The radical message behind ‘back to basics’

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing

At first glance there is nothing especially radical about the Better Social Housing Review – as the independent panel says, ‘there is nothing revelatory in our findings’ and ‘it may seem to housing associations that our recommendations are already central to their approach’.

And indeed much of what the review commissioned by the National Housing Federation and Chartered Institute of Housing says about engaging tenants, improving repairs services, handling complaints better and tackling stigma and discrimination are things that landlords could, and should, already be doing.

But take a second look and the key messages about organisations focussing on their core purpose and about it being ‘time to get back to basics’ are profoundly radical. They represent a challenge to the way that the sector has developed in the three decades since housing associations became the alternative to what the Conservative government called the ‘municipal monopoly’.

Because that same government was also making associations the vehicle for private finance and stock transfer and steadily squeezing the grant rate for new development to encourage them to ‘sweat their assets’.

That drive for ever greater efficiency and value for money worked in the sense that it delivered more new homes for less public money but it also created a remorseless logic for merger and the creation of landlords that became even bigger than the giant council housing departments of the past.

And that was only reinforced by regulatory changes in 2010 that overwhelmingly prioritised financial concerns over consumer ones and encouraged landlords to focus accordingly.

Read the rest of this entry »
Advertisement

Housing in the Queen’s Speech

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It certainly looks like Her Majesty’s Government is doing something on housing – but is that the limit of the ambitions expressed in the Queen’s Speech?

As ever, background briefing notes provide more detail than the speech delivered this year by the future King.

Two promised headline Bills fulfil commitments to reform private renting and the regulation of social housing but both are long overdue.

A third pointedly does not include plans announced in the 2021 Queen’s Speech to reform the planning system to deliver more homes.

And there are vague promises of further ‘housing reform’ but no specifics or commitments to legislation to back them up.

Read the rest of this entry »

MPs call for reform of private renting

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing

This is shaping up to be a significant year for the regulation of rented housing, with the Social Housing Regulation Bill set to be followed by a white paper on the private rented sector.

While there are still clear differences between the two sectors, there are also similarities in terms of landlords who are unaccountable and tenants who lack a say. In a hybrid world, social housing has become more business focussed and private renting has become by default home to many of those in the greatest housing need.

Yet while the government’s stance on the regulation of social housing has come into focus – the details remain to be seen but creating a national tenant forum and giving the regulator a consumer focus look like a reversal of the light-touch regulation introduced after 2010 – regulation of private renting consists of ‘piecemeal legislative changes’ and the government lacks the data even to evaluate their impact.

That’s the verdict of MPs on the all-party Public Accounts Committee in a report published today [Wednesday] on the regulation of a sector that has doubled in size in the last 20 years and is now home to 11 million people.

Read the rest of this entry »

When green becomes white

Originally published as a column in the December issue of Inside Housing.

What’s the difference between a ‘new deal for social housing’ and a ‘charter for social housing residents’?

The shift in language between the green and white papers certainly seems to signal a change in emphasis – and not in a good way if you are old enough to remember John Major’s Citizens’ Charter and Cones Hotline from the 1990s.

White paper plans to strengthen consumer regulation, make it easier for tenants to complain to the ombudsman and introduce independent inspection of landlords look generally positive – even the Conservatives are essentially recreating the system they scrapped so confidently in 2010. The regulator will also get new powers over for-profit landlords.

But for me what’s really telling is what has gone missing between the green paper and the white paper and what that says about the government’s wider vision for social housing.

Read the rest of this entry »

Parker Morris and Homes for Today and Tomorrow

Originally posted on February 19 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Listening to a new Radio 4 documentary about Parker Morris and space standards it is impossible not to feel a mix of nostalgia for an era of housing optimism and sadness that our ambitions have shrunk so much since.

As John Grindrod relates in Living Room, the title of the 1961 report was an indication that it was about much more than just a technical exercise in allocating space per person.

Work on Homes for Today and Tomorrow started 60 years ago this year but it was building on a 20th century council housing tradition that began 100 years ago and it was also looking to the future to ensure that homes were fit for it.

‘A good house or flat can never be made out of premises which are too small,’ said the report, which set out a much greater ambition for new homes:

‘An increasing proportion of people are coming to expect their home to do more than just fulfil the basic requirement. It must be something of which they can be proud and in which they can express the fulness of their lives.’

Read the rest of this entry »


10 things about 2018 – part one

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 21.

It was the year of three housing ministers and two secretaries of states (so far), the year that the department went back to being a ministry and a new government agency promised to ‘disrupt’ the housing market.

It was also the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, of Sir Oliver Letwin and Lord Porter and of some significant anniversaries.

Above all, it was the year after Grenfell and the year before Brexit. Here is the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about in 2018.

1. New names, new ministers

January had barely begun when the Department for Communities and Local Government became the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The name harked back to the glory days when housing was ‘our first social service’ and housing secretary Sajid Javid became the first full member of the cabinet with housing in his title since 1970.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


Book review: The Rent Trap

How did we end up with a housing system dependent on at least 1.5 million small-scale private landlords offering millions of tenants little or no security and costing billions in housing benefit?

You couldn’t do much better if you set out to design the worst possible way of housing the nation in general and young people in particular. But the changes that now seem set in stone – a private rented sector that’s grown so fast it is now bigger than the social sector and home ownership shrinking back to the levels last seen in the 1980s – have happened in the space of one generation.

The Rent Trap, a new book by Samir Jeraj and Rosie Walker, is the best attempt I’ve yet read to explain how and why this has happened to a general audience. The subtitle – How We Fell Into It And How We Get Out Of It – reflects an even more ambitious aim.

Read the rest of this entry »


Voluntary service

Originally posted on December 15 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Tuesday morning’s announcement by Brandon Lewis on deregulation of housing associations delivers on the government’s side of The Deal and its pledge to get them reclassified as soon as possible,

However, it also completes the division of what we used to call the housing ‘sector’ into two very different camps: councils forced to do what the government says; and associations giving a new meaning to the ‘voluntary’ sector.

The housing minister told the Communities and Local Government Committee that amendments will be laid to the Housing and Planning Bill aimed at enabling the ONS to re-reclassify housing associations as private sector while maintaining proportionate protection for lenders and tenants.

The biggest move was to make Pay to Stay voluntary for housing associations, which is quite a climbdown. However, the amendments will also include removal of the consents and disposals regimes so that associations no longer have to seek permission of the regulator and the abolition of the disposals proceeds fund so that they no longer have to spend receipts from the right to buy according to criteria set by the regulator. More detail is here.

Read the rest of this entry »


The limits of localism

Have any of the 516 housing announcements made by the DCLG under the coalition plumbed lower depths than this week’s ‘ending the tenant tax to help tackle rogue landlords’?

It’s not that there is no tenant tax out there to be tackled. The government could end the extortionate letting agent fees. It could stop the rent shortfalls faced by tenants whose local housing allowance has been cut. And it could limit the tax and financing advantages enjoyed by buy-to-let landlords that trap people as renters. Even if we limit the term to the private rented sector, and don’t include the bedroom tax, there are any number of options.

Read the rest of this entry »