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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Lining their pockets

Originally posted on August 24 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Something about the rash of stories this week about ‘private landlord subsidy’ left me feeling very uneasy.

The stories were based on a briefing from the National Housing Federation (NHF) on how the amount of housing benefit that goes to private tenants has doubled in the last decade. As reported in the Daily Mail and elsewhere that means ‘Private landlords rake in £9bn a year from Housing Benefit’.

The figures were mostly familiar ones about the big increases seen since the financial crisis in the total bill, the number of claimants and the number of private tenants who are in work and also on housing benefit.

David Orr argued:

‘It is madness to spend £9bn of taxpayers’ money lining the pockets of private landlords rather than investing in affordable homes.’

He’s right, it is madness. Yes, private landlords do get £9.3bn in housing benefit. Yes, the bill has doubled since 2008.

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Red flags flying over Right to Buy

How can people who can’t afford the rent suddenly afford to buy?

To recap in case you missed it, a joint investigation by Inside Housing and BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 found that 16% of Right to Buy sales by 10 councils were to tenants on housing benefit.

This is not in itself evidence of fraud: the 721 tenants concerned could have got money from their family or from a third party. But it is seen as a ‘red flag’ of potential fraudulent activity and a particular cause for concern in the councils with the highest levels of sales to tenants on benefit:  Dudley (37%) and Westminster (29%) and Croydon and Birmingham (who each estimate around half).

And it’s one aspect of a fraud problem that should also set the alarm bells ringing about the 1.2m tenants who are about to get a form of Right to Buy from housing associations that will not have the same expertise as local authorities in detecting fraud and money laundering.

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Home alone: what Brexit could mean for housing

Originally published on June 24 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

As the dust settles on the momentous vote for Brexit, the one certainty seems to be uncertainty.

I blogged last week about what would follow a Leave vote that seemed a possiblity but no more than that. Here’s my updated take on the likely consequences for housing now that it’s a reality. 

Housing market

The markets are signalling, no screaming, that they expect huge dislocation. Shares in leading housebuilders led the stock market plunge, with falls of 40% or more at one stage, and banks were not far behind with falls of 25%.

You could read this as a signal that the City expects house prices and land prices to fall with severe impacts for both – or as a reaction to panic and uncertainty.

Either way, there will be short-term consequences. Housebuilders look certain to scale back development, stop opening new sites and hold off on decisions to invest in land. Equally, few people will want to buy in a market that could be about to see prices fall and the wider market will stall.

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