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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April arrives with some rare good news

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

Sometimes it feels like I’ve written a blog at this time every year with the headline ‘April is the cruellest month’.

It’s not that I have a TS Eliot fixation nor (I hope) that I endlessly repeat myself but because ever since 2010 the start of the financial year seems to have meant yet another benefit cut or housing policy change to cope with.

This year is a bit different not so much because there is no bad news but because there is some good news as well. Here are some examples:

  • The u-turn on the withdrawal of support for housing costs for 18-21 year olds under universal credit announced on Thursday. This was a cumbersome policy that required significant exemptions and barely saved any money but it’s still a significant change to the original pledge to make young people ‘earn or learn’.
  • The Homelessness Reduction Act passed in 2017 applies from April 3. The legislation should be a big step forward in ensuring that more people get help earlier but despite a recent announcement on funding there are still well-founded concerns about whether councils have the money to implement it.
  • Claimants already getting housing benefit who move on to universal credit will from April be paid an additional two weeks of housing benefit. That may not be much consolation for the (in theory) five-week wait for their first universal credit but the payment (worth an average of £233) should ease the transition a bit –and it is not recoverable.
  • It will be unlawful for landlords to give new tenancies on the least energy efficient property from April 1 – all rented property will have to qualify for at least an Energy Performance Certificate rating of E so (in theory) tenants will no longer be stuck paying high heating bills for the worst F and G property.
  • More measures introduced against rogue landlords in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 come into force, including powers for councils to issue banning orders against the worst offenders and implementation of a database of landlords and letting agents convicted of some offences.

Bear in mind too that it’s not so long ago that I would have been writing about plans to apply a Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap to social and supported housing from…April 2018.

For all that good news, though, the suspicion remains that it will at best mitigate the impact of policies already implemented and still in the pipeline.

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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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