Sunak fails to look beyond the short term

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on July 8.

This was a Summer Statement that was all about protecting jobs and getting money into the economy as quickly as possible.

Judged in those terms, while it does not go as far as some had advocated, the two big housing measures in chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Plan for Jobs look carefully calibrated to achieve both.

The £3.8 billion cut in stamp duty (increasing the nil rate from £125,000 to £500,000) is calculated to boost transactions, generate jobs and drive additional spending estimated at around 5 per cent of the house value.

And the Treasury reckons that the £2 billion Green Homes Grant (funding two thirds of the cost of energy efficiency work up to £5,000 for owners and landlords and all of the cost up to £10,000 to low income owners) could support over 100,000 green jobs as well as cutting carbon emissions and fuel bills.

But it’s not hard to find holes in the Summer Statement where other housing responses could and should have been: the statement does nothing more for affordable housing, it fails to fill holes in the safety net and, as  Generation Rent points out, vouchers to eat out are not much use if you cannot afford to stay in.

And though the two measures that are there should boost the economy in the short term the longer-term benefits of both look uncertain at best even when you judge them in isolation and in their own terms.

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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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10 things about 2019 – part two

Originally published on December 27 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The second part of my look back at 2019 runs from welfare homelessness to decarbonisation via housebuilding and permitted development.

5) ‘The systematic immiseration of millions’

The election result means that universal credit, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax and all the other welfare ‘reforms’ of the last decade are set to continue into the 2020s.

Chancellor Sajid Javid told us in the September spending round that austerity is over but the only hard evidence of this was an extra £40m for discretionary housing payments and previous cuts are still baked in to the system.

The election had delayed a full spending review until 2020 but better news came in November as the Conservative manifesto confirmed an end to the four-year freeze in most working age benefits, including the local housing allowance.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the government will restore the broken link with rents. It’s also worth noting that Esther McVey, the self-styled architect of Blue Collar Conservatism, called for part of housing benefit to be diverted into Help to Buy during her brief tilt at the Tory leadership.

I blogged about the deeper impacts on the housing system in a post from the Housing Studies Association conference in May that highlighted research on the ‘housing trilemma’ facing social landlords between their social mission, business imperatives and the impacts on tenants.

And the same month brought a damning external review from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty that warned of ‘the systematic immiseration of millions’.

Professor Philip Alston noted ‘a striking and complete disconnect’ between the picture painted by ministers and what he had heard and seen from people across the UK.

As for the chief architect of it all, the year finished with the decade summed up in four words: Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

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Tories out on a limb at housing hustings

Originally published on December 5 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The most illuminating answer in Wednesday night’s housing hustings came with the final question.

Politicians at the event organised by a coalition of different housing organisations were asked: ‘How much of your income do you think it’s reasonable and right to spend on housing?’

They were asked for a quickfire answer to an affordability question that covers lots of complicated issues. What counts as income and what as housing costs? Do you include housing benefit? Do you account for differences in incomes and tenures?

The standard answer is a maximum of a third – and that was the one given by John Healey for Labour, Sian Berry for the Greens and Tom Brake (who said 30%) for the Lib Dems.

But Luke Hall, junior housing minister in the last Conservative government, went first and went out on a limb with 50%.

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Getting ready for decarbonisation

Originally posted on September 26 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Decarbonisation took two more important steps up the housing agenda this week as the UK Labour conference endorsed radical plans for a Green New Deal and the Welsh Government accepted in principle all of the recommendations of a landmark independent review.

There is still some way to go before all of this starts impacting on housing organisations, tenants and home owners but the general direction seems clear and prepare to hear a lot more about what could become the dominant housing issue of the next decade.

In Scotland, meanwhile, a Climate Change Bill passed this week that set targets of reducing carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 and becoming a net zero society by 2045.

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A new mindset on decarbonisation

Originally posted on August 9 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Decarbonisation is set to be one of the biggest housing issues of the next decade but the debate about how to do it and how to pay for it is only just getting started.

If the need for dramatic action has long been clear, so too has a tendency to put off doing anything meaningful – witness the way that England’s ambition to make all new homes zero carbon by 2016 was watered down and then dropped by the self-styled ‘greenest government ever’.

But as extreme weather and Extinction Rebellion bring the climate emergency to the top of the agenda the issue is back with a vengeance.

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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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Coping with climate change

Originally published on February 21 as a blog for Inside Housing. 

Remember when England was going to lead the world on zero carbon homes?

Three years after that was meant to happen, a report published today (Thursday) by the government’s independent advisor on climate change reveals that instead we are going backwards.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warns that ‘UK homes are not fit for the future’, with progress stalled on reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to adapt the housing stock falling far behind the risks posed by higher temperatures, flooding and water scarcity.

Improving the quality, design and use of homes will not just address the challenges of climate change, it says, but save people money and improve health and wellbeing, especially for vulnerable groups like the elderly.

Many of today’s headlines were generated by its recommendations that would mean no more gas boilers and hobs, with no new homes connected to the gas grid from 2025 .

However, the report as a whole has multiple and far-reaching implications for new and existing homes if the UK is to meet its legally binding target to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.

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A quick rant about train lines and climate change

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It may not be conclusive proof that climate change exists but the sight of the rails on the main train line to the South West suspended in mid air above the sea seems a pretty fair indication of it.

If you’ve never taken the train to Devon and Cornwall, the stretch around Dawlish and Teignmouth is possibly the most scenic in the whole country (the only rival I can think of is the Kyle of Localsh line in the Highlands). The views are breathtaking as the train runs directly above the beach, only metres above sea level, and beneath distinctive red cliffs.

Unfortunately, that means it is also one of the most vulnerable in the UK too. Landslips on the cliffs around Teignmouth and damage from storm surges have happened with depressing regularity but this is the first time I can remember the sea breaching the sea wall at Dawlish.

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