Housing in the Tory leadership contest

Originally posted as a blog for Inside Housing on June 19 – updated June 21. 

Beneath the surface of a Conservative leadership battle dominated by Brexit and Boris Johnson there is a battle of ideas about the future direction of Conservative housing policy.

Put at its simplest, the battle is about whether to continue in the pragmatic direction signalled by Theresa May since 2016 or go back to the more ideological one taken by David Cameron before then.

But scratch a little deeper there are more fundamental debates going on about how far to go in fixing a housing market that most Tories agree has turned into an electoral liability for them.

Key questions such as how far the government should go in borrowing to invest in new homes and intervening in the private rented sector and the land market are back on the Conservative agenda.

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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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The 300,000-home question

Originally published on February 11 as a blog for Inside Housing. 

Can the government meet its target of 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s?

The target was announced to some scepticism in the 2017 Budget and a report just out from the National Audit Office (NAO) says with some under-statement that it will be ‘challenging to meet’.

In detail, the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) commitment is to ‘support the delivery of a million homes by the end of 2020 and half a million more by the end of 2022 and put us on track to deliver 300,000 net additional homes a year on average’.

That means net additional homes so it includes conversions and change of use (less demolitions) as well as new building.

Statistics showing a 78% increase in homes on this measure since the low point of 2012/13 (from 125,000 to 222,000) certainly suggest that it is possible.

However, recovery from the credit crunch is one thing, an increase from more normal times quite another, and the annual increase slowed to just 2% in 2017/18.

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Shrinking homes to fit

Originally published on January 23 on insidehousing.co.uk.

Shrinkflation made the headlines this week as government statisticians highlighted the way that food manufacturers reduce the size of their packets rather than put up the price of their products.

Most commonly seen in bread and cereals, it means you now get 10 Jaffa Cakes where you used to get 12.

But another news story got me wondering about whether the same thing could happen in housing.

Micro-homes could solve London’s housing crisis,’ said a BBC headline based on a new report from the Adam Smith Institute.

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What’s in the Budget small print?

Originally published on November 30 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

If you listened to the chancellor’s speech you may have thought this was a Budget that did not mean much for housing. As ever you may think again after reading the small print.

As I live blogged for Inside Housing yesterday, the big news in the speech was the extra money for universal credit that makes up for many of the cuts imposed in universal credit and delays the roll-out yet again and sounds like it will be enough to avoid a backbench Tory rebellion.

Elsewhere, Philip Hammond found £2.8 bn to bring forward cuts in income tax allowances by a year but he failed to find roughly half that to scrap the final year of the freeze in most working age benefits including the local housing allowance.

This was a clear political choice to go for tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the better-off over benefits that go to the poorest households.

Ahead of the next spending review, numbers crunched by the Resolution Foundation overnight suggest that the squeeze on everything apart from health will continue well into the 2020s.

However, the most interesting developments for housing came in the background documents published as Mr Hammond sat down.

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New NPPF but no green paper

Originally published on July 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Pick your moment: the appointment of a new housing minister only two weeks ago; the non-appearance of advance trails in the Sunday papers; or the failure of housing secretary James Brokenshire to rise to Labour’s bait in the Commons on Monday.

They were all strong signals that the social housing green paper, first promised early this year, then in the Spring and then before the recess, would fail to make its appearance by the time MPs went on their summer break on Tuesday.

Challenged over the decision by the BBC’s Mark Easton, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said that: ‘Providing high quality and well managed social housing is a top priority for this government. Shortly we will publish a Green Paper that sets out a new deal for social housing tenants.’

‘Shortly’ in this context might mean over the recess or (more likely) when MPs return in September (though there is some speculation that tensions over Brexit could see this delayed until October).

Either way, social housing seems to be just as much of a ‘top priority’ as it was when Kit Malthouse became the third different housing minister this year, leaving none of the politicians in place who personally assured tenants that they were ‘listening’ to their concerns.

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Red tape and rabbit hutches

Originally posted on May 8 on my blog for Inside Housing.

New rules making it easier to convert offices into residential property have generated more than 30,000 new homes in the last two years – but at what cost?

A report published last week that deserves more attention took a detailed look at what has happened in five areas of England since the system was deregulated in 2013.

The study for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors also compares the experiences of Glasgow and Rotterdam, which have also seen office to residential conversions without the same deregulation.

The English reforms extended the system of permitted development, allowing developers to apply for prior approval rather than planning permission and making it much easier for them to push office to residential conversions through the system.

This is not a total free-for-all – some local authorities have successfully applied for exemptions for some areas and it is still possible to apply for new ones – but it is a significant relaxation that is meant to deliver more homes.

When former communities secretary Eric Pickles first introduced the new system he said that:

‘By unshackling developers from a legacy of bureaucratic planning we can help them turn thousands of vacant commercial properties into enough new homes to jump start housing supply.’

The scheme was first introduced for three years from May 2013, then made permanent from April 2016.

At first glance the results seem to bear out Pickles’s hopes and look impressive in terms the contribution to the government’s plans to move towards 300,000 net additional dwellings a year.

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