Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.
This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of legislation that triggered one of the most famous rebellions in the history of housing – and it is a story with a contemporary twist.
October 1, 1972 was the date that ‘fair’ rents were imposed on council housing by Edward Heath’s Conservative government. Under the Housing Finance Act 1972 all local authorities were forced to increase their rents by £1 a week (around 50 per cent).
Many in England, Wales and Scotland resisted interference by central government in their right to set their own rents but, threatened with the appointment of a Housing Commissioner, all but one eventually complied.
Clay Cross Urban District Council in Derbyshire refused point blank to increase rents that were the lowest in the country at around £1.65 a week.
The Labour-controlled council had a long track record of going its own way and finding loopholes in legislation it did not like: there were rebellions not just over rents but also over free school milk and pay for council staff.
Led by Dennis Skinner until he became the MP for nearby Bolsover, Clay Cross saw housing as one its top priorities as it replaced slums that had been built by the mine owners before nationalisation with new council houses at low rents.
As one councillor put it: ‘On this council we like to think of ourselves as basic socialists. We regard housing here as a social service, not as something the private sector can profit from.’Read the rest of this entry »
Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.
The overall results may be more mixed but the Conservative loss of its flagship councils Wandsworth and Westminster could hardly be more symbolic in terms of the politics of housing.
Westminster has been Conservative-controlled since its creation in 1964 while Wandsworth has been run by the Tories since 1978.
Both were retained by the party at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s unpopularity in 1990 and throughout the Blair and Brown Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 but not anymore.
Together with Barnet, which also went Labour for the first time, they represent a sea change in politics in London, as former housing minister Lord Barwell noted in a tweet this morning:
That gives some idea of the resonance of the results for the Conservatives, but Wandsworth and Westminster are possibly even more significant in the history of the politics of housing.Read the rest of this entry »
Originally published on August 12 as a column for Inside Housing.
Walk down most High Streets in the country and you’ll see empty shops and offices. What’s the best way to turn them into homes?
That’s the question this month’s extension of permitted development rights (PDR) in England attempts to address but is the answer as simple as the government makes out?
PDR for residential conversion has applied to some commercial buildings since 2013. But the regime has now been significantly expanded to more types of property and in some cases its demolition and replacement as well as conversion.
The results look they will be significant. Enthusiastic analysis by Nimbus Maps, which advises developers, says that around 31,000 properties and more than 8m sq m of floor space could be converted into 135,000 two-bedroom flats. The combined value of the buildings would almost double from £23 billion with commercial use to £43 billion as residential, it says.
A much more sceptical, but equally dramatic, view comes in research by University College London for the Town and Country Planning Association: based on case studies of Barnet, Crawley, Huntingdonshire and Leicester, it concludes that the total floorspace eligible for residential conversion will double under the new regime.
In terms of housing, the issues may seem straightforward. What’s the problem if the policy could create so many extra homes in buildings that would otherwise lie empty or under-utilised?Read the rest of this entry »
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.
Originally published on January 15 as a blog for Inside Housing.
Robert Jenrick and Esther McVey faced their first parliamentary questions as housing secretary and housing minister on Monday – almost six months after they took up their posts.
The reasons for the remarkable delay to their despatch box debuts – the summer recess, Brexit and the December election – are not hard to guess and are also why housing has slipped down the political agenda in the meantime.
But, give or take the odd appearance in parliamentary debates and in front of select committees, the delay also means that we still have only a fuzzy picture of what they really think about the key issues stacking up in their in-trays.
And it came in the wake of a report in the Daily Mail over the weekend about an apparent clash between the two over where the government should spend its housing cash and which voters they should be targeting.
Originally posted on December 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.
It was the year of interminable votes on Brexit, two prime ministers and finally a decisive election victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.
It was also the year that the housing crisis continued to intensify and the year that previous fixes were exposed for the sticking plasters that they really were.
Here is the first of a two-part look back at what I was blogging about in 2019.
1) The politics of housing
Regime change at Downing Street brought a new housing minister heavily implicated in welfare ‘reform’, a renewed focus on home ownership and what I called ‘a great leap backwards’ at the Conservative conference.
At the December election 15 per cent of voters told Ipsos MORI that housing was one of the most important issues for them – down from 22 per cent in 2018 as Brexit and the NHS dominated but three times more than in 2010.
And yet the politics of housing did not seem to matter much as the Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won a big majority away from the big city seats where Generation Rent, homelessness and the cladding scandal had seemed to offer fertile ground for Labour and the Lib Dems.
It was a year that ended with a decisive victory for the leader that promised Brexit and crushing defeat for the parties whose policies might just have fixed the housing crisis.
The bigger question was how far The People’s Government will diverge from Theresa May’s focus on housing and renter issues. The December Queen’s Speech confirmed some continuity, but the Tory manifesto offered few clues and far more emphasis on home ownership seems a given.
Originally posted on October 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.
The row over the hike in the interest rate for borrowing from the Public Works Loans Board (PWLB) is important in itself but it also raises a more fundamental point about social housing investment.
The rate increase imposed by the Treasury earlier this month seems to have been sparked by concern about councils investing in shopping centres rather than homes, which is ironic given that their rationale is to find new revenue streams to compensate for Treasury-imposed austerity.
However, it reinforces the impression that the government still does not trust councils to invest wisely in housing or anything else.
That view goes way back to 1979, of course, and the borrowing and spending controls that the Thatcher government imposed on council housing along with the right to buy.
But it also recalls the way that the government finally introduced self-financing in April 2012 but accompanied it with caps on borrowing and then undermined their business plans by imposing the 1% a year rent cut from April 2016.
Now, just at the point when research by Inside Housing reveals that councils are ready to scale up their housebuilding, the beancounters have struck again.