The housing trilemma

Originally posted on May 1 on my blog for Inside Housing

The pace of change in housing seems to accelerate every year, especially in the last decade.

There may be better known conferences than the one organised by the Housing Studies Association but there are few if any give you a better opportunity to try to make sense of it all.

Held in Sheffield last month, the theme of this year’s conference was Home Struggles: Politics, Marginality and Resistance in the Contest for Housing. This was a title designed to cover everything from the financialisation and homelessness we are familiar with in Britain to the more informal struggles associated with the Global South.

The conference brings together the growing number of academics working on housing issues from this country and overseas but housing professionals and tenants were there too in the audience and with papers of their own.

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A warning from Berlin

Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing.

The large demonstrations in Berlin on Saturday demanding the expropriation of the property of the city’s two biggest landlords are a warning to their counterparts in this country about what can happen when public and political opinion turns against you.

Yes, there is a particular context for the demos, with communism in East Berlin and an expectation of cheap rents in West Berlin predating the free market pressures of a global capital city.

And yes we are talking about two large private corporate landlords that own more than 100,000 homes each.

But to bring things closer to home, both companies identified in the protestors’ placards – Deutsche Wohnen in particular but also Vonovia – have their roots in social housing and grew out of communal housing associations.

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The implications of the leasehold scandal

Originally published on March 19 as a blog for Inside Housing.

The leasehold scandal will have far-reaching implications for housing that will be felt well beyond the major housebuilders with whom it began.

A report published by the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on Tuesday takes as its starting point the doubling ground rents and onerous contract terms faced by buyers of new homes who it says were treated ‘not as homeowners or customers but as a source of steady profit’.

And it also highlights the issue of leaseholders facing huge bills to remove and replace combustible cladding raised in its work on fire safety.

But this report goes well beyond those recent high-profile problems with leasehold and poses some fundamental questions about a tenure that only exists in England and Wales – and they are ones that will require answers by social landlords as well as private sector housebuilders and freeholders.

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The legacy of the 1988 Housing Act 30 years on

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Royal Assent for the Act that set the framework for the housing system as we have known it ever since – but as its influence wanes is it going into reverse?

The 1988 Housing Act led to lasting change in social and private rented housing. Not everything happened at once – some provisions were amended in later legislation and some took time to have an effect – but this was what set the basic ground rules for what followed.

In the social rented sector, it meant private finance, higher rents, stock transfer and housing associations replacing local authorities as the main providers. In the private rented sector, it meant the end of security of tenure and regulated rents and the arrival of assured shortholds and Section 21.

But it also created a system that was full of contradictions that are now only too clear. The stage was set for the revival of rentier landlordism but also the eventual decline of home ownership, the fall of municipal empires but the rise of mega housing associations and a belief that housing benefit could ‘take the strain’ of higher rents that always seemed unlikely and drained away with austerity.

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Squaring the circle of regeneration

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

When England’s most high-profile local authority calls the behaviour of the country’s largest housing association ‘morally wrong’ you sit up and take notice.

Clashes between the local priorities of a council and the organisational ones of an association are nothing new of course but this week’s statement by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) seems different.

Clarion is in its sights over rejected proposals for the regeneration of the Sutton Estate in Chelsea.

Council leader Kim Taylor-Smith told a council meeting last week:

‘HAs in the borough are, in some cases turning away from their core purpose and in some cases becoming all but private developers.

‘You will all know I am talking about Clarion Housing, the owners of my local and cherished Sutton Estate which they wish to knock down the estate with a loss of affordable homes We stand shoulder to shoulder with local residents in opposing this

‘I think we all in the chamber are untied. This is wrong.’

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A new message from a Conservative prime minister

Originally published on September 19 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Anyone familiar with prime ministerial speeches about housing will approach today’s announcement of £2 bn of ‘new’ funding for affordable homes with a healthy dose of scepticism.

They may remember Theresa May pledging an ‘extra’ (but seemingly different) £2 bn in her leader’s speech at last year’s Conservative conference – a month later it emerged that that this had been redistributed from other unspent bits of the housing budget.

This week’s £2 bn seems even flakier: it will not apply until 2022 so we won’t know for certain whether it’s ‘new’ or ‘extra’ until we see what’s in the rest of the spending review; there may well be a different party in government by then, and almost certainly a different prime minister; and Brexit may mean all bets are off, especially if no deal brings to power Tories keen to use it as an excuse to deregulate their way to the promised land.

Even if it does turn out to be new money it will not build a single new home now, there is no guarantee that it will be for genuinely affordable rent then, and will it will still not bring the affordable homes budget back to the level it was when the Conservatives took power in 2010.

Despite all that, though, it’s hard not to be struck by the rest of the message delivered by Theresa May to the National Housing Federation (NHF) summit today: housing associations have ‘a central role to play’; the ‘most ambitious’ will be given ‘long-term certainty’; and the prime minister wants to see them ‘taking on and leading major developments themselves’ rather than buying properties from private developers.

That last bit seems significant of a change in attitude towards development at the heart of government as she went on to tell the summit:

‘Your unique status as public interested, non-profit private institutions allows you to attract patient investment and deploy it to secure long-term returns on quality rather than short-term speculative gains.

‘Your expertise as property managers means you can nurture attractive, thriving places for decades to come.

‘You are capable of riding out the ups and downs of the business cycle, as we saw in the years after the economic crash when housing associations carried on building even as private developers hunkered down.

‘And you do all this with the discipline, rigour and management qualities of the serious multi-million pound businesses that many of you are.’

All that will be music to the ears of big associations like L&Q and Peabody (who both get namechecked) and her hosts will also have lapped up her statement she was the first prime minister to speak at ‘the biggest event on the housing association calendar’.

However, she also restated her commitment to social housing: ‘Whether it is owned by local authorities, TMOs or housing associations, I want to see social housing that is so good people are proud to call it their home.’

Yes, it’s easy to be cynical, yes, she has to make the right noises after Grenfell and, yes ,the government is still pouring far more in to Help to Buy than it is into social and affordable housing.

But think back to what we were hearing up to 2016 from Tory leaders and the contrast is huge.

When May says in her speech that ‘on the outside, many people in society – including too many politicians – continue to look down on social housing’ who exactly could she have in mind?

Could it be David Cameron and George Osborne, who according to Nick Clegg privately dismissed social housing as a breeding ground for Labour voters?

As recently as 2015 housing associations were being lumped in with other opponents of their plans to boost home ownership at all costs that they were determined to ‘take on’.

And it’s not just the tone that’s changed: May reminded associations that it was her government that returned long-term certainty on rents and agreed not to extend the Local Housing Allowance cap to social housing.

She could have added the u-turns on many of her predecessor’s other policies including compulsory fixed-term tenancies for council housing, the high-value levy on forced council house sales (for now), starter homes, Pay to Stay and the withdrawal of housing benefit for under-21s.

And without the levy there is no way to fund the flagship 2015 manifesto pledge to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants – or meet the government’s end of the deal agreed with the NHF at the same conference three years ago.

Whatever you think of the ‘extra’ money, and however crazed and unworkable those policies were, these are not just changes of tone but of substance too.

The final section of her speech (which did not feature in the advance trails this morning) almost goes overboard in her determination to praise housing associations and social housing.

Mrs May (or more likely one of her advisers) has been doing some background reading.

She quotes first from Tony Parker’s The People of Providence, an oral history about the people of the Brandon Estate In Southwark published in 1983.

Where one resident says he does not want to be thought of as an ‘estate person’ that becomes an endorsement of mixed tenure development where ’you should not be able to tell simply by looking which homes are affordable and which were sold at the market rate’ and where you should be ‘proud to be thought of as an “estate person”.’

She praises ‘the social justice mission of the pioneers who created the sector in Victorian times – and their descendants who stepped up half a century ago in the wake of Cathy Come Home’.

And she says that ‘the rise of social housing in this country provided what has been called the “biggest collective leap in living standards in British history”.’ This, I think, is a quote from Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses by Chris Matthews.

May says that ‘It brought about the end of the slums and tenements, a recognition that all of us, whoever we are and whatever our circumstances, deserve a decent place to call our own’.

That ‘biggest collective leap’ was of course council housing, which came along when government’s recognised that more was required than the philanthropy of Victorian housing associations.

So it will irritate many people that May says that ‘today, housing associations are the keepers of that legacy’ and they will await a similarly enthusiastic speech to the Local Government Association, where even Conservative politicians despair about the government’s refusal to give council housing more freedom.

But that important point aside, when was the last time a Conservative prime minister made a speech more favourable to social housing that this one?


Labour sets out its stall on affordable housing

The green paper published by Labour on Thursday represents the most comprehensive plan for affordable housing put forward by a major party in England in 40 years.

The document launched by Jeremy Corbyn and John Healey does not just reject the market-based and Conservative-led polices of the last eight years, it also goes significantly further than the policies adopted by the last Labour government and in some ways even beyond what the party proposed at the last election.

In broad outline, it is an attempt to reclaim the word ‘affordable’ and spell out what housing ‘for the many’ would mean. And it explicitly rejects the current government’s claim that the only way to make housing affordable is to build as many new homes as possible:

‘Conservative housing policy is the wrong answer, to the wrong question. It is not just how many new homes we build, but what we build and who for that counts. We have to build more affordable homes to make homes more affordable.’

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