10 things about 2017: part one

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on December 22.

As in 2016, it seemed like nothing would ever be the same again after a momentous event halfway through the year.

The horrific Grenfell Tower fire on June 14 means that the headline on this column should really have read ‘nine other things about 2017’. Just as the Brexit voted has changed everything in politics, so it is almost impossible to see anything in housing except through the prism of that awful night.

That said, 2017 was another year of momentous change for housing, one that brought a few signs of hope too. Here’s the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about.

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The real Budget agenda is clear

Philip Hammond’s Budget contains some big numbers and ambitious promises on housing but you don’t have to delve very far to find the real priorities.

Contrast, for example, what’s happening with housing, tax and welfare, two different measures that were heavily predicted and one that was desperately needed.

Stamp duty is being cut, but the chancellor has gone further than the expected holiday by abolishing it completely for first-time buyers of homes worth up to £300,000 or the first £300,000 of homes worth up to £500,000. The cut applies from now and will cost £3bn by the end of 2022/23.

Problems with universal credit are being addressed with measures including the scrapping of the seven-day waiting period, making advances easier to get and allowing continued payment of housing benefit for two weeks after a universal credit claim. The total cost is £1.5bn by 2022/23 and there is another delay to the rollout.

The universal credit changes are welcome but will still leave claimants potentially facing destitution and people in work thousands of pounds a year worse off than they would have been under the previous system.

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A look ahead to the Budget part three: welfare and tax

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on May 20. 

Some very big questions on housing, welfare and tax are looming ahead of this Budget.

If there is not the same sense of raised expectations that surrounds the prospects for land and investment, the answers given by Philip Hammond on November 22 will still go a long way to determining what type of housing system we will have going into the 2020s.

I’ve written many times before about the way that the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008 and the policies adopted under George Osborne since 2010 have combined to create a system in which older and better-off home owners have gained at the expense of younger and poorer renters.

A piece in the Financial Times last week used figures from the Resolution Foundation to quantify just how much: housing costs for households below average incomes rose by £714 between 2007/08 while they fell by £271 for those on above average incomes. The biggest gains went to the richest 10% of households, whose average housing costs fell by £1,206.

And that these figures do not include substantial increases in housing wealth over the same period as house prices have risen.

Many factors have driven this including falling rates of home ownership and rock bottom mortgage rates but policies on tax and welfare set by central government have also played a part.

So what could Hammond do to redress the balance?

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The long-term consequences of falling home ownership

A report today from Generation Rent predicts that the number of pensioner private renters will increase by 169% in England over the next 20 years at a cost of an extra £3.5bn in housing benefit.

The increase will come as a result of trends already hard-baked into the housing system and they have nothing to do with the people in their 20s and 30s that we are used to thinking of as Generation Rent.

Successive editions of the English Housing Survey (EHS) have shown that falls in home ownership are rippling up through the age bands as existing private renters get older and find themselves unable to buy.

The report by David Adler of Oxford University and Dan Wilson-Craw of Generation Rent looks at the current EHS, Office for National Statistics and housing benefit data to forecast what will happen by 2035/36.

There are currently 1.1 million private renter households aged between 45 and 64 who will reach retirement age in the next 20 years. Some of them will still be able to buy but on current trends 947,000 will be private renters into retirement.

Add another 50,000 current retiree households who will live into their 80s and you have a million who could be reliant on insecure short-term tenancies and potentially dependent on housing benefit. That could translate into an extra £3.5bn on top of the current housing benefit bill.

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A massive relief to social landlords and tenants, but what now?

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 26.

So finally even the prime minister accepts that plans to impose a local housing allowance (LHA) cap on supported and social housing are unworkable.

Theresa May’s announcement at prime minister’s questions that the cap will not be implemented represents a massive u-turn that will be an equally massive relief to social landlords and tenants.

Statements from a succession of different ministers over the last few weeks had signalled the move for supported housing in the face of overwhelming evidence of postponed investment and knock-on costs for the health and social care sectors.

The decision to scrap it for social housing too was more of a surprise, though it may have been influenced by the difficulty of distinguishing social from supported homes.

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Starting with the evidence

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 20. 

Almost everyone agrees there is a housing crisis, that the housing market is broken and dysfunctional and that urgent action is required – but why and what exactly should be done about it?

For most of the last seven years, the answers to these questions seem to been scribbled on the back of a fag packet at Policy Exchange or emerged fully-formed from the brilliant mind of Iain Duncan Smith.

Any idea of evidence-based policy disappeared after 2010, with evaluations of policy published only reluctantly and ignored when their conclusions are inconvenient.

That has begun to change under Theresa May, who became prime minister with a reputation for taking her time over decisions and insisting on looking at the evidence for herself before she took them.

With the Conservatives apparently prepared to consider some ideas that were previously off limits, and even to fund social rent once again, the political consensus about the need to do something about housing is growing.

So the timing could hardly be better for a new initiative dedicated to supplying the evidence to help diagnose the problems with the housing system and come up with solutions.

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The turn of the screw

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on October 13.

As universal credit understandably took all the headlines, the scale of the threat posed by restrictions on the local housing allowance (LHA) has come into even sharper focus.

The mood music this week suggested that ministers are set to make concessions over their plans to apply LHA caps to supported housing but the rest of social housing is still right in the firing line.

In a packed Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday and at the Communities and Local Government committee, ministers gave strong hints of flexibility to come.

The debate was called by Tory MP Peter Aldous, who called on the government to give ‘full sand serious consideration’ to recommendations made by two select committees for a supported housing allowance rather than LHA plus local top-ups.

Communities minister Marcus Jones said:

‘This matter is a priority for the Government, and we will announce the next steps shortly—later this autumn. I believe that when those proposals are introduced, they will show that we have listened and have understood the important issues at hand and the important situation. What is at stake is helping and supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.’

It remains to be seen exactly how much ministers have listened and understood about a system that would create a postcode lottery and has already halted development plans.

But at stake too is the government’s attempt to impose a flawed system originally designed to reflect private rents to control a very different combination of rent and care costs in supported and social housing.

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