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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Conservatives fail to rise to the housing challenge

Originally posted on November 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.

A Conservative election manifesto with little new to offer signals that housing has moved a long way down the party’s list of priorities.

The contrast between the Labour manifesto plan for 150,000 council and housing association homes a year and the Lib Dem manifesto promise of 100,000 homes for social rent a year could hardly be starker.

The Tory document launched by Boris Johnson does have three pages on housing but the only new policies in it had already been launched in separate announcements earlier in the campaign.

These include encouraging a new market for long-term fixed-rate mortgages to slash the costs of deposits, a First Home scheme of homes at a 30% discount in perpetuity for local families and a stamp duty surcharge on overseas buyers to fund more help for rough sleepers.

Even these are not strictly speaking new: long-term fixed rates were encouraged by Gordon Brown but never took off; David Cameron promised 200,000 starter homes at a discount but none were ever built and the new scheme seems to involve only 19,000 homes by the mid-2020s; and Theresa May proposed exactly the same levy on overseas buyers last year before it was watered down.

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Still waiting for the end of austerity

Originally posted on September 4 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Austerity may be over, according to the chancellor, but it remains to be seen what that really means for the spending programmes that matter most to housing.

What Sajid Javid meant by that boast in Wednesday’s Spending Round speech was that all departmental budgets will be increased at least in line with inflation in 2020/21.

But it soon became clear – if it wasn’t already – that housing is not one of the so-called ‘people’s priorities’ of crime, education and health and so does not qualify for any headline-grabbing investment.

The only housing-related announcement in the speech itself was a £54m increase in funding for homelessness and rough sleeping to £422m in 2020/21, which Mr Javid said amounted to a 13% real terms increase.

That’s just as well because both the speech and background document were completely silent on what the government intends to do about one of the biggest drivers for homelessness.

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Freezing out ‘No DSS’ landlords

Originally published on March 5 as a blog for Inside Housing.

The way that responsibility for housing is split between different government departments means that sometimes the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

The classic example of this came in parliament yesterday when even as MPs were approving another year of frozen working-age benefits, the housing secretary was making a written statement attacking landlords for refusing to let to tenants on housing benefit.

The vote means that the local housing allowance (LHA) will be frozen for the fourth year in succession and the benefit cap will stay stuck at the reduced rate of £20,000 (£23,000 in London).

The impact of that will fall directly in the ‘thousands of vulnerable people and families’ mentioned by James Brokenshire in his written statement and will be felt most by families with children and those living in the most expensive areas.

And it will come on top of the continuing impact of the transition to universal credit and all the problems with waiting times, delays in payment and supposed simplicity for tenants and landlords that it brings in its wake.

If it reinforces the sense of relief among social landlords that the government abandoned plans to cap housing benefit for social and supported housing at LHA rates, it means many social tenants face a freeze on the rest of their incomes despite rising prices.

But the freeze will give private landlords yet more reasons to think twice about letting homes to tenants on benefits.

And the move by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) comes at precisely the moment that ministers at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) give their backing to a campaign by Shelter on ‘No DSS’ adverts.

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Time to end the freeze

Originally published on August 29 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The freeze on the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) is a £1.2 billion question for which the answer seems obvious.

The problems detailed in analysis by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) published on Wednesday are severe and they are getting worse.

LHA rates are midway through a four-year freeze that is the culmination of seven years of austerity. The result is that they have completely lost touch with the rents they were meant to cover.

The CIH analysis shows that 90% of LHA rates now fail to cover the rent of the cheapest 30% of private rented homes (bear in mind that this was itself a cut from the 50th percentile and that LHA was originally designed to enable tenants to ‘shop around’ for cheaper rents).

That leaves tenants facing rent shortfalls that grow larger with each year of austerity: outside London, two out of every three LHA shared accommodation rates have a weekly shortfall of £4 or more and half of other LHA rates are short by £10 or more; in London, the shortfalls for shared accommodation are more than £10 a week in every LHA area and at least £30 for all other homes.

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‘Housing week’ off to an uncertain start

For once this is a silly season that has some substance. If you can tear yourself away from the sun lounger or the latest pronouncement by the Etonian Katie Hopkins, mid-August sees a trio of government announcements that are crucial for housing and homelessness.

Last week featured another big benefits u-turn: confirmation that housing benefit will continue for supported accommodation removes a cloud that has been hanging over projects including homeless hostels and women’s refuges.

Monday saw the launch of the strategy that the government says will enable it to meet its target of halving rough sleeping in England by 2022 and ending it by 2027.

And what is billed as ‘housing week’ is set to continue on Tuesday with the launch of the social housing green paper – originally promised in the Spring, then before the parliamentary recess last month, but now appearing while most MPs are on holiday.

The timing does at least ensure some media attention, including an uncertain performance by James Brokenshire in the TV and radio studios on Monday morning.

After a lively appearance on Good Morning Britain, the housing secretary struggled on the Today programme when asked whether government policies are to blame for the relentless rise in rough sleeping and floundered when asked how much of the promised ‘£100 million plan’ is new money. (Somewhere between none and not much was the eventual answer).

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