Conservative backbenchers are listening but are ministers?

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing on July 27.

Today’s report from the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Committee feels like the political fruit machine has finally come up with three social rented homes in a row.

That a committee with a Conservative majority should come out in full support of 90,000 social rented homes a year is significant enough in itself. That it should give its full backing to the case that such a programme will pay itself back in full to the Exchequer over the long term should feel like a vindication for those who conducted the sometimes lonely campaign for social housing.

That it should do so now, and argue that a social housebuilding programme should be ‘top of the government’s agenda to rebuild the country from the impact of COVID-19’, makes it feel like an idea whose time really has come round again.

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Sins of permission

Originally published on July 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Your own independent evaluation shows that the existing regime of permitted development rights (PDR) delivers poor quality homes that raise serious concerns about ‘the health, wellbeing and quality of life of future occupiers’.

Your own consultation showed that an overwhelming majority of consultees opposed major extensions of it.

You’ve previously declared your commitment to the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission’s ‘fast track to beauty’ without apparently heeding its report warning that PDR has ‘inadvertently permissioned future slums’.

So naturally enough housing secretary Robert Jenrick has decided to go ahead and allow upwards extensions and demolition and replacement of existing buildings via a PDR system that allows minimal scrutiny by local communities.

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A Cabinet of housing ministers

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on July 16.

We have become so used to lamenting the revolving door for housing ministers that it’s easy to miss the fact that Boris Johnson Cabinet is now full of people with housing connections.

That thought was prompted by the realisation that less than a year ago the man who could very well become our next prime minister was still on the most junior rung of the ladder at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Rishi Sunak has won widespread praise for his performance and chancellor during the pandemic and currently seems hot favourite to be the next Conservative leader if the Tories go through another Dr Who-style regeneration ahead of the next election.

In July 2019, though, the current chancellor was still answering questions about council reorganisation in Northamptonshire, anti-social behaviour and non-domestic rates as parliamentary under-secretary for local government.

But he had already boosted his career prospects significantly by signing a joint letter with two other new-ish Tory MPs giving early backing to Boris Johnson as party leader. Appointed chief secretary to the Treasury a year ago next week, he was joined in the Cabinet by the other signatories: housing secretary Robert Jenrick and culture secretary Oliver Dowden.

Previous housing secretary Sajid Javid became the new chancellor but within seven months he resigned in a row with Dominic Cummings over special advisers and Mr Sunak stepped into his shoes.

Within another month, the lockdown began, the new chancellor was doling out the cash and Brand Rishi was building its glossy momentum.

His own ties may be more to the LG end of the MHCLG brief but look around the rest of the Cabinet table and you cannot move for former housing ministers. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunak fails to look beyond the short term

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on July 8.

This was a Summer Statement that was all about protecting jobs and getting money into the economy as quickly as possible.

Judged in those terms, while it does not go as far as some had advocated, the two big housing measures in chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Plan for Jobs look carefully calibrated to achieve both.

The £3.8 billion cut in stamp duty (increasing the nil rate from £125,000 to £500,000) is calculated to boost transactions, generate jobs and drive additional spending estimated at around 5 per cent of the house value.

And the Treasury reckons that the £2 billion Green Homes Grant (funding two thirds of the cost of energy efficiency work up to £5,000 for owners and landlords and all of the cost up to £10,000 to low income owners) could support over 100,000 green jobs as well as cutting carbon emissions and fuel bills.

But it’s not hard to find holes in the Summer Statement where other housing responses could and should have been: the statement does nothing more for affordable housing, it fails to fill holes in the safety net and, as  Generation Rent points out, vouchers to eat out are not much use if you cannot afford to stay in.

And though the two measures that are there should boost the economy in the short term the longer-term benefits of both look uncertain at best even when you judge them in isolation and in their own terms.

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Johnson sinks to the occasion

Originally published on July 1 as a column for Inside Housing.

It was less ‘build, build, build’ than ‘blah, blah, blah’, less New Deal than reheated old announcements.

Boris Johnson’s big speech on Tuesday, plus accompanying announcements on housing and planning, were billed as the start of the recovery after Coronavirus.

They arrived to a chorus of calls for greater investment, Homes for Heroes and a warning from Shelter and Savills that output of new homes will fall by 85,000 this year because of the pandemic, with just 4,300 for social rent.

In that context, the prime minister sank to the occasion and even managed to imply that the Affordable Homes Programme will be cut.

Where the Budget in March had promised £12.2 billion over the next five years, Johnson said it will now run over eight. Taken at face value that means a cut of 38 per cent from £2.4 billion a year to £1.5 billion.

That would be roughly the same annual commitment as in the current AHP and would represent a slap in the face for everyone who has campaigned for or needs an affordable home.

Not so, fast, though. No 10 soon clarified that when he said eight years he was actually talking about the three-year time lag for homes to be built after the end of the programme. Social Housing was given the slightly different line that the extra three years applies only to  the £2 bn strategic partnerships announced in September 2018.

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The Westferry affair and planning reform

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on June 29.

A cartoon in a national newspaper last week showed a pig about to dive into a trough from a springboard marked ‘Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government’ saying ‘I declare this development officially open’.

It was an indication if any were needed of how the Westferry Printworks affair has left the impression that the planning system is a ‘Tory funny money’ game of Monopoly (another cartoon two days later).

Richard Desmond’s £12,000 donation to the Conservatives may be small change but the timing shortly after housing secretary Robert Jenrick approved his plans for a £1 billion housing development still stinks.

It leaves the housing secretary looking – in the most generous interpretation of events – naïve in his dealings with the billionaire.

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Doing the right thing on fire safety

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on June 18.

In the 36 months since Grenfell ministers have repeatedly appealed to others to ‘do the right thing’ and pay for the replacement of dangerous cladding on high-rise homes.

Ministers have resisted doing anything themselves but the pressure has always told eventually.

After 11 months, a £400 million fund was announced for social housing blocks with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding. After 23 months, another £200 million was found for private blocks with ACM. After 32 months, the £1 billion Building Safety Fund was announced in the Spring Budget this year to cover hundreds more high-rise blocks with non-ACM but still dangerous cladding

Three years on from the fire, work has only been completed on a third of the ACM blocks – 149 out of 457 – according to the latest government statistics.  Of the remaining 307, work had not even started on 140.

The minister responsible for building safety (the fifth since Grenfell) told the Housing Communities and Local Government (HCLG) committee that there are another 11,300 buildings with other types of dangerous cladding and that 1,700 of them are classed as high risk.

Even as the funding has been grudgingly announced, so the estimated cost of fixing the problem has risen. Add the costs of other internal and external fire safety measures that go well beyond the clading, and the HCLG committee puts the total cost at £15 billion.

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Where should we draw the line between the social and the private?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on June 15.

The borderline between the social and the private has been blurring for decades for housing associations.

Ever since private finance was introduced in 1988, they have been free (or forced) to match grant with borrowing in the knowledge that higher rents would mostly be covered by housing benefit.

If it’s always been something of a Faustian pact with governments intent on reducing public spending and lenders focussed on the bottom line, there have been undoubted benefits not just in terms of homes delivered in the short term but also surpluses reinvested and major social businesses developed for the long term.

But the question has always been whether and when the housing Dr Faustus would have to deliver on the price of the pact.

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Three years on from Grenfell, where does the buck stop on fire safety?

This Sunday is the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. There are still 2,000 high-risk residential buildings out there with dangerous cladding.

Let that sink in for a second because it’s easy to let time obscure the scale of the problem if you’ve followed the twists and turns of the cladding saga since 2017 from afar.

Not so easy if you are one of the tens of thousands of people living in thousands of flats in those buildings. In a survey released by the UK Cladding Action Group on Thursday, 23 per cent of residents said they had felt suicidal or a desire to self-harm as a result.

This morning (Friday) the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee describes the situation as ‘deeply shocking and completely unacceptable’ in a report that lacerates the government’s slow and inadequate response. The committee has a Conservative majority but is doing an increasingly impressive job of holding ministers to account. Read the rest of this entry »


Time running out for temporary fixes

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

What then? It’s the question that’s been left hanging in most of the housing elements of the government’s response to the Coronavirus and much more besides.

There was a partial answer on what happens to thousands of temporarily accommodated rough sleepers as the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) accelerated funding to make 3,300 housing units available over the next 12 months.

There was an answer of sorts for leaseholders living in unsafe buildings as MHCLG opened registrations for its new £1 billion Building Safety Fund that extends help to other forms of dangerous cladding as well as Aluminium Composite Material (ACM).

And there was a welcome one for millions of home owners with mortgages as the Treasury extended the chance to apply for a payment holiday by another three months and Financial Conduct Authority guidance made clear that banks should not start of continue repossession proceedings until the end of October given the uncertainty faced by customers and government advice on social distancing and self-isolation.

But there is still no answer for millions of social and private renters asking what will happen when the moratorium on evictions ends on June 25.

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