Questions of power

Originally posted on May 9 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The May elections have a common theme when it comes to housing: can the winners really do what they say?

From Sadiq Khan to Marvin Rees, from Nicola Sturgeon to Carwyn Jones and from council leaders all over England to the voters of St Ives, winning the elections last week was the easy bit. The hard work starts now.

I’ll start with the poll closest to me: the referendum in St Ives on a Neighbourhood Plan that will ban the building of new second homes that has brought national attention.

More than 80% of residents supported the plan last Thursday and it’s impossible not to sympathise. Around a quarter of the homes in St Ives are either second homes or holiday lets and the problem is even worse in other Cornish communities. That does not just price out locals it also means a lack of year-round residents that makes it hard to sustain vital services and infrastructure.

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The Housing Bill: fresh start

Originally posted on April 12 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Otto von Bismarck famously said that laws are like sausages: it is better not to see how they are made.

One exception to the Iron Chancellor’s dictum could be the way that the UK House of Lords takes the distasteful raw ingredients of legislation and improves it with new recipes.

That was certainly the case on the first day of the report stage of the Housing and Planning Bill on Monday, which saw the government twice suffer major defeats and also make a significant concession on starter homes.

As the Bill now stands, this ‘cuckoo in the nest’ of affordable housing (as Lord Best memorably called it at the committee stage) has been cut down to size a bit: the discount will be repayable over 20 years rather than eight; and local authorities will have the flexibility to decide on local needs rather than targeting virtually all section 106 contributions as starter homes. The government also accepted another amendment that will exempt rural exceptions sites from the starter home requirement.

Ministers had already moved slightly on the discount period: the Bill originally said that starter home buyers would be able to sell without repaying any of the 20% discount after five years but a consultation proposes extending that to eight years with the discount tapering away over that period.

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United nation

Originally posted on March 7 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Campaigners gather in the capital city for a pre-election rally to call for decisive action on the housing crisis. Sound familiar?

But this is not Homes for Britain or London and it’s no longer March 2015. Instead this happened on Friday in Cardiff and it’s Homes for Wales.

The campaigns are clearly related – both are aimed at all the political parties, both are supported by a coalition of housing associations and other housing organisations – but there are differences too.

The Homes for Britain rally happened in a big hall with speakers from the housing world and beyond and from all the main political parties. For all the energy and enthusiasm of the day, it left itself open to the accusation that this was just another example of the sector gathering to congratulate itself about how wonderful it is.

In contrast, campaigners for Homes for Wales gathered on the steps of the Senedd Building in Cardiff Bay for speeches before marching through the streets of the capital for a rally in the heart of the pedestrianised city centre. For a couple of hours, shoppers could watch video messages from the political parties, Welsh celebrities such as Michael Sheen and people with personal experience of the housing crisis. Up to 700 people took part and it was the first housing march that anyone could remember in Wales. For more about the campaign see this piece by Kevin Howell.

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Mind the gaps in the Housing Bill

Originally published on March 1 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

For a piece of legislation that’s already faced hours of scrutiny from MPs and peers, there are still gaping holes at the heart of a Housing and Planning Bill that started life on the back of a fag packet and hasn’t moved much beyond it in several important respects.

Opposition demands for more detail about legislation are nothing new of course, but I’ve argued before that the lack of clarity here is deliberate in a bill that is designed to allow the government to do what it wants in future. To take one example, after stretching the definition of ‘affordable’ to breaking point to include £450,000 Starter Homes, the bill adds that the secretary of state ‘may by regulations amend this section so as to modify the definition of affordable housing’.

Many of the gaps were highlighted in the Commons late last year. The last two months have brought little further detail but now it’s crunch time: as peers debate a series of amendments, ministers are bound to come under increased pressures to say exactly what they mean.

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Green light for affordable homes

Originally posted on February 8 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

If you feel like you’ve been banging your head against a brick wall making the case for greater investment in rented homes, take heart. Someone is listening.

The Green Budget from the Institute for Fiscal Studies appears every year a month before the real thing and gives an impeccably independent and influential assessment of the chancellor’s options.

The 2016 version was published on Monday and it includes two chapters written for the IFS by the Institute for Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW). Yes, I know the mention of chartered accountants may have you asking yourself why you started reading this blog, but please try to contain your excitement – because there is an important point to this.

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Looking on the bright side

Originally published on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

There was a depressingly common theme at a conference in London on the future of housing organised by Shelter this week.

Speaker after speaker felt the need to apologise for what would be a litany of gloom and doom and attempted to find something, anything, to lighten the mood.

Toby Lloyd of Shelter started with the good news on the Housing and Planning Bill. There is some, believe it or not, in the small steps towards tackling bad private landlords. But even then there’s a worry that measures to help genuine landlords tackle abandonment could turn into a fast track for evictions for more unscrupulous ones.

Then it was time for the real gloom. From Starter Homes to Pay to Stay and fixed-term tenancies to forced council house sales, the bill looks set to accelerate the slow death of social housing. As Toby put it, up to now all forms of affordable housing provision have had two things in common: they remained affordable in perpetuity; and the subsidy was recycled into more housing. Housing Bill-style ‘affordable’ (Starter Homes and whatever Greg Clark says) does neither. What hope there is now rests on what improvements (if any) can be won in the House of Lords.

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Peer review – part 2

Originally posted on January 27 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Part 1 of this blog covered the opening skirmishes in the Lords on the Housing Bill. This second part covers all-party criticism of the detail of the Bill where the sums don’t add up or don’t exist yet. What are the prospects for changes?

Starter homes. Peers criticised both their affordability and the fact that the discount disappears into the back pocket of the first buyer. As Labour’s Baroness Andrews put it:

‘We know from all the evidence that starter homes are not even affordable for most low and middle-income families, whether in rural areas or central London. However, it is not even a fair policy for future buyers. The 20% discount will apply only to the first tranche of buyers; they will be free to sell their assets after five years at market value. We will be minting a new generation of property speculators.’

Tory peer Viscount Eccles said the scheme had ‘not been thoroughly thought through’ and called for much more detail.

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