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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Signals from long-delayed debuts for Jenrick and McVey

Originally published on January 15 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Robert Jenrick and Esther McVey faced their first parliamentary questions as housing secretary and housing minister on Monday – almost six months after they took up their posts.

The reasons for the remarkable delay to their despatch box debuts – the summer recess, Brexit and the December election – are not hard to guess and are also why housing has slipped down the political agenda in the meantime.

But, give or take the odd appearance in parliamentary debates and in front of select committees, the delay also means that we still have only a fuzzy picture of what they really think about the key issues stacking up in their in-trays.

And it came in the wake of a report in the Daily Mail over the weekend about an apparent clash between the two over where the government should spend its housing cash and which voters they should be targeting.

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The decade in housing

Originally published in Inside Housing on January 10.

It was a decade of four elections, four prime ministers and three referenda. It began in the midst of a Global Financial Crisis and ended with the political crisis of Brexit. It was scarred by the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

All but 15 of the 520 weeks in the 2010s had a Conservative prime minister but four different governments brought four different approaches. David Cameron was all about cuts in coalition followed by radical (but mostly failed) marketising reforms once he had elbowed Nick Clegg aside. Theresa May brought a profound change in rhetoric and some significant changes of substance. Boris Johnson shifted the emphasis back to home ownership.

Here is the decade summed up in 10 headings: Read the rest of this entry »


10 things about 2019 – part one

Originally posted on December 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.

It was the year of interminable votes on Brexit, two prime ministers and finally a decisive election victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

It was also the year that the housing crisis continued to intensify and the year that previous fixes were exposed for the sticking plasters that they really were.

Here is the first of a two-part look back at what I was blogging about in 2019.

1) The politics of housing

Regime change at Downing Street brought a new housing minister heavily implicated in welfare ‘reform’, a renewed focus on home ownership and what I called ‘a great leap backwards’ at the Conservative conference.

At the December election 15 per cent of voters told Ipsos MORI that housing was one of the most important issues for them – down from 22 per cent in 2018 as Brexit and the NHS dominated but three times more than in 2010.

And yet the politics of housing did not seem to matter much as the Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won a big majority away from the big city seats where Generation Rent, homelessness and the cladding scandal had seemed to offer fertile ground for Labour and the Lib Dems.

It was a year that ended with a decisive victory for the leader that promised Brexit and crushing defeat for the parties whose policies might just have fixed the housing crisis.

The bigger question was how far The People’s Government will diverge from Theresa May’s focus on housing and renter issues. The December Queen’s Speech confirmed some continuity, but the Tory manifesto offered few clues and far more emphasis on home ownership seems a given.

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A great leap backwards

Originally published on October 1 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The first two days of the Conservative Party conference make this look like a government that is scraping the barrel for ideas.

Boris Johnson might still have a surprise in store on Wednesday but speeches by housing secretary Robert Jenrick and housing minister Esther McVey were underwhelming at best while chancellor Sajid Javid did not even mention housing in his check-the-small-print bonanza of infrastructure investment.

Jenrick’s big new idea of a right to shared ownership for housing association tenants is not that big and not that new either but it could still have a damaging impact on people who need an affordable home.

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Home ownership gimmicks won’t change much

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

The first big announcement on housing since regime change at Westminster confirms the expected change of emphasis but still leaves some big unanswered questions.

The emphasis is firmly on home ownership in plans widely reported this morning to make it easier for shared owners to buy an increased share in their homes.

The government will consult on plans to make it easier to staircase up by allowing them to buy an extra 1% at a time rather than the current 10%.

That may be attractive to some shared owners but it will do very little to tackle other longstanding problems with the tenure – rising service charges, repair bills, problems selling – and the government will have to find a way to stop transaction costs such as mortgage fees and surveys making it unaffordable.

This isn’t a new idea for shared ownership – Thames Valley already has a scheme called Shared Ownership Plus that allows people to buy an extra 1% of their home each year without paying those extra costs.

However, in terms of a big idea to fix the housing crisis it is hard to disagree with the Labour verdict that this is ‘tinkering’.

At the same time the government will make it easier for people buying under Help to Buy to take out a mortgage that runs for 35 years rather than the current 25.

That is in line with developments elsewhere in the mortgage market and it will reduce monthly repayments but it could lead to increased prices and will cost more in the long run.

However, it seems clear that these could be just the first in a series of measures aimed at boosting home ownership.

Writing in the Times this morning, housing secretary Robert Jenrick hints at more more radical plans to revive what he sees as the ‘moral mission’ of a property owning democracy.

Part of that could be a ‘homes for locals’ scheme:

‘I want local young people, whether growing up in Cornwall or Cumbria, to be able to stay in their communities and build a family where they feel at home. It’s not right that people on low incomes risk being forced out, and I will be tackling this challenge head on. And to get Britain building, I want communities to feel that new housing brings real benefits to local people. What a difference it might make to the planning system if existing residents knew that a good proportion of new homes would be sold at discounted prices to people from that area trying to get on a foot on the ladder.’

The Times reports that ministers are considering a scheme to give first-time buyers a 20% discount to buy in the area where they grew up with the cost to be ‘borne by developers’.

It sounds like a revival of David Cameron’s starter homes plan and it will raise exactly the same issues plus some new ones.

What happens to the discount? Will it remain in perpetuity or be pocketed by the first buyer?

Who really bears the costs? As things stand, the developer will simply cut its other planning contributions, making the discounted homes a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ as people who need other forms of affordable housing will lose out.

And how will they decide whether someone is a local – some people grow up in one place, but many others move around a lot before their 20s and 30s.

All of these ideas sound like gimmicks that will not change very much but this is all about sending out the right signals ahead of the election that everyone assumes is coming, whether or not the government’s plan to suspend parliament until a new Queen’s Speech on October 14 goes through.

Preparations for an election are already underway, with departmental special advisors told to draw up plans for their sections of the next Tory manifesto.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government would use up its best (or worst) ideas at this stage.

As Inside Housing has already reported, they could include a new part rent-part buy programme – and in the Spring the government issued a call for proposals for private shared ownership.

So what price a rehash of the failed manifesto from 2015 and a lurch back to the ownership-at-all-costs agenda of David Cameron and George Osborne?

First, though, there is the small matter of the spending review for next year that chancellor Sajid Javid has just announced will be next Wednesday (September 4).

The prospects for housing are already looking ominous ahead of that. Writing in The Telegraph, the chancellor singles out Brexit preparations, the NHS and education as his priorities but warns that spending departments cannot expect a blank cheque.

According to the Financial Times:

‘While the spending review will be billed as an “end to austerity” for schools, hospitals and the police, other departments will face a continued squeeze. Housing and defence are among those likely to face a tough settlement.’


Enter Esther McVey

Originally posted on July 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Whichever way you look at it this reshuffle looks like a disaster for social housing and social tenants.

On Monday I predicted that government regime change would shift the focus back to home ownership and joked that the worst nightmare would be Jacob Rees-Mogg as housing secretary.

Wednesday saw Boris Johnson make his first speech as prime minister and lay out a long and expensive list of priorities that did not include housing.

That was followed by an extensive reshuffle that saw junior Treasury minister Robert Jenrick become housing secretary and my worst nightmare trumped by the appointment of Esther McVey as housing minister.

And this morning Inside Housing reports that the Johnson government is indeed considering a switch back from the cautious return to social rent with a new programme of part rent-part buy.

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