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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Putting the interest rate rise in perspective

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

‘Millions hit by higher mortgage bills,’ ran the headlines after the Bank of England raised interest rates for the first time in three years.  

‘Worst blow to first-time buyers since financial crisis,’ was the Telegraph’s verdict on the increase from 0.1 to 0.25 per cent. The move had been long expected but it was still enough to send shares in housebuilders lower and banks higher.

Most mortgages are now on fixed-rate terms so most borrowers will not see an increase immediately, although the decision will add around £10 a month to repayments for someone on the standard variable rate and £15 a month for a tracker mortgage customer.

With energy bills already rising, council tax bills going up next year and price inflation at 5.1 per cent and rising that can only add to the worry for those borrowers who are already stretched.

Another way of looking at the interest rate rise is that 0.25 per cent is 20 times lower than what would have been considered a ‘low’ rate before 2008. The record lows since the financial crisis have now lasted for more than half the term of what used to be a standard 25-year mortgage.

Little wonder that house prices have boomed and the wealth of home owners has rocketed and that first-time buyers have faced a ‘worst blow’ more or less every month.

Nevertheless there are bigger questions that lie behind what is largely a symbolic decision driven by the Monetary Policy Committee need to meet market expectations about a rent increase to tackle inflation that is now far above its 2 per cent target.

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How sorry is ‘deeply sorry’?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Where does the buck stop? It’s the question that has hung over much of the Grenfell Tower inquiry ever since phase two opened with what lead counsel Richard Millett called a ‘merry-go-round of buck passing’ between the organisations and companies involved.

The opening statements in the latest part of module 6 this week  take us at last to where, how and why decisions were made within government. 

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) admits in its opening statement that it ‘presided over an overarching building safety system that has been shown to be unfit for purpose with catastrophic consequences’.

It acknowledges a series of failures in its oversight of the regulatory system, internal governance, and the nature of its responses  to the recommendations of the Lakanal House coroner and issues raised by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on fire safety.

And it says that: ‘Cumulatively these failings helped to create an environment in which non-compliance was widespread and such a tragedy was possible. For that it is deeply sorry.’

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Cutting the Goveian knot

Originally published on November 10 as a column for Inside Housing.

In a two-hour appearance before MPs, Michael Gove made most of the right noises but can he really come up with meaningful solutions to the intractable problems that come with his new job?

The man in charge of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) was facing questions from what is still called the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee. You can watch it back here.

The reorganisation of his department added responsibilities for levelling up and preserving the union to the tangled threads of building safety, planning, home ownership and homelessness that were already crowding his in-tray. You might almost call it a Goveian Knot.

What was striking was not just Mr Gove’s willingness to engage with committee members but also his multiple hints of bolder answers on the way.

The levelling up secretary signalled pauses and rethinks and resets on several of the most contentious issues he faces. This is reflected in this morning’s press coverage of his hints that housebuilding targets will be scrapped, his pledge that controversial fire safety advice will be withdrawn soon and his criticism of ‘overcautious’ lending by banks to first-time buyers.  

It also became clear that he sees a direct link between levelling up and the H side of his brief.

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Labour’s ‘new settlement’ for housing

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on September 30.

If the tone sounded very New Labour at times, this week’s party conference in Brighton also signalled that some of the radical housing policies of the Corbyn era are here to stay. 

The speeches on tackling anti-social behaviour recalled the early days of Tony Blair while the promise of new fiscal rules and an Office for Value for Money were very Gordon Brown. 

But the influence of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell was also evident in a leader’s speech from Keir Starmer in which he pledged a Green New Deal.

This would include a national mission to retrofit every home in the country within a decade ‘to make sure that it is warm, well insulated and costs less to heat and we will create thousands of jobs in the process’. 

That timetable is just as ambitious as when Labour promised ‘Warm Homes for All’ in 2019 and, while there is not much detail, it suggests that housing decarbonisation will swallow up much of the £28 billion a year in green investment promised by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves. 

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