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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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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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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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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