The big questions facing Simon Clarke

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Simon Clarke has yet to reveal much of his thinking on the key issues facing his new department but the early signals coming from the new government mean it’s already clear that tough choices lie ahead.

As chief secretary to the Treasury since September 2021 he was responsible for scrutinising and departmental requests for more public spending. Now he replaces Greg Clark at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), where he briefly served as a minister for regional growth and local government in 2020.

As a prominent supporter of Liz Truss, Clarke will have some influence with the prime minister and could be heard acting as her spokesman on energy costs on the Today programme on Thursday.

Like any secretary of state he will fight for the departmental interest and but it seems doubtful whether he will have as much heft in Whitehall as his predecessor but one Michael Gove.

Indeed there are already some straws in the wind. Consider a story leaked to the Telegraph over the weekend about a £1.5bn underspend at the DLUHC.

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The winners and losers from the rent cap

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

The rent cap proposed for social housing may not have come as a huge surprise but the consequences will play out in very different ways for different parties.

It says it all about the cost of living crisis that whether rents are capped or not could be well down social tenants’ list of worries over the next few months.

The energy price cap has already almost doubled in the last 12 months to £1,971 a year. Next month that will rise to £3,549 and the worst forecasts suggest that could double again by next April unless the new government takes radical action.

Effectively, therefore, tenants in social housing could be paying double rent next year unless they take drastic steps to cut their bills.

But many are already doing this and finding that even turning the boiler off does not go far enough – they may be asking why the consultation does not include an option to freeze rents.

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What should we do with the homes we already have?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Never mind the supply of new homes – should we be thinking more about the ownership and distribution of the ones we already have?

That’s the intriguing question at the heart of a new discussion paper from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) that challenges the orthodoxy that new supply is the key to fixing the housing system.

The problem is that, while supply has to be part of the solution, it takes time to have an effect and people who need affordable homes do not have time.

Even if we built 300,000 new homes a year in England (an even bigger if as Tory leadership candidates pander to their MPs and members) that would have to be sustained for years to have an impact on prices. Even if that included the 90,000 social rent homes a year advocated by campaigners, and even if no more were sold off, it would take more than a decade to house families on council waiting lists that significantly understate demand.

So why not look instead at the 25 million homes that already exist? As Darren Baxter-Clow, Joseph Elliott and Rachelle Earwalker argue in the paper, recent history shows that rapid changes are possible.

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Tory leadership debate misses the target

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

This is a Conservative leadership race in which the number of toilets we should have has often seemed a bigger issue than the number of homes we need.

Even allowing for the fact that the candidates have to appeal to electorates made up of Tory MPs and elderly Conservative members who appreciate anti-wokery, the level of debate in the race to be the next prime minister as well as party leader has been beyond depressing.

The only candidate who made housing explicitly part of his pitch was Sajid Javid as he called for ‘a massive programme of garden villages and new towns’ and incentives for longer-term tenancies – but he was one of the first to be eliminated.

The debate has otherwise been dominated by tax cuts and the general message is that whoever wins will cut public spending to create space for them.

Calls by multiple candidates to reverse the increase in National Insurance make the prospects of meaningful reform of social care look even more remote.

‘Common sense’ calls for people to be given back ‘their own money’ ignore attempts up to now to target cost of living support on the poorest.

And you have to wonder whether benefits will really be uprated in line with inflation next year and whether the Treasury will allow a potentially double digit increase in social rents.

The levelling up agenda looks to be on shaky ground, with Liz Truss, for example, calling for ‘levelling up in a Conservative way’, which appears to mean tax cuts for entrepreneurs rather than a rebalancing of public spending.

The 2050 net zero target is only opposed by one of the remaining five candidates (Kemi Badenoch) but none of them have shown much enthusiasm for a strategy to achieve it.

On the opening weekend of the leadership race, the Sunday Telegraph devoted tens of thousands of words to the candidates and what they plan to do. The only mention of housing came in a piece about where Boris Johnson plans to live next and which of his two sets of tenants should be evicted to make way for him.

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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.

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Can Gove put the social back in ‘affordable’?

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Michael Gove’s challenge to ‘Thatcher-worshipping’ Tories to want more social rented housing feels like another significant milestone in the Conservative journey on the issue but the final destination remains unclear.

Speaking at a conference organised by Shelter, the levelling up secretary said he was exploring ways to increase support for social rent and change rules that restrict funding for it outside of the most unaffordable parts of the country.

He also admitted that previous Tory policies have ‘tilted more towards a particular set of products that are not truly affordable and have not enabled housing associations and others to generate the housing at the social rent that they need’.

The speech followed a report in the Sunday Telegraph that he is set to scrap the Section 106 of planning contributions and replace it with an infrastructure fund that will pave the way for a ‘council housing explosion’.

John Rentoul in The Independent sees all this, plus his success in bullying developers into paying up for building safety, as evidence that Gove will be a strong contender in the undeclared 2022 Conservative leadership contest.

At the same time, Telegraph columnist Liam Halligan, another speaker at the Shelter conference, argues that ‘council housing should be central to the Conservative brand’ and that the party should shift subsidies from benefits to bricks. 

Now keen-eyed readers may spot the odd example of cognitive dissonance in this reversal of 40 years of Conservative orthodoxy.

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A link restored for now

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

We routinely talk about the relationship between health and housing but have we forgotten just how close it once was?

That was the intriguing question posed by Al Story, professor of inclusion health at University College London, in the final session of this year’s Housing Studies Association conference.

As he traced how the relationship between public health, homelessness and housing developed from the 19th century to the present day, he outlined a sometimes surprising history with a striking contemporary relevance in the wake of Covid-19.

It’s a story that starts with the 19th century Vagrancy Act (now finally scheduled for repeal) but also the gradual realisation of the links between overcrowding, poor housing, contaminated water and disease.

A system of workhouses, poor law infirmaries and shelters developed with features such as the penny sit-up (a bench with no sleeping allowed), two penny hangover (a rope to lean on) and four penny coffin (a coffin-shaped box to sleep in).

Although the workhouse model was finally abolished in 1930, much of the concept and many of the buildings still survive: communal casual wards became modern day night shelters and cellular casual wards became hostels.

Public health concerns drove increased help for homeless people. Workhouse infirmaries were responsible for half of all deaths from TB but these were significantly reduced by segregation of consumptives even before treatments were available.

The contemporary relevance of all this is not just that homeless people still have the highest rates of TB even in the 21st century but also that the disease is spread via aerosol transmission – the same as with Covid-19.

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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.

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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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Mind the gaps on building safety

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Who is guilty, who is innocent and who is merely collateral damage? The answers, when it comes to building safety, are not as simple as it first seems.

Guilt in a legal sense remains to be seen but just about everyone involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower seems to bear some responsibility, starting with the governments that set the building regulations and reaching down via organisations involved in product testing and certification and building control to the companies that supplied the cladding and insulation, the contractor, designers, subcontractors and client. 

All of the above plus developers are seen as ‘guilty’ when it comes to the wider building safety crisis while leaseholders are the innocent parties that the government has finally accepted should be protected from the costs.

And yet scratch a little deeper in the debates over the Building Safety Bill and the new approach initiated by Michael Gove and the dividing line between innocent and guilty is not remotely as clear cut as that.

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