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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May’s mix of good intentions and unfinished business

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

You wait more than 100 years for a prime minister to address your conference and you get one with less than a month left in the job.

It’s tempting to dismiss Wednesday’s speech by Theresa May to the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) conference on the basis that it was made by a lame duck leader whose decisions could all be overturned by her successor on July 24.

Even the sight of a premier hot-footing it straight from prime minister’s questions in London to the conference in Manchester can be seen less as a reflection of housing’s importance than of how much time she has on her hands during the Tory leadership contest.

As she said herself, even the venue was a reminder of one of her worst moments: the disastrous leader’s speech in the same hall at the Conservative conference in 2017 that ended with her losing her voice and the set falling apart around her.

Yet that same conference saw her dedicate her premiership to fixing housing and it was part of a journey since Grenfell that has seen May’s government move away from the policies of David Cameron, George Osborne and Policy Exchange and re-embrace the ‘our first social service’ traditions of Churchill and Macmillan.

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What will a new PM mean for housing?

Originally posted on May 20 as a column for Inside Housing.

What are the chances that the government’s shift to a more pragmatic position on housing will survive a change of Conservative leader?

The papers are already full of news and polls about the leadership race before Theresa May has even resigned, mostly reporting Boris Johnson as the overwhelming favourite but also noting the poor record of overwhelming favourites in previous Tory elections.

The stakes for housing start with the record of May’s government. While much of it is about rhetoric and saying the right things, especially since Grenfell, there is also some substance: the first funding for social housing since 2010; u-turns on key elements of the 2016 Housing Act; reforms to private renting culminating in the consultation on ending Section 21; and a willingness to consider new thinking on issues like land.

Does all of this represent a permanent shift in Conservative thinking on housing or will the Tories revert to type once May and her chief of staff, former housing minister Gavin Barwell, have vacated Downing Street?

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Parker Morris and Homes for Today and Tomorrow

Originally posted on February 19 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Listening to a new Radio 4 documentary about Parker Morris and space standards it is impossible not to feel a mix of nostalgia for an era of housing optimism and sadness that our ambitions have shrunk so much since.

As John Grindrod relates in Living Room, the title of the 1961 report was an indication that it was about much more than just a technical exercise in allocating space per person.

Work on Homes for Today and Tomorrow started 60 years ago this year but it was building on a 20th century council housing tradition that began 100 years ago and it was also looking to the future to ensure that homes were fit for it.

‘A good house or flat can never be made out of premises which are too small,’ said the report, which set out a much greater ambition for new homes:

‘An increasing proportion of people are coming to expect their home to do more than just fulfil the basic requirement. It must be something of which they can be proud and in which they can express the fulness of their lives.’

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Celebrations fit for heroes

Originally published on January 31as a blog for Inside Housing.

This year marks the centenary of a key event in the history of housing in Britain that deserves to be widely celebrated.

The 1919 Housing Act was designed to deliver on Lloyd George’s promise of homes for the soldiers, sailors and munitions workers of the First World War. He never actually said the exact words ‘homes fit for heroes’ and only 213,000 of the 500,000 promised were delivered before the Treasury axe fell in 1921.

But the results can still be seen in towns and cities all over the country in well-designed and spacious houses and the Act drawn up by health minister Christopher Addison also legacy for the future that went beyond the homes themselves. 

Christopher Addison, the architect of the 1919 Act

It effectively established principles for council housing that lasted (but would also be contested) through the rest of the century by giving local authorities responsibility for assessing local housing need and the tools and the resources to address it. Read the rest of this entry »