An encore all over again for Right to Buy

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It is the idea that is so superficially attractive that Conservatives cannot help forgetting all the other times it proved to be hopelessly impractical.

In a story helpfully briefed to the Telegraph a few days before the local elections, Boris Johnson is planning to ‘bring back Right to Buy’.

The prime minister has reportedly ordered officials to draw up plans to give the Right to Buy to housing association tenants ‘in a major shake-up inspired by Margaret Thatcher’.

Coming just over a week after levelling up secretary Michael Gove appealed to ‘Thatcher worshipping’ Tories to want more homes for social rent, the timing does not look like a total coincidence.

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A statement of lack of intent from Sunak

Rishi Sunak was always going to have to tackle the cost of living crisis in his Spring Statement and the big questions were how and who would benefit.

Faced with a choice between measures that would benefit the well-off, those on middle incomes and the least well-off, the chancellor did a bit for the first and second groups but more or less ignored the third.

He chose to increase the threshold for National Insurance at a cost of around £25bn over the next five years and followed that up with a 1p cut in the standard rate of income tax at a cost of more than £17bn over the three years from just before the next election in 2024 – though his previous decisions to freeze the tax thresholds and increase NI rates mean these tax ‘cuts’ were really tax rises.

Of the three new measures that he billed as ‘helping families with the cost of living’, the temporary 5p cut in fuel duty (£2.4bn next year) and cut in VAT on energy efficiency materials (£280m over the next five years) are good news if you can afford a car or improvements to your home but not much use otherwise.

The £500m increase in the Household Support Fund in 2022/23 will enable local authorities to help the most vulnerable households with the cost of essentials but it is a drop in the ocean compared to his action (or lack of it) on benefits in general.

The car wasn’t his and the fuel duty cut is not much use if you can’t afford a car

To put this in perspective, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that average real disposable incomes will fall by 2.2 per cent next year, the most since records began.

However, the squeeze on benefits will be much greater than that.

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The political choices on homelessness

Everyone In was one of the few success stories in housing policy this century but all that progress in tackling homelessness is about to go into reverse.

The stark warning in the latest Homelessness Monitor for England from Crisis is that levels of core homelessness will have gone up by a third between 2019 and 2024 if nothing changes.

If the reasons for the forecast are not hard to guess, the contrast with the progress made at the start of the pandemic when 37,000 people sleeping rough or at risk of doing so were given accommodation makes this even more depressing. So too the contrast between England and the continuing ambitions of devolved governments elsewhere in Britain to end homelessness altogether.   

Rough sleeping was down 33 per cent and sofa surfing down 11 per cent in England in 2020 after that extraordinary initial effort under Everyone In but it soon morphed from a policy into branding for an initiative.

The result was that core homelessness (which means the most acute forms of homelessness including rough sleeping, sofa surfing and being in temporary accommodation) was also down 5 per cent on 2019 levels at 203,400 in 2020.

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, another success story, also helped single homeless households, although the report points to weaknesses including continued lack of entitlement to accommodation for some groups (another issue being addressed elsewhere but not England).

So the good news is that the pandemic saw a welcome interruption in the upward trend in homelessness since 2012.

That’s backed up by the latest figures published this week showing that the number of rough sleepers fell for the fourth year in a row in the government’s latest annual snapshot survey – and by the repeal of the Vagrancy Act.

The bad news is that most of the support introduced during the pandemic has since been reversed, with the uplift withdrawn, LHA rates refrozen despite rising rents and mounting concern that evictions could rise sharply in 2022.

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The ‘problem of rent’ has just got worse

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

The UK has among the lowest levels of basic benefits in the developed world but spends more than any other country on housing benefits.

The two statements, which come from a new report by the Resolution Foundation, are of course connected and they are the result of deliberate policy choices over decades.

The first relates to the way that the benefits system evolved in the wake of the Beveridge report with low levels of working-age benefits supplemented by extra support for housing, children and ill-health.

Beveridge had confessed that he was unable to solve what he called ‘the problem of rent’ – how you account for housing costs that vary between different areas – in his blueprint for social security after the Second World War.

His fudged solution was to add a flat rate housing allowance to contributory unemployment benefit but that was rejected in favour of means testing in the scheme that was introduced. 

However, his whole report was written on the assumptions that full employment, mass council housebuilding and private sector rent control would continue.

By contrast, most European countries have more generous contributory and earnings-related benefits supplemented by a means-tested safety net.

This graph from the report shows the difference:

For clarity it’s worth pointing out that this is based on the OECD definition of housing benefits in kind, which includes payments for housing costs but not mortgage tax relief (still paid in some countries) or capital investment in social housing or the ‘subsidy’ of the lower rents it produces.

The second policy choice dates back to the deregulation of rents and decline of social housing in the 80s and 90s – reversing those assumptions made by Beveridge – and more recent falls in home ownership among low-income households that have left them paying higher rents.

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Smoke, mirrors and broken promises

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

This is definitely not the first government to hype up its policies, break its promises and sneak out inconvenient announcements as quietly as possible but it is one that has taken its game to a new level.

Anyone in housing has become wearily familiar with the semantics of ‘affordable’ housing and the ‘spare room subsidy’ but the trend is now evident across government.

The thought was prompted by watching Boris Johnson bluster his way through a TV interview in which he denied he was breaking his repeated pledge to build Northern Powerhouse Rail between Liverpool and Leeds.

That scheme, plus the eastern leg of HS2, have indeed been scrapped in the Integrated Rail Plan but the prime minister’s dodgy claim was based on small sections of them going ahead.

Boris Johnson pulled a similar trick with his promise to build ’40 new hospitals’. Most of them are merely new buildings at existing hospitals – and the infrastructure watchdog now says most are ‘unachievable’ in any case -but that has not stopped the hype.

Aside from the transport issues, the importance of (take your pick) ‘the biggest ever public investment in Britain’s rail network’ or the ‘Great Train Robbery’ is of course the link with levelling up.

That policy is due to be fleshed out in a white paper before Christmas but its success as a slogan is based on the implication that everyone can be a winner without anyone losing out.

That was also the claim implicit in the policy on social care that Boris Johnson (him again) promised would mean that nobody will have to sell their home.

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Benefit cap surge is a warning of worse to come

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 7.

Step away from planning reform for a few moments and grim news out today (Thursday August 6) reveals a more immediate crisis in the benefits system with even more alarming implications for the future.

Figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show that the number of households subject to the benefit cap almost doubled to 154,000 between February 2020 and May 2020. Of those, 140,000 had children.

More households have moved on to Universal Credit over time so the grey line for total capped households is the one to watch – note that the increase is much bigger than when the benefit cap was reduced in 2016.

Capped households

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Housing in the time of Coronavirus

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

It was only last week but already it seems a lifetime ago since BC – Before Coronavirus

With schools closing, London facing lockdown and, who knows, troops on the streets by the weekend, the impact on housing may seem minor by comparison.

But beyond parochial organisational concerns, the situation is critical for millions of people faced with losing their income or their job and wondering if they will lose their home too – and a matter of life and death for those living and working in care homes, extra care and sheltered housing and those who already have no home.

With the government twisting the arms of mortgage lenders to offer payment holidays, help arrived for home owners first. Now it is promising help for renters with emergency legislation to ban private and social landlords from evicting anyone for three months and no new possession proceedings to be allowed during the crisis.

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Budget boost leaves housing gaps

Originally published on March 11 as a blog for Inside Housing.

This is a Budget that does not live up to its own hype and has some glaring omissions but still brings some good news for housing.

There are three big positives: a £12.2bn Affordable Homes Programme (AHP) over the five years from 2021/22; an additional £1bn for a Building Safety Fund to remove dangerous cladding; and £650m to help rough sleepers into permanent accommodation.

Add the reversal of an interest rate hike for borrowing for new council homes, extra funding for housing infrastructure, £1.2bn in consequentials that other UK nations can invest in new homes and an extension of Shared Accommodation Rate exemptions to young rough sleepers and other vulnerable groups, and this looks like one of the best Budgets for housing in the last 10 years.

However, that’s not setting the bar especially high, and you don’t have to look very far below the surface before the questions start to mount up.

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The decade in housing

Originally published in Inside Housing on January 10.

It was a decade of four elections, four prime ministers and three referenda. It began in the midst of a Global Financial Crisis and ended with the political crisis of Brexit. It was scarred by the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

All but 15 of the 520 weeks in the 2010s had a Conservative prime minister but four different governments brought four different approaches. David Cameron was all about cuts in coalition followed by radical (but mostly failed) marketising reforms once he had elbowed Nick Clegg aside. Theresa May brought a profound change in rhetoric and some significant changes of substance. Boris Johnson shifted the emphasis back to home ownership.

Here is the decade summed up in 10 headings: Read the rest of this entry »


Housing benefit problems a taste of what’s to come

Originally posted on January 9 on my blog for Inside Housing.

We’ve become so used to the misery caused by housing benefit failing to cover the cost of rents that problems with its administration have an almost retro feel to them.

From the perspective of 2020, the 2010s were the decade it turned out that housing benefit would no longer ‘take the strain’ of higher rents but instead passed the costs on to tenants via the bedroom tax, benefit cap, local housing allowance freeze and all the other ‘reforms’ instituted by Conservative-led governments.

But a report out this week from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman makes clear that the overpayments, underpayments and other errors that scarred claimants’ experiences of housing benefit from the 1990s to the 2000s are still happening.

It details a whole series of issues with the administration of the system by local authorities and the way the appeal process was handled. But it is the individual horror stories that really bring home the scale of the problems.

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