Where is the Winter Housing Plan?

Originally written as a column for insidehousing.co.uk.

In March housing secretary Robert Jenrick promised that nobody will lose their home because of the pandemic. In June that turned out to mean that nobody will lose their home ‘this summer’.

The evictions moratorium was extended twice at the 11th hour but there was no movement this time and it ended last Monday – a day before the Autumnal equinox – with an empty promise of ‘comprehensive support for renters’.

If the moratorium had expired a week later – after the new pandemic restrictions for the next six months announced by Boris Johnson on Tuesday and after the new Job Support Scheme announced by Rishi Sunak on Thursday – the pressure for it to be extended would have been overwhelming.

Instead, with promises of Christmas truces, exemptions for areas in lockdown and prioritisation of cases, we have lurched into a situation that ensures that lots of people definitely will lose their homes in the next few months.

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England gets there in the end with evictions climbdown

Originally written on August 24 as a column for Inside Housing.

The u-turn was not as dramatic as the one over exam results and it means Robert Jenrick will not for now be joining Gavin Williamson in detention after the politics class.

But, now that it’s happened, does the 11th-hour climbdown over the Coronavirus evictions ban foreshadow a more permanent improvement renters’ rights after the pandemic?

The package announced on Friday following consultation with the judiciary extends the ban by four weeks from August 23 to September 20 in England and Wales. It also extends the notice period for tenants in England from three to six months in all cases except those involving anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse.

This is the second extension to the ban announced at the 11th hour, as it was originally only meant to last until June, then extended to August.

You still have to wonder what took so long: the Welsh Government introduced a six-month notice period under its devolved housing powers a month ago but is reliant on decisions in Westminster about the evictions ban because judicial affairs are not devolved.

It has also announced low-interest loans for tenants in arrears worth £8 million (the equivalent of £140 million in England given its far larger population) and maxed out discretionary housing payments but is still facing pressure to go further.

At least England got there in the end, though. The question now, given that four weeks is not very long, is what comes next?

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MPs call for action on rough sleeping and renting

The government will miss a ‘golden opportunity’ to end rough sleeping once and for all if it fails to turn temporary measures into something more permanent.

And ministers must beef up ‘toothless’ plans to protect renters in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis or risk a new wave of homelessness.

Those are the top-line messages from an all-party group of MPs today. But an interim report on protecting rough sleepers and renters from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee also goes much further in endorsing calls by campaigners for wider changes to the housing system.

They recommend:

  • A dedicated funding stream to end rough sleeping, likely to be at least £100 million a year
  • Improved support for councils to help people with no recourse to public funds who will otherwise end up back on the streets
  • Boosting the supply of suitable housing by re-establishing the National Clearing House Scheme set up after the financial crisis for unsold homes and giving councils more flexibility to buy them
  • Turning the increase in the Local Housing Allowance to the 30th percentile from a temporary into a long-term measure and looking at the impact of raising rents further.

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Ending leasehold’s ‘industrial-scale racket’

Originally posted on July 12 on my blog for Inside Housing.

As far back as I can remember, every government has promised to tackle abuses of our outdated system of leasehold.

Between 1979 and 1997, the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major legislated four times on leasehold reform.

The Labour government of Tony Blair promised ‘a comprehensive package of leasehold reforms’ in 2000 and introduced the alternative system of commonhold in 2002.

Piecemeal reforms improved things a bit for leaseholders but commonhold has still only been used on 50 developments at an optimistic estimate – in contrast to the expansion of similar tenures like strata title and condominiums across the rest of the world.

Little wonder when leasehold offers so many advantages to be profitably exploited by landowners, housebuilders and freeholders.

Now, in the wake of the twin scandals of cladding and leasehold, all that could – finally – be about to change.

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The politics of longer private tenancies

Originally published on June 2 on my blog for Inside Housing.

When it comes to the private rented sector are we all Chavistas now?

Back in 2014, when Ed Miliband’s Labour proposed a standard three-year tenancy with limits on rent increases, Conservative party chair Grant Shapps was quick to accuse it of ‘Venezuelan-style socialism’.

Flash forward four years and the Conservatives have stolen Labour’s policy at the last two elections and announced plans of their own for three-year tenancies – and if they are not quite proposing limits on rent increases they are not ruling them out either.

Even two years ago it would have been unimaginable for them to propose anything like the proposals announced by housing secretary James Brokenshire on Monday and first reported in the Conservative-supporting Telegraph on Saturday night.

Indeed, far from increasing security for private renters, Conservative-led governments had spent the years since 2010 attempting to undermine it for social tenants.

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The problem(s) with leasehold

Originally published on April 13 on  my blog for Inside Housing.

Question: When is a home owner not really a home owner? Answer: When they are a leaseholder.

Leaseholders have the responsibilities of being an owner without having all of the rights. They own the bricks and mortar* of the homes they are living in – but only for the length of their lease – and they do not own the land it is built on.

They pay a mortgage but they also pay ground rent to the freeholder and a service charge for maintenance carried out by companies over whom they may have no control. They may see themselves as owners but in the eyes of the law they are tenants.

The issue has come to a head recently with the scandal of developers selling leasehold new houses and then selling on the freehold for a profit. Unwitting buyers have found themselves facing bills for ground rent that double every 10 years and an escalating bill for buying the freehold.

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Manifestly without reason

Originally published on November 8 on my blog for Inside Housing

On a day when it was badly needed the judges of the Supreme Court obliged with some good news.

Yes, it was mixed with bad news in the judgement on the bedroom tax, as two claimants won their case and others were refused, but it was still a welcome vindication of the case put forward by the Carmichaels, the Rutherfords and their lawyers. In the words of the judgement, the decisions on their housing benefit were ‘manifestly without reason’.

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The Housing Bill: The final lap

Originally published on April 29 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The worst excuse for a Bill that I can remember in 25 years of writing about housing limps back to the House of Commons next week.

The Housing and Planning Bill’s tail is not quite between its legs as all the key elements are still there and the Commons will reverse some changes. But it’s been gutted in the Lords, with two more defeats for the government on Wednesday, and this morning (Friday) it’s the subject of withering criticism by the all-party Public Accounts Committee.

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The Housing Bill: the better part of valour

Originally posted on April 19 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

It was another day, another session of watering down the Housing and Planning Bill in the Lords. Peers reached sections of the Bill including Pay to Stay and security of tenure in the latest Report stage debate on Monday.

On Pay to Stay for ‘high income’ council tenants, they inflicted three more defeats on the government and they also forced some interesting clarifications of the detail out of ministers. As the Bill now stands, local authorities will have discretion about whether to apply Pay to Stay, the thresholds will be increased to £40,000 outside London and £50,000 in London, and the taper for higher rents will be 10p.

Obviously it remains to be seen how much of this the government will look to reverse in the Commons, perhaps citing financial privilege because the money raised by the policy goes back to the Treasury.

The government version of the policy – set out in an email to peers an hour before the debate – is that it will be compulsory for councils, the thresholds will be £31,000 and £40,000 and the taper will be 20p. That means tenants would pay an extra £200 a year in rent for each £1,000 they earn above the thresholds. (It’s not clear to me why the out-of-London threshold has been increased from the previous £30,000).

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Checking the bill

Originally posted on February 10 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing 

Start with a fundamental change to the funding mechanism for the right to buy, stir in more changes to key elements of the Housing and Planning Bill, then add criticism of the lack of detail and you have a recipe that shoud give ministers indigestion.

The report of the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee does support both the extension of the right to buy to housing association tenants and the voluntary deal between the government and the NHF is ‘the best way forward’.

But that’s as good as it gets for ministers from a committee that has a Labour chair but a Tory majority. Here is the headline recommendation:

‘The Government proposes to fund the right to buy discounts for housing association tenants with the proceeds from the sale of high value council homes. However we believe that public policy should usually be funded by central Government, rather than through a levy on local authorities.’

This would undermine one of the central elements of the Bill and the government’s method of paying for right to buy discounts and the promised replacement homes. And the MPs are not finished.

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