First Homes: what’s the big idea?

Originally published as a column for insidehousing.co.uk

It is of course complete coincidence that the First Homes scheme was launched in the constituency that perhaps most symbolises the Conservative election victory in 2019.

It’s not just that Bolsover had been Labour since it was created in 1950, it’s also that it had been represented by Dennis Skinner since 1970, making it a reverse ‘Portillo moment’ for the Tories.

All of which makes the launch of the scheme itself look like an extension of the nakedly political approach taken with the Towns Fund and Levelling Up Fund.

A more generous interpretation might be that the government had more sway over this particular site, which looks like it was developed by Keepmoat Homes in partnership with Homes England.

Either way, this is the launchpad for housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s big idea, homes for sale at a discount of at least 30 per cent market value to first-time buyers. Discounts of up to 50 per cent may be available in some localities.

This is Starter Homes 2.0 with one significant advantage over the original scheme: the discount will remain in perpetuity rather than disappearing into the pocket of the first buyer.

The disadvantages remain the same. The scheme will be delivered initially with grant and then via the planning system. Either way it will squeeze out other forms of affordable housing funded via Section 106, with 25 per cent of developer contributions reserved for First Homes. The government claims it will ringfence homes for social rent so the main impact could fall on share ownership and affordable rent.

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When planning reform meets politics

Originally a column for Inside Housing.

A couple of miles away from where I live in Cornwall a community land trust wants to build 29 affordable homes for people with a strong local connection.

These are the first new affordable homes of any kind in Newlyn for years but (you guessed it) there is a ‘backlash from angry locals’. It’s not the homes they object to (of course not, it never is) but the traffic they will generate.

On the one hand, house prices are way out of reach of local earnings and there is a desperate shortage even of homes for private rent thanks to holiday lets. It would be hard to think of an example of a development more deserving of local support rather than campaign groups organising against it.

It’s a compelling reason why the government’s plans to reform the planning system so that individual planning applications no longer come into the equation and land is simply designated for protection, growth and renewal should be taken very seriously.

On the other, this is one of the rural areas facing the ‘threat’ of 400,000 new homes in a report this week that illustrates the scale of the well-housed Tory rebellion in the shires.

But something else I was reading recently suggests a need for caution. My Style of Government is Nicholas Ridley’s critique of the record of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration between 1979 and 1990.

Ridley was one of the main ideologues of Thatcherism and as her environment secretary between 1986 and 1989 he was the architect of the Housing Act 1988 and therefore of much of the housing system as we know it today.

He is also credited with popularising the term NIMBY, although his credibility suffered when it was revealed that he had himself objected to a planning application near his country home in the Cotswolds.

But what’s significant I think is this arch Thatcherite’s admission of complete failure on planning and the political lessons that he drew from it.

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The cake and the crumbs

Originally published as a column on insidehousing.co.uk on April 15.

From Brexit to just about anything else you care to mention, Boris Johnson is known for wanting to ‘have his cake and eat it’. Why should it be any different for housing?

That was the first thought that sprung to mind reading through a raft of recent government responses to consultations. Much like the social housing green and white papers, they try to face in two different directions at once.

One points towards the more tenure-neutral territory staked out under Theresa May. The other points backwards to the promised land of home ownership staked out by David Cameron, the former prime minister turned PR man for failed bankers.

Both are evident in the outcome of consultations on the new model for shared ownership, changes to the current planning system and First Homes, supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure and use of receipts from Right to Buy sales in the run-up to Easter.

So we get the expansion of permitted development to cover the conversion of most empty commercial buildings, not just offices, into residential. This may mean more ‘units’ but with too few constraints on quality to be regarded as ‘homes’.

Plans for reform of shared ownership include confirmation that landlords will be liable for repairs for the first 10 years on new homes but no acknowledgement that this leaves existing tenant-owners living in devalued assets.

There are plans to give existing as well as new shared owners the statutory right to a lease of 990 rather than 99 years but no fresh solutions for those left out of government help for fire safety costs or forced to take out £50 a month loans.

Reductions in the minimum initial stake and staircasing threshold meet commitments previously made by housing secretary Robert Jenrick without any real evidence supporting them.

Changes to the current planning system include a welcome u-turn on a proposal to increase the threshold at which small sites are exempt from affordable housing requirements from 10 homes to up to 50. That could rescue up to 30,000 affordable homes over the next five years.

However, that’s trumped by confirmation of plans to require a minimum of 25 per cent of homes delivered through developer contributions to be First Homes. Mr Jenrick is therefore diverting a sizeable chunk of the funding mechanism that accounts for more than half of affordable homes into his pet project.

On the Right to Buy, local authorities get five years rather than three to use receipts to build new homes and receipts can account for 40 rather than 30 per cent of the total cost. These are improvements to the scarcely credible ‘one-for-one replacement’ pledge made when discounts were increased in 2012.

But that could still leave them forced to sell homes for less than it cost to build them and it does not address the parallel question of ‘like-for-like’ replacement.

Far from responding to concerns raised in the consultation about broadening the definition, the government suggests that ‘affordable’ replacements for social rent homes sold could include not just affordable rent and shared ownership but also (you guessed it) First Homes.

All of which suggests that the loss of social rent homes – 210,000 in England in the last eight years, according to the latest UK Housing Review – will continue even as ministers make rhetorical nods to the tenure.

It’s as though one part of government wants to shift the balance of policy in favour of social and affordable housing only for another to tilt it back towards home ownership and the free market.

With crucial choices looming as society reopens and the economy moves off life support, which will get the cake and which will be left with the crumbs?


The politics of planning reform

Originally published by Inside Housing on October 26.

Remember when a newly elected Conservative-led government was determined to put an end to top-down planning and scrap Labour’s ‘Stalinist’ housebuilding targets?

It may be only 10 years ago but all that ‘localism’ seems a long time ago in the wake of a planning white paper that Boris Johnson says will deliver ‘radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War’.

But that 2010 rhetoric from Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps is a reminder of the tensions that are inherent in the conflict between Conservative determination to deliver more homes from the centre and the conservative impulse to resist them at a local level.

For all the lofty promises about ‘big, bold steps so that we in this country can finally build the homes we all need and the future we all want to see’, that struggle has never gone away.

In the final few weeks of consultation on the white paper, ministers were already signalling a u-turn on a key part of it after a revolt by Tory backbenchers.

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A route map that leads nowhere

Originally published on September 15 as a column for Inside Housing.

In the wake of Boris Johnson, Brexit and Covid-19, where next for affordable housing?

The last month has revealed the outlines of a government route map that combines some of Theresa May’s commitments on social rent with an update of David Cameron’s vision for home ownership and adds a big dose of planning reform to housebuilding targets.

On the plus side, housing secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed that the new Affordable Homes Programme will include homes for social rent, and more of them than in the previous one.

As expressed in a speech to the virtual Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) conference and an announcement last week, that is definitely more May than .

However, it still falls way short of the 90,000 social rent homes a year called for by the Conservative-controlled housing select committee in July or likely demand from 1.6 million households revealed in research for the National Housing Federation on Tuesday.

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The Westferry affair and planning reform

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on June 29.

A cartoon in a national newspaper last week showed a pig about to dive into a trough from a springboard marked ‘Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government’ saying ‘I declare this development officially open’.

It was an indication if any were needed of how the Westferry Printworks affair has left the impression that the planning system is a ‘Tory funny money’ game of Monopoly (another cartoon two days later).

Richard Desmond’s £12,000 donation to the Conservatives may be small change but the timing shortly after housing secretary Robert Jenrick approved his plans for a £1 billion housing development still stinks.

It leaves the housing secretary looking – in the most generous interpretation of events – naïve in his dealings with the billionaire.

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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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Embracing beauty

Originally published on  January 30 on my blog for Inside Housing.

It is very easy to be cynical about this week’s final report from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report.

From the references to Kant to the plans for a fruit tree with every new house, Living with Beauty is full of the thinking you might expect from a group that was chaired by the late Sir Roger Scruton.

And it’s not hard to see how a system based on asking for beauty and refusing ugliness could result in the word ‘beautiful’ becoming as debased as ‘sustainable’ and ‘affordable’ by the time developers have worked out how to exploit it.

To cite one example that jars, the recommendations chapter of the report opens with a picture of Elephant Park in London, which may be an example of good design and greenery but is also the archetypal one of a community displaced in the name of ‘regeneration’ and social housing replaced by highly profitable market sale.

Yet for all that this is an important report that offers fresh support for attempts to move away from the speculative housebuilder model of development and replace it with a longer-term model that could put the meaning back into all three terms.

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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 two

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

The second part of my look back at 2019 runs from welfare homelessness to decarbonisation via housebuilding and permitted development.

5) ‘The systematic immiseration of millions’

The election result means that universal credit, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax and all the other welfare ‘reforms’ of the last decade are set to continue into the 2020s.

Chancellor Sajid Javid told us in the September spending round that austerity is over but the only hard evidence of this was an extra £40m for discretionary housing payments and previous cuts are still baked in to the system.

The election had delayed a full spending review until 2020 but better news came in November as the Conservative manifesto confirmed an end to the four-year freeze in most working age benefits, including the local housing allowance.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the government will restore the broken link with rents. It’s also worth noting that Esther McVey, the self-styled architect of Blue Collar Conservatism, called for part of housing benefit to be diverted into Help to Buy during her brief tilt at the Tory leadership.

I blogged about the deeper impacts on the housing system in a post from the Housing Studies Association conference in May that highlighted research on the ‘housing trilemma’ facing social landlords between their social mission, business imperatives and the impacts on tenants.

And the same month brought a damning external review from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty that warned of ‘the systematic immiseration of millions’.

Professor Philip Alston noted ‘a striking and complete disconnect’ between the picture painted by ministers and what he had heard and seen from people across the UK.

As for the chief architect of it all, the year finished with the decade summed up in four words: Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

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