Looking for clues

Originally published on July 26 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

After a month of turmoil and political change, suddenly everything is on hold.

I was on holiday for the week that saw yet another new housing minister and a concerted effort by housing organisations to persuade Theresa May’s new government to change course but also the non-appearance of crucial details of previous policies.

The delays obviously reflect the political fall-out from the Brexit vote followed by the appointment of a new prime minister and an almost entirely new Cabinet. Old certainties have gone, apparently including the entire economic framework for policy, but the outlines of the new approach remain unclear.

As I blogged before I went away, Theresa May’s speeches during the brief Conservative leadership campaign can be read in two different ways. Signs of change on, for example, workers on company boards do not necessarily mean change everywhere.

Do her comments on housing signal a new ‘One Nation’ approach or one that continues to see the housing crisis solely in terms of home ownership? Is it to be business as usual or will the government listen to the critique of the previous Tory government published by an influential House of Lords committee?

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Blue futures

Originally published on July 5 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

I wouldn’t pretend for a second that housing is anywhere near top of the to do list for the five contenders to be the new Conservative leader and prime minister – or that the winner will mean a radical change in approach.

But so many political certainties have been overturned in the last week or so that nothing can be ruled out. Not least, George Osborne’s decision to abandon his budget surplus target changes the financial parameters for housing policy in ways that are only just beginning to be thought through.

This could open up new possibilities for housing in the Autumn Statement under a new prime minister and quite possibly a new chancellor. However, it’s also likely to mean that austerity will continue into the 2020s.

The background of the contenders alone will be a change. Unlike David Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson, all five of them are state-educated. Two (Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox) were even brought up in council housing.

So what about housing? There are divisions between the contenders on their attitudes: some are ready to concede a role for social housing while others focus completely on the market and three of the five appear to be saying that housing will be a bigger priority with a bigger budget.

However, the main dividing line is between supporters of and objectors to new homes. This tension between ‘supporters’ and ‘objectors’ has been evident throughout the coalition and Conservative governments and reached uneasy compromise in the National Planning Policy Framework, with ‘localism’ balanced by the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

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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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The Housing Bill: fresh start

Originally posted on April 12 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Otto von Bismarck famously said that laws are like sausages: it is better not to see how they are made.

One exception to the Iron Chancellor’s dictum could be the way that the UK House of Lords takes the distasteful raw ingredients of legislation and improves it with new recipes.

That was certainly the case on the first day of the report stage of the Housing and Planning Bill on Monday, which saw the government twice suffer major defeats and also make a significant concession on starter homes.

As the Bill now stands, this ‘cuckoo in the nest’ of affordable housing (as Lord Best memorably called it at the committee stage) has been cut down to size a bit: the discount will be repayable over 20 years rather than eight; and local authorities will have the flexibility to decide on local needs rather than targeting virtually all section 106 contributions as starter homes. The government also accepted another amendment that will exempt rural exceptions sites from the starter home requirement.

Ministers had already moved slightly on the discount period: the Bill originally said that starter home buyers would be able to sell without repaying any of the 20% discount after five years but a consultation proposes extending that to eight years with the discount tapering away over that period.

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Checking the bill

Originally posted on February 10 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing 

Start with a fundamental change to the funding mechanism for the right to buy, stir in more changes to key elements of the Housing and Planning Bill, then add criticism of the lack of detail and you have a recipe that shoud give ministers indigestion.

The report of the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee does support both the extension of the right to buy to housing association tenants and the voluntary deal between the government and the NHF is ‘the best way forward’.

But that’s as good as it gets for ministers from a committee that has a Labour chair but a Tory majority. Here is the headline recommendation:

‘The Government proposes to fund the right to buy discounts for housing association tenants with the proceeds from the sale of high value council homes. However we believe that public policy should usually be funded by central Government, rather than through a levy on local authorities.’

This would undermine one of the central elements of the Bill and the government’s method of paying for right to buy discounts and the promised replacement homes. And the MPs are not finished.

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The Housing Bill: just for starters

Originally posted on January 6 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

MPs staggered bleary eyed from the House of Commons at 2am last night without even getting to the most contentious parts of the Housing and Planning Bill.

Despite a series of obituaries for council housing and a ‘Kill the Bill’ protest outside, issues such as forced high-value sales, Pay to Stay and the voluntary Right to Buy will only be considered on day two of the report stage debate (set for next Tuesday, January 12).

Last night’s five-hour debate included starter homes, the regulation of housing associations, rogue landlords and the planning system. Opposition MPs complained that 65 pages of new clauses and amendments had been added at the last minute to a Bill that was only 145 pages long.

I blogged back in October that this a Bill written on the back of a fag packet and last night only confirmed that impression. The Bill also leaves a series of crucial decisions to be made by ministers by regulation later.

Nothing sums this up more than new clause 31 on planning obligations and affordable housing. This adds starter homes selling for up to £450,000 to the existing definition of affordable housing: homes for people whose needs are not adequately served by the market. However, it also adds that:

‘The Secretary of State may by regulations amend this section so as to modify the definition of “affordable housing”.’

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Moment in the sun

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

First, the good news: new government figures show that the supply of affordable housing is at a 20-year high. The 66,640 homes delivered in 2014/15 represented the highest output since 1995/96 and is among the highest seen since new council housing investment was killed off in the 1980s.

Yes, the surge in output is partly explained by the rush to beat the April 2015 deadline for the 2011-2015 Affordable Homes Programme, but it is still testament to the efforts of everyone involved: housing associations, government agencies, local authorities and housebuilders.

And given the usual doom and gloom on this blog maybe I should even allow ministers a moment in the sun too. Greg Clark and Brandon Lewis were understandably quick to seize on what was also the biggest increase in supply seen since 1992/93, when another Conservative government invested in housing in the wake of the housing market crash. Here’s what Clark had to say for himself:

‘Today’s figures show how far we’ve come to get the country building, bringing the industry back from the brink to deliver the highest annual increase in affordable housebuilding for over two decades. But we are far from complacent and the doubling of government investment in housebuilding announced at the recent Spending Review reaffirms our commitment to deliver a million new homes by 2020. Affordable homes to rent and buy are a key part of that, helping to give young people and families across the country the best possible start in life.’

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