Bigger questions lie behind public land failure

Originally published on July 24 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The government has wasted a ‘once-in-a generation opportunity’ to tackle the housing crisis by failing to develop a strategy for disposing of public land.

That’s the damning verdict on the much-vaunted Public Land for Housing Programme from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) this morning (Wednesday).

The MPs find that by 2020 the government will have sold land for just 69,000 of the 160,000 homes it promised in England between 2015 and 2020 – and even that estimate relies on some heroic assumptions about progress over the next 12 months.

A second target to deliver £5 billion of receipts from the sale of surplus public land over the same period will be met – but only because of the £1.5 bn sale of Network Rail’s railway arches in February that was not part of the original programme.

When you consider that is happening in the middle of a housing crisis and in the wake of an austerity drive that has been closing public services around the country, that is an abject failure.

And those headline figures only tell part of a story that has an ever bigger failure to deliver affordable housing at the heart of it.

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Housing in the Spring Statement

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

With Brexit dominating everything, the Spring Statement seems at first glance to be just as underwhelming as the chancellor hoped when he moved the main Budget event of the year to the Autumn.

The most eye-catching details from usual array of announcements and re-announcements on housing includes are £3bn Affordable Housing Guarantee Scheme to support 30,000 homes and a proposal to ban fossil fuel heating systems in new homes from 2025.

But to add to the sense of Brexit drift, the first re-introduces a coalition scheme that lowered borrowing costs for housing associations but was abolished in 2015 while the second does something to address climate change but will be arriving nine years later than the zero carbon homes that were scrapped by the coalition.

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Social housing reforms let down tenants

Originally posted on December 4 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Go back to the days when the government’s confidence in its marketising agenda for social housing was at its greatest and one consistent justification was made by ministers for their policies.

The introduction of affordable rent would mean more new homes for the same money, fixed-term tenancies in the Localism Act would ‘end the lazy consensus’ and free up more lettings for people on the waiting list and Welfare Reform Act measures to remove the spare room subsidy would free up larger properties for overcrowded families.

Figures released last week show the combined impact of the policies and the results are not pretty. Read the rest of this entry »


New NPPF but no green paper

Originally published on July 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Pick your moment: the appointment of a new housing minister only two weeks ago; the non-appearance of advance trails in the Sunday papers; or the failure of housing secretary James Brokenshire to rise to Labour’s bait in the Commons on Monday.

They were all strong signals that the social housing green paper, first promised early this year, then in the Spring and then before the recess, would fail to make its appearance by the time MPs went on their summer break on Tuesday.

Challenged over the decision by the BBC’s Mark Easton, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said that: ‘Providing high quality and well managed social housing is a top priority for this government. Shortly we will publish a Green Paper that sets out a new deal for social housing tenants.’

‘Shortly’ in this context might mean over the recess or (more likely) when MPs return in September (though there is some speculation that tensions over Brexit could see this delayed until October).

Either way, social housing seems to be just as much of a ‘top priority’ as it was when Kit Malthouse became the third different housing minister this year, leaving none of the politicians in place who personally assured tenants that they were ‘listening’ to their concerns.

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Red tape and rabbit hutches

Originally posted on May 8 on my blog for Inside Housing.

New rules making it easier to convert offices into residential property have generated more than 30,000 new homes in the last two years – but at what cost?

A report published last week that deserves more attention took a detailed look at what has happened in five areas of England since the system was deregulated in 2013.

The study for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors also compares the experiences of Glasgow and Rotterdam, which have also seen office to residential conversions without the same deregulation.

The English reforms extended the system of permitted development, allowing developers to apply for prior approval rather than planning permission and making it much easier for them to push office to residential conversions through the system.

This is not a total free-for-all – some local authorities have successfully applied for exemptions for some areas and it is still possible to apply for new ones – but it is a significant relaxation that is meant to deliver more homes.

When former communities secretary Eric Pickles first introduced the new system he said that:

‘By unshackling developers from a legacy of bureaucratic planning we can help them turn thousands of vacant commercial properties into enough new homes to jump start housing supply.’

The scheme was first introduced for three years from May 2013, then made permanent from April 2016.

At first glance the results seem to bear out Pickles’s hopes and look impressive in terms the contribution to the government’s plans to move towards 300,000 net additional dwellings a year.

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Labour sets out its stall on affordable housing

The green paper published by Labour on Thursday represents the most comprehensive plan for affordable housing put forward by a major party in England in 40 years.

The document launched by Jeremy Corbyn and John Healey does not just reject the market-based and Conservative-led polices of the last eight years, it also goes significantly further than the policies adopted by the last Labour government and in some ways even beyond what the party proposed at the last election.

In broad outline, it is an attempt to reclaim the word ‘affordable’ and spell out what housing ‘for the many’ would mean. And it explicitly rejects the current government’s claim that the only way to make housing affordable is to build as many new homes as possible:

‘Conservative housing policy is the wrong answer, to the wrong question. It is not just how many new homes we build, but what we build and who for that counts. We have to build more affordable homes to make homes more affordable.’

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Where the money really goes in housing

Three comparisons leap out from the latest edition of the indispensable UK Housing Review published on Wednesday.

The first two are not new in themselves and the third is only a crude estimate but all three need repeating again and again for a real appreciation of where spending on housing goes and exactly who is subsidising who.

First comes the main one highlighted by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH): the shift from bricks and mortar to personal subsidies, or from grants for new homes and repairs to old ones to housing benefit.

This series of pie charts from the Review shows the change over the last 40 years and the total amount of housing subsidies in real terms:

Chapters tables charts 2018

Note first that supply subsidies have sunk to just 4.3 per cent of the total pie – this despite all the cuts in housing benefit seen since 2010 and the fact that the figures to not include continuing tax reliefs for home owners (see below for more on that).

Second, note that this does not save money. Total subsidies are now 48 per cent higher in real terms than at the turn of the century (when admittedly social housing investment was very low) but they are also approaching the levels of 30 years ago (when investment was significantly higher and the unemployment rate was three times what it is now).

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