May dedicates her premiership to fixing housing

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 4.

You wait a lifetime for a prime minister to make housing their priority and then she gets her P45 while losing her voice with the conference set falling apart behind her.

With all that happening around her it was easy to ignore the substance of Theresa May’s speech.

You may have missed it between coughs but for the first time since the 1950s here was a prime minister promising to put housing at the heart of their premiership.

And here was a Conservative prime minister not just promising an extra £2bn for ‘affordable’ housing but even allowing bids for social rent too.

But as the letters slowly dropped off the conference slogan about ‘BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE’ you wondered how long she will have a premiership to put anything at the heart of.

And even then it is hard to avoid drawing the obvious conclusions from the comparison between an extra £2bn for affordable housing and an extra £10bn for Help to Buy.

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The state of owner-occupation

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on September 5.

The decline of owner-occupation in England resumed in 2015/16 after a brief uptick in the previous year.

The English Housing Survey shows that owner-occupation as a whole fell below 63% to return it to levels last seen in 1985, when the Right to Buy and Margaret Thatcher’s drive for a property-owning democracy were in full flow. The ownership rate is now down eight percentage points on its peak in 2003.

However, even that conceals the full scale of the decline. Owner-occupation is made up of two very different groups – people who own their home outright and those who are buying with a mortgage – and the split between them has changed radically over time.

Here are some key points that I picked out from the English Housing Survey for 2015/16:

1) Owning’s rise…

Outright ownership is still rising as people who first took out a mortgage 25 years or more ago pay it off. From 25% of households (4.5 million) in Mrs Thatcher’s heyday, it has grown to overtake mortgaged ownership two years ago and reach 34% (7.7 million) in 2015/16.

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Simple ‘solutions’ plague our thinking about housing

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 29. 

‘What makes the housing crisis so maddening is that there is a simple solution: Britain needs to get building.’

So ran a tweet a couple of weeks ago from The Economist about an article on How to Solve Britain’s Crisis. Unleash the market, build on the green belt and, hey presto, the housing crisis is over.

In fairness, the article’s proposition was a bit more complicated than the tweet implied – it also proposed reform of stamp duty and council tax – but it is still an illustration of the way that ‘simple solutions’ plague our thinking about housing.

What I mean by that is that there may well be good arguments that can be made for building on the green belt, or rent control, or building a million council houses, or prefabrication or any of the other quick fixes that are routinely trotted out.

It’s certainly hard to see a solution that does not involve more homes, better conditions for private renters, a greater role for local authorities and innovations in construction.

However, it’s quite different when one of them is proposed as the solution. Usually this is by one of the ‘unleash the market’ brigade who believe that the housing crisis is all down to planning.

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A system under strain

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 17.

Beneath the immediate crisis about a lack of new homes lies a long-running one about the homes that we have already built.

It’s hard to look much beyond the stat in a report published on Friday by the Local Government Association (LGA) that new homes built today will have to last 2,000 years at current rates of demolition and replacement.

Unless the output of the likes of Barratt and Taylor Wimpey is really going to stand for as long as some of the glories of Ancient Rome, something clearly does not add up. This graph shows the age of the stock broken down by tenure:

The report by Residential Analysts finds that large numbers of homes across all tenures are not of appropriate quality, with the private rented sector representing the biggest cause for concern, with problems such as damp and poor energy efficiency concentrated in the oldest stock.

The number of homes failing to meet the Decent Homes standard has been improving in recent years total cost of bringing them up to scratch is still estimated at £27 billion, of which just £2 billlion is for social housing.

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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.

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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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