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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The pandemic and wealth inequality

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Three numbers from a report published this week sum up the financial impact of the pandemic on households – and housing is at the heart of it.

First, £50,000. That’s the average increase in the wealth per adult of the richest 10 per cent of households, says the report by the Resolution Foundation think tank.

Second, £7,800. The increase in the wealth per adult of households in the fifth decile, those right in the middle of the wealth distribution.

Third, £86. That’s the average gain per adult in the poorest 30 per cent of the population.

In part, these numbers reflect the pattern established in the 1980s and then accelerated after the financial crisis whereby wealth begets wealth.

But they also represent something new: the Resolution Foundation estimates that total household wealth has increased by £900 billion since the start of the pandemic, making the period we have just lived through the first recession since the end of the Second World War in which we have got richer.

Some of that is down to spending less (£125 billion) and getting into less consumer debt (£10 billion) but over 80 per cent of it is due to rising asset prices (£750 billion). 

Some of that is driven by rising share values but most of it is due to increases in house prices, which are now up by more than 10 per cent since the start of the pandemic, fuelled in part by the stamp duty holiday.

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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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Facing up to the cladding crisis

Originally published on September 7 as a column for Inside Housing.

All through the cladding saga, the government has dragged its feet and resisted spending money before finally being forced to act.

Think back to the way ministers resisted any kind of fund for replacement of Grenfell-style ACM cladding, then insisted private building owners should pay, then denied the need for any help for non-ACM cladding and you see a pattern repeating itself.

It took the government almost a year after Grenfell to announce a £400m fund for the removal of ACM on social housing blocks, almost two years to find £200m for private blocks and almost three years to announce the £1bn Building Safety Fund for the removal of non-ACM cladding.

All this while the cladding scandal continued to escalate, dragging in more and more blocks and more and more residents and eventually wrecking the whole market in recently built flats.

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Doing the right thing on fire safety

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on June 18.

In the 36 months since Grenfell ministers have repeatedly appealed to others to ‘do the right thing’ and pay for the replacement of dangerous cladding on high-rise homes.

Ministers have resisted doing anything themselves but the pressure has always told eventually.

After 11 months, a £400 million fund was announced for social housing blocks with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding. After 23 months, another £200 million was found for private blocks with ACM. After 32 months, the £1 billion Building Safety Fund was announced in the Spring Budget this year to cover hundreds more high-rise blocks with non-ACM but still dangerous cladding

Three years on from the fire, work has only been completed on a third of the ACM blocks – 149 out of 457 – according to the latest government statistics.  Of the remaining 307, work had not even started on 140.

The minister responsible for building safety (the fifth since Grenfell) told the Housing Communities and Local Government (HCLG) committee that there are another 11,300 buildings with other types of dangerous cladding and that 1,700 of them are classed as high risk.

Even as the funding has been grudgingly announced, so the estimated cost of fixing the problem has risen. Add the costs of other internal and external fire safety measures that go well beyond the clading, and the HCLG committee puts the total cost at £15 billion.

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What help for housing?

Originally posted on insidehousing.co.uk on April 23.

An extension of Help to Buy looks likely, a stamp duty holiday probable, but what else should the government do when the housing market eventually emerges from its Coronavirus freeze?

Vested interests are already out in force making their case and can cite the effect of a downturn on housebuilding numbers, the economy and tax receipts in their support.

And if anyone is feeling a sense of déjà vu this is of course pretty much where we were in 2008, when the housing market slumped in the wake of the credit crunch.

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Priorities after the reshuffle

The dust has settled on the reshuffle with yet another new housing minister but more significant developments elsewhere.

The replacement of Esther McVey with Chris Pincher, the 10th housing minister to take their turn since 2010, need only detain us long enough to note the reward reaped by the former for resigning in principle from a proper Cabinet job over Brexit and the fact that the latter has lost the ‘attending Cabinet’ status that previously went with being a minister of state.

As Pete Apps noted on Thursday, the resignation of Sajid Javid is much bigger news because it dials down faint hopes that housing will gain in the Budget and Spending Review.

There was no direct evidence that this would actually happen but as a former housing secretary Javid is at least aware of the issues that need to be addressed. Rishi Sunak, the former Treasury chief secretary who steps into his shoes, is an unknown quantity.

More clues can perhaps be gleaned from the appointment of Jack Airey as Boris Johnson’s special advisor on housing and planning. As a former head of housing at Policy Exchange, we can probably expect more on the ‘building beautiful’ agenda and more support for the argument that housing problems all come back to planning.

And, at least in the short term, the most significant appointment in the reshuffle is the re-appointment of Robert Jenrick as housing secretary.

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Which way will Johnson jump?

Originally published on February 11 on my blog for Inside Housing.

For the moment at least all things seem possible when it comes to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and housing.

Arguments apparently continue between those who want to shift further towards home ownership and those who see council housing as the focus for blue collar Conservatism.

The party seems to be facing in two opposite directions on new development, with some arguing for planning restrictions to be swept away while others see ‘beauty first’ as the key to winning local consent.

And these are just part of a wider battle between those who see Brexit as a chance to complete the Thatcherite revolution and those who think they must reverse some of it.

As an indication of the breadth of the possibilities, the Sunday Telegraph even reported that Johnson and chancellor Sajid Javid are considering imposing a mansion tax in the Budget.

The symbolism of taxing the well-housed in the South to spend more in the North could not be denied but would they really steal a policy from Ed Miliband’s Labour to screw their own supporters?

The first forks in the road are coming up soon with choices to be made about who will hold key ministerial positions in the reshuffle this week and what will be prioritised in the Spring Budget and in the Spending Review to follow.

In the meantime, though, what might a Boris Johnson housing policy look like?

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