The winners and losers from the rent cap

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

The rent cap proposed for social housing may not have come as a huge surprise but the consequences will play out in very different ways for different parties.

It says it all about the cost of living crisis that whether rents are capped or not could be well down social tenants’ list of worries over the next few months.

The energy price cap has already almost doubled in the last 12 months to £1,971 a year. Next month that will rise to £3,549 and the worst forecasts suggest that could double again by next April unless the new government takes radical action.

Effectively, therefore, tenants in social housing could be paying double rent next year unless they take drastic steps to cut their bills.

But many are already doing this and finding that even turning the boiler off does not go far enough – they may be asking why the consultation does not include an option to freeze rents.

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Feeble progress on decarbonisation

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

The prospect of underspent decarbonisation funding for social housing being sent back to the Treasury is worrying enough in itself – and that’s before you consider the bigger picture.

The warning from a senior civil servant at the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy was delivered at the Housing 2022 conference this week as he urged landlords to bid for the upcoming second wave of the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF).

In the wake of alarming lack of progress by councils who received funding from the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund Demonstrator, the fact that the money is being released in one-year tranches may be part of the problem. There are also  still major concerns about skills and capacity to carry out the work.

However, at least the fund is there. The really alarming thing is that this is just about the only part of plan to decarbonise housing as a whole that is even close to on track to achieving the progress needed to achieve net zero.

A sobering report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) published on Wednesday reveals the scale of the challenge and the lack of progress so far.

Absurdly, as CCC chair Lord Deben says in his introduction, we are still building new homes that will not meet minimum standards of energy efficiency and will require significant and expensive retrofitting. This is six years and counting after the original target for all new homes to be zero carbon.

The Future Homes Standard will not apply to new homes in England until 2025 and the CCC is ‘not confident’ that interim measures will drive sufficient change before then since they will still add to the stock of gas boilers that will need to be retrofitted.

But progress is even slower on existing homes and the vast majority of the housing stock that will exist in 2050 has already been built.

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Action for now, solutions not yet

The £15 billion energy cost support package announced by Rishi Sunak rightly benefits the poorest households most but it remains to be seen what it will do about the cost of living in general and the cost of housing in particular. 

Under the package announced by the chancellor on Thursday, 8 million households on benefits will get a one-off payment of £650 paid in two lump sums in July and the Autumn. Add that to the £400 energy support payment (rather than a loan) that will go to everyone and the £150 payment already made (at least in theory) to those in Bands A-D for the council tax, and the Treasury says this amounts to £1,200 help towards the cost of living for the most vulnerable.

Background documents confirm the one-off payment will not count towards the benefit cap, unlike the £20 a week uplift to universal credit during the pandemic. That should avoid many more households seeing the help disappear as fast as it arrives.

Sunak had been under pressure to do more on benefits not just because of energy costs but also because of the large gap between the 3.1 per cent uprating of benefits in April (based on last September’s inflation rate) and the current 9 per cent rate of CPI inflation.

He said his one-off payment would be worth more than bringing forward next year’s uprating of benefits, as some had suggested. 

And he also confirmed that the April 2023 uprating will be based on next September’s inflation rate, which could easily be more than 10 per cent, rather than retaining the option of declaring it to be unaffordable.

So far, so good, then and this is probably the package that the chancellor should have delivered in a Spring Statementthat looked inadequate at the time and has seemed even weeker with each passing week. This package looks to be both more generous and more redistributive than many people were expecting.

However, that also reflects the scale of the cost of living crisis. Add the £800 increase in the energy price cap expected in October to the £700 increase already seen in April and that is already more than the chancellor’s £1,200 for the most vulnerable and that is before you get to large increases in the price of food, fuel and other essentials. 

And there was one major cost that was as absent from Sunak’s statement this week as it was from the one he made in March and the Queen’s Speech earlier this month. No prizes for guessing it must be housing. 

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Mind the gaps in the net zero strategy

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

In so far as it can be called a strategy, the government’s plan for heat and buildings largely relies on the private sector plus regulation to deliver its ambitious targets for net zero in housing.

What ‘new’ money there is – £800m for the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, £950m for Home Upgrade Grants – seems mostly to consist of allocations from sums already promised in the Conservative manifesto.  

The exception seems to be £450m for a Boiler Upgrade Scheme that will fund 90,000 replacement heat pumps over the next three years, with the government arguing that this will prime the market for its ‘ambition’ of 600,000 a year for the next three years.

But that mismatch only highlights the contrast with Labour’s pledge of £60bn investment over the next 10 years and the Climate Change Committee’s estimate that it will cost a total of £250bn to decarbonise housing by 2050.

There is an even bigger gap between the strategy’s rhetoric about net zero and the reality that bringing as many homes as possible up to EPC band C by 2035 will involve costly retrofits. Around 60 per cent of existing homes are below EPC C.

And there are still big questions about whether new technologies will work, how decarbonisation will be delivered and how the targets and standards will be enforced.

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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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More housing questions than answers

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on December 11. 

As Westminster grinds to a halt over Brexit at least some progress is still being made on housing – or is it?

In the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, some things have undoubtedly moved but the signs at Housing Communities and Local Government questions on Monday were that others are grinding to a halt.

First up was the land question and specifically the way that MHCLG dashed hopes of radical reform of land value capture in its response to a Housing Communities and Local Government Committee report recommending big changes to a system that sees planning permission for housing increase the value of agricultural land by 100 times.

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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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From One Planet to Dr Earth

Part 2 of my blog on what housing could expect from a multi-party government looks at what the Greens and UKIP are saying.

I suspect many Inside Housing readers would welcome a Green housing minister committed to implementing its manifesto pledges to ‘provide 500,000 social homes for rent over the five-year parliament, control excessive rents and achieve house price stability’.

The manifesto is the only one from the English parties already represented at Westminster that offers a genuine alternative to the current system. While many will question its feasibility, few would quarrel with its principle of ‘making property investment and speculation less attractive and increasing housing supply’. Among the policies on offer are the removal of borrowing caps on councils, the end of the right to buy at a discount, more rights to homeless people, five-year private tenancies with rent increases limited to CPI, removal of tax relief for buy to let landlords and preparations for a land value tax.

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Paying the bill

Blink and you may have missed it but significant housing legislation you may never have heard of passed its final stages in the Commons on Monday night.

Scant discussion in the housing press (including by me) of the Deregulation Bill is perhaps understandable when you consider that it is huge and it covers everything from the right to buy to outer space*. Several of the clauses involving housing were also not in the original Bill and have been added later.

However, here’s what will become law in England this summer as a result of Monday’s votes (there are other minor changes I don’t have room for):

  • The qualifying period for the right to buy will be reduced from five years to three
  • Local authorities will no longer be able to impose standards for new homes that go beyond the building regulations (mainly on energy efficiency)
  • Legislation banning short-term lets of homes in London will be repealed
  • The secretary of state will no longer have the power to require local authorities to produce housing strategies.

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Zero sums

Ministers once promised that Britain would lead the world on zero carbon homes. Do we now just lead the world in hot air?

The 2016 target for all new homes to be zero carbon seemed genuinely revolutionary when Gordon Brown and housing minister Yvette Cooper first announced it in 2006. Questions about practicalities and costs were brushed aside as they argued that the target would spark the mass adoption of new technologies, drive down costs and even open up vast new export markets for British firms. As Cooper put it at the time:

‘In 10 years, all new homes should be built at a zero carbon rating. No other country has set that sort of timetable or ambition but I believe that we need to do it to drive the environmental technologies of the future and ensure that we are building the homes of the future.’

Eight years, and six housing ministers, later and today’s Queen’s Speech promises that ‘legislation will allow for the creation of an allowable solutions scheme to enable all new homes to be built to a zero carbon standard’.  So far, so good. The Liberal Democrats even reached back to the days of Brown and Cooper with their claim on Monday of ‘Britain to lead world on zero carbon homes’. Read the rest of this entry »