Housing in the Queen’s Speech

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It certainly looks like Her Majesty’s Government is doing something on housing – but is that the limit of the ambitions expressed in the Queen’s Speech?

As ever, background briefing notes provide more detail than the speech delivered this year by the future King.

Two promised headline Bills fulfil commitments to reform private renting and the regulation of social housing but both are long overdue.

A third pointedly does not include plans announced in the 2021 Queen’s Speech to reform the planning system to deliver more homes.

And there are vague promises of further ‘housing reform’ but no specifics or commitments to legislation to back them up.

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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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Cutting the Goveian knot

Originally published on November 10 as a column for Inside Housing.

In a two-hour appearance before MPs, Michael Gove made most of the right noises but can he really come up with meaningful solutions to the intractable problems that come with his new job?

The man in charge of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) was facing questions from what is still called the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. You can watch it back here.

The reorganisation of his department added responsibilities for levelling up and preserving the union to the tangled threads of building safety, planning, home ownership and homelessness that were already crowding his in-tray. You might almost call it a Goveian Knot.

What was striking was not just Mr Gove’s willingness to engage with committee members but also his multiple hints of bolder answers on the way.

The levelling up secretary signalled pauses and rethinks and resets on several of the most contentious issues he faces. This is reflected in this morning’s press coverage of his hints that housebuilding targets will be scrapped, his pledge that controversial fire safety advice will be withdrawn soon and his criticism of ‘overcautious’ lending by banks to first-time buyers.  

It also became clear that he sees a direct link between levelling up and the H side of his brief.

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An empty vision from the Conservatives

So now we know. The way to tackle the affordability crisis is to pretend that it does not exist.

There is no official confirmation yet but the clear message from the Conservative Party conference is that radical planning reform and the attempt to force through new housebuilding in the least affordable parts of the country are both dead.

In their place are vague assurances that building more homes in the North will help both to level up the country and take the pressure off the South East. 

It was there front and centre in Boris Johnson’s invitation in his conference speech  to: 

‘Look at this country from the air. Go on google maps, you can also see how much room there is to build the homes that young families need in this country, not on green fields, not just jammed in the South East, but beautiful homes on brownfield sites in places where homes make sense.’

The prime minister still talked about ‘fixing the broken housing market’ but that is no longer a goal to be achieved by building more homes in expensive areas but a means to a different end:

‘Housing in the right place at an affordable price will add massively not just to your general joie de vivre but to your productivity. And that is how we solve the national productivity puzzle by fixing the broken housing market by plugging in the gigabit, by putting in decent safe bus routes and all other transport infrastructure and by investing in skills, skills, skills and that by the way is how we help to cut the cost of living for everyone because housing, energy, transport are now huge parts of our monthly bills.’

There was more in the same vein and some guff about ‘the dream of home ownership’ but you get the picture. Needless to say he had nothing to say about fixing parts of the market that are most broken for tens of thousands of leaseholders stuck in dangerous and defective flats. 

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The levelling up of MHCLG

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on September 23.

So it’s farewell to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and hello to the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. 

As rumoured last week, we have new brass plates and stationery to go with new secretary of state Michael Gove at Marsham Street and its new office in Wolverhampton. 

So what’s the difference between MHCLG and DLUHC? First, and most obvious, is that top billing for levelling up, as DLUHC becomes the unpronounceable in pursuit of the undefinable.

Second, it’s worth remembering why the rebranding to MHCLG seemed so significant when it happened three and a half years and three secretaries of state ago. 

It was not just the H in the title, it was the way it was a deliberate echo of the 1950s and 1960s, when the two main parties competed with each other to build more council houses, and Macmillan rather than Thatcher seemed the reference point for the Tories on housing.  

Third, an important caveat to that: although relegated to second billing, housing is still there in the name, which is more than can be said for its predecessors since the 1970s. 

Within a department with significant extra responsibilities (not just levelling up but preserving the union as well) housing is at least still a priority of sorts. Local government has disappeared. 

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New secretary of state, same old problems

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

So it’s farewell to Robert Jenrick and time to ‘welcome’ a new housing secretary in Michael Gove. 

The removal of Mr Jenrick is not a great surprise given a record that includes Westferry, failure to fix the building safety crisis and a flagship policy on planning reform that seems to be sinking. 

Still more so when he ranked third bottom in Conservative Home’s survey of grassroots Tories on how they see members of the Cabinet. Only Gavin Williamson (sacked) and Amanda Milling (demoted) were less popular than him. 

But he also got more money out of the Treasury for building safety than either of his two predecessors and that unpopularity may deserve more respect if it was based on nimby opposition to his planning reform agenda to deliver more homes 

The former housing secretary was an early supporter of Boris Johnson and was loyal to the point of defending government policies on the Sunday morning talk shows that were scrapped in u-turns an hour later.

But loyalty is not always what counts in politics and as if to prove the point he is replaced by Michael Gove, the man who famously stabbed Johnson in the back in the 2016 Tory leadership contest. 

The former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is the longest-serving current cabinet minister and brings with him cross-departmental clout that will include driving forward the manifesto commitments to deliver 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s and end rough sleeping by the end of this parliament

He was the shadow housing minister before Grant Shapps so he will be familiar with the issues and the main players and he will get an early reminder today of the biggest new issue in his in-tray when leaseholders and building safety campaigners hold a rally in Westminster.

However, such an apparently known quantity still leaves plenty of questions about what his priorities will be and he retains a capacity to surprise (not least on the dance floor). 

He comes with a reputation for delivery forged in the Cabinet Office but while some of this morning’s papers see his new job as central to the government’s mission to level up, others see it as a demotion or disappointment compared to his hopes of higher office. 

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Tackling the blight of second homes

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing

As the staycation summer starts to draw to a close, spare a thought for everyone living in the places where the rest of us have been on holiday.

Coastal areas and beauty spots in the countryside are well used to tourists but this year has really brought home the impact of second homes, holiday lets and relocating buyers on housing for locals.

On the beach on the  Llyn peninsula in North Wales, the message is Hawl i Fyw Adra (the Right to Live at Home) while demonstrators have scaled the country’s highest mountains to protest that Nid yw Cymru ar Werth (Wales is not for Sale).

In the South West of England, there are persistent reports of Londoners snapping up homes they’ve seen online without even viewing them in person and of tenants being evicted to make way for lucrative holiday lets.

House prices beyond the reach of local wages and rents inflated by holiday lets have long been features of the market but a new development this year is an acute shortage of any homes for rent, let alone affordable ones.

A quick search on Rightmove for my home town in Cornwall reveals just four rentals listed all summer – a studio flat, two bedsits in an HMO and a retirement flat.

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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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Politics trumps planning

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Two by-elections, two widely predicted Conservative victories that did not quite turn out that way.

Labour holding a seat and the Lib Dems winning one against a government that has been in power for 11 years would never have been seen as surprise results in previous parliaments but they could signal politics beginning to return to normal after Brexit, the 2019 election and the pandemic.

If Batley and Spen shows that the Tories can no longer be confident in Labour seats in the North, then Chesham and Amersham shows a worrying vulnerability to the Lib Dems in the South.

And the upshot is a depressing one for anyone who believes in the case for new homes. Trouble was always likely when planning reform met politics, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so quickly.

Planning is, of course, always contentious – even in a Batley and Spen by-election dominated by other issues it still featured in the letters pages of the local press.

But it was front and centre in Chesham and Amersham. While HS2 was also seen as a factor, the victorious candidate made heavy play of planning and housebuilding in her leaflets, quoting extensively from Tory critics of the plans who say they will mean ‘the wrong homes being built in the wrong places’.

This was deeply cynical of the Lib Dems, who support both the new high-speed train line and 300,000 new homes a year at a national level but said the opposite locally.

However, they were not the only ones. The losing Conservative candidate proposed turning much of the constituency into a national park during the campaign. This surely foreshadows likely tactics by local Tories in getting as much of their land as possible designated as ‘protect’ against new homes under the new system proposed in the Planning Bill.

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A not so humble address

Originally a column for Inside Housing.

Affordable and safe housing for all’. Who could argue with that?

Pretty much everyone, funnily enough, because this was the title of the housing part of the House of Commons debate on the humble address following the Queen’s Speech.

Catching up with last week’s debate, two things struck me really powerfully: first, just how much politics has been turned on its head; and second just how riddled with contradictions the government’s position on housing really is.

In the post-Brexit and (hopefully) post-Covid world, the more that the blanks in the empty slogan of levelling up are filled up, the clearer the first becomes.

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