Time for ministers to listen on the LHA cap

Originally posted on May 2 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

When not one but two all-party committees of MPs call on ministers to think again about a controversial policy you might think they would listen – but will they?

The Work and Pensions and Communities and Local Government Committees say the government should scrap its plan to impose a Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap on supported housing and pay top-up funding via local authorities and devolved administrations.

Ministers claim the intention is not to save money but to ensure better value for money and monitoring of the quality of services.

But the MPs conclude that ‘the funding proposals, as they stand, are unlikely to achieve these objectives’ and that LHA is ‘an inappropriate starting point for a new funding mechanism’.

Read the rest of this entry »


Holding the government to account

Originally published on April 28 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The housing crisis could persist ‘for decades to come’ unless the government shows more urgency and ambition on supply.

That’s the verdict* from an all-party committee of MPs on Friday in one of a series of reports due to be rushed out in the next few days as Westminster clears the decks for the election.

The Public Accounts Committee says:

‘
We are highly concerned by this lack of urgency and ambition, most of all in view of the rising costs, both human and financial, of homelessness. Not only does becoming homeless people represent a terrible blight on people’s lives, it also places additional strain on public spending: councils’ spending on temporary accommodation amounted to £840 million in 2015–16, a real-terms rise of nearly half (46%) in just five years.’

Read the rest of this entry »


How the LHA cap will target the poorest communities

Originally posted on April 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

If you were looking to design a policy to penalise the poorest families paying the cheapest rents, it would be very hard to come up with something better than the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap.

My feature in Inside Housing looks at the situation in Wales. I already knew that the impact would be severe in deprived areas like the South Wales Valleys because of their very low LHA rates but the more people I talked to the worse the implications seemed to be.

Even in areas with higher LHA rates there are growing worries about the long-term impact. Ask people what the number one threat to their business plan is and everyone will say welfare reform: for some universal credit is the biggest worry but others say the LHA cap because of its effect not just on tenants and business plans but also future development.

I’m talking here about the cap as it applies to general needs housing when the cap is introduced in 2019. There are three main problems: the impact on the under-35s who are single with no children; areas where social rents are already above or close to LHA rates; and the effect on pensioners.

Read the rest of this entry »


Watching the benefit cap

Originally posted on April 6 on my blog for Inside Housing.

What did see when you watched last night’s Panorama on the benefit cap?

Most people reading this here will, I think, have seen the impact of an arbitrary policy that leaves thousands of people with 50p a week towards their rent.

But outside my timeline on Twitter the view was very different. Roughly 95 per cent of tweets with the hashtag #benefitcap were hostile, but to the people featured in the programme rather than the policy.

There is nothing new in this divide of course – exactly the same thing happened with Benefits Street and How to Get a Council House and a Dispatches documentary on the cap last month– but this was an hour on BBC One on primetime.

Part of the problem lay with the way that Panorama framed the issue. This was clear in the first two minutes.

Read the rest of this entry »


LHA: a reverse supermarket sweep

Originally published on April 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

It’s easy to forget now but the original idea behind the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) was that it would give tenants an incentive to ‘shop around’ for a cheaper rent.

Rather than get their actual rent paid, tenants would get an allowance based on the median rent for the area and if they found somewhere cheaper they could keep what they saved. In effect they could be rewarded for shopping at Lidl’s rather than Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s.

The ‘shopping incentive’ was a key feature of a new system that was designed to be fairer and more transparent than the one it replaced. The (then Labour) government said it would give tenants more choice and a greater sense of personal responsibility, administration would be easier and there would be reduced barriers to work.

Fears about the impact of moving to direct payment to tenants were allayed in local pilot schemes and for a time it seemed like the new system really was working as intended.

Nine years on and that early optimism has disappeared along with the original idea. Labour restricted the shopping incentive to £15 a week in 2009 and the coalition eventually removed it completely in 2010.

And that was just the start of a series of cuts in the allowance justified by constant references to a handful of very large claims in London, inferring that some tenants were choosing to shop at Harrods and Harvey Nicholls.

Read the rest of this entry »


The problem with the Bank of Mum and Dad

Originally published on March 27 on my blog for Inside Housing.

‘The Bank of Mum and Dad’ is one of those phrases that sound benign until you ask yourself what it really means.

What, after all, could be more natural than parents helping their children to buy a first home? And what could be wrong with mum and dad dipping into their pockets, or extending their mortgage, to get their son or daughter on to the housing ladder?

If we were just talking about some people being able to buy at a younger age than others, maybe not too much. But two reports out today show that the Bank of Mum and Dad is symptomatic of a much bigger problem in the housing system that is anything but benign.

Read the rest of this entry »


Don’t mention the benefits freeze

Originally posted on March 8 on my blog for Inside Housing.

For once this was a Budget that was more significant for what it did not say about housing than for what it did.

In one sense the lack of announcements was nothing new. Chancellor Philip Hammond had already announced that this would be his last Spring Budget and that the main event will be in the Autumn.

The extra money for social care was inevitable if inadequate and it will have an impact on housing organisations.

Housing itself got a single mention in Hammond’s speech in the section on the next generation. ‘Will they be able to get on the housing ladder?’ was the rhetorical question that did not get any answer. (Nope, not unless they’ve got rich parents, since you ask.)

For once (unless I’ve missed something) the background Budget documents revealed little more than an intriguing consultation on a redesign of Rent a Room Relief, the tax relief that homeowners can claim when they let out a room.

The aim is ‘to ensure it is better targeted to support longer-term lettings. This will align the relief more closely with its intended purpose, to increase supply of affordable long-term lodgings’. Presumably the plan is to stop people avoiding tax on AirBnb earnings?

The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) Economic and Fiscal Outlook has some background on the profile of housing association spending spending and borrowing, which was less than it expected last year but is being brought forward at the end of the spending review period.

But what really caught my attention were some graphs on the scale of the continuing squeeze on benefits. This reflects the decisions that Hammond did not take to ease the effects of the four-year freeze on most working-age benefits announced by George Osborne in 2015.

Read the rest of this entry »


The country that works a lot better for some

Originally published on March 6 on my blog for Inside Housing.

If you are under 22 and you need help with your housing it all depends on who your parents are.

Three measures from George Osborne Budgets apply from next month: the cut in housing support for 18-21 year olds; the Lifetime ISA; and the cut in inheritance tax on main residences.

This time last week hopes were high that the government would row back on the first of these. A government source told The Observer that ministers and civil servants dealing with the cut in housing support ‘hate the policy’. Despite this the regulations implementing it were laid on Friday, a day when parliament was not sitting.

There is no official explanation of the move on the DWP website but a spokesman repeats previous lines about ensuring that 18-21 year olds ‘do not slip straight into a life on benefits’.

Read the rest of this entry »


Housing an ageing population

Originally published on February 24 on my blog for Inside Housing.

There is arguably no more important housing issue facing the UK than how we accommodate our ageing population but are we ready to face up to it?

The question is prompted by a combination of recent events including publication of the Housing White Paper, the crisis in social care and the NHS and the consultation on funding for supported housing.

Lurking further in the background than it should be is the mismatch between the stock of homes and likely future demand for them. We will need homes that we don’t currently have for people who are living longer and will need more manageable accommodation with access to more care. Because we don’t have those homes, older people will continue to live in homes that are too big and inflexible for them but would be perfect for young families.

Read the rest of this entry »


Two-way street

Originally published on December 7 on my blog for Inside Housing

The minister announces more investment in social housing – social, not affordable – and signs a pact with housing associations and local authorities.

This is not a fantasy or a trip down memory lane but something that happened last week in Wales, a country where the government and the housing sector are very much in sync.

Carl Sargeant, communities and children secretary, told the Community Housing Cymru (CHC) annual conference that Social Housing Grant (SHG) will be increased by £30m this year, or 44% on previous plans. He also signed a pact with CHC and the Welsh Local Government Association to deliver 13,500 affordable homes by 2021.

Though CHC is the Welsh counterpart of the National Housing Federation, the pact is not a deal that requires forced conversion to the merits of homeownership or that turns a blind eye to forced sales of council homes.The Right to Buy is being scrapped rather than extended and the pact sets out a series of other aspirations on everything from jobs and training to energy efficiency and rents to homelessness.

Housing in Wales works very differently to England thanks to devolution and a political culture that works on consensus.While London and Manchester are blazing a trail with new investment powers, Wales can make its own legislation. Greater regulation of the private rented sector and homelessness prevention are already in force, the end is nigh for the Right to Buy and stamp duty is being replaced with the first Welsh tax for almost 800 years.

Read the rest of this entry »