10 things about 2017: part two

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 27.

This second part of my look back at the year in housing starts with the return of the S word and asks how much has really changed. Part one is here.

6) The year of social housing?

The Grenfell fire intensified a debate about the future of social housing that was already underway.

Under David Cameron and George Osborne, the government had relentlessly boosted the right to buy and pursue ‘affordable’ rather than the social housing they saw as a breeding ground for Labour voters.

The year began with an announcement of first wave of part of their legacy, the starter homes that critics warned would displace other affordable homes.

However, the tide was turning against that type of politics. Away from Westminster, protests about estate regeneration (and loss of social housing) had spawned Dispossession, a documentary shown in cinemas across the country.

But the impact was evident inside the village too. When Theresa May called a snap election her manifesto featured plans for ‘a new generation of social housing’. The reality has never quite matched the rhetoric but to hear a Conservative prime minister mention the S word was a change in itself.

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Radio review: Streets Apart

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on September 11.

In case you missed it, you still have chance to catch up with a superb history of social housing that ran over the last two weeks on Radio 4.

Lynsey Hanley’s Streets Apart told the story from the beginning of council housing in the 19th Century in Liverpool to the present. I got the impression that most of it was made before the fire at Grenfell Tower, but its shadow looms over everything.

Why is the series so good? Partly that Lynsey Hanley knows what she is talking about (as author of Estates: An Intimate History and Respectable: The Experience of Class). She is also an engaging presenter with an accent not normally heard on Radio 4 that comes from her upbringing on the Chelmsley Wood estate in Solihull.

Partly because her interviewees know what they are talking about: they are a mixture of experts in local areas, in architecture, planning and housing and local residents who are given time to tell their stories.

But also because she recognises the nuances and contradictions in the history of social housing and in its present: Michael Heseltine comes out of it surprisingly well for the minister who introduced the Right to Buy; another Tory minister Harold Macmillan gets the last word; and the final episode features more than one side to current regeneration controversies.

Her message may be obvious in one sense and, as she says, naïve and utopian in another: in the wake of Grenfell Tower, housing needs the same national priority as health and education.

But the thesis behind it is also a challenge to those of us who would agree with all of that: ‘Social housing in Britain has suffered from the flaw of being regarded as being only for poor and working class people and not for everyone.’

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The day Mrs Thatcher came for tea

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 3. 

If the Right to Buy has a birthplace it’s a terraced house at 39 Amersham Road in Harold Hill, near Romford in Essex.

True, the sale was the 12,000th rather than the first and 11 August, 1980 was not the actual birth date of the policy either.

However, both have come to symbolise the Right to Buy because this was the place and that was the day that Margaret Thatcher came for tea.

The former prime minister joined the Patterson family, who had bought their home for £8,315 after 18 years as tenants of the Greater London Council (GLC).

Two things came together to remind me of that photo opportunity this week: first, archive footage used in the film Dispossession (full review to follow soon); and second a good investigation by the local paper of hidden homelessness in the area.

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Time for cross-party co-operation on housing?

Originally published on July 11 as a column for Inside Housing.

If we need to ‘invest in good work’ what about good homes?

Theresa May was speaking at the launch of the Taylor review of the gig economy on Tuesday exactly a year after she became prime minister.

In the wake of her failed election gamble, she needs non-Tory support to address the challenges identified in the report.

And her plea to the other parties to ‘come forward with your own views and ideas about how we can tackle these challenges as a country’ is being interpreted as being about more than just the labour market.

So if the challenge of precarious work requires cross-party co-operation what about that of precarious housing?

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The Conservative manifesto plan for council housing

The Tory ‘council house revolution’ trailed in all today’s papers begs all sorts of questions that I’ll be blogging about soon (now up here).

In TV interviews today we’ve learned that there is no new money, just the £1.4bn for affordable housing promised in the 2016 Autumn Statement.

Conservative spokespeople refused to say how many homes were involved but the Autumn Statement said 40,000.

If that is welcome news it hardly qualifies as a ‘revolution’. However, the policy includes other details that could prove to be more significant in the longer term.

Given that all today’s reports are based on a Conservative Party press release that I can’t find anywhere online, here it is:

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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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What the snap election could mean for housing

Originally published on April 18 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Here are some quick thoughts on what the snap General Election might mean for housing.

First, what about the campaign? Labour and Jeremy Corbyn will make a housing a big part of their alternative vision for Britain.

There will be lots about council and social housing and lots to appeal to private renters. Housing will be more prominent in the campaign of one of the two major parties than it has been for years.

But will any of that matter? Theresa May and the Conservatives will not need to say much about housing because their campaign will be all about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn.

Housing won’t matter much to any of the other parties either as the Lib Dems try to win back seats by appealing to Remainers and the SNP and Plaid use the looming Tory apocalypse in England to win votes in Scotland and Wales.

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The end of the Right to Buy in Wales

Originally published on March 13 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Wales is set to join Scotland in consigning the Right to Buy to history.

Readers in that country east of Offa’s Dyke and south of Hadrian’s Wall may want to look away as the Welsh Government introduces a bill into the National Assembly on Monday to abolish the Right to Buy, Right to Acquire and Preserved Right to Buy.

The aim is to protect social housing from further reduction and encourage the development of new social rented homes.

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Manifestly without details

Originally published on November 8 on my blog for Inside Housing

There are no guarantees but the penny has dropped at the DCLG that policies that were written on the back of a fag packet need lots more work. Six months after the Housing and Planning Act received Royal Assent, we are still waiting for the key details. Could it be that the new ministers have realised that some of what their predecessors did was manifestly without reason too?

Things are not remotely clear with the Housing and Planning Act but perhaps the fact that I’m even able to write that six months after it became law is good news of a sort. It remains to be seen how much will be changed or watered down but the new ministerial team at the DCLG clearly do not share the gung-ho assumptions of their predecessors and the government as a whole has bigger things on its mind. Watch the first five minutes or so of yesterday’s session at the Communities and Local Government Committee to see what I mean.

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Red flags flying over Right to Buy

How can people who can’t afford the rent suddenly afford to buy?

To recap in case you missed it, a joint investigation by Inside Housing and BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 found that 16% of Right to Buy sales by 10 councils were to tenants on housing benefit.

This is not in itself evidence of fraud: the 721 tenants concerned could have got money from their family or from a third party. But it is seen as a ‘red flag’ of potential fraudulent activity and a particular cause for concern in the councils with the highest levels of sales to tenants on benefit:  Dudley (37%) and Westminster (29%) and Croydon and Birmingham (who each estimate around half).

And it’s one aspect of a fraud problem that should also set the alarm bells ringing about the 1.2m tenants who are about to get a form of Right to Buy from housing associations that will not have the same expertise as local authorities in detecting fraud and money laundering.

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