Marks out of 10 for the housing white paper

Originally published on February 10 on my blog for Inside Housing.

So have Gavin Barwell and Sajid Javid finally grapsed the nettle on the housing crisis?

Critics lined up to call the white paper a damp squib, a white flag and (my personal favourite) like a wet Tuesday in Bognor. Some had even read it first.

Supporters called it a pragmatic shift away from policy under David Cameron and ‘a blueprint for change’. And there was the inevitable ‘cautious welcome’ from housing organisations.

In some ways, the responses of two of the architects of previous Conservative housing policies were the most interesting ones. Former housing minister Grant Shapps said previous plans had not made much difference and this one probably wouldn’t either. Former No 10 adviser Alex Morton revealed the cynical political calculation at the heart of previous policy when he warned that ‘if you get dragged into an argument about renting versus owning, it will quickly become about the need for more council homes’.

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Has the White Paper fixed it?

Originally published on February 7 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

As the advance press coverage showed, this is a White Paper with few big ideas but maybe that is no bad thing when you consider the ones that emerged the last time the government presented us with a range of ‘bold’ and ‘radical’ reforms.

The extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants, forced sales of higher-value council homes and Starter Homes have cast such a dark shadow over affordable housing for the past two years that they make a bit of timidity seem almost welcome.

I’ll come back to the White Paper as a whole another time. You can argue it’s a flimsy response to the housing crisis and there are sections that make you wonder if they’ve been watered down, but it does make a series of subtle changes with the potential at least to change the balance of power in housebuilding.

And there are two new ideas that are definitely worth welcoming: publication of information on land ownership and options over land, and allowing local authorities to participate in German-style land pooling for new development.

For now, though, I want to concentrate on the affordable housing side of the equation and what happened to those three big ideas that have dominated so much of the debate (and my blogs) since 2015.

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An unambitious ambition

Originally posted on January 19 on my blog for Inside Housing.

A new overview of housing in England from the National Audit Office (NAO) provides some revealing insights on the state of the nation ahead of the Housing White Paper. Here are some highlights.

Moving the goalposts

The NAO estimates that 174,000 net additional homes a year are needed to meet the government’s target of a million new homes by 2020.

That’s fewer than the 190,000 delivered in 2015/16, the first of the five years covered by the target.

Confused? How on earth can the government meet such an ambitious target by building fewer homes? The answer is that it has moved the goalposts twice.

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12 tests for the Housing White Paper

This is an updated version of a post originally published on January 12 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The moment is finally here but will radical plans to boost housing supply live up to their advance billing? Here are my tests.

  1. How half-baked is it?

In one very important way, ministers have already passed my first test. Publication of a White Paper seems to mark a return to an earlier era of government when policies went through consultation and scrutiny before they were enacted.

Contrast that with the way that half-baked ideas from thinktanks were turned into equally half-baked legislation in the back of a fag packet Housing and Planning Act.

Speaking of which, how much will we hear about the loose ends that still need tying up from the act? Pay to Stay may be dead in its compulsory form, and the extension of the Right to Buy delayed by another pilot, but we still don’t know what’s happening with forced sales of higher-value council houses or to the receipts they raise.

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The trouble with starter homes

Originally posted on January 3 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The new year ‘green light’ for Starter Homes raises yet more questions about the flagship Conservative policy.

The announcement covers 30 local authority partnerships that will get help from the £1.2bn Starter Home Land Fund to develop schemes with “thousands of new homes” on brownfield sites. These will then be sold at a discount of “at least 20% below market value” to first-time buyers aged between 23 and 40.

So far, so faithful then to the policy as it evolved under David Cameron and George Osborne. But note that vague reference to “thousands” and compare it with the very specific pledge to build 200,000 Starter Homes in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. The Starter Homes Land Fund was launched in the Spring Budget to deliver “at least 30,000 homes”. Note too that only five or six of the 30 areas are in the politically sensitive South East and that the announcement does not cover London.

What this looks like is the more acceptable end of the policy: a plan to get homes built on sites that might not otherwise be developed. True, the £1.2bn could be better spent in other ways but this is not yet the subsidy-hungry, Section 106-hogging ‘cuckoo in the nest’ of affordable housing specified in the Housing and Planning Act.

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Planting seeds

Originally published on January 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Two major housing announcements before most people have gone back to work sets some sort of record even by recent standards.

Late on Monday the government confirmed the go-ahead for the first of “thousands” of Starter Homes to be sold at a 20% discount to first-time buyers aged between 23 and 40. And on Monday morning, the government named 17 sites for new garden villages and garden towns. If only it were as easy to build homes as it is to put out press releases on a bank holiday.

I’ll come back to Starter Homes soon. But first off, those 17 garden towns and villages. As far as it goes, the idea is a welcome acknowledgement of the need for radical action to build more new homes.

But the emphasis on them being “locally led” only underlines the desperate need for national leadership if the response to the housing crisis is to go beyond leaving it to the market with a few extra bits tacked on around the edges.

As it is, Monday’s first government announcement of the year is eerily reminiscent of the “radical new policy shift” promised by David Cameron 12 months ago: initiatives that are promising in themselves and get media coverage but do not go remotely far enough to make any real difference.

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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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