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.Read the rest of this entry »
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.
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.Read the rest of this entry »
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?
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.
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.
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.
Originally published on March 11 as a blog for Inside Housing.
This is a Budget that does not live up to its own hype and has some glaring omissions but still brings some good news for housing.
There are three big positives: a £12.2bn Affordable Homes Programme (AHP) over the five years from 2021/22; an additional £1bn for a Building Safety Fund to remove dangerous cladding; and £650m to help rough sleepers into permanent accommodation.
Add the reversal of an interest rate hike for borrowing for new council homes, extra funding for housing infrastructure, £1.2bn in consequentials that other UK nations can invest in new homes and an extension of Shared Accommodation Rate exemptions to young rough sleepers and other vulnerable groups, and this looks like one of the best Budgets for housing in the last 10 years.
However, that’s not setting the bar especially high, and you don’t have to look very far below the surface before the questions start to mount up.
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.