Mind the gaps in the Housing Bill

Originally published on March 1 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

For a piece of legislation that’s already faced hours of scrutiny from MPs and peers, there are still gaping holes at the heart of a Housing and Planning Bill that started life on the back of a fag packet and hasn’t moved much beyond it in several important respects.

Opposition demands for more detail about legislation are nothing new of course, but I’ve argued before that the lack of clarity here is deliberate in a bill that is designed to allow the government to do what it wants in future. To take one example, after stretching the definition of ‘affordable’ to breaking point to include £450,000 Starter Homes, the bill adds that the secretary of state ‘may by regulations amend this section so as to modify the definition of affordable housing’.

Many of the gaps were highlighted in the Commons late last year. The last two months have brought little further detail but now it’s crunch time: as peers debate a series of amendments, ministers are bound to come under increased pressures to say exactly what they mean.

Read the rest of this entry »


Did Help to Buy help?

Originally posted on February 16 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

If you believe Brandon Lewis, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme is a resounding success: it’s helped thousands of people to buy a home who could not have done otherwise; and it’s done it without inflating house prices.

But does an external evaluation for the Department for Communities and Local Government back up his claims? The good news for the housing minister is the central verdict that 43% of homes built under Help to Buy were additional and would not have been built without the scheme. And the report certainly has a positive conclusion:

‘Overall, the scheme has met its objectives in terms of increased housing supply. It has done this via a stimulus to demand which has fed through into an expansion of supply and with little evidence of a serious and destabilising impact on house prices.’

But look a little deeper and there is plenty of ammunition for critics of the scheme too. Most obvious is the flipside of that headline figure: if 57% of Help to Buy homes would have been built anyway, is that really a good use of the £9.7bn that the scheme is set to cost by 2020?

Read the rest of this entry »


Looking on the bright side

Originally published on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

There was a depressingly common theme at a conference in London on the future of housing organised by Shelter this week.

Speaker after speaker felt the need to apologise for what would be a litany of gloom and doom and attempted to find something, anything, to lighten the mood.

Toby Lloyd of Shelter started with the good news on the Housing and Planning Bill. There is some, believe it or not, in the small steps towards tackling bad private landlords. But even then there’s a worry that measures to help genuine landlords tackle abandonment could turn into a fast track for evictions for more unscrupulous ones.

Then it was time for the real gloom. From Starter Homes to Pay to Stay and fixed-term tenancies to forced council house sales, the bill looks set to accelerate the slow death of social housing. As Toby put it, up to now all forms of affordable housing provision have had two things in common: they remained affordable in perpetuity; and the subsidy was recycled into more housing. Housing Bill-style ‘affordable’ (Starter Homes and whatever Greg Clark says) does neither. What hope there is now rests on what improvements (if any) can be won in the House of Lords.

Read the rest of this entry »


Peer review – part 2

Originally posted on January 27 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Part 1 of this blog covered the opening skirmishes in the Lords on the Housing Bill. This second part covers all-party criticism of the detail of the Bill where the sums don’t add up or don’t exist yet. What are the prospects for changes?

Starter homes. Peers criticised both their affordability and the fact that the discount disappears into the back pocket of the first buyer. As Labour’s Baroness Andrews put it:

‘We know from all the evidence that starter homes are not even affordable for most low and middle-income families, whether in rural areas or central London. However, it is not even a fair policy for future buyers. The 20% discount will apply only to the first tranche of buyers; they will be free to sell their assets after five years at market value. We will be minting a new generation of property speculators.’

Tory peer Viscount Eccles said the scheme had ‘not been thoroughly thought through’ and called for much more detail.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Housing Bill: just for starters

Originally posted on January 6 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

MPs staggered bleary eyed from the House of Commons at 2am last night without even getting to the most contentious parts of the Housing and Planning Bill.

Despite a series of obituaries for council housing and a ‘Kill the Bill’ protest outside, issues such as forced high-value sales, Pay to Stay and the voluntary Right to Buy will only be considered on day two of the report stage debate (set for next Tuesday, January 12).

Last night’s five-hour debate included starter homes, the regulation of housing associations, rogue landlords and the planning system. Opposition MPs complained that 65 pages of new clauses and amendments had been added at the last minute to a Bill that was only 145 pages long.

I blogged back in October that this a Bill written on the back of a fag packet and last night only confirmed that impression. The Bill also leaves a series of crucial decisions to be made by ministers by regulation later.

Nothing sums this up more than new clause 31 on planning obligations and affordable housing. This adds starter homes selling for up to £450,000 to the existing definition of affordable housing: homes for people whose needs are not adequately served by the market. However, it also adds that:

‘The Secretary of State may by regulations amend this section so as to modify the definition of “affordable housing”.’

Read the rest of this entry »


10 things about 2015: part 1

Originally posted on December 30 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Has there ever been a year quite like it for housing? Here’s the first part of my look back at the issues I’ve been blogging about in 2015. 

1) Be careful what you wish for

It was the year that Homes for Britain became Home Ownership for Britain as political campaigning turned into political salvaging. Housing professionals made their case from Land’s End to London, filled the Albert Hall and secured wide ranging support for its case for more homes. But the election result changed all that – and many of them had booed the representative of the party that won.

True, housing and the need for new homes moved up the political agenda as the year went on but not quite in the way campaigners had imagined. As the election neared the Tories promised a ‘housing revolution’. What amounted to Plan C, the third revolution in five years, took a poor record on supply, and traded it in for what amounted to homes for votes on a grand scale. The campaigners who had filled the Albert Hall found themselves facing the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants.

Read the rest of this entry »


Keep your friends close – Part 1

Originally posted on November 30 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

For some reason, George Osborne made me think back to the school playground as he set out his spending plans for the next five years.

As the sidekick and heir apparent to the head boy, the chancellor has the power to get what he wants. First he had to correct his mistake from the Summer Budget when he was caught redhanded trying to steal the dinner money of most of the poor kids. He has now handed it back to the Strivers but will be waiting for them in the bushes to claim it back after school.

With that out of the way, he was free to get the gang together to build some homes, by which he means almost exclusively homes to buy. First in line were his main allies the housebuilders.

When you’ve already benefited from billions of pounds worth of loans, guarantees and relaxations in the rules on planning and energy efficiency, what’s another £2.3bn between friends? Yet this was different: the first time that I can remember that grant (presumably it is grant) has gone to pay for something that will not be recycled into more homes.

Read the rest of this entry »


Beyond meaning

Originally posted on November 11 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

So now it is official. Brandon Lewis has confirmed that ‘affordable’ means 80% of the market rate.

His statement at a Communities and Local Government Committee hearing on the Housing Bill confirms a direction of travel that has been clear ever since the creation of ‘affordable’ rent. Starter homes at a 20% discount to the full price now represent ‘affordable’ home ownership. Needless to say, neither is exactly affordable by any conventional definition of the word.

The minister’s statement came in this exchange with Labour MP Jo Cox:

Cox: Do you think there should be a statutory definition of affordability for both rent and purchase?’

Lewis: At the moment it’s 80% of the market value, whether to rent or purchase.

Cox: But there isn’t a statutory definition.

Lewis: Well, the definition of affordability… an affordable rent is 80% of market value and affordable purchase with starter homes it would effectively be 80% of market value.

Read the rest of this entry »


Noises off

Originally posted on November 3 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

As MPs debated the Housing and Planning Bill on Monday it was hard to escape the impression that the real action was elsewhere.

From the extension of the right to buy to the forced sale of council houses to starter homes, key discussions had either already happened or were still taking place outside the Commons chamber. Yes, talks behind the scenes are an inevitable part of any Bill, but far more so with this one than any other that I can remember. Yes, the Deal removes what would have been a key element in the legislation from parliamentary scrutiny but this is about more than just that.

That’s partly because this is a back of a fag packet Bill that sets out some general principles with the detail to be filled in later. We still  know little more about how the sums will add up for paying housing association discounts from forced council sales than during the election campaign. And, as Alex Marsh points out in relation to Pay to Stay, there are whole chunks of the Bill that give the secretary of state the power to do pretty much whatever they like.

Read the rest of this entry »


Look on the back

Originally posted on October 20 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

A few answers and yet more questions: my round-up of the latest developments on the Housing Bill.

An ex-colleague used to speak in awed tones about the time he saw an old-school football reporter compose his match report for the Football Pink as the final whistle sounded. He took a cigarette packet out of this pocket, drew lines on it in the shape of paragraphs, and then dictated a word-perfect report down the line to the copy takers.

Much has changed since the olden days: smoking in public places; laptops and the internet have replaced phones and copy takers; and Pink ‘Uns died out long ago in most cities. But looking back at the events of the past week it seems that cigarette packets remain as popular as ever for drawing up plans – and for things infinitely more complicated than football matches.

This was exactly the metaphor used by an anonymous source in Jill Sherman’s story in The Times last week that the government is set to phase in the extension of the right to buy because of concern over the costs. ‘The Treasury people are hanging their heads in despair,’ the source said. ‘How did this policy that was made up on the back of a fag packet get adopted during the election campaign?’

Read the rest of this entry »