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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When planning reform meets politics

Originally a column for Inside Housing.

A couple of miles away from where I live in Cornwall a community land trust wants to build 29 affordable homes for people with a strong local connection.

These are the first new affordable homes of any kind in Newlyn for years but (you guessed it) there is a ‘backlash from angry locals’. It’s not the homes they object to (of course not, it never is) but the traffic they will generate.

On the one hand, house prices are way out of reach of local earnings and there is a desperate shortage even of homes for private rent thanks to holiday lets. It would be hard to think of an example of a development more deserving of local support rather than campaign groups organising against it.

It’s a compelling reason why the government’s plans to reform the planning system so that individual planning applications no longer come into the equation and land is simply designated for protection, growth and renewal should be taken very seriously.

On the other, this is one of the rural areas facing the ‘threat’ of 400,000 new homes in a report this week that illustrates the scale of the well-housed Tory rebellion in the shires.

But something else I was reading recently suggests a need for caution. My Style of Government is Nicholas Ridley’s critique of the record of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration between 1979 and 1990.

Ridley was one of the main ideologues of Thatcherism and as her environment secretary between 1986 and 1989 he was the architect of the Housing Act 1988 and therefore of much of the housing system as we know it today.

He is also credited with popularising the term NIMBY, although his credibility suffered when it was revealed that he had himself objected to a planning application near his country home in the Cotswolds.

But what’s significant I think is this arch Thatcherite’s admission of complete failure on planning and the political lessons that he drew from it.

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Building Back Better (in due course)

Building back better? Safer? Fairer? How about slower?

At first glance this is a Queen’s Speech that looks full of welcome reforms to planning and the delivery of new homes, conditions for renters and leaseholders and building safety. Scratch beneath the surface in the background briefing notes, though, and big questions remain and there are big battles to come.

Ahead of the speech, the Planning Bill was spun as ‘cruical’ to levelling up, a way to cement Conservative advances in the Midlands and North by boosting home ownership.

But that ignores the battle to come with Tory backbenchers over housebuilding in the South East.

A cynical outcome from the white paper would be to emphasise local growth as you allow councils in expensive areas to designate large parts of them for protection. This would do next to nothing to tackle affordability – or address the very real questions about the future of Section 106 – but the politics will be very tempting.

In the wake of Grenfell, the government will ‘continue to deliver on the Social Housing White Paper proposals’ and ‘legislate as soon as practicable’.

But Grenfell was almost four years ago and the social housing white paper that was published in November that took more than three years. Practicable? Grenfell United has already called it a ‘betrayal’.

Improvements will come in the proposed Building Safety Bill which is at last delivering on the improved regime promised after the fire.

However, that in itself is a delayed opportunity to address the plight of hundreds of thousands of leaseholders after ministers steadfastly resisted all amendments to the Fire Safety Bill to make it clear they should not have to pay for problems that are not their fault. The stage is set for another huge Commons battle.

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The cake and the crumbs

Originally published as a column on insidehousing.co.uk on April 15.

From Brexit to just about anything else you care to mention, Boris Johnson is known for wanting to ‘have his cake and eat it’. Why should it be any different for housing?

That was the first thought that sprung to mind reading through a raft of recent government responses to consultations. Much like the social housing green and white papers, they try to face in two different directions at once.

One points towards the more tenure-neutral territory staked out under Theresa May. The other points backwards to the promised land of home ownership staked out by David Cameron, the former prime minister turned PR man for failed bankers.

Both are evident in the outcome of consultations on the new model for shared ownership, changes to the current planning system and First Homes, supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure and use of receipts from Right to Buy sales in the run-up to Easter.

So we get the expansion of permitted development to cover the conversion of most empty commercial buildings, not just offices, into residential. This may mean more ‘units’ but with too few constraints on quality to be regarded as ‘homes’.

Plans for reform of shared ownership include confirmation that landlords will be liable for repairs for the first 10 years on new homes but no acknowledgement that this leaves existing tenant-owners living in devalued assets.

There are plans to give existing as well as new shared owners the statutory right to a lease of 990 rather than 99 years but no fresh solutions for those left out of government help for fire safety costs or forced to take out £50 a month loans.

Reductions in the minimum initial stake and staircasing threshold meet commitments previously made by housing secretary Robert Jenrick without any real evidence supporting them.

Changes to the current planning system include a welcome u-turn on a proposal to increase the threshold at which small sites are exempt from affordable housing requirements from 10 homes to up to 50. That could rescue up to 30,000 affordable homes over the next five years.

However, that’s trumped by confirmation of plans to require a minimum of 25 per cent of homes delivered through developer contributions to be First Homes. Mr Jenrick is therefore diverting a sizeable chunk of the funding mechanism that accounts for more than half of affordable homes into his pet project.

On the Right to Buy, local authorities get five years rather than three to use receipts to build new homes and receipts can account for 40 rather than 30 per cent of the total cost. These are improvements to the scarcely credible ‘one-for-one replacement’ pledge made when discounts were increased in 2012.

But that could still leave them forced to sell homes for less than it cost to build them and it does not address the parallel question of ‘like-for-like’ replacement.

Far from responding to concerns raised in the consultation about broadening the definition, the government suggests that ‘affordable’ replacements for social rent homes sold could include not just affordable rent and shared ownership but also (you guessed it) First Homes.

All of which suggests that the loss of social rent homes – 210,000 in England in the last eight years, according to the latest UK Housing Review – will continue even as ministers make rhetorical nods to the tenure.

It’s as though one part of government wants to shift the balance of policy in favour of social and affordable housing only for another to tilt it back towards home ownership and the free market.

With crucial choices looming as society reopens and the economy moves off life support, which will get the cake and which will be left with the crumbs?