Ministers still running to catch up on fire safety

Originally posted on January 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.

This week’s flurry of announcements on fire safety comes from a government desperate to show that it is getting on top of the crisis.

But it still leaves ministers running to catch up and facing yet more questions about the adequacy of their response.

Timed to coincide with this week’s government response to phase one of the Grenfell inquiry and next week’s start of phase two, the announcements from housing secretary Robert Jenrick included a new Building Safety Regulator, clarified and consolidated fire safety advice and a pledge to name building owners who have not acted to make their buildings safe.

He is minded to lower the threshold for sprinklers in new residential buildings from 18m to 11m and match that in a consultation in the ban on combustible materials and he also launched a call for evidence on the prioritisation of risks from external wall systems in existing buildings.

More help for residents of buildings with non-ACM cladding could be on the way as Jenrick told the Commons that he was discussing the options with the Treasury and that the chancellor ‘will set out further details in due course’.

Finally, testing results of other cladding materials are to be published next month but the housing secretary said these would confirm the decision to prioritise ACM and make it clear that it is ‘significantly more dangerous than any other substance’.

Presented this way it seemed that the government is finally coming up with a response that is moving faster than the problems are mounting up on thousands of buildings around the country. As Jenrick summed it up: ‘As that work continues, it becomes ever more evident that problems have developed over many decades, leading to serious incidents and the risk of further loss of life. This is completely unacceptable.’

But that feeling soon began to dissipate under scrutiny from MPs in debates on Monday and Tuesday.

Read the rest of this entry »


Signals from long-delayed debuts for Jenrick and McVey

Originally published on January 15 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Robert Jenrick and Esther McVey faced their first parliamentary questions as housing secretary and housing minister on Monday – almost six months after they took up their posts.

The reasons for the remarkable delay to their despatch box debuts – the summer recess, Brexit and the December election – are not hard to guess and are also why housing has slipped down the political agenda in the meantime.

But, give or take the odd appearance in parliamentary debates and in front of select committees, the delay also means that we still have only a fuzzy picture of what they really think about the key issues stacking up in their in-trays.

And it came in the wake of a report in the Daily Mail over the weekend about an apparent clash between the two over where the government should spend its housing cash and which voters they should be targeting.

Read the rest of this entry »


The decade in housing

Originally published in Inside Housing on January 10.

It was a decade of four elections, four prime ministers and three referenda. It began in the midst of a Global Financial Crisis and ended with the political crisis of Brexit. It was scarred by the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

All but 15 of the 520 weeks in the 2010s had a Conservative prime minister but four different governments brought four different approaches. David Cameron was all about cuts in coalition followed by radical (but mostly failed) marketising reforms once he had elbowed Nick Clegg aside. Theresa May brought a profound change in rhetoric and some significant changes of substance. Boris Johnson shifted the emphasis back to home ownership.

Here is the decade summed up in 10 headings: Read the rest of this entry »


Housing benefit problems a taste of what’s to come

Originally posted on January 9 on my blog for Inside Housing.

We’ve become so used to the misery caused by housing benefit failing to cover the cost of rents that problems with its administration have an almost retro feel to them.

From the perspective of 2020, the 2010s were the decade it turned out that housing benefit would no longer ‘take the strain’ of higher rents but instead passed the costs on to tenants via the bedroom tax, benefit cap, local housing allowance freeze and all the other ‘reforms’ instituted by Conservative-led governments.

But a report out this week from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman makes clear that the overpayments, underpayments and other errors that scarred claimants’ experiences of housing benefit from the 1990s to the 2000s are still happening.

It details a whole series of issues with the administration of the system by local authorities and the way the appeal process was handled. But it is the individual horror stories that really bring home the scale of the problems.

Read the rest of this entry »


10 things about 2019 – part two

Originally published on December 27 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The second part of my look back at 2019 runs from welfare homelessness to decarbonisation via housebuilding and permitted development.

5) ‘The systematic immiseration of millions’

The election result means that universal credit, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax and all the other welfare ‘reforms’ of the last decade are set to continue into the 2020s.

Chancellor Sajid Javid told us in the September spending round that austerity is over but the only hard evidence of this was an extra £40m for discretionary housing payments and previous cuts are still baked in to the system.

The election had delayed a full spending review until 2020 but better news came in November as the Conservative manifesto confirmed an end to the four-year freeze in most working age benefits, including the local housing allowance.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the government will restore the broken link with rents. It’s also worth noting that Esther McVey, the self-styled architect of Blue Collar Conservatism, called for part of housing benefit to be diverted into Help to Buy during her brief tilt at the Tory leadership.

I blogged about the deeper impacts on the housing system in a post from the Housing Studies Association conference in May that highlighted research on the ‘housing trilemma’ facing social landlords between their social mission, business imperatives and the impacts on tenants.

And the same month brought a damning external review from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty that warned of ‘the systematic immiseration of millions’.

Professor Philip Alston noted ‘a striking and complete disconnect’ between the picture painted by ministers and what he had heard and seen from people across the UK.

As for the chief architect of it all, the year finished with the decade summed up in four words: Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

Read the rest of this entry »


10 things about 2019 – part one

Originally posted on December 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.

It was the year of interminable votes on Brexit, two prime ministers and finally a decisive election victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

It was also the year that the housing crisis continued to intensify and the year that previous fixes were exposed for the sticking plasters that they really were.

Here is the first of a two-part look back at what I was blogging about in 2019.

1) The politics of housing

Regime change at Downing Street brought a new housing minister heavily implicated in welfare ‘reform’, a renewed focus on home ownership and what I called ‘a great leap backwards’ at the Conservative conference.

At the December election 15 per cent of voters told Ipsos MORI that housing was one of the most important issues for them – down from 22 per cent in 2018 as Brexit and the NHS dominated but three times more than in 2010.

And yet the politics of housing did not seem to matter much as the Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won a big majority away from the big city seats where Generation Rent, homelessness and the cladding scandal had seemed to offer fertile ground for Labour and the Lib Dems.

It was a year that ended with a decisive victory for the leader that promised Brexit and crushing defeat for the parties whose policies might just have fixed the housing crisis.

The bigger question was how far The People’s Government will diverge from Theresa May’s focus on housing and renter issues. The December Queen’s Speech confirmed some continuity, but the Tory manifesto offered few clues and far more emphasis on home ownership seems a given.

Read the rest of this entry »


No votes in housing?

Originally published as a blog for Inside Housing on December 13.

It would be very easy for the Conservatives to conclude after this election that they do not need to bother about housing.

The striking thing about their biggest victory since 1987 is that most of the places where various forms of the housing crisis are most acute voted for other parties. And it did not matter.

That’s most obviously true in London where Labour retained most of the seats with the highest levels of homelessness and families in temporary accommodation.

In London and other major cities where house prices have risen most and Generation Rent has grown fastest, gains for Labour from 2017 were consolidated in 2019, albeit with reduced majorities.

Labour’s only real victory last night was in Putney, which the Tories captured in the 1980s on the back of the right to buy, control of Wandsworth council and an influx of well-heeled professionals.

If there was a backlash against Tory inaction from leaseholders in thousands of apartment buildings around the country, most of them (a sweeping generalisation, I know) are in metropolitan, remain-voting constituencies that for the most part did not change hands last night.

As for housing supply as a whole, voters in affluent seats in the South East may not much like Brexit but they will probably have been reassured by the Tories’ downgrading of their ambitions on new homes and promises to protect the green belt. Ex-housing minister Dominic Raab fended off the Lib Dem challenge in Esher and Walton.

So maybe the Conservatives were right to conclude, as I argued in my blog on their performance at the pre-election housing hustings, that there were no votes in housing.

Read the rest of this entry »