10 things about 2019 – part one

Originally posted on December 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.

It was the year of interminable votes on Brexit, two prime ministers and finally a decisive election victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

It was also the year that the housing crisis continued to intensify and the year that previous fixes were exposed for the sticking plasters that they really were.

Here is the first of a two-part look back at what I was blogging about in 2019.

1) The politics of housing

Regime change at Downing Street brought a new housing minister heavily implicated in welfare ‘reform’, a renewed focus on home ownership and what I called ‘a great leap backwards’ at the Conservative conference.

At the December election 15 per cent of voters told Ipsos MORI that housing was one of the most important issues for them – down from 22 per cent in 2018 as Brexit and the NHS dominated but three times more than in 2010.

And yet the politics of housing did not seem to matter much as the Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won a big majority away from the big city seats where Generation Rent, homelessness and the cladding scandal had seemed to offer fertile ground for Labour and the Lib Dems.

It was a year that ended with a decisive victory for the leader that promised Brexit and crushing defeat for the parties whose policies might just have fixed the housing crisis.

The bigger question was how far The People’s Government will diverge from Theresa May’s focus on housing and renter issues. The December Queen’s Speech confirmed some continuity, but the Tory manifesto offered few clues and far more emphasis on home ownership seems a given.

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No votes in housing?

Originally published as a blog for Inside Housing on December 13.

It would be very easy for the Conservatives to conclude after this election that they do not need to bother about housing.

The striking thing about their biggest victory since 1987 is that most of the places where various forms of the housing crisis are most acute voted for other parties. And it did not matter.

That’s most obviously true in London where Labour retained most of the seats with the highest levels of homelessness and families in temporary accommodation.

In London and other major cities where house prices have risen most and Generation Rent has grown fastest, gains for Labour from 2017 were consolidated in 2019, albeit with reduced majorities.

Labour’s only real victory last night was in Putney, which the Tories captured in the 1980s on the back of the right to buy, control of Wandsworth council and an influx of well-heeled professionals.

If there was a backlash against Tory inaction from leaseholders in thousands of apartment buildings around the country, most of them (a sweeping generalisation, I know) are in metropolitan, remain-voting constituencies that for the most part did not change hands last night.

As for housing supply as a whole, voters in affluent seats in the South East may not much like Brexit but they will probably have been reassured by the Tories’ downgrading of their ambitions on new homes and promises to protect the green belt. Ex-housing minister Dominic Raab fended off the Lib Dem challenge in Esher and Walton.

So maybe the Conservatives were right to conclude, as I argued in my blog on their performance at the pre-election housing hustings, that there were no votes in housing.

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Conservatives fail to rise to the housing challenge

Originally posted on November 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.

A Conservative election manifesto with little new to offer signals that housing has moved a long way down the party’s list of priorities.

The contrast between the Labour manifesto plan for 150,000 council and housing association homes a year and the Lib Dem manifesto promise of 100,000 homes for social rent a year could hardly be starker.

The Tory document launched by Boris Johnson does have three pages on housing but the only new policies in it had already been launched in separate announcements earlier in the campaign.

These include encouraging a new market for long-term fixed-rate mortgages to slash the costs of deposits, a First Home scheme of homes at a 30% discount in perpetuity for local families and a stamp duty surcharge on overseas buyers to fund more help for rough sleepers.

Even these are not strictly speaking new: long-term fixed rates were encouraged by Gordon Brown but never took off; David Cameron promised 200,000 starter homes at a discount but none were ever built and the new scheme seems to involve only 19,000 homes by the mid-2020s; and Theresa May proposed exactly the same levy on overseas buyers last year before it was watered down.

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The housing-shaped hole at the heart of the Queen’s Speech

Originally posted on October 15 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Granted, the Queen’s Speech was more pre-election political broadcast than genuine legislative programme for the year to come but it still sends some worrying signals about  where the government’s priorities lie.

Given Boris Johnson’s Commons majority of -45, Her Majesty’s utterances could be voted down for the first time since 1924 and even if the government somehow stumbles through its own desire for an election only the most uncontroversial bits of it are likely to make any progress.

it’s still good news that the Queen’s Speech proposes building safety standards legislation that would implement the Hackitt review by establishing a new safety framework for high-rise residential buildings.

Although, as Jeremy Corbyn pointed out in his response, progress on blocks with Grenfell-style cladding has been so slow that ‘not a single private block has been made safe under this prime minister’.

While the details of the new system will be debated, few would doubt the central purpose of developing a new system to oversee the whole built environment or the principles of clearer accountability for building owners, designers and constructors, a stronger voice for residents in the system, stronger enforcement and sanctions and a clearer framework for national oversight of construction products.

And if many will doubt that a New Homes Ombudsman will be enough to bring developers into line, the fact that the proposal is tacked on to the new Bill means it can still be improved.

However, with one other small exception, housing was otherwise entirely missing from the Queen’s Speech.

That absence was felt not just in a lack of action on housing and homelessness in general but also in missing specific measures that had been anticipated across different parts of the housing system.

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Regime change

Originally posted on July 22 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Three different news stories in the last 24 hours provide a powerful reminder of what could be at stake for housing in the transition from Theresa May to Boris Johnson due on Wednesday.

The government’s consultation on ending Section 21 no-fault evictions was finally published on Sunday along with a proposal to give private renters access to the government’s database of rogue landlords.

But the Sunday Telegraph already had two stories based on think-tank reports due on Monday that put the emphasis firmly back on home ownership.

Conservative think-tank Onward called for cuts in stamp duty with proposals very similar to those put forward by Johnson during the leadership campaign.

And the Conservative Brexiteer-in-chief Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote a pamphlet for the Tory Institute of Economic Affairs putting the libertarian case for an end to ‘socialist’ interference in the housing market. .

The timing of all three is significant as it provides some indications of what the outgoing regime thought important enough to get out before the other lot take over and what the wider Conservative party thinks might be possible under the new regime.

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May’s mix of good intentions and unfinished business

Originally published on June 27 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

You wait more than 100 years for a prime minister to address your conference and you get one with less than a month left in the job.

It’s tempting to dismiss Wednesday’s speech by Theresa May to the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) conference on the basis that it was made by a lame duck leader whose decisions could all be overturned by her successor on July 24.

Even the sight of a premier hot-footing it straight from prime minister’s questions in London to the conference in Manchester can be seen less as a reflection of housing’s importance than of how much time she has on her hands during the Tory leadership contest.

As she said herself, even the venue was a reminder of one of her worst moments: the disastrous leader’s speech in the same hall at the Conservative conference in 2017 that ended with her losing her voice and the set falling apart around her.

Yet that same conference saw her dedicate her premiership to fixing housing and it was part of a journey since Grenfell that has seen May’s government move away from the policies of David Cameron, George Osborne and Policy Exchange and re-embrace the ‘our first social service’ traditions of Churchill and Macmillan.

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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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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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