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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