Can Gove put the social back in ‘affordable’?

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Michael Gove’s challenge to ‘Thatcher-worshipping’ Tories to want more social rented housing feels like another significant milestone in the Conservative journey on the issue but the final destination remains unclear.

Speaking at a conference organised by Shelter, the levelling up secretary said he was exploring ways to increase support for social rent and change rules that restrict funding for it outside of the most unaffordable parts of the country.

He also admitted that previous Tory policies have ‘tilted more towards a particular set of products that are not truly affordable and have not enabled housing associations and others to generate the housing at the social rent that they need’.

The speech followed a report in the Sunday Telegraph that he is set to scrap the Section 106 of planning contributions and replace it with an infrastructure fund that will pave the way for a ‘council housing explosion’.

John Rentoul in The Independent sees all this, plus his success in bullying developers into paying up for building safety, as evidence that Gove will be a strong contender in the undeclared 2022 Conservative leadership contest.

At the same time, Telegraph columnist Liam Halligan, another speaker at the Shelter conference, argues that ‘council housing should be central to the Conservative brand’ and that the party should shift subsidies from benefits to bricks. 

Now keen-eyed readers may spot the odd example of cognitive dissonance in this reversal of 40 years of Conservative orthodoxy.

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How we got from there to here

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Where next for affordable housing funding? That’s one of the key questions posed in this year’s edition of the UK Housing Review.

The essential guide to the key issues and statistics in housing is celebrating its 30th anniversary and complements its usual analysis of contemporary trends with a long view of how we’ve got from 1992 to here.

One of the strengths of the review has always been the way it considers policy on housing in the round, not just in terms of all tenures but also in the way that the housing system relates to broader policy.

If only that were true of how governments think about housing. A point made powerfully by Mark Stephens in his opening chapter on 30 years of housing policy in the UK is that this has only really happened twice in the last five decades and not at all since 2005.

As usual, readers will find plenty of food for thought in chapters on social housing, private renting, home ownership, homelessness and support for housing costs plus the usual comprehensive array of housing statistics.

But my eye was drawn to the chapter on affordable housing supply and the challenges ahead by John Perry and Peter Williams.

Another strength of the Review is the way that it draws together ever more divergent policy in the four nations of the UK.

On affordable housing as a whole England lags well behind Scotland and Northern Ireland and has competed with Wales for last place in terms of delivery by population size.

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Behind the Spending Review’s smoke and mirrors

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

This was a spending review that didn’t really feel like a spending review as far as housing is concerned.

It’s the first multi-year review since 2015 but compare it to the austerity seen then and in 2010, the cuts of 1998 and even the relative largesse of 2007 and it seems to contain little that is really new.

Aside from what is claimed to be an additional £1.8 billion for brownfield land, almost everything in it has already been announced, in some cases several times.

The 2021 spending review (SR21) ‘confirms’ £5 billion for cladding removal and ‘reconfirms’ £11.5 billion for the Affordable Homes Programme alongside an existing £10 billion for housing supply but the numbers in it play fast and loose with the difference between the five years of this parliament and the three covered by the review (2022/23 to 2024/25).

A classic example is the claim in the Red Book  that: ‘SR21 demonstrates the government’s commitment to investing in safe and affordable housing by confirming a settlement of nearly £24 billion for housing, up to 2025-26.’ Rishi Sunak also used this impressively large number in his Budget speech.

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Politics trumps planning

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Two by-elections, two widely predicted Conservative victories that did not quite turn out that way.

Labour holding a seat and the Lib Dems winning one against a government that has been in power for 11 years would never have been seen as surprise results in previous parliaments but they could signal politics beginning to return to normal after Brexit, the 2019 election and the pandemic.

If Batley and Spen shows that the Tories can no longer be confident in Labour seats in the North, then Chesham and Amersham shows a worrying vulnerability to the Lib Dems in the South.

And the upshot is a depressing one for anyone who believes in the case for new homes. Trouble was always likely when planning reform met politics, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so quickly.

Planning is, of course, always contentious – even in a Batley and Spen by-election dominated by other issues it still featured in the letters pages of the local press.

But it was front and centre in Chesham and Amersham. While HS2 was also seen as a factor, the victorious candidate made heavy play of planning and housebuilding in her leaflets, quoting extensively from Tory critics of the plans who say they will mean ‘the wrong homes being built in the wrong places’.

This was deeply cynical of the Lib Dems, who support both the new high-speed train line and 300,000 new homes a year at a national level but said the opposite locally.

However, they were not the only ones. The losing Conservative candidate proposed turning much of the constituency into a national park during the campaign. This surely foreshadows likely tactics by local Tories in getting as much of their land as possible designated as ‘protect’ against new homes under the new system proposed in the Planning Bill.

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First Homes: what’s the big idea?

Originally published as a column for insidehousing.co.uk

It is of course complete coincidence that the First Homes scheme was launched in the constituency that perhaps most symbolises the Conservative election victory in 2019.

It’s not just that Bolsover had been Labour since it was created in 1950, it’s also that it had been represented by Dennis Skinner since 1970, making it a reverse ‘Portillo moment’ for the Tories.

All of which makes the launch of the scheme itself look like an extension of the nakedly political approach taken with the Towns Fund and Levelling Up Fund.

A more generous interpretation might be that the government had more sway over this particular site, which looks like it was developed by Keepmoat Homes in partnership with Homes England.

Either way, this is the launchpad for housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s big idea, homes for sale at a discount of at least 30 per cent market value to first-time buyers. Discounts of up to 50 per cent may be available in some localities.

This is Starter Homes 2.0 with one significant advantage over the original scheme: the discount will remain in perpetuity rather than disappearing into the pocket of the first buyer.

The disadvantages remain the same. The scheme will be delivered initially with grant and then via the planning system. Either way it will squeeze out other forms of affordable housing funded via Section 106, with 25 per cent of developer contributions reserved for First Homes. The government claims it will ringfence homes for social rent so the main impact could fall on share ownership and affordable rent.

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The cake and the crumbs

Originally published as a column on insidehousing.co.uk on April 15.

From Brexit to just about anything else you care to mention, Boris Johnson is known for wanting to ‘have his cake and eat it’. Why should it be any different for housing?

That was the first thought that sprung to mind reading through a raft of recent government responses to consultations. Much like the social housing green and white papers, they try to face in two different directions at once.

One points towards the more tenure-neutral territory staked out under Theresa May. The other points backwards to the promised land of home ownership staked out by David Cameron, the former prime minister turned PR man for failed bankers.

Both are evident in the outcome of consultations on the new model for shared ownership, changes to the current planning system and First Homes, supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure and use of receipts from Right to Buy sales in the run-up to Easter.

So we get the expansion of permitted development to cover the conversion of most empty commercial buildings, not just offices, into residential. This may mean more ‘units’ but with too few constraints on quality to be regarded as ‘homes’.

Plans for reform of shared ownership include confirmation that landlords will be liable for repairs for the first 10 years on new homes but no acknowledgement that this leaves existing tenant-owners living in devalued assets.

There are plans to give existing as well as new shared owners the statutory right to a lease of 990 rather than 99 years but no fresh solutions for those left out of government help for fire safety costs or forced to take out £50 a month loans.

Reductions in the minimum initial stake and staircasing threshold meet commitments previously made by housing secretary Robert Jenrick without any real evidence supporting them.

Changes to the current planning system include a welcome u-turn on a proposal to increase the threshold at which small sites are exempt from affordable housing requirements from 10 homes to up to 50. That could rescue up to 30,000 affordable homes over the next five years.

However, that’s trumped by confirmation of plans to require a minimum of 25 per cent of homes delivered through developer contributions to be First Homes. Mr Jenrick is therefore diverting a sizeable chunk of the funding mechanism that accounts for more than half of affordable homes into his pet project.

On the Right to Buy, local authorities get five years rather than three to use receipts to build new homes and receipts can account for 40 rather than 30 per cent of the total cost. These are improvements to the scarcely credible ‘one-for-one replacement’ pledge made when discounts were increased in 2012.

But that could still leave them forced to sell homes for less than it cost to build them and it does not address the parallel question of ‘like-for-like’ replacement.

Far from responding to concerns raised in the consultation about broadening the definition, the government suggests that ‘affordable’ replacements for social rent homes sold could include not just affordable rent and shared ownership but also (you guessed it) First Homes.

All of which suggests that the loss of social rent homes – 210,000 in England in the last eight years, according to the latest UK Housing Review – will continue even as ministers make rhetorical nods to the tenure.

It’s as though one part of government wants to shift the balance of policy in favour of social and affordable housing only for another to tilt it back towards home ownership and the free market.

With crucial choices looming as society reopens and the economy moves off life support, which will get the cake and which will be left with the crumbs?


A route map that leads nowhere

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

In the wake of Boris Johnson, Brexit and Covid-19, where next for affordable housing?

The last month has revealed the outlines of a government route map that combines some of Theresa May’s commitments on social rent with an update of David Cameron’s vision for home ownership and adds a big dose of planning reform to housebuilding targets.

On the plus side, housing secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed that the new Affordable Homes Programme will include homes for social rent, and more of them than in the previous one.

As expressed in a speech to the virtual Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) conference and an announcement last week, that is definitely more May than .

However, it still falls way short of the 90,000 social rent homes a year called for by the Conservative-controlled housing select committee in July or likely demand from 1.6 million households revealed in research for the National Housing Federation on Tuesday.

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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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How will we live after Corona?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on May 4.

How will Coronavirus change how we live and work – and how will that change housing?

In one sense these are impossible questions to answer since so much depends on how quickly we find a vaccine or an effective treatment for Covid-19 and how deep the recession will become.

Find either quickly and politics and the economy could soon return to something close to what we knew before February. After all, it seemed obvious that nobody would want to live or work in tall buildings after September 2001 and that house prices would fall after 2008.

If the search takes longer, if there is a second or third wave, if another Coronavirus hits us, the effects could be far more profound as social distancing and self-isolation change how we think about how we should live.

But in between those two scenarios many of the effects of the crisis will linger and a series of more marginal changes may add up to something bigger.

After months in which our homes have become the centre of our lives, not just places to eat and sleep but places to work and stay safe, the effects on housing could be just as profound.

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Questions that will not go away

Originally posted on March 31 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Some time in the long distant past (two weeks ago) we were just emerging from a Budget that signalled better times ahead for affordable housing but left a string of unanswered questions ahead of the Spending Review in the Autumn.

Nest week should have seen the launch of the UK Housing Review 2020 but it appears virtually instead this week in our newly shrunken world as a powerful reminder that other things once mattered.

As ever, it combines a wealth of authoritative statistics about housing with in-depth analysis of all tenures as well as finance, the economy, homelessness, help with housing costs and international comparisons.

What really struck me me is the picture that emerges of the state of our affordable housing and the stark contrast between England and the other UK nations that has developed over the last ten years. This is not new of course but seeing it all brought together is what really hits home.

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