Cutting the Goveian knot

Originally published on November 10 as a column for Inside Housing.

In a two-hour appearance before MPs, Michael Gove made most of the right noises but can he really come up with meaningful solutions to the intractable problems that come with his new job?

The man in charge of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) was facing questions from what is still called the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. You can watch it back here.

The reorganisation of his department added responsibilities for levelling up and preserving the union to the tangled threads of building safety, planning, home ownership and homelessness that were already crowding his in-tray. You might almost call it a Goveian Knot.

What was striking was not just Mr Gove’s willingness to engage with committee members but also his multiple hints of bolder answers on the way.

The levelling up secretary signalled pauses and rethinks and resets on several of the most contentious issues he faces. This is reflected in this morning’s press coverage of his hints that housebuilding targets will be scrapped, his pledge that controversial fire safety advice will be withdrawn soon and his criticism of ‘overcautious’ lending by banks to first-time buyers.  

It also became clear that he sees a direct link between levelling up and the H side of his brief.

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How DLUHC and DWP mark their homework

With a new secretary of state, a new department and a new name, what are the government’s real priorities when it comes to housing?

Some big clues dropped in an intriguing supplementary document published alongside the Budget and Spending Review this week.

Spending Review 2021 – Policy outcomes and metrics is meant to tie spending and performance together. Each department has an Outcome Delivery Plan that sets out their priority outcomes and the metrics they will use to measure their performance against them. Effectively, this is their homework how they want it to be marked and the measures used are highly revealing.

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Behind the Spending Review’s smoke and mirrors

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

This was a spending review that didn’t really feel like a spending review as far as housing is concerned.

It’s the first multi-year review since 2015 but compare it to the austerity seen then and in 2010, the cuts of 1998 and even the relative largesse of 2007 and it seems to contain little that is really new.

Aside from what is claimed to be an additional £1.8 billion for brownfield land, almost everything in it has already been announced, in some cases several times.

The 2021 spending review (SR21) ‘confirms’ £5 billion for cladding removal and ‘reconfirms’ £11.5 billion for the Affordable Homes Programme alongside an existing £10 billion for housing supply but the numbers in it play fast and loose with the difference between the five years of this parliament and the three covered by the review (2022/23 to 2024/25).

A classic example is the claim in the Red Book  that: ‘SR21 demonstrates the government’s commitment to investing in safe and affordable housing by confirming a settlement of nearly £24 billion for housing, up to 2025-26.’ Rishi Sunak also used this impressively large number in his Budget speech.

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Labour’s ‘new settlement’ for housing

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on September 30.

If the tone sounded very New Labour at times, this week’s party conference in Brighton also signalled that some of the radical housing policies of the Corbyn era are here to stay. 

The speeches on tackling anti-social behaviour recalled the early days of Tony Blair while the promise of new fiscal rules and an Office for Value for Money were very Gordon Brown. 

But the influence of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell was also evident in a leader’s speech from Keir Starmer in which he pledged a Green New Deal.

This would include a national mission to retrofit every home in the country within a decade ‘to make sure that it is warm, well insulated and costs less to heat and we will create thousands of jobs in the process’. 

That timetable is just as ambitious as when Labour promised ‘Warm Homes for All’ in 2019 and, while there is not much detail, it suggests that housing decarbonisation will swallow up much of the £28 billion a year in green investment promised by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves. 

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New secretary of state, same old problems

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

So it’s farewell to Robert Jenrick and time to ‘welcome’ a new housing secretary in Michael Gove. 

The removal of Mr Jenrick is not a great surprise given a record that includes Westferry, failure to fix the building safety crisis and a flagship policy on planning reform that seems to be sinking. 

Still more so when he ranked third bottom in Conservative Home’s survey of grassroots Tories on how they see members of the Cabinet. Only Gavin Williamson (sacked) and Amanda Milling (demoted) were less popular than him. 

But he also got more money out of the Treasury for building safety than either of his two predecessors and that unpopularity may deserve more respect if it was based on nimby opposition to his planning reform agenda to deliver more homes 

The former housing secretary was an early supporter of Boris Johnson and was loyal to the point of defending government policies on the Sunday morning talk shows that were scrapped in u-turns an hour later.

But loyalty is not always what counts in politics and as if to prove the point he is replaced by Michael Gove, the man who famously stabbed Johnson in the back in the 2016 Tory leadership contest. 

The former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is the longest-serving current cabinet minister and brings with him cross-departmental clout that will include driving forward the manifesto commitments to deliver 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s and end rough sleeping by the end of this parliament

He was the shadow housing minister before Grant Shapps so he will be familiar with the issues and the main players and he will get an early reminder today of the biggest new issue in his in-tray when leaseholders and building safety campaigners hold a rally in Westminster.

However, such an apparently known quantity still leaves plenty of questions about what his priorities will be and he retains a capacity to surprise (not least on the dance floor). 

He comes with a reputation for delivery forged in the Cabinet Office but while some of this morning’s papers see his new job as central to the government’s mission to level up, others see it as a demotion or disappointment compared to his hopes of higher office. 

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Latest attempt to end fire safety crisis leaves more questions than answers

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

While everyone will be hoping that Robert Jenrick has finally found a way through some of the worst aspects of the fire safety crisis, it’s hard not to be a bit sceptical.

The housing secretary issued a dramatic written statement just as MPs were preparing for the Second Reading debate on the Building Safety Bill last week. An accompanying press release from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government said that: ‘Leaseholders in blocks of flats with cladding should be supported to buy, sell or re-mortgage their homes after the government agreed with major lenders to pave the way to ending the need for EWS1 forms. It comes following expert advice that the forms should no longer be needed on buildings below 18 metres.’

However, that use of ‘should’ is telling because the announcement will achieve nothing if mortgage valuers and lenders do not accept it and if potential buyers are not convinced that the flats are risk-free. The banks quoted as supporting the agreement have only promised to review their practices so far.

Previous attempts to reform the EWS1 process have failed and – even though the small print of this announcement contains the potentially significant addition of a government-backed indemnity insurance scheme for external wall system assessors. This one has already hit a significant obstacle as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) says it cannot change its advice to valuers and banks saying they will not change their policies the government changes its own fire safety guidance.

Even if we assume that this is a chicken and egg problem that can be resolved, there are still grounds for scepticism about Jenrick’s attempt to close Pandora’s Box.

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Four years of broken promises

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Four years on from Grenfell and a solution to the fire safety crisis looks further away than ever.

The litany of broken ministerial promises highlighted by Pete Apps in his analysis this week only adds to the impression of abject government failure and of a crisis that continues to escalate faster than its fumbling attempts to tackle it.

From James Brokenshire’s ‘expectation’ of ACM remediation by June 2020 to Lord Greenhalgh’s ‘ambition’ that it should be completed this year, even the programme most directly related to Grenfell keeps slipping into the future.

And despite Theresa May’s pledge that ‘we cannot and will not ask people to live in unsafe homes’ to Boris Johnson’s promise that ‘no leaseholder should have to pay’, thousands are doing and facing exactly that.

In mitigation they could plead that in June 2017 hardly anyone expected things to escalate to the stage where it seems that virtually any residential block built in the last 25 years has come under suspicion.

The public inquiry has rightly concentrated on the causes of the fire and the run-up to that night in June 2017 but it was clear even at the time that the problems went well beyond the refurbishment of one tower block and the actions of one landlord and council.

Evidence revealed at the public inquiry has amplified those wider concerns many times over – but so far the government has not even kept its promises to implement the inquiry’s initial recommendations.   

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A not so humble address

Originally a column for Inside Housing.

Affordable and safe housing for all’. Who could argue with that?

Pretty much everyone, funnily enough, because this was the title of the housing part of the House of Commons debate on the humble address following the Queen’s Speech.

Catching up with last week’s debate, two things struck me really powerfully: first, just how much politics has been turned on its head; and second just how riddled with contradictions the government’s position on housing really is.

In the post-Brexit and (hopefully) post-Covid world, the more that the blanks in the empty slogan of levelling up are filled up, the clearer the first becomes.

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Building Back Better (in due course)

Building back better? Safer? Fairer? How about slower?

At first glance this is a Queen’s Speech that looks full of welcome reforms to planning and the delivery of new homes, conditions for renters and leaseholders and building safety. Scratch beneath the surface in the background briefing notes, though, and big questions remain and there are big battles to come.

Ahead of the speech, the Planning Bill was spun as ‘cruical’ to levelling up, a way to cement Conservative advances in the Midlands and North by boosting home ownership.

But that ignores the battle to come with Tory backbenchers over housebuilding in the South East.

A cynical outcome from the white paper would be to emphasise local growth as you allow councils in expensive areas to designate large parts of them for protection. This would do next to nothing to tackle affordability – or address the very real questions about the future of Section 106 – but the politics will be very tempting.

In the wake of Grenfell, the government will ‘continue to deliver on the Social Housing White Paper proposals’ and ‘legislate as soon as practicable’.

But Grenfell was almost four years ago and the social housing white paper that was published in November that took more than three years. Practicable? Grenfell United has already called it a ‘betrayal’.

Improvements will come in the proposed Building Safety Bill which is at last delivering on the improved regime promised after the fire.

However, that in itself is a delayed opportunity to address the plight of hundreds of thousands of leaseholders after ministers steadfastly resisted all amendments to the Fire Safety Bill to make it clear they should not have to pay for problems that are not their fault. The stage is set for another huge Commons battle.

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Guarantees, cladding and the housing market

Originally published on April 20 on www.insidehousing.co.uk.

The housing market is at a frenzied record high as house prices rise by more than 2 per cent in a single month.

Just the moment then for the government to step in with a scheme to guarantee 95 per cent mortgages for anyone who thinks they have to climb the ladder before it disappears out of reach.

The house prices in question are only asking prices as recorded by Rightmove but the £6,733 average increase between March and April reflects a rush to beat the end of the stamp duty holiday and demand for more space from people who have done well during the pandemic.

It’s now 13 months since the start of the pandemic and, to pick another measure, house prices are up by around £16,000 or more than 7 per cent since then, according to the Nationwide.

Prices initially fell amid the economic uncertainty but surged again on the back of the stamp duty holiday introduced by chancellor Rishi Sunak last July and then extended in March.

The overwhelming beneficiaries are people who already own homes who have been able to sell them for higher prices that now wipe out the stamp duty savings for most buyers. For all the rhetoric about helping people on to the housing ladder, few first-time buyers saved much in stamp duty and all now face having to spend considerably more in total.

The mortgage guarantee scheme, essentially a rehash of one part of Help to Buy, should help them by addressing a genuine problem with the supply of high loan-to-value mortgages.

However, lenders are cautious. The Financial Times reported on Saturday that the largest banks are refusing to lend on new builds under the scheme and that they may also charge higher rates and apply stricter affordability criteria.

From their point of view that makes sense to guard against falling prices, especially when they factor in the new-build premium that adds around 10 per cent to the cost of a new home. .

And the benefits look dubious for first-time buyers too. Based on the Nationwide index, a 95 per cent loan on home at the current average price would be £220,000 – more than the total price was when the stamp duty holiday was first announced.

None of this makes any sense and yet, in an under-supplied and under-taxed housing market fuelled by credit and low interest rates, somehow it does.

As memories fade of the housing market crash of the early 1990s and the downturn after the financial crisis, the logical next step would be a relaxation in affordability checks on mortgages to allow loans at larger income multiples, ignoring the lessons of the 2000s and the economic headwinds that could lie ahead as furlough ends.

But all of this is happening at the same time as the entire market for recently built flats remains mired in the continuing fall-out from the fire safety crisis.

Inside Housing reported on Friday on cases of leaseholders buying flats on the basis of External Wall System (EWS) form declaring that their cladding was safe only for new inspections to decide that it must be removed.

One buyer purchased a £350,000 flat rated A1 and safe in February only for the EWS to be downgraded to B2 just 34 days later. That made her flat worthless and left her facing costs for waking watch and cladding remediation.

If the EWS rating can be changed at the drop of a hat like this, why would anyone risk buying a recently built flat?

The government has grudgingly and in stages committed a total of £5.1 billion to fixing the cladding crisis so far and it has announced some welcome reforms to leasehold.

But leaseholders in buildings below 18m are only eligible for loans and help does not apply to other fire safety problems, leaving a significant chunk of the housing market in limbo.

The fact that at the same time the government has spent £5.4 billion on the stamp duty holiday says it all about where its priorities really lie.