Bigger questions lie behind public land failure

Originally published on July 24 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The government has wasted a ‘once-in-a generation opportunity’ to tackle the housing crisis by failing to develop a strategy for disposing of public land.

That’s the damning verdict on the much-vaunted Public Land for Housing Programme from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) this morning (Wednesday).

The MPs find that by 2020 the government will have sold land for just 69,000 of the 160,000 homes it promised in England between 2015 and 2020 – and even that estimate relies on some heroic assumptions about progress over the next 12 months.

A second target to deliver £5 billion of receipts from the sale of surplus public land over the same period will be met – but only because of the £1.5 bn sale of Network Rail’s railway arches in February that was not part of the original programme.

When you consider that is happening in the middle of a housing crisis and in the wake of an austerity drive that has been closing public services around the country, that is an abject failure.

And those headline figures only tell part of a story that has an ever bigger failure to deliver affordable housing at the heart of it.

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Regime change

Originally posted on July 22 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Three different news stories in the last 24 hours provide a powerful reminder of what could be at stake for housing in the transition from Theresa May to Boris Johnson due on Wednesday.

The government’s consultation on ending Section 21 no-fault evictions was finally published on Sunday along with a proposal to give private renters access to the government’s database of rogue landlords.

But the Sunday Telegraph already had two stories based on think-tank reports due on Monday that put the emphasis firmly back on home ownership.

Conservative think-tank Onward called for cuts in stamp duty with proposals very similar to those put forward by Johnson during the leadership campaign.

And the Conservative Brexiteer-in-chief Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote a pamphlet for the Tory Institute of Economic Affairs putting the libertarian case for an end to ‘socialist’ interference in the housing market. .

The timing of all three is significant as it provides some indications of what the outgoing regime thought important enough to get out before the other lot take over and what the wider Conservative party thinks might be possible under the new regime.

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Ending leasehold’s ‘industrial-scale racket’

Originally posted on July 12 on my blog for Inside Housing.

As far back as I can remember, every government has promised to tackle abuses of our outdated system of leasehold.

Between 1979 and 1997, the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major legislated four times on leasehold reform.

The Labour government of Tony Blair promised ‘a comprehensive package of leasehold reforms’ in 2000 and introduced the alternative system of commonhold in 2002.

Piecemeal reforms improved things a bit for leaseholders but commonhold has still only been used on 50 developments at an optimistic estimate – in contrast to the expansion of similar tenures like strata title and condominiums across the rest of the world.

Little wonder when leasehold offers so many advantages to be profitably exploited by landowners, housebuilders and freeholders.

Now, in the wake of the twin scandals of cladding and leasehold, all that could – finally – be about to change.

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May’s mix of good intentions and unfinished business

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

You wait more than 100 years for a prime minister to address your conference and you get one with less than a month left in the job.

It’s tempting to dismiss Wednesday’s speech by Theresa May to the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) conference on the basis that it was made by a lame duck leader whose decisions could all be overturned by her successor on July 24.

Even the sight of a premier hot-footing it straight from prime minister’s questions in London to the conference in Manchester can be seen less as a reflection of housing’s importance than of how much time she has on her hands during the Tory leadership contest.

As she said herself, even the venue was a reminder of one of her worst moments: the disastrous leader’s speech in the same hall at the Conservative conference in 2017 that ended with her losing her voice and the set falling apart around her.

Yet that same conference saw her dedicate her premiership to fixing housing and it was part of a journey since Grenfell that has seen May’s government move away from the policies of David Cameron, George Osborne and Policy Exchange and re-embrace the ‘our first social service’ traditions of Churchill and Macmillan.

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Housing in the Tory leadership contest

Originally posted as a blog for Inside Housing on June 19 – updated June 21. 

Beneath the surface of a Conservative leadership battle dominated by Brexit and Boris Johnson there is a battle of ideas about the future direction of Conservative housing policy.

Put at its simplest, the battle is about whether to continue in the pragmatic direction signalled by Theresa May since 2016 or go back to the more ideological one taken by David Cameron before then.

But scratch a little deeper there are more fundamental debates going on about how far to go in fixing a housing market that most Tories agree has turned into an electoral liability for them.

Key questions such as how far the government should go in borrowing to invest in new homes and intervening in the private rented sector and the land market are back on the Conservative agenda.

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The long-term cost of Help to Buy

Originally posted on June 13 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

Whatever you love it or hate it, Thursday’s report from the National Audit Office (NAO) will probably not do much to change your mind about Help to Buy.

If you think that the equity loan scheme first launched in 2013 has boosted housebuilding and helped more people to buy their first home, you will find evidence to support that view: new-build  property sales increased from 61,000 a year in 2012/13 to 104,000 in 2017/18; and around 81% of people using the scheme have been first-time buyers.

If you think the scheme has mainly benefited housebuilders and the benefits for buyers have been more limited, you’ll find backing for that too: 63% of borrowers could have afforded to buy anyway; many of them have used the scheme to buy a bigger house than they could previously have afforded; and 10% of buyers had incomes higher than the £80,000 (£90,000 in London) limit for eligibility for shared ownership.

The report does reject one common allegation made against Help to Buy by estimating that homes sold under the scheme have cost just 1% more than similar new-build homes. Previous estimates ranging from 5% to 20% have not compared similar properties, says the NAO.

However, that is just part of a much bigger new-build premium (the difference between prices of new and second-hand homes) and the NAO seems to accept the high figure of a premium of 15-20% as a given rather than the product of market conditions that Help to Buy helped to create.

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What will a new PM mean for housing?

Originally posted on May 20 as a column for Inside Housing.

What are the chances that the government’s shift to a more pragmatic position on housing will survive a change of Conservative leader?

The papers are already full of news and polls about the leadership race before Theresa May has even resigned, mostly reporting Boris Johnson as the overwhelming favourite but also noting the poor record of overwhelming favourites in previous Tory elections.

The stakes for housing start with the record of May’s government. While much of it is about rhetoric and saying the right things, especially since Grenfell, there is also some substance: the first funding for social housing since 2010; u-turns on key elements of the 2016 Housing Act; reforms to private renting culminating in the consultation on ending Section 21; and a willingness to consider new thinking on issues like land.

Does all of this represent a permanent shift in Conservative thinking on housing or will the Tories revert to type once May and her chief of staff, former housing minister Gavin Barwell, have vacated Downing Street?

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