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?


The politics of planning reform

Originally published by Inside Housing on October 26.

Remember when a newly elected Conservative-led government was determined to put an end to top-down planning and scrap Labour’s ‘Stalinist’ housebuilding targets?

It may be only 10 years ago but all that ‘localism’ seems a long time ago in the wake of a planning white paper that Boris Johnson says will deliver ‘radical reform unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War’.

But that 2010 rhetoric from Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps is a reminder of the tensions that are inherent in the conflict between Conservative determination to deliver more homes from the centre and the conservative impulse to resist them at a local level.

For all the lofty promises about ‘big, bold steps so that we in this country can finally build the homes we all need and the future we all want to see’, that struggle has never gone away.

In the final few weeks of consultation on the white paper, ministers were already signalling a u-turn on a key part of it after a revolt by Tory backbenchers.

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Sins of permission

Originally published on July 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Your own independent evaluation shows that the existing regime of permitted development rights (PDR) delivers poor quality homes that raise serious concerns about ‘the health, wellbeing and quality of life of future occupiers’.

Your own consultation showed that an overwhelming majority of consultees opposed major extensions of it.

You’ve previously declared your commitment to the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission’s ‘fast track to beauty’ without apparently heeding its report warning that PDR has ‘inadvertently permissioned future slums’.

So naturally enough housing secretary Robert Jenrick has decided to go ahead and allow upwards extensions and demolition and replacement of existing buildings via a PDR system that allows minimal scrutiny by local communities.

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Johnson sinks to the occasion

Originally published on July 1 as a column for Inside Housing.

It was less ‘build, build, build’ than ‘blah, blah, blah’, less New Deal than reheated old announcements.

Boris Johnson’s big speech on Tuesday, plus accompanying announcements on housing and planning, were billed as the start of the recovery after Coronavirus.

They arrived to a chorus of calls for greater investment, Homes for Heroes and a warning from Shelter and Savills that output of new homes will fall by 85,000 this year because of the pandemic, with just 4,300 for social rent.

In that context, the prime minister sank to the occasion and even managed to imply that the Affordable Homes Programme will be cut.

Where the Budget in March had promised £12.2 billion over the next five years, Johnson said it will now run over eight. Taken at face value that means a cut of 38 per cent from £2.4 billion a year to £1.5 billion.

That would be roughly the same annual commitment as in the current AHP and would represent a slap in the face for everyone who has campaigned for or needs an affordable home.

Not so, fast, though. No 10 soon clarified that when he said eight years he was actually talking about the three-year time lag for homes to be built after the end of the programme. Social Housing was given the slightly different line that the extra three years applies only to  the £2 bn strategic partnerships announced in September 2018.

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The Westferry affair and planning reform

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on June 29.

A cartoon in a national newspaper last week showed a pig about to dive into a trough from a springboard marked ‘Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government’ saying ‘I declare this development officially open’.

It was an indication if any were needed of how the Westferry Printworks affair has left the impression that the planning system is a ‘Tory funny money’ game of Monopoly (another cartoon two days later).

Richard Desmond’s £12,000 donation to the Conservatives may be small change but the timing shortly after housing secretary Robert Jenrick approved his plans for a £1 billion housing development still stinks.

It leaves the housing secretary looking – in the most generous interpretation of events – naïve in his dealings with the billionaire.

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A strategy full of contradictions

Originally posted on March 17 on my blog for Inside Housing.

What was billed as a statement about planning to follow the Budget was actually a declaration of intent about the future of housing – with some glaring contradictions at the heart of it.

An oral statement to the Commons and accompanying policy paper last Thursday from housing secretary Robert Jenrick foreshadow not just the planning and social housing white papers but also a new housing strategy that will be published alongside the Spending Review in the Autumn.

By my reckoning this will be the first housing strategy to be billed as such since David Cameron ‘radical and unashamedly ambitious’ one that pledged to ‘get Britain building’ in 2011.

Given what’s happened since, and the fact that Thursday’s press release promises exactly the same thing, that begs a few questions about what exactly the government has been doing in the meantime.

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Priorities after the reshuffle

The dust has settled on the reshuffle with yet another new housing minister but more significant developments elsewhere.

The replacement of Esther McVey with Chris Pincher, the 10th housing minister to take their turn since 2010, need only detain us long enough to note the reward reaped by the former for resigning in principle from a proper Cabinet job over Brexit and the fact that the latter has lost the ‘attending Cabinet’ status that previously went with being a minister of state.

As Pete Apps noted on Thursday, the resignation of Sajid Javid is much bigger news because it dials down faint hopes that housing will gain in the Budget and Spending Review.

There was no direct evidence that this would actually happen but as a former housing secretary Javid is at least aware of the issues that need to be addressed. Rishi Sunak, the former Treasury chief secretary who steps into his shoes, is an unknown quantity.

More clues can perhaps be gleaned from the appointment of Jack Airey as Boris Johnson’s special advisor on housing and planning. As a former head of housing at Policy Exchange, we can probably expect more on the ‘building beautiful’ agenda and more support for the argument that housing problems all come back to planning.

And, at least in the short term, the most significant appointment in the reshuffle is the re-appointment of Robert Jenrick as housing secretary.

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Which way will Johnson jump?

Originally published on February 11 on my blog for Inside Housing.

For the moment at least all things seem possible when it comes to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and housing.

Arguments apparently continue between those who want to shift further towards home ownership and those who see council housing as the focus for blue collar Conservatism.

The party seems to be facing in two opposite directions on new development, with some arguing for planning restrictions to be swept away while others see ‘beauty first’ as the key to winning local consent.

And these are just part of a wider battle between those who see Brexit as a chance to complete the Thatcherite revolution and those who think they must reverse some of it.

As an indication of the breadth of the possibilities, the Sunday Telegraph even reported that Johnson and chancellor Sajid Javid are considering imposing a mansion tax in the Budget.

The symbolism of taxing the well-housed in the South to spend more in the North could not be denied but would they really steal a policy from Ed Miliband’s Labour to screw their own supporters?

The first forks in the road are coming up soon with choices to be made about who will hold key ministerial positions in the reshuffle this week and what will be prioritised in the Spring Budget and in the Spending Review to follow.

In the meantime, though, what might a Boris Johnson housing policy look like?

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Embracing beauty

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

It is very easy to be cynical about this week’s final report from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report.

From the references to Kant to the plans for a fruit tree with every new house, Living with Beauty is full of the thinking you might expect from a group that was chaired by the late Sir Roger Scruton.

And it’s not hard to see how a system based on asking for beauty and refusing ugliness could result in the word ‘beautiful’ becoming as debased as ‘sustainable’ and ‘affordable’ by the time developers have worked out how to exploit it.

To cite one example that jars, the recommendations chapter of the report opens with a picture of Elephant Park in London, which may be an example of good design and greenery but is also the archetypal one of a community displaced in the name of ‘regeneration’ and social housing replaced by highly profitable market sale.

Yet for all that this is an important report that offers fresh support for attempts to move away from the speculative housebuilder model of development and replace it with a longer-term model that could put the meaning back into all three terms.

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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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