Sidelining of tenants is part of a wider pattern

Whether you put it down to carelessness or couldn’t care less-ness, the inaction inside government inaction that has sparked open letter from A Voice for Tenants (AV4T) is symptomatic of a wider political paralysis.

As the group themselves point out, they are not representative of the eight million people living in social housing in England but they are the best we have until the government keeps the prime minister’s promise to bring tenants into the political process.

The letter is all the more effective for the contrast between its moderate language and its stark message that working behind the scenes has not produced results.

The only option left seems to be to embarrass the politicians into living up to what they have said over the last two years – accepting Inside Housing’s open invitation to a meeting seems the bare minimum they should do.

And there is a strikingly similar message in the Times this morning from Grenfell United, as it attacks ‘indifferent and incompetent’ ministers who took their ‘kindness as weakness’.

Two years of meetings have produced too little action, they say, with no progress on their call for a new model of housing regulator and thousands of people still living in ‘death traps’ with combustible cladding.

Grenfell and tenants were top of the agenda for the ministers in post at the time of the fire – the work of Alok Sharma and his civil servants is praised in the AVT letter – but have slipped down it as the months and now years have passed.

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Where next for renting after Section 21?

Blimey. If it plays out as billed, the government’s consultation on ending no-fault evictions and introducing open-ended tenancies for private renters represents the quickest change in housing policy that I can remember.

I say ‘if’ because this is still only a consultation, because ministers have form for claiming rather more in press releases than turns out to be the case when the detail is published and because Theresa May could be succeeded within weeks by a new, more right-wing prime minister who could dump the whole thing.

One more caveat is that I am only talking about England. The first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, pledged to end no-fault evictions on Saturday and so narrowly avoided the embarrassment of Welsh Labour lagging behind the English Tories on tenants’ rights.

Scotland has already abolished Section 33 (its version of 21) and introduced a new tenancy system in December 2017 that could become the model for the other UK nations.

In England, and taking it at face value, this announcement is a stunning victory for campaigners that takes May’s Conservatives to the left not just of where Ed Miliband was at the 2015 general election but also of what Jeremy Corbyn argued at the 2017 election. It was only later that year that the Labour leader committed to ending Section 21.

Last year the government consulted on its own plan for three-year tenancies but did not commit to making them mandatory – this was only one of three options alongside education and financial incentives for landlords.

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The rise and rise of short-term letting

Originally published on April 4 as a blog for Inside Housing. 

What do you think have been the two fastest-growing forms of housing over the last decade?

The trends since the financial crisis of falling home ownership, declining social renting and surging private renting have only recently shown signs of going into reverse and we’ve also seen the blurring of social and ‘affordable’ housing.

But you would struggle to fit two of the biggest changes highlighted in the 2019 edition of the UK Housing Review (launched on Thursday) into those three traditional categories.

First up is temporary accommodation. The latest stats show there that 82,000 homeless families were living in it in England in the year to June 2018, an increase of 71 per cent since 2011. Of these, 57,000 were in London.

Second is short-term lets through sites like Airbnb. There are no reliable stats on this but the latest data suggests there are now over 77,000 Airbnb listings in London, of which 43,000 are entire homes and 34,000 rooms or shared rooms.

It’s tempting to join the dots between those numbers and see a direct connection between these two forms of short-term letting, especially in London – the more permanent homes that are converted into short-term holiday lets on Airbnb the more temporary accommodation is likely to be needed. Neither of them is necessarily that short term or temporary.

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The shift to renter rights

Originally published on March 11 as a blog for Inside Housing. 

Can it really be less than five years since Labour’s plans for three-year tenancies in the private rented sector were attacked by the Conservatives as ‘Venezuelan-style socialism’?

And is it really less than three years since Royal Assent for a Housing and Planning Act that included provisions to abolish secure tenancies and make fixed terms mandatory for new council tenants?

A plan for that to apply to housing association tenants as well was only dropped because of concerns over their public-private status but many associations enthusiastically took up the voluntary option of fixed terms they were given in the 2011 Localism Act.

Until very recently it seemed that social housing was set to follow the private rented sector into a marketised world of flexibility and insecurity.

However, the pace of change on this issue in the last 12 months has been rapid and it is still accelerating.

The biggest move so far came on Friday when Labour followed up on its conference pledge to scrap no-fault evictions by announcing plans for indefinite private tenancies.

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Freezing out ‘No DSS’ landlords

Originally published on March 5 as a blog for Inside Housing.

The way that responsibility for housing is split between different government departments means that sometimes the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

The classic example of this came in parliament yesterday when even as MPs were approving another year of frozen working-age benefits, the housing secretary was making a written statement attacking landlords for refusing to let to tenants on housing benefit.

The vote means that the local housing allowance (LHA) will be frozen for the fourth year in succession and the benefit cap will stay stuck at the reduced rate of £20,000 (£23,000 in London).

The impact of that will fall directly in the ‘thousands of vulnerable people and families’ mentioned by James Brokenshire in his written statement and will be felt most by families with children and those living in the most expensive areas.

And it will come on top of the continuing impact of the transition to universal credit and all the problems with waiting times, delays in payment and supposed simplicity for tenants and landlords that it brings in its wake.

If it reinforces the sense of relief among social landlords that the government abandoned plans to cap housing benefit for social and supported housing at LHA rates, it means many social tenants face a freeze on the rest of their incomes despite rising prices.

But the freeze will give private landlords yet more reasons to think twice about letting homes to tenants on benefits.

And the move by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) comes at precisely the moment that ministers at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) give their backing to a campaign by Shelter on ‘No DSS’ adverts.

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10 things about 2018 – part two

Originally posted on December 28 as a column for Inside Housing. 

The second part of my look back at the year runs from land to Brexit via renting and council housing. Part one is here.

6. The land question

If 2018 was the year of the tenant, then another issue was not far behind as the land question took on an importance arguably not seen since before the First World War.

A developing political consensus around the potential of land value capture as a funding mechanism for infrastructure and affordable housing found expression in a favourable report from the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and an open letter signed by former Downing Street insiders and think tanks and organisations across the political spectrum. One report put the net profit made by landowners just for getting planning permission for housing at a cool £13 bn a year.

At the same time the chancellor appointed former Cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin to lead out an independent review of the slow pace at which homes get built. Letwin quickly focussed on slow-build out rates on large sites but concluded that the reason why they take an average of more than 15 years to complete has less to do with landbanking (hoarding land with planning permission) than the absorption rate (the fact that developers only build as fast as they can sell for a required profit in local markets).

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Who gets the most subsidy in housing?

Originally posted on November 21 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

A report out this week comes as close as we are probably going to get to answering one of the most vexed questions in housing: who gets the most subsidy?

Feather-bedded home owners sheltered from the tax paid on all other forms of investment? Social housing tenants who don’t know how lucky they are to get a tenancy for life at a subsidised rent? Fat-cat landlords lining their pockets with housing benefit? Housebuiders trousering huge Help to Buy-financed bonuses? The answer has changed over time.

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