Two symbolic results in the politics of housing

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.

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Can Gove put the social back in ‘affordable’?

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Michael Gove’s challenge to ‘Thatcher-worshipping’ Tories to want more social rented housing feels like another significant milestone in the Conservative journey on the issue but the final destination remains unclear.

Speaking at a conference organised by Shelter, the levelling up secretary said he was exploring ways to increase support for social rent and change rules that restrict funding for it outside of the most unaffordable parts of the country.

He also admitted that previous Tory policies have ‘tilted more towards a particular set of products that are not truly affordable and have not enabled housing associations and others to generate the housing at the social rent that they need’.

The speech followed a report in the Sunday Telegraph that he is set to scrap the Section 106 of planning contributions and replace it with an infrastructure fund that will pave the way for a ‘council housing explosion’.

John Rentoul in The Independent sees all this, plus his success in bullying developers into paying up for building safety, as evidence that Gove will be a strong contender in the undeclared 2022 Conservative leadership contest.

At the same time, Telegraph columnist Liam Halligan, another speaker at the Shelter conference, argues that ‘council housing should be central to the Conservative brand’ and that the party should shift subsidies from benefits to bricks. 

Now keen-eyed readers may spot the odd example of cognitive dissonance in this reversal of 40 years of Conservative orthodoxy.

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Shopping for homes

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?

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Social housing as business opportunity

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Sometimes a news story stops you in your tracks. A report in The Times that former chancellor Philip Hammond is teaming up with Tory election guru Sir Lynton Crosby in a social housing business certainly did it for me.

After checking that it really was July and not April 1, I read that the plan is to lease homes to local authorities where there is a shortage of social housing. Municipal Partners, a company formed last year, is a ‘for-profit social impact business to acquire, refurbish and lease residential property’.

Seen from the perspective of the Labour leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, Darren Rodwell, this makes some kind of sense in an area where 30 per cent of properties are owned by buy-to-let landlords, including many sold under the Right to Buy. Municipal Partners would instead fund the purchase of the homes, the council would charge affordable rents and pay an income to the company before taking back possession at the end of an agreed period.

Cllr Rodwell says that ‘we can’t fund it via government, so we’re talking to different private pension funds, other organisations and seeing what’s out there’. While he has political differences with Philip, now Lord, Hammond, ‘if he and the company he represents gives us the deal that works for us, and the due diligence all plays out, then obviously we would do business with them because it would benefit my residents’.

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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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Which way will Johnson jump?

Originally published on February 11 on my blog for Inside Housing.

For the moment at least all things seem possible when it comes to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and housing.

Arguments apparently continue between those who want to shift further towards home ownership and those who see council housing as the focus for blue collar Conservatism.

The party seems to be facing in two opposite directions on new development, with some arguing for planning restrictions to be swept away while others see ‘beauty first’ as the key to winning local consent.

And these are just part of a wider battle between those who see Brexit as a chance to complete the Thatcherite revolution and those who think they must reverse some of it.

As an indication of the breadth of the possibilities, the Sunday Telegraph even reported that Johnson and chancellor Sajid Javid are considering imposing a mansion tax in the Budget.

The symbolism of taxing the well-housed in the South to spend more in the North could not be denied but would they really steal a policy from Ed Miliband’s Labour to screw their own supporters?

The first forks in the road are coming up soon with choices to be made about who will hold key ministerial positions in the reshuffle this week and what will be prioritised in the Spring Budget and in the Spending Review to follow.

In the meantime, though, what might a Boris Johnson housing policy look like?

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Signals from long-delayed debuts for Jenrick and McVey

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.

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10 things about 2019 – part one

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.

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Loans, homes and infrastructure

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.

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Temporary costs and permanent solutions

Originally posted on October 14 on my blog for Inside Housing.

As fast as homelessness is rising, the costs of homelessness are rising even faster.

The more that central government claims to be providing extra money, the more local authorities seem to be left to pick up the bill.

Those are the conclusions of two reports over the weekend that highlight the scale of the problems at the sharp end of the housing crisis.

The first comes from analysis for the Local Government Association (LGA) that found that that the number of families in bed and breakfast has risen 187% in less than a decade, from 2,450 in 2008/09 to 7,040 in 2017/18.

Shocking though that is, it’s hardly a big surprise given the impact of austerity and welfare ‘reform’ over the same period.

What’s really shocking is the rise in the cost of keeping them in the worst form of temporary accommodation – an incredible 780% from £10.6m in 2009/10 to £93.3m in 2017/18.

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