Don’t mention the benefits freeze

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

For once this was a Budget that was more significant for what it did not say about housing than for what it did.

In one sense the lack of announcements was nothing new. Chancellor Philip Hammond had already announced that this would be his last Spring Budget and that the main event will be in the Autumn.

The extra money for social care was inevitable if inadequate and it will have an impact on housing organisations.

Housing itself got a single mention in Hammond’s speech in the section on the next generation. ‘Will they be able to get on the housing ladder?’ was the rhetorical question that did not get any answer. (Nope, not unless they’ve got rich parents, since you ask.)

For once (unless I’ve missed something) the background Budget documents revealed little more than an intriguing consultation on a redesign of Rent a Room Relief, the tax relief that homeowners can claim when they let out a room.

The aim is ‘to ensure it is better targeted to support longer-term lettings. This will align the relief more closely with its intended purpose, to increase supply of affordable long-term lodgings’. Presumably the plan is to stop people avoiding tax on AirBnb earnings?

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) Economic and Fiscal Outlook has some background on the profile of housing association spending spending and borrowing, which was less than it expected last year but is being brought forward at the end of the spending review period.

But what really caught my attention were some graphs on the scale of the continuing squeeze on benefits. This reflects the decisions that Hammond did not take to ease the effects of the four-year freeze on most working-age benefits announced by George Osborne in 2015.

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JAMs and NOMADs

Originally published on November 23 on my blog for Inside Housing

Wednesday’s Autumn Statement by Philip Hammond is good news for housing on several different fronts.

First, at long last housing is being recognised as infrastructure. That’s important enough in itself but Mr Hammond went even further by pitching housing as part of the solution to the key economic problem of productivity.

Along with transport, digital communications and research and development, housing will be part of the chancellor’s £23bn National Productivity Investment Fund. In financial terms, accelerated construction, affordable housing and the new Housing Infrastructure Fund represent a third of the total cost.

Mr Hammond also named “the housing challenge” alongside the productivity gap and the imbalance in prosperity across the country as one of the economy’s long-term weaknesses.

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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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The 101st day

The Conservatives must be pinching themselves after 100 days in government. What can possibly go wrong?

For three months they’ve been able to do pretty much as they like. The Liberal Democrats are humiliated, Labour is demoralised and distracted and the opposition that has come from the SNP is a comforting reminder of the Scottish card that won the election. Thanks to all of that, plus expectations formed by inaccurate opinion polls, a government with a tiny majority elected with just over a third of the vote can behave as though it’s won a victory on a par with 1945, 1979 and 1997.

Yet the Tory luck cannot hold for ever. The obvious cloud on the horizon is Europe, with no sign that Brussels will hand David Cameron concessions meaningful enough to sell to his sceptical party ahead of the election. Economically, it’s far easier to start with a recession turn it into a recovery than it is to manage expectations in improving times.

But could the Conservatives turn out to be most immediately vulnerable where they seem strongest: on the ground they’ve staked out since the election to be ‘the real party of working people’? As Cameron put it in an article for the Telegraph on Saturday:

‘On the challenge of delivering an economy that supports working people, it is Conservatives who believe that a free enterprise economy is an ally not an enemy in generating wealth and extending opportunity. By cutting taxes, reforming welfare and increasing minimum wages we are showing we are the real party of working people.’

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Promised land

Originally posted on August 3 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Did Genesis choose the wrong book of the bible when it went through its rebranding exercise?

Reading this week’s Inside Housing, and especially the interview with chief executive Neil Hadden, an Exodus out of social housing looks a possibility in the wake of a Budget that signalled that grant will be ‘refocused’ towards home ownership in the Autumn spending review.

Except that this latter-day Moses seems to see a future as a private landlord and developer as the land of milk and honey. He is right to see the Budget as a ‘massive watershed’ and right to see that the government is no longer interested in social, or even ‘affordable’ housing. Rent cuts, the extension of the right to buy, compulsory pay to stay, reform of section 106 to benefit starter homes and possible extension of fixed-term tenancies all shout that message. The spending review only seems set to confirm that the plan is to cannibalise what’s left of affordable housing to boost home ownership. The question is how housing associations should respond.

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Cuts, caps and goalposts

Originally posted on July 22 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing 

Looking to gauge the effects of the latest benefit cuts on housing? The official impact assessments are at best a starting point.

Documents published for the second reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill on Monday evening (available here) do give the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) view on what to expect, but there are several reasons why it is a severely blinkered one.

First, they only cover what is actually in the Bill and many of the main housing benefit changes in the Budget do not require primary legislation.

So there is an impact assessment of the five-year freeze on most working age benefits but it does not include the freeze of the local housing allowance. Similarly, we do not get the DWP view on ending automatic entitlement to housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds because that will be done by regulation rather than primary legislation.

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If at first you don’t succeed

Originally posted on July 13 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

It may have important new provisions on housing and planning but the name of the government’s new productivity strategy rather gives the game away.

Described as ‘the second half of the Budget’, Fixing the Foundations was published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills but includes chapters on housing and planning and welfare that amplify decisions taken in the first half.

But does the name remind you of anything? Go back four years and David Cameron himself was launching a ‘radical and unashamedly ambitious’ housing strategy. The title? Laying the Foundations.

Once they’ve stopped sucking air through their teeth, any builder will tell you that once you’ve laid the foundations and built on top of them, it’s enormously expensive to start to fix them. It’s also a pretty good indication that the foundations were pretty rocky to begin with.

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