Marks out of 10 for the housing white paper

Originally published on February 10 on my blog for Inside Housing.

So have Gavin Barwell and Sajid Javid finally grapsed the nettle on the housing crisis?

Critics lined up to call the white paper a damp squib, a white flag and (my personal favourite) like a wet Tuesday in Bognor. Some had even read it first.

Supporters called it a pragmatic shift away from policy under David Cameron and ‘a blueprint for change’. And there was the inevitable ‘cautious welcome’ from housing organisations.

In some ways, the responses of two of the architects of previous Conservative housing policies were the most interesting ones. Former housing minister Grant Shapps said previous plans had not made much difference and this one probably wouldn’t either. Former No 10 adviser Alex Morton revealed the cynical political calculation at the heart of previous policy when he warned that ‘if you get dragged into an argument about renting versus owning, it will quickly become about the need for more council homes’.

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Has the White Paper fixed it?

Originally published on February 7 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

As the advance press coverage showed, this is a White Paper with few big ideas but maybe that is no bad thing when you consider the ones that emerged the last time the government presented us with a range of ‘bold’ and ‘radical’ reforms.

The extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants, forced sales of higher-value council homes and Starter Homes have cast such a dark shadow over affordable housing for the past two years that they make a bit of timidity seem almost welcome.

I’ll come back to the White Paper as a whole another time. You can argue it’s a flimsy response to the housing crisis and there are sections that make you wonder if they’ve been watered down, but it does make a series of subtle changes with the potential at least to change the balance of power in housebuilding.

And there are two new ideas that are definitely worth welcoming: publication of information on land ownership and options over land, and allowing local authorities to participate in German-style land pooling for new development.

For now, though, I want to concentrate on the affordable housing side of the equation and what happened to those three big ideas that have dominated so much of the debate (and my blogs) since 2015.

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12 tests for the Housing White Paper

This is an updated version of a post originally published on January 12 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The moment is finally here but will radical plans to boost housing supply live up to their advance billing? Here are my tests.

  1. How half-baked is it?

In one very important way, ministers have already passed my first test. Publication of a White Paper seems to mark a return to an earlier era of government when policies went through consultation and scrutiny before they were enacted.

Contrast that with the way that half-baked ideas from thinktanks were turned into equally half-baked legislation in the back of a fag packet Housing and Planning Act.

Speaking of which, how much will we hear about the loose ends that still need tying up from the act? Pay to Stay may be dead in its compulsory form, and the extension of the Right to Buy delayed by another pilot, but we still don’t know what’s happening with forced sales of higher-value council houses or to the receipts they raise.

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Book review: The Financialization of Housing

The Global Financial Crisis was a wake-up call to the world about the dangers posed by a toxic mix of finance and housing, one that has still not been properly heeded.

The mortgage-backed securities, collaterialised debt obligations and other financial instruments that financed the expansion of sub-prime and predatory lending were the result of a wave of innovation by a finance industry that had been deregulated over the previous 20 years. Britain marked the 30th anniversary of the Big Bang in the City last month but similar things happened around the developed world.

All that innovation and securitisation led to exponential increases in the amount of credit circulating within the financial system but it still needed something to be secured against. Which is where housing came in: a mortgage finance system that had been based on long-term mortgage lending funded from savings was transformed into a vehicle for the expansion of credit. And the relationship between the price of homes and the earnings of people buying them was also transformed.

9781138950580

The Financializaton of Housing: A Political Economy Approach, a new book by Manuel Aalbers, is the most comprehensive attempt I’ve seen to outline this process and its consequences. It’s part of a multinational research project based at the University of Leuven in Belgium on what he calls the Real Estate/Financial Complex in 12 different countries around the world. The metaphor is a deliberate echo of the military/industrial complex and serves to emphasise the connections not just between the real estate and financial sectors but also between each of them and the state.

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Cutting the cap

Originally published on November 1 on my blog for Inside Housing

You might think a policy that threatens more than 300,000 children with destitution and homelessness would be attracting more attention.

The reduction in the overall benefit cap starts in just six days’ time (Monday November 7) and will be introduced in different areas over the next few weeks. It is the first of a series of crucial events for housing this month that I blogged about yesterday. But only now is it getting much attention in the national media. That’s partly thanks to new analysis by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), which suggests that 116,000 families will be affected and a total of 319,000 children.

The cap is being reduced from £26,000 a year to £23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere (lower limits apply to single people with no children). The cap essentially works via housing benefit. The more children people have, the higher their non-housing benefits will be and the more their housing benefit will be cut. At the levels of the lower cap, widespread rent shortfalls are inevitable unless people qualify for one of the exemptions or a discretionary housing payment (DHP) from their local authority.

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Building the case

Originally posted on October 19 on my blog for Inside Housing

Sometimes powerful arguments for a change of direction in housing policy come from unexpected places.

The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model is a case in point. Before your eyes glaze over at the title, bear with me because it has profound implications not just for the way we build homes but also the sort of housing we build and who we build them for.

Subtitled Modernise or Die, the report was commissioned last year from the Construction Leadership Council by housing minister Brandon Lewis and skills minister Nick Boles. By the time it was published this week, both had moved on, but the policy context had also shifted on its axis.

Back then, the Treasury and George Osborne dominated housing policy and everything was about home ownership and Help to Buy. Now other departments have much more influence, we have a housing minister calling for a balanced approach to tenure and attention has turned to modern methods of construction for new homes.

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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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