The radical message behind ‘back to basics’

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing

At first glance there is nothing especially radical about the Better Social Housing Review – as the independent panel says, ‘there is nothing revelatory in our findings’ and ‘it may seem to housing associations that our recommendations are already central to their approach’.

And indeed much of what the review commissioned by the National Housing Federation and Chartered Institute of Housing says about engaging tenants, improving repairs services, handling complaints better and tackling stigma and discrimination are things that landlords could, and should, already be doing.

But take a second look and the key messages about organisations focussing on their core purpose and about it being ‘time to get back to basics’ are profoundly radical. They represent a challenge to the way that the sector has developed in the three decades since housing associations became the alternative to what the Conservative government called the ‘municipal monopoly’.

Because that same government was also making associations the vehicle for private finance and stock transfer and steadily squeezing the grant rate for new development to encourage them to ‘sweat their assets’.

That drive for ever greater efficiency and value for money worked in the sense that it delivered more new homes for less public money but it also created a remorseless logic for merger and the creation of landlords that became even bigger than the giant council housing departments of the past.

And that was only reinforced by regulatory changes in 2010 that overwhelmingly prioritised financial concerns over consumer ones and encouraged landlords to focus accordingly.

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Hunt’s statement of intent

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Eight weeks after Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng shrank the economy with their growth plan, chancellor Jeremy Hunt completed his reversal of almost all of their plans in his Autumn Statement.

He was speaking against a backdrop of dire forecasts of recession, unemployment, falling living standards and rising taxes that spoke of bad news to come for housing and tenants and landlords alike.

The complete rewrite of the Autumn Statement leaves a long list of tax increases and spending cuts in its wake, even if many of them will not take effect until after the next election and so may not happen. However, there was still a little hope amidst the gloom.

Here are five points I picked up from the statement itself and the background documents.

The cap and the freeze

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the statement – with a nod to expectations management by the Treasury – is that there is also some good news. The announcement that the government will stick to previous pledges to increase benefits (and pensions and the minimum wage) in line with prices was not completely unexpected but will still come as a relief to tenants and landlords alike.

But Jeremy Hunt’s decision to increase the overall benefit caps by the same amount is much more of a surprise. Without this, thousands more households faced being capped as their benefits rose to hit thresholds that have been frozen since they were cut in 2016. The main thresholds for families will now increase to £22,020 a year outside London and £25,323 in the capital. The cost is estimated at £315 million in 2023/24 and almost £2 billion over the next five years.

And yet… these are still far below the average earnings figures that were misleadingly used to justify the cap in the first place. And they leave people who are already capped facing rent increases with no extra income to pay for them.

Finally, buried deep in the background documents is more gloom: the assumption that Local Housing Allowance rates for private renters will remain at 2022/23 levels, which have themselves been frozen since April 2020. This despite rapidly rising rents. If confirmed, the result will inevitably be rising rent arrears and homelessness.

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The state of the (housing) nation

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

The UK Housing Review Autumn Briefing Paper is published this week and as usual provides an invaluable guide to the state of the housing nation. Here are five graphs that illustrate key points about five different parts  of the housing system:

Shifting rules on rents

What everyone wants to know, of course, is what will come in place of that purple line on the right but the graph is a reminder that so-called long-term deals on social housing rents can quickly disappear. The four-year rent reduction at the end of the 2020s that ended the previous one is now set to be succeeded by an annual increase significantly below the 11.1 per cent implied by the CPI plus 1 formula.

The decision is finely balanced between cost of living considerations and housing investment, with the existence of housing benefit making it much more complex than it was in the famous case of Clay Cross 50 years ago.   

The Briefing Paper quotes estimates by Savills that a 5 per cent cap on rents in England (the government’s favoured option) would cost councils £500 million and housing associations up to £1 billion. One association says that even a 7 per cent cap would mean a 21 per cent reduction in new build and there are also major concerns about the impact on investment in existing stock and on supported housing.

A cap would help tenants not on housing benefit but the major beneficiary would be the Department for Work and Pensions unless its savings are reinvested in housing.

That point was really brought home to me when I interviewed the Welsh housing minister recently. She was only too aware that the more she restricts next year’s rent increase, as might be her instinct, the more savings will go straight back to Westminster, with zero chance of them coming back to Wales.

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Austerity all over again

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Austerity is back. The mess left by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng will have to be cleaned up, constraining the options for Rishi Sunak and for whoever wins the next general election.

But there is nothing that says Austerity 2.0 has to be a repeat of the 2010s. Treasury orthodoxy is in charge again but there are always political choices.

David Cameron and George Osborne chose to prioritise cuts in public services and benefits over tax rises but that will be more difficult for a prime minister taking office at a time when those services are collapsing and benefits are already close to destitution levels.

And there is one more crucial difference this time around: in the 2010s austerity was accompanied by record low interest rates that slashed mortgage payments for millions of home owners and buy-to-let landlords.

The benefits flowing to anyone with a mortgage – and to existing owners as house prices rose – help to explain why the Conservatives have won four elections in a row. 

But Austerity 2.0 arrives just as mortgage rates are rising and just as the prospects of a housing market downturn are shifting from likely to inevitable.

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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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