A look ahead to the manifestos

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

As we await the manifestos, what are the chances of real change in housing over the next five years?

Give or take the odd leak, there are some positive signs. First, this election has one of the two major parties pinning its election hopes on housing reform and members of the other saying that ‘building more homes‘ is a bigger priority than it has been for years.

Second, a clutch of select committee reports, which were published just before parliament shut down for the election, set down some useful all-party markers for future policy.

Third, in Gavin Barwell and John Healey the two main parties have their best housing spokespeople in years. That may be damning them with faint praise but both seem to be politicians who get the case for housing.

For all the enthusiasm about Labour’s new deal for private renters and pledge of 100,000 social rented homes a year, the chances of it being able to put them into practice seem somewhere between slim and zero.

So the real questions are whether the Conservatives will go any further than February’s underwhelming Housing White Paper and if so in which direction they will head.

The Conservative Home survey I linked to above found party members agreeing on the need for more homes but favouring two very different ways of building them. One strand of opinion argues for the liberalisation of planning, while another wants Macmillan-style state intervention in housebuilding.

You could almost call them Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite. Presumably, the first would also want a reiteration of the 2015 manifesto pledge to extend the Right to Buy to housing association tenants and would see funding it via forced sales of council houses as a good thing. The second might see sense on forced sales and accept that the market alone cannot fix things.

Where Theresa May stands in all this is far from clear. During her campaign to become Conservative leader she pledged to fight ‘injustices’ and help ‘ordinary working-class families’ but seemed to assume that all of them already own their own home.

Similarly, when Andrew Marr asked her on TV at the start of the campaign about benefit cuts for the working poor, she defended them on the grounds that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’.

But as her staff work on a manifesto apparently designed to steal some of Labour’s clothes, what more eye-catching way to do it could there be than promising a revival of council housing?

That choice aside, how much of a priority will housing really be for her? One reason the White Paper was a damp squib is that housing outcomes depend on so much more than housing policy.

They are determined by choices on social security and tax in particular, and economic policy in general – and most of them are about politics rather than policy.

At all elections the parties promise something like ‘affordable housing for you and your family’ but it’s hard to think of the last time any government achieved this.

Part of the reason is timing: making housing affordable will take longer than the five years (let alone two) that we have between elections.

That leaves parties facing potentially unpopular choices now that may only pay political dividends when they have already left power.

It’s also about the politics of housing and insiders and outsiders. The insiders are the housing haves, people who already own one home or more and who want policies that protect and inflate the value of their assets. The outsiders are the have-nots, those who don’t already own a house and want policies to make it easier to buy and better to rent.

The conventional wisdom that elections can only be won by appealing to insiders has broken down to some extent – the proportion of us who own our homes is 63% and falling and we have children who need homes too – but it’s been replaced a harsher arithmetic.

The parties know that homeowners are not just much more likely to vote than renters, they are also far more likely to be registered to vote in the first place. Thanks to their more frequent moves, private renters are effectively disenfranchised by the housing system.

Jeremy Corbyn’s new package of rights may well boost Labour support among private renters but owners still punch above their weight when it comes to elections.

That is exactly the calculation that Gavin Barwell seems to have made in defending his wafer-thin majority of 165 in Croydon Central.

Housing tenure in his constituency reflects the big changes seen in the past few years. Around 60% of households own their home, compared with 18% in social housing and 21% in private renting, but between 2001 and 2011 private renting rose by 61% while mortgaged ownership fell 18%.

Barwell has shifted policy away from the obsession with ownership seen under David Cameron and George Osborne and he does make a virtue of that in his local campaign.

One of his five priorities is more affordable housing and he also mentions banning letting agent fees and supporting a community land trust.

Good stuff, but if you look at the Twitter account that has now morphed into @BackBarwell, he has come back repeatedly to one housing issue since the election was called: Labour’s inheritance tax bombshell and whether his opponent supports it or not.

This is a reference to Labour’s line on one of Mr Osborne’s most controversial policies: an increase in the inheritance tax threshold for main homes to allow a couple to pass on up to £1m tax-free to their children or grandchildren from 2020/21.

As a housing policy it’s hard to think of anything more regressive or more symptomatic of the ‘broken’ housing market.

That market is already dominated by cash, locking out people with no access to the bank of mum and dad, inheritances and profits from the sales of other property.

The ex-minister is defending a tax cut worth almost £1bn a year that will go not to ‘ordinary working families’ but to people lucky enough to have bought a house at the right time and their descendants. (Needless to say, the tax planners are already coming up with ways to make it go further.)

But in terms of housing politics, he knows it’s a vote winner and one that will appeal directly to the people in his constituency who are most likely to vote.

His party is odds-on to win on 8 June with an increased majority. If he retains his seat, an early test of how serious the party is about housing will be whether he stays on as minister to complete the job set out in the White Paper.

But after that, what exactly? The White Paper is a good start but it does not come close to setting out a vision for the next five years, let alone fixing a broken housing system.

For years our politics has relied on keeping housing insiders happy while policy mitigates the worst impacts on outsiders. At best this has succeeded in slowing down the rate at which the housing crisis gets worse.

At worst it just hands the costs of that crisis to future generations.

The next five years will mainly be about Brexit but sooner or later we will need more than housing politics and policy as usual.

Housing has to work for the many as well as the few for Britain to be a country that works for everyone.rigfi

Holding the government to account

Originally published on April 28 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The housing crisis could persist ‘for decades to come’ unless the government shows more urgency and ambition on supply.

That’s the verdict* from an all-party committee of MPs on Friday in one of a series of reports due to be rushed out in the next few days as Westminster clears the decks for the election.

The Public Accounts Committee says:

We are highly concerned by this lack of urgency and ambition, most of all in view of the rising costs, both human and financial, of homelessness. Not only does becoming homeless people represent a terrible blight on people’s lives, it also places additional strain on public spending: councils’ spending on temporary accommodation amounted to £840 million in 2015–16, a real-terms rise of nearly half (46%) in just five years.’

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The problem(s) with leasehold

Originally published on April 13 on  my blog for Inside Housing.

Question: When is a home owner not really a home owner? Answer: When they are a leaseholder.

Leaseholders have the responsibilities of being an owner without having all of the rights. They own the bricks and mortar* of the homes they are living in – but only for the length of their lease – and they do not own the land it is built on.

They pay a mortgage but they also pay ground rent to the freeholder and a service charge for maintenance carried out by companies over whom they may have no control. They may see themselves as owners but in the eyes of the law they are tenants.

The issue has come to a head recently with the scandal of developers selling leasehold new houses and then selling on the freehold for a profit. Unwitting buyers have found themselves facing bills for ground rent that double every 10 years and an escalating bill for buying the freehold.

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The problem with the Bank of Mum and Dad

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

‘The Bank of Mum and Dad’ is one of those phrases that sound benign until you ask yourself what it really means.

What, after all, could be more natural than parents helping their children to buy a first home? And what could be wrong with mum and dad dipping into their pockets, or extending their mortgage, to get their son or daughter on to the housing ladder?

If we were just talking about some people being able to buy at a younger age than others, maybe not too much. But two reports out today show that the Bank of Mum and Dad is symptomatic of a much bigger problem in the housing system that is anything but benign.

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Five things we learned from the English Housing Survey

Originally published on March 2 on my blog for Inside Housing.

So what have we learned from the new English Housing Survey? The largest annual survey of households and housing conditions is just out for 2015/16 and here’s what caught my eye.

1) ‘The fall in owner-occupation has abated’

The official story is one of relatively little change this year: the number of owner-occupiers seems to have stabilised at 14.3m and there were still 3.9m social renters. The survey says that ‘the rate of owner occupation has not changed since 2013-14, indicating that the fall in owner occupation has abated’. Here’s the graph summing up the trend:

However, that’s not the full story. First, a note of caution: the 2013/14 survey had sampling issues that probably exaggerated the fall in home ownership and rise in private renting in that year. As a result last year’s survey showed a surprise fall in private renting and slight rise in owner-occupation that was hailed as a turning point by the government. Private renting resumed its rise in 2015/16, with the number of private renters up 250,000 at 4.5m.

2) But mortgaged ownership falls below 30%

The picture changes again if you look at the proportion of households in each tenure rather than the number. The survey shows that the owner-occupation rate fell to 62.9%, the lowest it’s been since 1985, while private renting rose from 19.0% to 19.9% and social renting fell slightly to 17.2%. Decline abated? Not so much.

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10 things about 2016: part one

Originally published on December 23 on my blog for Inside Housing

It was a year that fell neatly into two halves: before and after everything was turned upside down. The vote for Brexit on 23 June transformed politics, and the complete change of government and ministers has shifted priorities that had seemed set in stone until 2020.

But as some things change, others remain very much the same. Here’s the first of my two-part look back on the things I was blogging about in 2016.

1. Ambitions for new homes

The year began with what David Cameron hailed as a “radical new policy shift for housing”. The prime minister said that “for the first time in more than three decades” the government would directly commission homes itself on public land, giving priority to small builders. It was a welcome move but it was hard not to think of previous housing strategies that turned out not to be as “radical and unashamedly ambitious” as he claimed.

Cameron’s commitment to a million new homes by 2020 – or 200,000 a year for five years – seemed to be exactly that when the government’s own housebuilding figures showed completions running at around 140,000 a year. However, in May I questioned whether the target was really as ambitious as it seemed. It was already becoming clear that ministers were using higher figures for the net additional supply of homes as their yardstick. The total for 2015/16, the first of the five years, was just 10,000 short of the 200,000 a year benchmark.

An influential House of Lords committee gave short shrift to a claim by Brandon Lewis that the housing plans were “very ambitious”. It called instead for 300,000 new homes a year, backed by a series of radical changes to policy on investment, planning and tax.

2016 ends with Lewis in a different job, Cameron out of a job and the promise of yet another housing plan. The White Paper will no doubt be equally as ‘ambitious’ when it is finally published but the signs are that this one will have fewer adjectives and more substance.

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Beyond the fringe

Originally posted on October 11 on my blog for Inside Housing

Gavin Barwell has apparently spent the last two weeks telling old people who should inherit their property wealth and young people they should live in rabbit hutches.

The comments prompted outrage online and in the comment pages of the newspapers and the ones about inheritance saw him ‘slapped down’ by Downing Street. These were ‘personal comments’ and ‘certainly not policy’, said No 10.

But what did the housing minister actually say?

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