Return of the housing ministry

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on January 10.

What’s in a name? Only time will tell how important the change of departmental moniker will be but it was surely the minimum that Theresa May needed to do to show that housing now ranks as a top priority for her government.

The man in charge may still be the same (Sajid Javid) but both the creation of the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and the order of the words in the title are significant.

By my reckoning this is the first time since 1970 that the word ‘housing’ has appeared in the title of the organisation and the secretary of state responsible for it.

In the 38 years since the Ministry of Housing and Local Government was abolished to create the Department of the Environment the name has been changed again and again to reflect different briefs and priorities.

Between Peter Walker back in 1970 and Sajid Javid in 2018 we’ve had 28 different housing ministers of middle and junior rank, a handful of them with the right to attend Cabinet but not vote in it.

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10 things about 2017: part one

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on December 22.

As in 2016, it seemed like nothing would ever be the same again after a momentous event halfway through the year.

The horrific Grenfell Tower fire on June 14 means that the headline on this column should really have read ‘nine other things about 2017’. Just as the Brexit voted has changed everything in politics, so it is almost impossible to see anything in housing except through the prism of that awful night.

That said, 2017 was another year of momentous change for housing, one that brought a few signs of hope too. Here’s the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about.

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Over-egging the pudding

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on December 14. 

Is a year that has seen a huge shift in the politics of housing ending with a return to business as usual?

The Grenfell fire is the obvious reason for the change in the terms of the housing debate but it is not the only one.

The prime minister’s party conference speech will be remembered for the prankster, the lost voice and the collapsing stage set but it did seem to mark the culmination of a shift from Help to Buy to help for all tenures. But just as her country is not quite working for everyone, so her social housing revolution may not be quite what it seems.

One clue, I think, lies in the way that parliamentary debate has returned to the bad old days of Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps in terms of the selective use of statistics. The first time I noticed this was at last week’s Communities and Local Government questions.

Alok Sharma seems a nice chap and has quietly impressed with his willingness to listen to tenants at consultations ahead of the social housing green paper. But asked about homes built for social rent last week, he boasted that: ‘Since 2010, nearly 128,000 homes for social rent have been built in England, and 118,000 have been built for affordable rent.’

That’s an answer that does not quite compute at first but check the statistics and he is perfectly correct – and totally misleading – at the same time.

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What a way to run a housing system

Originally posted on September 14 as a column for Inside Housing.

The balance of funding between government funding for home ownership and affordable housing schemes continues to astonish even after the change in emphasis under Theresa May.

Revised figures prepared for Thursday’s publication of the UK Housing Review Briefing Paper show that total support for the private market up to 2020/21 is set to total £32 bn compared to support for affordable housing investment of just £8.6 bn.

This pie chart really brings it home:

These are revised figures that take account of the extra money for affordable housing announced by chancellor Philip Hammond last November. Even after that, even after adjustments for lower than expected spending on mortgage guarantees, and even including the Right to Buy pilot in the pink part of the graph, we are still spending £4 on support for the private market for every £1 we spend on support for affordable housing.

What really leapt off the page at me in this chart was that the government is set to spend £4.2 bn on Help to Buy and Lifetime Individual Savings Accounts (ISAs) over the same period as it spends £4.3 bn on the main Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes programme.

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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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Housing in the Conservative manifesto

Originally posted on May 18 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

This is a Conservative manifesto with only two firm targets on housing but lots of interesting hints about future direction and some intriguing omissions.

The first target is to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it completely by 2027 by implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act and piloting a Housing First approach.

The 2022 target may seem bold but it would mean that rough sleeping would still be significantly higher than it was in 2010 when the coalition came to power.

The one for 2027 is incredibly ambitious and would mean matching Finland’s incredible record on homelessness within ten years.

Sajid Javid obviously returned fired up from his visit to Helsinki but you wonder if he took on board just how comprehensive and well-funded the Finnish version of Housing First needed to be to work.

The second target is ‘meet our 2015 commitment to deliver a million homes by the end of 2020 and we will deliver half a million more by the end of 2022’.

The first bit is unambitious and should be achievable, especially as the end point has been shifted from May 2020 (the original end of the parliament) to December 2020.

As the National Audit Office pointed out in January, that would actually mean that fewer new homes will be built over the next three years than were achieved last year. This is on the basis of the net additional supply of homes rather than just housebuilding completions.

The second bit is a different matter. A quick look at the net supply figures shows that there have only been three years in the last 25 when we have exceeded 200,000.

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Housing in the Labour manifesto

Originally posted on May 16 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

Anyone caught up in the narrative about Labour’s radical manifesto will be left disappointed and a little bit puzzled by the party’s proposals on housing.

They will not be surprised given last week’s leak of the draft but they will find a sensible and pragmatic set of policies that move closer to what is desperately needed to tackle the housing crisis and are actually open to criticism for being too timid.

To give one example, the 2017 manifesto is routinely compared in the media to 1983’s ‘longest suicide note in history’.

But where Michael Foot’s Labour proposed a publicly-owned housebuilder and nationalisation of key parts of the building materials industry, Jeremy Corbyn’s party wants to extend Help to Buy for another seven years.

The equity loan part of the scheme is currently due to end in 2020 but Labour would guarantee funding until 2027 ‘to give long-term certainty to both first-time buyers and the housebuilding industry’.

That goes well beyond necessary action to avoid a cliff edge and abrupt fall in output after 2020.

It should be cause for celebration in the boardrooms of the big housebuilders because Help to Buy would continue to underpin their completions, profit margins, dividends and share options.

Or at least it might be if housebuilder executives were not also going to be hit personally by tax increases on higher earners and corporately by an excessive pay levy on employees paid over £500,000 a year.

But it’s still a surprising move from Labour. As Theresa May found out yesterday, Help to Buy is by no means universally popular and critics argue that too many of the benefits go to the big firms, their shareholders and people who can afford to buy anyway.

Whether you agree or disagree with it, extending Help to Buy until 2027 is evidence that on housing Labour’s approach would be pragmatic rather than ideological.

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