The turn of the screw

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on October 13.

As universal credit understandably took all the headlines, the scale of the threat posed by restrictions on the local housing allowance (LHA) has come into even sharper focus.

The mood music this week suggested that ministers are set to make concessions over their plans to apply LHA caps to supported housing but the rest of social housing is still right in the firing line.

In a packed Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday and at the Communities and Local Government committee, ministers gave strong hints of flexibility to come.

The debate was called by Tory MP Peter Aldous, who called on the government to give ‘full sand serious consideration’ to recommendations made by two select committees for a supported housing allowance rather than LHA plus local top-ups.

Communities minister Marcus Jones said:

‘This matter is a priority for the Government, and we will announce the next steps shortly—later this autumn. I believe that when those proposals are introduced, they will show that we have listened and have understood the important issues at hand and the important situation. What is at stake is helping and supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.’

It remains to be seen exactly how much ministers have listened and understood about a system that would create a postcode lottery and has already halted development plans.

But at stake too is the government’s attempt to impose a flawed system originally designed to reflect private rents to control a very different combination of rent and care costs in supported and social housing.

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May dedicates her premiership to fixing housing

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 4.

You wait a lifetime for a prime minister to make housing their priority and then she gets her P45 while losing her voice with the conference set falling apart behind her.

With all that happening around her it was easy to ignore the substance of Theresa May’s speech.

You may have missed it between coughs but for the first time since the 1950s here was a prime minister promising to put housing at the heart of their premiership.

And here was a Conservative prime minister not just promising an extra £2bn for ‘affordable’ housing but even allowing bids for social rent too.

But as the letters slowly dropped off the conference slogan about ‘BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE’ you wondered how long she will have a premiership to put anything at the heart of.

And even then it is hard to avoid drawing the obvious conclusions from the comparison between an extra £2bn for affordable housing and an extra £10bn for Help to Buy.

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The political heat on association executive pay is off – for now

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 2.

For the first time since I can remember average housing association chief executive pay has fallen in real terms.

After years of spurious justifications for bumper pay rises and bonuses that alone is enough to make this year’s Inside Housing salary survey worthy of note.

Beyond that, though, the arguments for and against high pay and the legacy of past increases remain largely the same as in any other year.

No, it’s impossible to defend one pay package of almost £600,000, four more of over £300,000 and another four of over £250,000 at a time when tenants face austerity, the bedroom tax and universal credit.

And, no, boards should not be pretending that they are only paying what the market demands when that market rate is set mostly by housing associations themselves.

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Ten years after

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on September 28.

When I started blogging for Inside Housing in September 2007 I wondered if I’d find enough to write about.

As it turned out there was no need to worry. A week before my first post Northern Rock went bust and the world changed.

What began in the United States as a sub-prime mortgage crisis was transformed by a series of financial acronyms into a Global Financial Crisis.

The connections to housing in this country at first seemed indirect: the UK did not have sub-prime lending on anything like the same scale; we had Northern Rock but there were plenty of other lenders; and the problems at Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns seemed a long way away.

The direct effects didn’t take long to make themselves felt as credit markets dried up, share prices crashed and politicians panicked at the prospect of cash machines running out of money.

At the time it seemed like we were set for a repeat of the housing market crash of the early 1990s with soaring mortgage arrears and repossessions and families plummeting into negative equity.

One or more of the major housebuilders looked certain to go bust. And the combination of the two would send the banks even further under.

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Sajid Javid’s apparent conversion to social housing

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on September 20.

So seven years after all funding ended, three years after the chancellor said it just produces Labour voters and little more than a year after the government legislated to sell a huge chunk of it, social housing is now so ‘treasured’ that it deserves its own green paper.

It’s hard to under-estimate the shift in rhetoric by communities secretary Sajid Javid in his speech to the National Housing Federation (NHF) conference this week but will it be matched by the reality?

He’s not the only one to change his tune. It’s only two years since the same conference saw housing associations rush to endorse the voluntary deal on the Right to Buy.

They did so even though it would be financed by the sale of the most valuable third of council housing and even though replacements for social rented homes sold off could be for shared ownership, part rent-part buy or even starter homes.

That was then. This is now with a weakened government and a context changed utterly by the Grenfell Tower fire.

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What a way to run a housing system

Originally posted on September 14 as a column for Inside Housing.

The balance of funding between government funding for home ownership and affordable housing schemes continues to astonish even after the change in emphasis under Theresa May.

Revised figures prepared for Thursday’s publication of the UK Housing Review Briefing Paper show that total support for the private market up to 2020/21 is set to total £32 bn compared to support for affordable housing investment of just £8.6 bn.

This pie chart really brings it home:

These are revised figures that take account of the extra money for affordable housing announced by chancellor Philip Hammond last November. Even after that, even after adjustments for lower than expected spending on mortgage guarantees, and even including the Right to Buy pilot in the pink part of the graph, we are still spending £4 on support for the private market for every £1 we spend on support for affordable housing.

What really leapt off the page at me in this chart was that the government is set to spend £4.2 bn on Help to Buy and Lifetime Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs) over the same period as it spends £4.3 bn on the main Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes programme.

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Radio review: Streets Apart

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on September 11.

In case you missed it, you still have chance to catch up with a superb history of social housing that ran over the last two weeks on Radio 4.

Lynsey Hanley’s Streets Apart told the story from the beginning of council housing in the 19th Century in Liverpool to the present. I got the impression that most of it was made before the fire at Grenfell Tower, but its shadow looms over everything.

Why is the series so good? Partly that Lynsey Hanley knows what she is talking about (as author of Estates: An Intimate History and Respectable: The Experience of Class). She is also an engaging presenter with an accent not normally heard on Radio 4 that comes from her upbringing on the Chelmsley Wood estate in Solihull.

Partly because her interviewees know what they are talking about: they are a mixture of experts in local areas, in architecture, planning and housing and local residents who are given time to tell their stories.

But also because she recognises the nuances and contradictions in the history of social housing and in its present: Michael Heseltine comes out of it surprisingly well for the minister who introduced the Right to Buy; another Tory minister Harold Macmillan gets the last word; and the final episode features more than one side to current regeneration controversies.

Her message may be obvious in one sense and, as she says, naïve and utopian in another: in the wake of Grenfell Tower, housing needs the same national priority as health and education.

But the thesis behind it is also a challenge to those of us who would agree with all of that: ‘Social housing in Britain has suffered from the flaw of being regarded as being only for poor and working class people and not for everyone.’

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