Political chaos leaves big housing questions

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

So it’s back to the future and all change at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) as the dust begins to settle from the political chaos of the last two weeks.

It was a scandal involving one ex-housing minister (Chris Pincher) that triggered the revolt against Boris Johnson. Many Tories want another (Dominic Raab) to take over as temporary prime minister. And two more (Grant Shapps and ex-housing secretary Sajid Javid) could run as candidates for the permanent job.

Over at the department that keeps changing its name, Michael Gove has been sacked as ‘a snake’ and most of the more junior ministers have resigned. Stuart Andrew set a new record for a housing minister with just 148 days in the job and no time even for an Inside Housing interview to be published.

Coming in as temporary secretary of state is the familiar figure of Greg Clark, who according to some reports this morning has told civil servants that Gove will be back soon.

Confused? Significant new policy announcements are by convention ruled out until there is a new permanent leader and cabinet – but this did not stop Theresa May enshrining the net zero by 2050 commitment in law before she left office and Boris Johnson is not noted for following convention.  

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Johnson’s lame cover version

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

How exactly should we take Boris Johnson’s plans to ‘bring back Right to Buy’ and ‘turn Generation Rent into Generation Own’?

Many housing association tenants will welcome the chance to own their own home and private renters may welcome official recognition that they are stuck paying more in rent than for the mortgage they can’t get.

Equally, most social landlords will feel that they have no choice but to take very seriously a major change for housing associations and what could be yet another threat to council housing.

And anyone with even the vaguest interest in seeing more genuinely affordable homes will greet the latest guff about one for one replacements with a groan. 

But it’s also very hard not to be cynical about this latest cover version of Margaret Thatcher’s number one from the 1980s. The suspicion is that this is all about a lame duck prime minister having something catchy to announce regardless of how  – or even if – it will work out in practice.

Even so it’s impossible not to wonder about the practicalities of a plan to finance mortgages from housing benefit in the middle of a cost of living crisis, with interest rates about to rise at the peak of a housing market bubble that could be about to burst.

And it’s hard not to contrast Boris Johnson’s tired old rhetoric about social tenants on housing benefit being ‘dependent on the state’ with the plans announced just 24 hours earlier for a Social Housing Regulation Bill that will ‘mean more people living in decent, well looked-after homes enjoying the quality of life they deserve’.

Calling the plan ‘benefits to bricks’ looks like trolling of those who have genuinely attempted to find ways to shift subsidy to new homes.

And all of these reactions are subject to the politics of a wounded prime minister desperate to send the right signals to his party after 41 per cent of his own MPs said they have no confidence in him.

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Two symbolic results in the politics of housing

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

The overall results may be more mixed but the Conservative loss of its flagship councils Wandsworth and Westminster could hardly be more symbolic in terms of the politics of housing.

Westminster has been Conservative-controlled since its creation in 1964 while Wandsworth has been run by the Tories since 1978.

Both were retained by the party at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s unpopularity in 1990 and throughout the Blair and Brown Labour governments between 1997 and 2010 but not anymore.

Together with Barnet, which also went Labour for the first time, they represent a sea change in politics in London, as former housing minister Lord Barwell noted in a tweet this morning:

That gives some idea of the resonance of the results for the Conservatives, but Wandsworth and Westminster are possibly even more significant in the history of the politics of housing.

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An encore all over again for Right to Buy

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It is the idea that is so superficially attractive that Conservatives cannot help forgetting all the other times it proved to be hopelessly impractical.

In a story helpfully briefed to the Telegraph a few days before the local elections, Boris Johnson is planning to ‘bring back Right to Buy’.

The prime minister has reportedly ordered officials to draw up plans to give the Right to Buy to housing association tenants ‘in a major shake-up inspired by Margaret Thatcher’.

Coming just over a week after levelling up secretary Michael Gove appealed to ‘Thatcher worshipping’ Tories to want more homes for social rent, the timing does not look like a total coincidence.

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How we got from there to here

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Where next for affordable housing funding? That’s one of the key questions posed in this year’s edition of the UK Housing Review.

The essential guide to the key issues and statistics in housing is celebrating its 30th anniversary and complements its usual analysis of contemporary trends with a long view of how we’ve got from 1992 to here.

One of the strengths of the review has always been the way it considers policy on housing in the round, not just in terms of all tenures but also in the way that the housing system relates to broader policy.

If only that were true of how governments think about housing. A point made powerfully by Mark Stephens in his opening chapter on 30 years of housing policy in the UK is that this has only really happened twice in the last five decades and not at all since 2005.

As usual, readers will find plenty of food for thought in chapters on social housing, private renting, home ownership, homelessness and support for housing costs plus the usual comprehensive array of housing statistics.

But my eye was drawn to the chapter on affordable housing supply and the challenges ahead by John Perry and Peter Williams.

Another strength of the Review is the way that it draws together ever more divergent policy in the four nations of the UK.

On affordable housing as a whole England lags well behind Scotland and Northern Ireland and has competed with Wales for last place in terms of delivery by population size.

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Winners and losers in the hunt for A Home of Our Own

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on October 20.

A young couple living in a caravan because they can’t find anywhere to rent let alone buy wait for winter and cold weather.

It might be an everyday story from the housing crisis except for two things. First, this is the final episode in an excellent 10-part Radio 4 series that shows that there are many different local crises not just a single national one. Second, one of them works as a housing officer for the local council.

A Home of Our Own finished on Friday but is well worth catching on BBC Sounds over the next few weeks. Presented by Lynsey Hanley, it’s a journey right around the UK that begins in Cornwall and ends in Pembrokeshire via London, Belfast, Glasgow, Middlesbrough and most points in between.

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The cake and the crumbs

Originally published as a column on insidehousing.co.uk on April 15.

From Brexit to just about anything else you care to mention, Boris Johnson is known for wanting to ‘have his cake and eat it’. Why should it be any different for housing?

That was the first thought that sprung to mind reading through a raft of recent government responses to consultations. Much like the social housing green and white papers, they try to face in two different directions at once.

One points towards the more tenure-neutral territory staked out under Theresa May. The other points backwards to the promised land of home ownership staked out by David Cameron, the former prime minister turned PR man for failed bankers.

Both are evident in the outcome of consultations on the new model for shared ownership, changes to the current planning system and First Homes, supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure and use of receipts from Right to Buy sales in the run-up to Easter.

So we get the expansion of permitted development to cover the conversion of most empty commercial buildings, not just offices, into residential. This may mean more ‘units’ but with too few constraints on quality to be regarded as ‘homes’.

Plans for reform of shared ownership include confirmation that landlords will be liable for repairs for the first 10 years on new homes but no acknowledgement that this leaves existing tenant-owners living in devalued assets.

There are plans to give existing as well as new shared owners the statutory right to a lease of 990 rather than 99 years but no fresh solutions for those left out of government help for fire safety costs or forced to take out £50 a month loans.

Reductions in the minimum initial stake and staircasing threshold meet commitments previously made by housing secretary Robert Jenrick without any real evidence supporting them.

Changes to the current planning system include a welcome u-turn on a proposal to increase the threshold at which small sites are exempt from affordable housing requirements from 10 homes to up to 50. That could rescue up to 30,000 affordable homes over the next five years.

However, that’s trumped by confirmation of plans to require a minimum of 25 per cent of homes delivered through developer contributions to be First Homes. Mr Jenrick is therefore diverting a sizeable chunk of the funding mechanism that accounts for more than half of affordable homes into his pet project.

On the Right to Buy, local authorities get five years rather than three to use receipts to build new homes and receipts can account for 40 rather than 30 per cent of the total cost. These are improvements to the scarcely credible ‘one-for-one replacement’ pledge made when discounts were increased in 2012.

But that could still leave them forced to sell homes for less than it cost to build them and it does not address the parallel question of ‘like-for-like’ replacement.

Far from responding to concerns raised in the consultation about broadening the definition, the government suggests that ‘affordable’ replacements for social rent homes sold could include not just affordable rent and shared ownership but also (you guessed it) First Homes.

All of which suggests that the loss of social rent homes – 210,000 in England in the last eight years, according to the latest UK Housing Review – will continue even as ministers make rhetorical nods to the tenure.

It’s as though one part of government wants to shift the balance of policy in favour of social and affordable housing only for another to tilt it back towards home ownership and the free market.

With crucial choices looming as society reopens and the economy moves off life support, which will get the cake and which will be left with the crumbs?


Conservative backbenchers are listening but are ministers?

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing on July 27.

Today’s report from the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Committee feels like the political fruit machine has finally come up with three social rented homes in a row.

That a committee with a Conservative majority should come out in full support of 90,000 social rented homes a year is significant enough in itself. That it should give its full backing to the case that such a programme will pay itself back in full to the Exchequer over the long term should feel like a vindication for those who conducted the sometimes lonely campaign for social housing.

That it should do so now, and argue that a social housebuilding programme should be ‘top of the government’s agenda to rebuild the country from the impact of COVID-19’, makes it feel like an idea whose time really has come round again.

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Signals from long-delayed debuts for Jenrick and McVey

Originally published on January 15 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Robert Jenrick and Esther McVey faced their first parliamentary questions as housing secretary and housing minister on Monday – almost six months after they took up their posts.

The reasons for the remarkable delay to their despatch box debuts – the summer recess, Brexit and the December election – are not hard to guess and are also why housing has slipped down the political agenda in the meantime.

But, give or take the odd appearance in parliamentary debates and in front of select committees, the delay also means that we still have only a fuzzy picture of what they really think about the key issues stacking up in their in-trays.

And it came in the wake of a report in the Daily Mail over the weekend about an apparent clash between the two over where the government should spend its housing cash and which voters they should be targeting.

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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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