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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No votes in housing?

Originally published as a blog for Inside Housing on December 13.

It would be very easy for the Conservatives to conclude after this election that they do not need to bother about housing.

The striking thing about their biggest victory since 1987 is that most of the places where various forms of the housing crisis are most acute voted for other parties. And it did not matter.

That’s most obviously true in London where Labour retained most of the seats with the highest levels of homelessness and families in temporary accommodation.

In London and other major cities where house prices have risen most and Generation Rent has grown fastest, gains for Labour from 2017 were consolidated in 2019, albeit with reduced majorities.

Labour’s only real victory last night was in Putney, which the Tories captured in the 1980s on the back of the right to buy, control of Wandsworth council and an influx of well-heeled professionals.

If there was a backlash against Tory inaction from leaseholders in thousands of apartment buildings around the country, most of them (a sweeping generalisation, I know) are in metropolitan, remain-voting constituencies that for the most part did not change hands last night.

As for housing supply as a whole, voters in affluent seats in the South East may not much like Brexit but they will probably have been reassured by the Tories’ downgrading of their ambitions on new homes and promises to protect the green belt. Ex-housing minister Dominic Raab fended off the Lib Dem challenge in Esher and Walton.

So maybe the Conservatives were right to conclude, as I argued in my blog on their performance at the pre-election housing hustings, that there were no votes in housing.

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Beyond the good news on new homes

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on November 14.

There was good news and bad news for the government in a new housing statistics out this week that illustrate the scale of the issues it still needs to address.

The good news is that housebuilding in England is up again: there were 241,000 net additional dwellings in 2018/19, an increase of 9% in the last 12 months and 93% in the last six years.

Net additional dwellings make up the government’s preferred measure of housing output and add together new build completions, conversions and change of use less demolitions.

That total is not just higher than at the previous peak of output before the financial crisis and credit crunch – it is also the highest total recorded since the government started collecting the data in this way in 1991/92.

Significantly, for the first time total net additions are higher than the 240,000 a year target that the last Labour government set in the wake of Kate Barker’s landmark review of housing supply in 2004

True, the big increase over the last six years also reflects just how low output had sunk in the wake of the credit crunch, and true a housing market downturn and recession in the building industry could yet derail progress.

However, with more recent council tax data indicating that annual output may now be over 250,000, the government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s no longer looks completely outlandish.

Indeed, a separate report from the Home Builders Federation (HBF) estimates that planning permissions were issued for 380,000 new homes in England in the year to June.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick was quick to welcome the figures and make a campaigning point for the general election:

One more bit of good news is that the bulk of the net additions came from new build completions (213,660) rather than conversions of questionable quality (14,107 were delivered via permitted development, which was only a slight increase on 2017/18).

However, focussing purely on how many new homes were delivered does not tell us much about how the government is doing on other housing issues.

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Year zero for starter homes

Originally posted on November 5 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The sad fate of (non) starter homes offers a lesson for politicians in the folly of making unworkable promises but it is one they seem unlikely ever to learn.

A report published on Tuesday by the National Audit Office (NAO) investigates what happened to one of the flagship promises made by the Conservatives in their 2015 election manifesto: ‘200,000 Starter Homes, which will be sold at a 20% discount and will be built exclusively for first-time buyers under the age of 40’.

Four and a half years later, the total number of completions is precisely zero and the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has not even laid the regulations in parliament that would enable any starter homes to be built.

So what has happened since the heady days of 2015, when the spending review allocated £2.3 billion to build the first 60,000 starter homes?

The NAO finds that the money was gradually diverted into other schemes to buy and remediate land: a total of around £450m was spent on sites but they ended up being developed for a mix of market sale and affordable homes.

What its report does not reveal is why. This, after all, was one of the key promises made by David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2015.

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