A look ahead to the manifestos

Originally posted on May 11 on my blog for Inside Housing.

As we await the manifestos, what are the chances of real change in housing over the next five years?

Give or take the odd leak, there are some positive signs. First, this election has one of the two major parties pinning its election hopes on housing reform and members of the other saying that ‘building more homes‘ is a bigger priority than it has been for years.

Second, a clutch of select committee reports, which were published just before parliament shut down for the election, set down some useful all-party markers for future policy.

Third, in Gavin Barwell and John Healey the two main parties have their best housing spokespeople in years. That may be damning them with faint praise but both seem to be politicians who get the case for housing.

For all the enthusiasm about Labour’s new deal for private renters and pledge of 100,000 social rented homes a year, the chances of it being able to put them into practice seem somewhere between slim and zero.

So the real questions are whether the Conservatives will go any further than February’s underwhelming Housing White Paper and if so in which direction they will head.

The Conservative Home survey I linked to above found party members agreeing on the need for more homes but favouring two very different ways of building them. One strand of opinion argues for the liberalisation of planning, while another wants Macmillan-style state intervention in housebuilding.

You could almost call them Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite. Presumably, the first would also want a reiteration of the 2015 manifesto pledge to extend the Right to Buy to housing association tenants and would see funding it via forced sales of council houses as a good thing. The second might see sense on forced sales and accept that the market alone cannot fix things.

Where Theresa May stands in all this is far from clear. During her campaign to become Conservative leader she pledged to fight ‘injustices’ and help ‘ordinary working-class families’ but seemed to assume that all of them already own their own home.

Similarly, when Andrew Marr asked her on TV at the start of the campaign about benefit cuts for the working poor, she defended them on the grounds that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’.

But as her staff work on a manifesto apparently designed to steal some of Labour’s clothes, what more eye-catching way to do it could there be than promising a revival of council housing?

That choice aside, how much of a priority will housing really be for her? One reason the White Paper was a damp squib is that housing outcomes depend on so much more than housing policy.

They are determined by choices on social security and tax in particular, and economic policy in general – and most of them are about politics rather than policy.

At all elections the parties promise something like ‘affordable housing for you and your family’ but it’s hard to think of the last time any government achieved this.

Part of the reason is timing: making housing affordable will take longer than the five years (let alone two) that we have between elections.

That leaves parties facing potentially unpopular choices now that may only pay political dividends when they have already left power.

It’s also about the politics of housing and insiders and outsiders. The insiders are the housing haves, people who already own one home or more and who want policies that protect and inflate the value of their assets. The outsiders are the have-nots, those who don’t already own a house and want policies to make it easier to buy and better to rent.

The conventional wisdom that elections can only be won by appealing to insiders has broken down to some extent – the proportion of us who own our homes is 63% and falling and we have children who need homes too – but it’s been replaced a harsher arithmetic.

The parties know that homeowners are not just much more likely to vote than renters, they are also far more likely to be registered to vote in the first place. Thanks to their more frequent moves, private renters are effectively disenfranchised by the housing system.

Jeremy Corbyn’s new package of rights may well boost Labour support among private renters but owners still punch above their weight when it comes to elections.

That is exactly the calculation that Gavin Barwell seems to have made in defending his wafer-thin majority of 165 in Croydon Central.

Housing tenure in his constituency reflects the big changes seen in the past few years. Around 60% of households own their home, compared with 18% in social housing and 21% in private renting, but between 2001 and 2011 private renting rose by 61% while mortgaged ownership fell 18%.

Barwell has shifted policy away from the obsession with ownership seen under David Cameron and George Osborne and he does make a virtue of that in his local campaign.

One of his five priorities is more affordable housing and he also mentions banning letting agent fees and supporting a community land trust.

Good stuff, but if you look at the Twitter account that has now morphed into @BackBarwell, he has come back repeatedly to one housing issue since the election was called: Labour’s inheritance tax bombshell and whether his opponent supports it or not.

This is a reference to Labour’s line on one of Mr Osborne’s most controversial policies: an increase in the inheritance tax threshold for main homes to allow a couple to pass on up to £1m tax-free to their children or grandchildren from 2020/21.

As a housing policy it’s hard to think of anything more regressive or more symptomatic of the ‘broken’ housing market.

That market is already dominated by cash, locking out people with no access to the bank of mum and dad, inheritances and profits from the sales of other property.

The ex-minister is defending a tax cut worth almost £1bn a year that will go not to ‘ordinary working families’ but to people lucky enough to have bought a house at the right time and their descendants. (Needless to say, the tax planners are already coming up with ways to make it go further.)

But in terms of housing politics, he knows it’s a vote winner and one that will appeal directly to the people in his constituency who are most likely to vote.

His party is odds-on to win on 8 June with an increased majority. If he retains his seat, an early test of how serious the party is about housing will be whether he stays on as minister to complete the job set out in the White Paper.

But after that, what exactly? The White Paper is a good start but it does not come close to setting out a vision for the next five years, let alone fixing a broken housing system.

For years our politics has relied on keeping housing insiders happy while policy mitigates the worst impacts on outsiders. At best this has succeeded in slowing down the rate at which the housing crisis gets worse.

At worst it just hands the costs of that crisis to future generations.

The next five years will mainly be about Brexit but sooner or later we will need more than housing politics and policy as usual.

Housing has to work for the many as well as the few for Britain to be a country that works for everyone.rigfi

Holding the government to account

Originally published on April 28 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The housing crisis could persist ‘for decades to come’ unless the government shows more urgency and ambition on supply.

That’s the verdict* from an all-party committee of MPs on Friday in one of a series of reports due to be rushed out in the next few days as Westminster clears the decks for the election.

The Public Accounts Committee says:

We are highly concerned by this lack of urgency and ambition, most of all in view of the rising costs, both human and financial, of homelessness. Not only does becoming homeless people represent a terrible blight on people’s lives, it also places additional strain on public spending: councils’ spending on temporary accommodation amounted to £840 million in 2015–16, a real-terms rise of nearly half (46%) in just five years.’

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LHA: a reverse supermarket sweep

Originally published on April 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

It’s easy to forget now but the original idea behind the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) was that it would give tenants an incentive to ‘shop around’ for a cheaper rent.

Rather than get their actual rent paid, tenants would get an allowance based on the median rent for the area and if they found somewhere cheaper they could keep what they saved. In effect they could be rewarded for shopping at Lidl’s rather than Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s.

The ‘shopping incentive’ was a key feature of a new system that was designed to be fairer and more transparent than the one it replaced. The (then Labour) government said it would give tenants more choice and a greater sense of personal responsibility, administration would be easier and there would be reduced barriers to work.

Fears about the impact of moving to direct payment to tenants were allayed in local pilot schemes and for a time it seemed like the new system really was working as intended.

Nine years on and that early optimism has disappeared along with the original idea. Labour restricted the shopping incentive to £15 a week in 2009 and the coalition eventually removed it completely in 2010.

And that was just the start of a series of cuts in the allowance justified by constant references to a handful of very large claims in London, inferring that some tenants were choosing to shop at Harrods and Harvey Nicholls.

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Five things we learned from the English Housing Survey

Originally published on March 2 on my blog for Inside Housing.

So what have we learned from the new English Housing Survey? The largest annual survey of households and housing conditions is just out for 2015/16 and here’s what caught my eye.

1) ‘The fall in owner-occupation has abated’

The official story is one of relatively little change this year: the number of owner-occupiers seems to have stabilised at 14.3m and there were still 3.9m social renters. The survey says that ‘the rate of owner occupation has not changed since 2013-14, indicating that the fall in owner occupation has abated’. Here’s the graph summing up the trend:

However, that’s not the full story. First, a note of caution: the 2013/14 survey had sampling issues that probably exaggerated the fall in home ownership and rise in private renting in that year. As a result last year’s survey showed a surprise fall in private renting and slight rise in owner-occupation that was hailed as a turning point by the government. Private renting resumed its rise in 2015/16, with the number of private renters up 250,000 at 4.5m.

2) But mortgaged ownership falls below 30%

The picture changes again if you look at the proportion of households in each tenure rather than the number. The survey shows that the owner-occupation rate fell to 62.9%, the lowest it’s been since 1985, while private renting rose from 19.0% to 19.9% and social renting fell slightly to 17.2%. Decline abated? Not so much.

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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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