How short-term lets have hollowed out the rental market

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It’s the end of summer and the tourists are going home but the housing problems they leave behind are here to stay.

This time last year I write about the momentum behind moves to tackle the blight of second homes in Wales and in parts of England like Devon and Cornwall.

Second homes are not new in themselves but combine them with the rise of Airbnb and short-term lets and in many areas the problem for local people has become less finding an affordable rented home than finding a rented home at all.

Anecdotal evidence I’m hearing where I live in Cornwall suggests that these trends have got far worse in the last 12 months. In the process, more assumptions about housing are being turned on their head.

Just down the road from me, the landlord of a large house converted into flats has just given all the tenants two months’ notice. One has been there 17 years, a couple in their 70s have lived there more than 20 years, and they have always paid their rent on time, but none of that matters. The house is being converted into short-term holiday lets.

A seaside town in Cornwall is possibly an extreme example of the trend but problems with short-term lets are being reported all around the country and I can think of many more villages nearby where the situation is far worse, with communities full of second homes and Airbnbs and second homes and few full-time residents.

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The big questions facing Simon Clarke

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Simon Clarke has yet to reveal much of his thinking on the key issues facing his new department but the early signals coming from the new government mean it’s already clear that tough choices lie ahead.

As chief secretary to the Treasury since September 2021 he was responsible for scrutinising and departmental requests for more public spending. Now he replaces Greg Clark at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), where he briefly served as a minister for regional growth and local government in 2020.

As a prominent supporter of Liz Truss, Clarke will have some influence with the prime minister and could be heard acting as her spokesman on energy costs on the Today programme on Thursday.

Like any secretary of state he will fight for the departmental interest and but it seems doubtful whether he will have as much heft in Whitehall as his predecessor but one Michael Gove.

Indeed there are already some straws in the wind. Consider a story leaked to the Telegraph over the weekend about a £1.5bn underspend at the DLUHC.

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The winners and losers from the rent cap

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

The rent cap proposed for social housing may not have come as a huge surprise but the consequences will play out in very different ways for different parties.

It says it all about the cost of living crisis that whether rents are capped or not could be well down social tenants’ list of worries over the next few months.

The energy price cap has already almost doubled in the last 12 months to £1,971 a year. Next month that will rise to £3,549 and the worst forecasts suggest that could double again by next April unless the new government takes radical action.

Effectively, therefore, tenants in social housing could be paying double rent next year unless they take drastic steps to cut their bills.

But many are already doing this and finding that even turning the boiler off does not go far enough – they may be asking why the consultation does not include an option to freeze rents.

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Reading the Tory leadership tea leaves

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

On the surface the two Tory leadership candidates have had little new to say about housing – when they’ve even bothered to discuss it.

Liz Truss would cut red tape for housebuilding at the same time as she would scrap the ‘Stalinist housing targets’ introduced by her own party and boost community rights to object to homes that create the red tape in the first place.

Sunak would put a stop to building on the green belt, highlighting the 60 square miles lost to development since 2014 while ignoring the 60,000 square miles that are left and the fact the green belt has doubled in size since 2014.

Those contradictory ideas reveal next to nothing beyond a need to appeal to well-housed Tory members but neither candidate has said anything so far about social housing, affordable housing or private renting.

Yet there are issues and ideas bubbling away beneath the surface of the leadership contest that could still have a profound impact on housing.

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What should we do with the homes we already have?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Never mind the supply of new homes – should we be thinking more about the ownership and distribution of the ones we already have?

That’s the intriguing question at the heart of a new discussion paper from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) that challenges the orthodoxy that new supply is the key to fixing the housing system.

The problem is that, while supply has to be part of the solution, it takes time to have an effect and people who need affordable homes do not have time.

Even if we built 300,000 new homes a year in England (an even bigger if as Tory leadership candidates pander to their MPs and members) that would have to be sustained for years to have an impact on prices. Even if that included the 90,000 social rent homes a year advocated by campaigners, and even if no more were sold off, it would take more than a decade to house families on council waiting lists that significantly understate demand.

So why not look instead at the 25 million homes that already exist? As Darren Baxter-Clow, Joseph Elliott and Rachelle Earwalker argue in the paper, recent history shows that rapid changes are possible.

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Tory leadership debate misses the target

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

This is a Conservative leadership race in which the number of toilets we should have has often seemed a bigger issue than the number of homes we need.

Even allowing for the fact that the candidates have to appeal to electorates made up of Tory MPs and elderly Conservative members who appreciate anti-wokery, the level of debate in the race to be the next prime minister as well as party leader has been beyond depressing.

The only candidate who made housing explicitly part of his pitch was Sajid Javid as he called for ‘a massive programme of garden villages and new towns’ and incentives for longer-term tenancies – but he was one of the first to be eliminated.

The debate has otherwise been dominated by tax cuts and the general message is that whoever wins will cut public spending to create space for them.

Calls by multiple candidates to reverse the increase in National Insurance make the prospects of meaningful reform of social care look even more remote.

‘Common sense’ calls for people to be given back ‘their own money’ ignore attempts up to now to target cost of living support on the poorest.

And you have to wonder whether benefits will really be uprated in line with inflation next year and whether the Treasury will allow a potentially double digit increase in social rents.

The levelling up agenda looks to be on shaky ground, with Liz Truss, for example, calling for ‘levelling up in a Conservative way’, which appears to mean tax cuts for entrepreneurs rather than a rebalancing of public spending.

The 2050 net zero target is only opposed by one of the remaining five candidates (Kemi Badenoch) but none of them have shown much enthusiasm for a strategy to achieve it.

On the opening weekend of the leadership race, the Sunday Telegraph devoted tens of thousands of words to the candidates and what they plan to do. The only mention of housing came in a piece about where Boris Johnson plans to live next and which of his two sets of tenants should be evicted to make way for him.

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Political chaos leaves big housing questions

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

So it’s back to the future and all change at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) as the dust begins to settle from the political chaos of the last two weeks.

It was a scandal involving one ex-housing minister (Chris Pincher) that triggered the revolt against Boris Johnson. Many Tories want another (Dominic Raab) to take over as temporary prime minister. And two more (Grant Shapps and ex-housing secretary Sajid Javid) could run as candidates for the permanent job.

Over at the department that keeps changing its name, Michael Gove has been sacked as ‘a snake’ and most of the more junior ministers have resigned. Stuart Andrew set a new record for a housing minister with just 148 days in the job and no time even for an Inside Housing interview to be published.

Coming in as temporary secretary of state is the familiar figure of Greg Clark, who according to some reports this morning has told civil servants that Gove will be back soon.

Confused? Significant new policy announcements are by convention ruled out until there is a new permanent leader and cabinet – but this did not stop Theresa May enshrining the net zero by 2050 commitment in law before she left office and Boris Johnson is not noted for following convention.  

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Feeble progress on decarbonisation

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

The prospect of underspent decarbonisation funding for social housing being sent back to the Treasury is worrying enough in itself – and that’s before you consider the bigger picture.

The warning from a senior civil servant at the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy was delivered at the Housing 2022 conference this week as he urged landlords to bid for the upcoming second wave of the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF).

In the wake of alarming lack of progress by councils who received funding from the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund Demonstrator, the fact that the money is being released in one-year tranches may be part of the problem. There are also  still major concerns about skills and capacity to carry out the work.

However, at least the fund is there. The really alarming thing is that this is just about the only part of plan to decarbonise housing as a whole that is even close to on track to achieving the progress needed to achieve net zero.

A sobering report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) published on Wednesday reveals the scale of the challenge and the lack of progress so far.

Absurdly, as CCC chair Lord Deben says in his introduction, we are still building new homes that will not meet minimum standards of energy efficiency and will require significant and expensive retrofitting. This is six years and counting after the original target for all new homes to be zero carbon.

The Future Homes Standard will not apply to new homes in England until 2025 and the CCC is ‘not confident’ that interim measures will drive sufficient change before then since they will still add to the stock of gas boilers that will need to be retrofitted.

But progress is even slower on existing homes and the vast majority of the housing stock that will exist in 2050 has already been built.

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White paper reverses Tory orthodoxy on renting

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

The fairer renting white paper could mark a turning point for tenants and landlords but there is still a long road ahead.

If enacted by this Conservative government, the proposals will mean the abolition of the Section 21 no-fault evictions and assured shorthold tenancies that were at the heart of the 1988 framework designed by the Thatcher administration to bring the market back into the private rented sector.

The damning verdict of the white paper is that this has led to a sector ‘that offers the most expensive, least secure, and lowest quality housing to 4.4 million households, including 1.3 million households with children and 382,000 households over 65. This is driving unacceptable outcomes and holding back some of the most deprived parts of the country.’

In future, all tenancies will be periodic tenancies that can be ended by the tenant with two months’ notice or by the landlord only with a valid ground for possession.

The new system will also see a reversal of more recent trends towards less security in the social rented sector. Probationary, fixed term and demoted tenancies are now set to be abolished on the grounds that there should be parity between sectors.

Contrast that with what happened in the 2010s under David Cameron. The government enabled social landlords to offer fixed-term tenancies in 2011 and legislated to make them mandatory for new council tenants in 2016 (although this was later dropped). Ministers regularly implied that ‘tenancies for life’ were somehow part of a ‘dependency culture’.  

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Johnson’s lame cover version

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

How exactly should we take Boris Johnson’s plans to ‘bring back Right to Buy’ and ‘turn Generation Rent into Generation Own’?

Many housing association tenants will welcome the chance to own their own home and private renters may welcome official recognition that they are stuck paying more in rent than for the mortgage they can’t get.

Equally, most social landlords will feel that they have no choice but to take very seriously a major change for housing associations and what could be yet another threat to council housing.

And anyone with even the vaguest interest in seeing more genuinely affordable homes will greet the latest guff about one for one replacements with a groan. 

But it’s also very hard not to be cynical about this latest cover version of Margaret Thatcher’s number one from the 1980s. The suspicion is that this is all about a lame duck prime minister having something catchy to announce regardless of how  – or even if – it will work out in practice.

Even so it’s impossible not to wonder about the practicalities of a plan to finance mortgages from housing benefit in the middle of a cost of living crisis, with interest rates about to rise at the peak of a housing market bubble that could be about to burst.

And it’s hard not to contrast Boris Johnson’s tired old rhetoric about social tenants on housing benefit being ‘dependent on the state’ with the plans announced just 24 hours earlier for a Social Housing Regulation Bill that will ‘mean more people living in decent, well looked-after homes enjoying the quality of life they deserve’.

Calling the plan ‘benefits to bricks’ looks like trolling of those who have genuinely attempted to find ways to shift subsidy to new homes.

And all of these reactions are subject to the politics of a wounded prime minister desperate to send the right signals to his party after 41 per cent of his own MPs said they have no confidence in him.

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