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?

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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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The political heat on association executive pay is off – for now

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 2.

For the first time since I can remember average housing association chief executive pay has fallen in real terms.

After years of spurious justifications for bumper pay rises and bonuses that alone is enough to make this year’s Inside Housing salary survey worthy of note.

Beyond that, though, the arguments for and against high pay and the legacy of past increases remain largely the same as in any other year.

No, it’s impossible to defend one pay package of almost £600,000, four more of over £300,000 and another four of over £250,000 at a time when tenants face austerity, the bedroom tax and universal credit.

And, no, boards should not be pretending that they are only paying what the market demands when that market rate is set mostly by housing associations themselves.

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10 things about 2016: part one

Originally published on December 23 on my blog for Inside Housing

It was a year that fell neatly into two halves: before and after everything was turned upside down. The vote for Brexit on 23 June transformed politics, and the complete change of government and ministers has shifted priorities that had seemed set in stone until 2020.

But as some things change, others remain very much the same. Here’s the first of my two-part look back on the things I was blogging about in 2016.

1. Ambitions for new homes

The year began with what David Cameron hailed as a “radical new policy shift for housing”. The prime minister said that “for the first time in more than three decades” the government would directly commission homes itself on public land, giving priority to small builders. It was a welcome move but it was hard not to think of previous housing strategies that turned out not to be as “radical and unashamedly ambitious” as he claimed.

Cameron’s commitment to a million new homes by 2020 – or 200,000 a year for five years – seemed to be exactly that when the government’s own housebuilding figures showed completions running at around 140,000 a year. However, in May I questioned whether the target was really as ambitious as it seemed. It was already becoming clear that ministers were using higher figures for the net additional supply of homes as their yardstick. The total for 2015/16, the first of the five years, was just 10,000 short of the 200,000 a year benchmark.

An influential House of Lords committee gave short shrift to a claim by Brandon Lewis that the housing plans were “very ambitious”. It called instead for 300,000 new homes a year, backed by a series of radical changes to policy on investment, planning and tax.

2016 ends with Lewis in a different job, Cameron out of a job and the promise of yet another housing plan. The White Paper will no doubt be equally as ‘ambitious’ when it is finally published but the signs are that this one will have fewer adjectives and more substance.

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Two-way street

Originally published on December 7 on my blog for Inside Housing

The minister announces more investment in social housing – social, not affordable – and signs a pact with housing associations and local authorities.

This is not a fantasy or a trip down memory lane but something that happened last week in Wales, a country where the government and the housing sector are very much in sync.

Carl Sargeant, communities and children secretary, told the Community Housing Cymru (CHC) annual conference that Social Housing Grant (SHG) will be increased by £30m this year, or 44% on previous plans. He also signed a pact with CHC and the Welsh Local Government Association to deliver 13,500 affordable homes by 2021.

Though CHC is the Welsh counterpart of the National Housing Federation, the pact is not a deal that requires forced conversion to the merits of homeownership or that turns a blind eye to forced sales of council homes.The Right to Buy is being scrapped rather than extended and the pact sets out a series of other aspirations on everything from jobs and training to energy efficiency and rents to homelessness.

Housing in Wales works very differently to England thanks to devolution and a political culture that works on consensus.While London and Manchester are blazing a trail with new investment powers, Wales can make its own legislation. Greater regulation of the private rented sector and homelessness prevention are already in force, the end is nigh for the Right to Buy and stamp duty is being replaced with the first Welsh tax for almost 800 years.

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Manifestly without details

Originally published on November 8 on my blog for Inside Housing

There are no guarantees but the penny has dropped at the DCLG that policies that were written on the back of a fag packet need lots more work. Six months after the Housing and Planning Act received Royal Assent, we are still waiting for the key details. Could it be that the new ministers have realised that some of what their predecessors did was manifestly without reason too?

Things are not remotely clear with the Housing and Planning Act but perhaps the fact that I’m even able to write that six months after it became law is good news of a sort. It remains to be seen how much will be changed or watered down but the new ministerial team at the DCLG clearly do not share the gung-ho assumptions of their predecessors and the government as a whole has bigger things on its mind. Watch the first five minutes or so of yesterday’s session at the Communities and Local Government Committee to see what I mean.

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Cats and cream

Originally published on September 9 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

It’s Groundhog Day. Inside Housing publishes its housing association chief executive salary survey. People get outraged. Nothing changes.

The average boss in the 177 largest associations saw their total pay rise by 4% in 2015/16. That’s eight times the rate of CPI inflation and double the increase in average weekly earnings. And it also conceals a huge variation: by my reckoning 10 chief executives saw their pay frozen and 21 took a pay cut but 16 had an increase of more than 10%.

The numbers may change (and it’s always worth reading the footnotes for the explanations of the changes in individual salaries) but the arguments are essentially the same every year.

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