The Housing Bill: The final lap

Originally published on April 29 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The worst excuse for a Bill that I can remember in 25 years of writing about housing limps back to the House of Commons next week.

The Housing and Planning Bill’s tail is not quite between its legs as all the key elements are still there and the Commons will reverse some changes. But it’s been gutted in the Lords, with two more defeats for the government on Wednesday, and this morning (Friday) it’s the subject of withering criticism by the all-party Public Accounts Committee.

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The Housing Bill: fresh start

Originally posted on April 12 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Otto von Bismarck famously said that laws are like sausages: it is better not to see how they are made.

One exception to the Iron Chancellor’s dictum could be the way that the UK House of Lords takes the distasteful raw ingredients of legislation and improves it with new recipes.

That was certainly the case on the first day of the report stage of the Housing and Planning Bill on Monday, which saw the government twice suffer major defeats and also make a significant concession on starter homes.

As the Bill now stands, this ‘cuckoo in the nest’ of affordable housing (as Lord Best memorably called it at the committee stage) has been cut down to size a bit: the discount will be repayable over 20 years rather than eight; and local authorities will have the flexibility to decide on local needs rather than targeting virtually all section 106 contributions as starter homes. The government also accepted another amendment that will exempt rural exceptions sites from the starter home requirement.

Ministers had already moved slightly on the discount period: the Bill originally said that starter home buyers would be able to sell without repaying any of the 20% discount after five years but a consultation proposes extending that to eight years with the discount tapering away over that period.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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”.’

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