The housing trilemma

Originally posted on May 1 on my blog for Inside Housing

The pace of change in housing seems to accelerate every year, especially in the last decade.

There may be better known conferences than the one organised by the Housing Studies Association but there are few if any give you a better opportunity to try to make sense of it all.

Held in Sheffield last month, the theme of this year’s conference was Home Struggles: Politics, Marginality and Resistance in the Contest for Housing. This was a title designed to cover everything from the financialisation and homelessness we are familiar with in Britain to the more informal struggles associated with the Global South.

The conference brings together the growing number of academics working on housing issues from this country and overseas but housing professionals and tenants were there too in the audience and with papers of their own.

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Sidelining of tenants is part of a wider pattern

Whether you put it down to carelessness or couldn’t care less-ness, the inaction inside government inaction that has sparked open letter from A Voice for Tenants (AV4T) is symptomatic of a wider political paralysis.

As the group themselves point out, they are not representative of the eight million people living in social housing in England but they are the best we have until the government keeps the prime minister’s promise to bring tenants into the political process.

The letter is all the more effective for the contrast between its moderate language and its stark message that working behind the scenes has not produced results.

The only option left seems to be to embarrass the politicians into living up to what they have said over the last two years – accepting Inside Housing’s open invitation to a meeting seems the bare minimum they should do.

And there is a strikingly similar message in the Times this morning from Grenfell United, as it attacks ‘indifferent and incompetent’ ministers who took their ‘kindness as weakness’.

Two years of meetings have produced too little action, they say, with no progress on their call for a new model of housing regulator and thousands of people still living in ‘death traps’ with combustible cladding.

Grenfell and tenants were top of the agenda for the ministers in post at the time of the fire – the work of Alok Sharma and his civil servants is praised in the AVT letter – but have slipped down it as the months and now years have passed.

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A warning from Berlin

Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing.

The large demonstrations in Berlin on Saturday demanding the expropriation of the property of the city’s two biggest landlords are a warning to their counterparts in this country about what can happen when public and political opinion turns against you.

Yes, there is a particular context for the demos, with communism in East Berlin and an expectation of cheap rents in West Berlin predating the free market pressures of a global capital city.

And yes we are talking about two large private corporate landlords that own more than 100,000 homes each.

But to bring things closer to home, both companies identified in the protestors’ placards – Deutsche Wohnen in particular but also Vonovia – have their roots in social housing and grew out of communal housing associations.

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The shift to renter rights

Originally published on March 11 as a blog for Inside Housing. 

Can it really be less than five years since Labour’s plans for three-year tenancies in the private rented sector were attacked by the Conservatives as ‘Venezuelan-style socialism’?

And is it really less than three years since Royal Assent for a Housing and Planning Act that included provisions to abolish secure tenancies and make fixed terms mandatory for new council tenants?

A plan for that to apply to housing association tenants as well was only dropped because of concerns over their public-private status but many associations enthusiastically took up the voluntary option of fixed terms they were given in the 2011 Localism Act.

Until very recently it seemed that social housing was set to follow the private rented sector into a marketised world of flexibility and insecurity.

However, the pace of change on this issue in the last 12 months has been rapid and it is still accelerating.

The biggest move so far came on Friday when Labour followed up on its conference pledge to scrap no-fault evictions by announcing plans for indefinite private tenancies.

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A new vision for social housing

Originally posted at www.insidehousing.co.uk on January 8.

shelter commissionSooner or later a government will have to come up with a long-term plan for housing like the one that Theresa May launched this week for the NHS.

In place of the endless promises of the ‘jam tomorrow’ of more new homes at some point in the next parliament it would need a commitment that goes beyond the next election or even the one after that.

Today’s report from the independent Social Housing Commission provides a stark illustration of what is needed and the scale of the resources required.

And this is much more than the usual call for more from the social housing lobby. The 16 commissioners are drawn from across the political spectrum, with former Labour leader Ed Miliband matched by former Conservative ministers Lady Warsi and Lord O’Neill, and from across society, with Baroness Doreen Lawrence joined by members of the Grenfell community. There were also 13 public debates around the country and responses from 31,000 people.

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10 things about 2018 – part two

Originally posted on December 28 as a column for Inside Housing. 

The second part of my look back at the year runs from land to Brexit via renting and council housing. Part one is here.

6. The land question

If 2018 was the year of the tenant, then another issue was not far behind as the land question took on an importance arguably not seen since before the First World War.

A developing political consensus around the potential of land value capture as a funding mechanism for infrastructure and affordable housing found expression in a favourable report from the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and an open letter signed by former Downing Street insiders and think tanks and organisations across the political spectrum. One report put the net profit made by landowners just for getting planning permission for housing at a cool £13 bn a year.

At the same time the chancellor appointed former Cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin to lead out an independent review of the slow pace at which homes get built. Letwin quickly focussed on slow-build out rates on large sites but concluded that the reason why they take an average of more than 15 years to complete has less to do with landbanking (hoarding land with planning permission) than the absorption rate (the fact that developers only build as fast as they can sell for a required profit in local markets).

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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.

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