The devolution dynamic in housing policy

Originally published on May 9 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Devolution to Scotland and Wales is 20 years old this week and amid the celebrations it’s worth taking a moment to consider its significance for housing.

Since May 1999, when the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly met for the first time, devolution has evolved at a different pace in each country and the Barnett formula has given Holyrood more resources than Cardiff Bay.

Politically, the Scottish Parliament was run by Labour with Lib Dem support for its first eight years before the SNP won power in 2007 and then an overall majority in 2011 and the No vote in the independence referendum. The Welsh Assembly has been run by Labour for the last 20 years, though it has needed the support of either the Lib Dems or Plaid Cymru along the way.

However, it was the election of a Conservative-led coalition government at Westminster in 2010 that led to a new phase for the devolved administrations.

For a while, all they had to do to be progressive on housing was nothing – refusing to follow the English swing away from social rent and towards the market created a clear divide.

Both have still had to cope with the impacts of austerity and benefit cuts largely imposed from London, although Scotland has used its extra resources to mitigate the bedroom tax and has been able to make some tweaks to universal credit.

In the areas that they can control, the devolved administrations have tended to devise policy in partnership with the sector, as exemplified by the ambitious target for affordable and social homes in Scotland and the independent review of affordable housing supply published in Wales last week.

But it is in legislation that a really distinctive approach to housing has emerged and it is one that I’d argue has created a new dynamic in housing policy across the wider UK too. Read the rest of this entry »

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10 things about 2016: part two

Originally published on December 29 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The second part of my look back at the year in housing as seen on my blog kicks off with the fallout from the referendum result. We may still not know what Brexit means apart from Brexit but the consequences were profound.

6. New government, new approach

The most immediate impact was political as the departure of David Cameron triggered not just a change of prime minister, but a change of virtually every minister with any say over housing and a real change of political tone. The debate during the brief Conservative leadership campaign and the winner’s rhetoric about “a country that works for everyone” suggested some potentially significant changes in the drivers of policy.

Brandon Lewis was confident Theresa May would stay true to the agenda of Right to Buy and Starter Homes but he was soon moved to a different job. Gavin Barwell quickly proved himself to be a more consensual and thoughtful housing minister and in his first major speech signalled a shift in focus to housing of all tenures rather than just homeownership.

I speculated on what this might mean for crucial elements of the Housing and Planning Act that were still unresolved, including Starter Homes, but that’s still not clear.

Conservative party conference speeches from Theresa May, Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid suggested a new approach with housing as a “number one priority”, but the question was whether the reality would match the rhetoric. However, the Autumn Statement did partially reverse the skewing of investment towards ownership rather than affordable rental.

Read the rest of this entry »


Home nations

Whoever wins the Westminster election on May 7, more devolution looks inevitable. What will it mean for housing?

The impact is obvious in Wales, where major legislation on homelessness came into force this week, and Scotland and Northern Ireland. In England, momentum is building.

I spent most of this week at TAI 2015, the CIH Cymru conference in Cardiff. The final day saw a debate on the proposition ‘If you could only vote once in the next 18 months which election would you vote in: the General Election 2015 or the Welsh Government election 2016?’ On my count, the Westminster election won – but not by much.

And the closing speech by communities and tackling poverty minister Lesley Griffiths made clear just how much Wales is going its own way. ‘We believe in social housing,’ she told the conference, ‘and I firmly believe right to buy and right to acquire should end.’

Read the rest of this entry »


10 things about 2014: part 1

The first of a two-part look back at the issues and people that I’ve been blogging about this year.

1) Groundhog Day on the bedroom tax

The year ended as it began, in a welter of parliamentary accusation and counter-accusation that left tenants in England and Wales still having to pay the under-occupation penalty. A Commons debate in December just before the Christmas recess a classic example: Labour called a vote condemning the bedroom tax that didn’t actually change anything; the Lib Dems voted in favour and produced a weasly justification for the decision; and the Conservatives went from claiming it would save £1 million a day in January to £500 million, £1 billion and even £2 billion by the end of the year.

However, there were at least three occasions during the year when it looked as though significant changes would be achieved.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing


Devo questions

The devolution of new powers over the housing costs elements of universal credit raises questions not just for Scotland but for the whole of the UK.

The report of the Smith Commission published this morning only proposes two major changes to the existing arrangements for universal credit:

  • The Scottish Government will be given the administrative power to change the frequency of UC payments, vary the existing plans for single household payments, and pay landlords direct for housing costs in Scotland
  • The Scottish Parliament will have the power to vary the housing cost elements of UC, including varying the under-occupancy charge and local housing allowance rates, eligible rent, and deductions for non-dependents.

All other elements of universal credit, including the earnings taper, conditionality and sanctions will remain reserved to Westminster. Some other benefits outside universal credit, including discretionary housing payments, will be devolved. National media coverage was dominated by the proposals on income tax but other taxes that affect housing, including capital gains tax and VAT, will be reserved.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing


The West London question

The West Lothian question is at the centre of the politics of the UK in the wake of David Cameron’s response to the No vote in the Scottish referendum.

The prime minister surprised his opponents by linking a demand for ‘English votes for English laws’ to the fulfilment of the three-party ‘vow’ to devolve more power to the Scots if they rejected independence.

Under pressure from English Conservatives and UKIP, Cameron said:

‘I have long believed that a crucial part missing from this national discussion is England. We have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.’

‘So, just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish Parliament on their issues of tax, spending and welfare, so too England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues and all this must take place in tandem with, and at the same pace as, the settlement for Scotland.’

It is of course complete coincidence that this would benefit the Conservatives (one current MP in Scotland and eight in Wales) at the expense of Labour (40 in Scotland and 26 in Wales). Taken literally, it also threatens the timetable for ‘the vow’ and Alex Salmond is already claiming that No voters were tricked. Belatedly even Downing Street seems to have realised that this looked like Cameron, rather than Scottish unionists, was trying to get ‘the best of both worlds’. Two and a half days after the original statement it has issued a clarification that that new powers for Scotland are not linked to English votes for English laws

Read the rest of this entry »