The winners and losers from the rent cap

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

The rent cap proposed for social housing may not have come as a huge surprise but the consequences will play out in very different ways for different parties.

It says it all about the cost of living crisis that whether rents are capped or not could be well down social tenants’ list of worries over the next few months.

The energy price cap has already almost doubled in the last 12 months to £1,971 a year. Next month that will rise to £3,549 and the worst forecasts suggest that could double again by next April unless the new government takes radical action.

Effectively, therefore, tenants in social housing could be paying double rent next year unless they take drastic steps to cut their bills.

But many are already doing this and finding that even turning the boiler off does not go far enough – they may be asking why the consultation does not include an option to freeze rents.

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Johnson’s lame cover version

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

How exactly should we take Boris Johnson’s plans to ‘bring back Right to Buy’ and ‘turn Generation Rent into Generation Own’?

Many housing association tenants will welcome the chance to own their own home and private renters may welcome official recognition that they are stuck paying more in rent than for the mortgage they can’t get.

Equally, most social landlords will feel that they have no choice but to take very seriously a major change for housing associations and what could be yet another threat to council housing.

And anyone with even the vaguest interest in seeing more genuinely affordable homes will greet the latest guff about one for one replacements with a groan. 

But it’s also very hard not to be cynical about this latest cover version of Margaret Thatcher’s number one from the 1980s. The suspicion is that this is all about a lame duck prime minister having something catchy to announce regardless of how  – or even if – it will work out in practice.

Even so it’s impossible not to wonder about the practicalities of a plan to finance mortgages from housing benefit in the middle of a cost of living crisis, with interest rates about to rise at the peak of a housing market bubble that could be about to burst.

And it’s hard not to contrast Boris Johnson’s tired old rhetoric about social tenants on housing benefit being ‘dependent on the state’ with the plans announced just 24 hours earlier for a Social Housing Regulation Bill that will ‘mean more people living in decent, well looked-after homes enjoying the quality of life they deserve’.

Calling the plan ‘benefits to bricks’ looks like trolling of those who have genuinely attempted to find ways to shift subsidy to new homes.

And all of these reactions are subject to the politics of a wounded prime minister desperate to send the right signals to his party after 41 per cent of his own MPs said they have no confidence in him.

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Action for now, solutions not yet

The £15 billion energy cost support package announced by Rishi Sunak rightly benefits the poorest households most but it remains to be seen what it will do about the cost of living in general and the cost of housing in particular. 

Under the package announced by the chancellor on Thursday, 8 million households on benefits will get a one-off payment of £650 paid in two lump sums in July and the Autumn. Add that to the £400 energy support payment (rather than a loan) that will go to everyone and the £150 payment already made (at least in theory) to those in Bands A-D for the council tax, and the Treasury says this amounts to £1,200 help towards the cost of living for the most vulnerable.

Background documents confirm the one-off payment will not count towards the benefit cap, unlike the £20 a week uplift to universal credit during the pandemic. That should avoid many more households seeing the help disappear as fast as it arrives.

Sunak had been under pressure to do more on benefits not just because of energy costs but also because of the large gap between the 3.1 per cent uprating of benefits in April (based on last September’s inflation rate) and the current 9 per cent rate of CPI inflation.

He said his one-off payment would be worth more than bringing forward next year’s uprating of benefits, as some had suggested. 

And he also confirmed that the April 2023 uprating will be based on next September’s inflation rate, which could easily be more than 10 per cent, rather than retaining the option of declaring it to be unaffordable.

So far, so good, then and this is probably the package that the chancellor should have delivered in a Spring Statementthat looked inadequate at the time and has seemed even weeker with each passing week. This package looks to be both more generous and more redistributive than many people were expecting.

However, that also reflects the scale of the cost of living crisis. Add the £800 increase in the energy price cap expected in October to the £700 increase already seen in April and that is already more than the chancellor’s £1,200 for the most vulnerable and that is before you get to large increases in the price of food, fuel and other essentials. 

And there was one major cost that was as absent from Sunak’s statement this week as it was from the one he made in March and the Queen’s Speech earlier this month. No prizes for guessing it must be housing. 

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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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