What next?

Originally published on September 13 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

As Theresa May’s government busies itself trashing the legacy of David Whatsisname and George Wotsit, what about housing?

The new government’s pick-and-mix approach to the pre-referendum commitments now includes the budget surplus target, a sudden switch to grammar schools, a delay on Hinkley Point and a downgrading of the Northern Powerhouse.

But housing is still stuck in the tray marked pending. The soundbite of ‘a country that works for everyone’ could signal a change of direction but equally well it might just mean one that works for everyone providing they are home owners.

So comments by Gavin Barwell in his first major speech as housing minister yesterday make for interesting reading. Speaking at RESI in Newport (curiously a conference held in Wales that is all about England) he said:

‘The way you make housing in this country more affordable to rent and buy is you build more homes. There is still a role for the government doing specific things to help people on to the first rung but this can’t be at the exclusion of all else.’

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Lining their pockets

Originally posted on August 24 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Something about the rash of stories this week about ‘private landlord subsidy’ left me feeling very uneasy.

The stories were based on a briefing from the National Housing Federation (NHF) on how the amount of housing benefit that goes to private tenants has doubled in the last decade. As reported in the Daily Mail and elsewhere that means ‘Private landlords rake in £9bn a year from Housing Benefit’.

The figures were mostly familiar ones about the big increases seen since the financial crisis in the total bill, the number of claimants and the number of private tenants who are in work and also on housing benefit.

David Orr argued:

‘It is madness to spend £9bn of taxpayers’ money lining the pockets of private landlords rather than investing in affordable homes.’

He’s right, it is madness. Yes, private landlords do get £9.3bn in housing benefit. Yes, the bill has doubled since 2008.

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Repairing the safety net

Originally published on August 18 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Today’s report by the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee recommending significant improvements to the homelessness safety net is getting a warm welcome – and no wonder.

The first select committee inquiry on homelessness since 2005 uncovers evidence of a system at breaking point as social housing provision declines, insecure private renting expands and welfare is ‘reformed’.

The report aims to help families falling through the gaps in the existing legislation as well as single people not covered by it, calls for a cross-government approach to homelessness and also makes specific recommendations to help vulnerable groups such as people with mental health problems, care leavers and ex-prisoners.

And in case you’re thinking this is just another select committee report whose recommendations will be ignored by the government, this one comes complete with legislation attached: a private members’ bill promoted by one of its members.

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A right to own?

Originally posted on June 13 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

What should we do if we really want to reverse the decline in home ownership?

That’s the question posed in a new book published by centre right think tank Civitas (downloadable here). The answers are interesting and surprising, not just because of where it sits on the political spectrum, but also because the author is a longstanding evangelist for the home owning society and opponent of ‘Marxist’ housing advocates.

Peter Saunders wrote a seminal book called A Nation of Home Owners in 1990 that made a passionate argument for the expansion of home ownership as the choice of most people and as a force for good in promoting community cohesion and civic participation.

As such, you might have thought he’d be completely in tune with David Cameron, George Osborne and Brandon Lewis and their policies to satisfy the 86 per cent of us who want to be home owners.

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What David Cameron’s tax returns say about property

Next time you read about ‘fat cats’ earning more than the prime minister here’s something to bear in mind: so does his house.

The summarised tax returns released by David Cameron this weekend show that he had a total taxable income of just over £200,000 in 2014/15. The first £141,000 of that were his earnings as prime minister: he has not taken a pay rise since 2010 and has also voluntarily waived a £20,000 prime ministerial expenses deduction since 2011.

Most of the Panama Papers coverage has concentrated on Cameron’s links to his father’s offshore fund and an inheritance gift from his mother. However, he is also the first prime minister to rent out his existing home while living tax-free in Downing Street. The accounts show that he had a net rental income of £47,000 from letting out his house in Notting Hill, an amount that notes to the accounts confirm is his 50 per cent share of the proceeds:

Tax

So the total rent (after expenses) received by the Camerons last year was £94,000 and in the first five years since he became prime minister they gained a total of £432,000 in rent.

However, that is not the total amount they will have ‘earned’ from their house as London house prices have also soared over the same period. The exact value of the Cameron house is hard to pin down, since they are reported to have spent £600,000 on renovations after buying it in 2006. Some reports put the value at £2 million in 2010, others £2.7 million.

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The turn of the screw

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

You’d never guess it from the sound of the violins playing for Buy to Let but there were other significant changes to benefits and tax on housing this month.

As ‘investors’ rushed to beat the April 1 deadline for higher rates of stamp duty on second homes, the orchestra reached a crescendo after new affordability tests were proposed by the Bank of England.

All that noise meant much less was heard about their tenants facing up to the first year of an unprecedented four-year freeze in their local housing allowance and other benefits and tax credits.

After three years in which LHA increases were restricted to 1 per cent, housing benefit rates for private tenants will now stay the same until 2020. Whatever the problems faced by their landlords, that means tenants will inevitably see rising shortfalls between their benefit and their rent. Equally inevitably, you would think, evictions will rise.

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Book review: The Rent Trap

How did we end up with a housing system dependent on at least 1.5 million small-scale private landlords offering millions of tenants little or no security and costing billions in housing benefit?

You couldn’t do much better if you set out to design the worst possible way of housing the nation in general and young people in particular. But the changes that now seem set in stone – a private rented sector that’s grown so fast it is now bigger than the social sector and home ownership shrinking back to the levels last seen in the 1980s – have happened in the space of one generation.

The Rent Trap, a new book by Samir Jeraj and Rosie Walker, is the best attempt I’ve yet read to explain how and why this has happened to a general audience. The subtitle – How We Fell Into It And How We Get Out Of It – reflects an even more ambitious aim.

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