The latest new housing minister takes his turn

So it’s farewell to Mr Buggins – many thanks for all you’ve achieved in your 181 days as housing minister.

And it’s hello to Mr Buggins – you appear not to know (or care) very much about housing as you take your turn in the job but then neither did most of your predecessors.

Housing felt the knock-on effects of the latest round of the Great British Brexit Farce as Theresa May decided that Dominic Buggins would be the replacement for David Davis as Brexit secretary.

That Mr Buggins was appointed to the housing job because he was a prominent Eurosceptic and he spent half of his interviews as minister talking about Brexit.

On the assumption that he has decided he believes in the Chequers compromise and can cheerlead for it, this looks like a good appointment for the government.

Which is more than can be said for his previous post. Thinking back over those 181 days, I can remember him using his position to generate publicity about immigration and offering lawyerly denials that the government’s approach to regulation was in any way to blame for the Grenfell Tower fire.

But his major achievement must surely be to have dodged publication of the social housing green paper.

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The politics of longer private tenancies

Originally published on June 2 on my blog for Inside Housing.

When it comes to the private rented sector are we all Chavistas now?

Back in 2014, when Ed Miliband’s Labour proposed a standard three-year tenancy with limits on rent increases, Conservative party chair Grant Shapps was quick to accuse it of ‘Venezuelan-style socialism’.

Flash forward four years and the Conservatives have stolen Labour’s policy at the last two elections and announced plans of their own for three-year tenancies – and if they are not quite proposing limits on rent increases they are not ruling them out either.

Even two years ago it would have been unimaginable for them to propose anything like the proposals announced by housing secretary James Brokenshire on Monday and first reported in the Conservative-supporting Telegraph on Saturday night.

Indeed, far from increasing security for private renters, Conservative-led governments had spent the years since 2010 attempting to undermine it for social tenants.

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Rethinking social housing

Originally posted on June 26 on my blog for Inside Housing.

As we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS an older part of the welfare state is at a crossroads.

The road already taken reaches back to the birth of council housing at the end of the 19th century and its rise and fall through the 20th century.

While other parts of the UK have sought to protect the role of social housing, until recently in England only one direction seemed possible.  This offered a motorway towards fixed-term tenancies, the housing association right to buy, forced sales of council houses, with social housing seen as a way station rather than a destination for the most vulnerable.

But the events of 2017 have reconfigured the road signs to leave other options for the way ahead. Grenfell means it is no longer possible for governments of any party to ignore social housing and social tenants, the rhetoric of the Conservative prime minister has changed, the Labour party has put forward a coherent plan for ‘genuinely affordable’ housing and any number of different projects is underway to rethink the role and purpose of social housing.

Today it’s the turn of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), which marks its 2018 conference with publication of the final report from its Rethinking Social Housing project.

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Variety the key to faster build out, says Letwin

Originally published on June 25 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

For all the headlines about Spitfire production and the wartime spirit, Sir Oliver Letwin’s draft analysis of build-out rates on large housebuilding sites focuses on one key factor above all others – and it’s one that could have huge implications for housing as a whole.

After visits to 15 different sites and discussions with people throughout the industry, he focuses forensically on the ‘absorption rate’ – the rate at which housebuilders can sell newly built homes in a local market without reducing the local market price.

This is not a surprise – it was also his focus in the interim update he produced in March – but he seems even more convinced of its importance now.

In his draft analysis, this is what underpins everything from the valuation model used in the RICS red book to the residual land value model that housebuilders use to calculate how much they will pay for land.

As he puts it:

‘We have heard from everyone we have talked to in the industry about these processes that, in all of these forms of land sale, the starting point of all participants is the residual value calculation. And that residual value calculation always starts with the assumed open market value of new homes in the local area – which is always fundamentally driven by the prices of comparable second-hand homes in the local area, and hence by the assumption that the number of new homes built in any given year in that area will not be large enough to put downward pressure on the price of second-hand homes in the area.’

In other words, anyone hoping that an increase in housebuilding for sale on large sites will reduce house prices will come away disappointed since the entire model is designed to ensure that this does not happen.

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A plan to end homelessness

Originally published on June 12 on my blog for Inside Housing.

At times in the last year it’s seemed that all a politician has to do to end homelessness is say ‘Housing First’ three times, take a trip to Finland and announce a new initiative.

All three do feature in the plan published by Crisis this morning but alongside a 10-year strategy that challenges the politicians to take a harder road to a real destination – if they choose.

Everybody In: How to end homelessness in Great Britain was developed following an international evidence review of what works here and abroad, a consultation with over 1,000 people across Britain and newly-commissioned research to fill gaps in the evidence.

Crisis, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, warns that there are currently 160,000 people facing the worst forms of homelessness in Britain but that if we continue as we are this number will double over the next 25 years.

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Grenfell’s ‘culture of non-compliance’

Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing on June 5.

Yes it was the cladding but expert reports for the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire find multiple fire safety failures in the building and its refurbishment and management and in the wider regulatory system and construction industry.

The first thing that leaps out of the report by fire engineer Dr Barbara Lane is a timeline that shows that the conditions for ‘Stay Put’ advice to residents had ‘substantially failed’ by 01:26 on the morning of the fire.

This was within half an hour of the fire breaking out in Flat 16 and the London Fire Brigade did not abandon Stay Put until 02:47.

Those conclusions have already made some of the headlines but Dr Lane makes clear that there is a deeper context for them.

The way that high-rise buildings are designed and the way that fires in them are fought in them rely on the fact that multi-storey external envelope fires are not meant to happen.

So the fire at Grenfell rendered invalid all of the basic assumptions about fighting fires from the inside and telling residents of other flats to stay inside them because they will be protected by compartmentation.

That meant there had to be an improvised approach to fighting the fire from the outside on the night but most of the building was always going to out of reach even for aerial appliances – the whole reason why the risk of external fires should be designed out in the first place.

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Remembering Ronan Point

Originally posted on May 14 on my blog for Inside Housing.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of what was seen until recently as the biggest disaster in the history of council housing.

At 5.45 in the morning on May 16, 1968, a cake decorator called Ivy Hodge put the kettle on for a cup of tea. A gas explosion triggered by a faulty connection to her cooker blew out the walls to her flat and triggered the progressive collapse of one corner of the 22-storey Ronan Point tower block in Newham in east London.

Four tenants were killed and several more had miraculous escapes but the fact that the explosion happened so early in the morning prevented an even worse disaster – most people were still asleep in the relative safety of their bedrooms rather than exposed to the collapse in their kitchens.

That aside, the most shocking thing about the disaster was that it happened in a new building and the first tenants had moved in two months before.

A public inquiry quickly established not just the fault in the gas connection but fundamental flaws in the large panel, system-built design. The collapse could have been triggered not just by an explosion but also by high winds and fire

That led to reform of the rules on gas safety and a shake-up of the building regulations to ensure that the structure of tall buildings became more robust.

Over the years, Ronan Point came to be seen as the high water mark of both council housing and modernist architecture.

As time went on the blame was increasingly laid at the door of architects, local authorities and even the whole idea of council housing. It’s certainly true that some designs were flawed and untested and that some councillors arrogant, self-aggrandising and even corrupt.

But some important factors are edited out of that account.

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