can read the first issue of The Housing Question here and more about the thinking behind it here. If you’d like to subscribe (it’s free for now) go here.


Two symbolic results in the politics of housing

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

The overall results may be more mixed but the Conservative loss of its flagship councils Wandsworth and Westminster could hardly be more symbolic in terms of the politics of housing.

Westminster has been Conservative-controlled since its creation in 1964 while Wandsworth has been run by the Tories since 1978.

Both were retained by the party at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s unpopularity in 1990 and throughout the Blair and Brown Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 but not anymore.

Together with Barnet, which also went Labour for the first time, they represent a sea change in politics in London, as former housing minister Lord Barwell noted in a tweet this morning:

That gives some idea of the resonance of the results for the Conservatives, but Wandsworth and Westminster are possibly even more significant in the history of the politics of housing.

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An encore all over again for Right to Buy

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It is the idea that is so superficially attractive that Conservatives cannot help forgetting all the other times it proved to be hopelessly impractical.

In a story helpfully briefed to the Telegraph a few days before the local elections, Boris Johnson is planning to ‘bring back Right to Buy’.

The prime minister has reportedly ordered officials to draw up plans to give the Right to Buy to housing association tenants ‘in a major shake-up inspired by Margaret Thatcher’.

Coming just over a week after levelling up secretary Michael Gove appealed to ‘Thatcher worshipping’ Tories to want more homes for social rent, the timing does not look like a total coincidence.

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Can Gove put the social back in ‘affordable’?

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Michael Gove’s challenge to ‘Thatcher-worshipping’ Tories to want more social rented housing feels like another significant milestone in the Conservative journey on the issue but the final destination remains unclear.

Speaking at a conference organised by Shelter, the levelling up secretary said he was exploring ways to increase support for social rent and change rules that restrict funding for it outside of the most unaffordable parts of the country.

He also admitted that previous Tory policies have ‘tilted more towards a particular set of products that are not truly affordable and have not enabled housing associations and others to generate the housing at the social rent that they need’.

The speech followed a report in the Sunday Telegraph that he is set to scrap the Section 106 of planning contributions and replace it with an infrastructure fund that will pave the way for a ‘council housing explosion’.

John Rentoul in The Independent sees all this, plus his success in bullying developers into paying up for building safety, as evidence that Gove will be a strong contender in the undeclared 2022 Conservative leadership contest.

At the same time, Telegraph columnist Liam Halligan, another speaker at the Shelter conference, argues that ‘council housing should be central to the Conservative brand’ and that the party should shift subsidies from benefits to bricks. 

Now keen-eyed readers may spot the odd example of cognitive dissonance in this reversal of 40 years of Conservative orthodoxy.

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A link restored for now

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

We routinely talk about the relationship between health and housing but have we forgotten just how close it once was?

That was the intriguing question posed by Al Story, professor of inclusion health at University College London, in the final session of this year’s Housing Studies Association conference.

As he traced how the relationship between public health, homelessness and housing developed from the 19th century to the present day, he outlined a sometimes surprising history with a striking contemporary relevance in the wake of Covid-19.

It’s a story that starts with the 19th century Vagrancy Act (now finally scheduled for repeal) but also the gradual realisation of the links between overcrowding, poor housing, contaminated water and disease.

A system of workhouses, poor law infirmaries and shelters developed with features such as the penny sit-up (a bench with no sleeping allowed), two penny hangover (a rope to lean on) and four penny coffin (a coffin-shaped box to sleep in).

Although the workhouse model was finally abolished in 1930, much of the concept and many of the buildings still survive: communal casual wards became modern day night shelters and cellular casual wards became hostels.

Public health concerns drove increased help for homeless people. Workhouse infirmaries were responsible for half of all deaths from TB but these were significantly reduced by segregation of consumptives even before treatments were available.

The contemporary relevance of all this is not just that homeless people still have the highest rates of TB even in the 21st century but also that the disease is spread via aerosol transmission – the same as with Covid-19.

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MPs call for reform of private renting

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing

This is shaping up to be a significant year for the regulation of rented housing, with the Social Housing Regulation Bill set to be followed by a white paper on the private rented sector.

While there are still clear differences between the two sectors, there are also similarities in terms of landlords who are unaccountable and tenants who lack a say. In a hybrid world, social housing has become more business focussed and private renting has become by default home to many of those in the greatest housing need.

Yet while the government’s stance on the regulation of social housing has come into focus – the details remain to be seen but creating a national tenant forum and giving the regulator a consumer focus look like a reversal of the light-touch regulation introduced after 2010 – regulation of private renting consists of ‘piecemeal legislative changes’ and the government lacks the data even to evaluate their impact.

That’s the verdict of MPs on the all-party Public Accounts Committee in a report published today [Wednesday] on the regulation of a sector that has doubled in size in the last 20 years and is now home to 11 million people.

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How we got from there to here

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Where next for affordable housing funding? That’s one of the key questions posed in this year’s edition of the UK Housing Review.

The essential guide to the key issues and statistics in housing is celebrating its 30th anniversary and complements its usual analysis of contemporary trends with a long view of how we’ve got from 1992 to here.

One of the strengths of the review has always been the way it considers policy on housing in the round, not just in terms of all tenures but also in the way that the housing system relates to broader policy.

If only that were true of how governments think about housing. A point made powerfully by Mark Stephens in his opening chapter on 30 years of housing policy in the UK is that this has only really happened twice in the last five decades and not at all since 2005.

As usual, readers will find plenty of food for thought in chapters on social housing, private renting, home ownership, homelessness and support for housing costs plus the usual comprehensive array of housing statistics.

But my eye was drawn to the chapter on affordable housing supply and the challenges ahead by John Perry and Peter Williams.

Another strength of the Review is the way that it draws together ever more divergent policy in the four nations of the UK.

On affordable housing as a whole England lags well behind Scotland and Northern Ireland and has competed with Wales for last place in terms of delivery by population size.

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A statement of lack of intent from Sunak

Rishi Sunak was always going to have to tackle the cost of living crisis in his Spring Statement and the big questions were how and who would benefit.

Faced with a choice between measures that would benefit the well-off, those on middle incomes and the least well-off, the chancellor did a bit for the first and second groups but more or less ignored the third.

He chose to increase the threshold for National Insurance at a cost of around £25bn over the next five years and followed that up with a 1p cut in the standard rate of income tax at a cost of more than £17bn over the three years from just before the next election in 2024 – though his previous decisions to freeze the tax thresholds and increase NI rates mean these tax ‘cuts’ were really tax rises.

Of the three new measures that he billed as ‘helping families with the cost of living’, the temporary 5p cut in fuel duty (£2.4bn next year) and cut in VAT on energy efficiency materials (£280m over the next five years) are good news if you can afford a car or improvements to your home but not much use otherwise.

The £500m increase in the Household Support Fund in 2022/23 will enable local authorities to help the most vulnerable households with the cost of essentials but it is a drop in the ocean compared to his action (or lack of it) on benefits in general.

The car wasn’t his and the fuel duty cut is not much use if you can’t afford a car

To put this in perspective, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that average real disposable incomes will fall by 2.2 per cent next year, the most since records began.

However, the squeeze on benefits will be much greater than that.

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Mind the gaps on building safety

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Who is guilty, who is innocent and who is merely collateral damage? The answers, when it comes to building safety, are not as simple as it first seems.

Guilt in a legal sense remains to be seen but just about everyone involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower seems to bear some responsibility, starting with the governments that set the building regulations and reaching down via organisations involved in product testing and certification and building control to the companies that supplied the cladding and insulation, the contractor, designers, subcontractors and client. 

All of the above plus developers are seen as ‘guilty’ when it comes to the wider building safety crisis while leaseholders are the innocent parties that the government has finally accepted should be protected from the costs.

And yet scratch a little deeper in the debates over the Building Safety Bill and the new approach initiated by Michael Gove and the dividing line between innocent and guilty is not remotely as clear cut as that.

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