Learning the lessons of Grenfell Tower

Originally published on June 15 as a column for Inside Housing.

Why? Why? Why? The questions come thick and fast.

Why did this happen? How did it happen? Who let it happen?

I can’t pretend to have the technical expertise to have the answers and it’s important not to leap to the wrong conclusions. So for the moment there can only be questions about Tuesday night’s horrific fire in London.

At least 12 people are known to have died as the fire swept through Grenfell Tower but given the number of people missing the final death toll looks like it will be far higher than that.

Even the immediate questions are endless. Why did the fire spread so quickly? Why were there no sprinklers or fire alarms? Should the advice to stay put be changed?

Did the refurbishment work or the cladding used make Grenfell Tower less safe? Why did the council and landlord not heed residents’ warnings about the fire risks?

Where will the surviving residents live now and how long will it take them to find permanent homes?

The questions keep coming but we need answers and soon about why the tragedy happened and how to stop it happening again.

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Questions of power

Originally posted on May 9 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The May elections have a common theme when it comes to housing: can the winners really do what they say?

From Sadiq Khan to Marvin Rees, from Nicola Sturgeon to Carwyn Jones and from council leaders all over England to the voters of St Ives, winning the elections last week was the easy bit. The hard work starts now.

I’ll start with the poll closest to me: the referendum in St Ives on a Neighbourhood Plan that will ban the building of new second homes that has brought national attention.

More than 80% of residents supported the plan last Thursday and it’s impossible not to sympathise. Around a quarter of the homes in St Ives are either second homes or holiday lets and the problem is even worse in other Cornish communities. That does not just price out locals it also means a lack of year-round residents that makes it hard to sustain vital services and infrastructure.

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What David Cameron’s tax returns say about property

Next time you read about ‘fat cats’ earning more than the prime minister here’s something to bear in mind: so does his house.

The summarised tax returns released by David Cameron this weekend show that he had a total taxable income of just over £200,000 in 2014/15. The first £141,000 of that were his earnings as prime minister: he has not taken a pay rise since 2010 and has also voluntarily waived a £20,000 prime ministerial expenses deduction since 2011.

Most of the Panama Papers coverage has concentrated on Cameron’s links to his father’s offshore fund and an inheritance gift from his mother. However, he is also the first prime minister to rent out his existing home while living tax-free in Downing Street. The accounts show that he had a net rental income of £47,000 from letting out his house in Notting Hill, an amount that notes to the accounts confirm is his 50 per cent share of the proceeds:

Tax

So the total rent (after expenses) received by the Camerons last year was £94,000 and in the first five years since he became prime minister they gained a total of £432,000 in rent.

However, that is not the total amount they will have ‘earned’ from their house as London house prices have also soared over the same period. The exact value of the Cameron house is hard to pin down, since they are reported to have spent £600,000 on renovations after buying it in 2006. Some reports put the value at £2 million in 2010, others £2.7 million.

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Monopoly money: London Help to Buy

Originally posted on February 4 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The person who sprang instantly to mind when I saw the promotional material for London Help to Buy on Twitter this week was Lizzie Magie (of whom more later).

The scheme offering 40% equity loans to buyers of new build property in London costing up to £600,000 was first announced in the Spending Review and formally launched this week. Here (thanks to Joe Sarling for drawing my attention to it) is the advert designed for digital media:

The Angel, Islington, costs a little bit more than £100 these days and with studio apartments in one new development starting at £715,000 you can forget about building a house for £50 or renting one for £6. But you get the general idea: it seems that you can now get on the property ladder as easily as you can ‘Advance to Mayfair’ or ‘Go Back to Old Kent Road’.

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The Housing Bill: From bad to worse


Originally posted on January 13 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing 

If it is an achievement to pilot a Bill through the House of Commons and end up with legislation that is worse than what you started with, then congratulations Brandon Lewis and Greg Clark.

Back in October I blogged that the Housing and Planning Bill is written on the back of a fag packetOn Tuesday it completed its report stage and got a third reading with additions and amendments scribbled all over the front as well. It was hard to disagree with the verdict of shadow housing minister John Healey in his closing speech: ‘Usually, we hope to improve a Bill as it goes through the House. This was a bad Bill; it is now a very bad Bill.’

Healey cited late amendments to change the definition of ‘affordable’ to include starter homes costing up to £450,000 (‘the Government are not building enough affordable homes, so they are simply branding more homes as affordable’) and to force councils to offer fixed-term tenancies (‘meaning the end of long-term rented housing, the end of a stable home for many children as they go through school, and the end of security for pensioners who move into bungalows or sheltered flats later in life’).

It was hard to disagree either with his view that ‘the Bill sounds the death knell for social housing’. That much will be obvious to anyone working in housing or who has followed the progress of the Bill. The tab for the Conservative manifesto pledges of extending the right to buy and building 200,000 starter homes is effectively being picked up by councils that still own their homes, tenants and people who will not get the chance of a social tenancy in future.

The Bill accelerates the slow death of social housing through a combination of deliberate culling (forced sales, Pay to Stay and fixed term tenancies for council housing), euthanasia (voluntary right to buy for housing associations plus conversions) and redefining the conditions for life (‘affordable’ will now not just mean starter homes but anything the secretary of state says). It is also now official that a private rented home does not have to be fit for human habitation.

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Noises off

Originally posted on November 3 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

As MPs debated the Housing and Planning Bill on Monday it was hard to escape the impression that the real action was elsewhere.

From the extension of the right to buy to the forced sale of council houses to starter homes, key discussions had either already happened or were still taking place outside the Commons chamber. Yes, talks behind the scenes are an inevitable part of any Bill, but far more so with this one than any other that I can remember. Yes, the Deal removes what would have been a key element in the legislation from parliamentary scrutiny but this is about more than just that.

That’s partly because this is a back of a fag packet Bill that sets out some general principles with the detail to be filled in later. We still  know little more about how the sums will add up for paying housing association discounts from forced council sales than during the election campaign. And, as Alex Marsh points out in relation to Pay to Stay, there are whole chunks of the Bill that give the secretary of state the power to do pretty much whatever they like.

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Concerned eyebrows

Originally posted on August 26 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Housing protests burst on to the stage at this year’s Edinburgh Festival.

One of the best shows I saw on the Fringe was E15, a play devised from verbatim accounts of what’s happened since 29 single mothers were told they would be evicted from the Focus E15 hostel in Newham in October 2013.

For a mainstream audience it shows the extremes of the housing crisis in a borough where severe homelessness and deprivation co-exist with the post-Olympics boom. It’s also the inspirational story of a group of people who in their own words knew nothing about politics and protesting but who refused to be marginalised.

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