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of his hints that housebuilding targets will be scrapped, his pledge that controversial fire safety advice will be withdrawn soon and his criticism of ‘overcautious’ lending by banks to first-time buyers.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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Social housing as business opportunity

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Sometimes a news story stops you in your tracks. A report in The Times that former chancellor Philip Hammond is teaming up with Tory election guru Sir Lynton Crosby in a social housing business certainly did it for me.

After checking that it really was July and not April 1, I read that the plan is to lease homes to local authorities where there is a shortage of social housing. Municipal Partners, a company formed last year, is a ‘for-profit social impact business to acquire, refurbish and lease residential property’.

Seen from the perspective of the Labour leader of Barking and Dagenham Council, Darren Rodwell, this makes some kind of sense in an area where 30 per cent of properties are owned by buy-to-let landlords, including many sold under the Right to Buy. Municipal Partners would instead fund the purchase of the homes, the council would charge affordable rents and pay an income to the company before taking back possession at the end of an agreed period.

Cllr Rodwell says that ‘we can’t fund it via government, so we’re talking to different private pension funds, other organisations and seeing what’s out there’. While he has political differences with Philip, now Lord, Hammond, ‘if he and the company he represents gives us the deal that works for us, and the due diligence all plays out, then obviously we would do business with them because it would benefit my residents’.

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Building Back Better (in due course)

Building back better? Safer? Fairer? How about slower?

At first glance this is a Queen’s Speech that looks full of welcome reforms to planning and the delivery of new homes, conditions for renters and leaseholders and building safety. Scratch beneath the surface in the background briefing notes, though, and big questions remain and there are big battles to come.

Ahead of the speech, the Planning Bill was spun as ‘cruical’ to levelling up, a way to cement Conservative advances in the Midlands and North by boosting home ownership.

But that ignores the battle to come with Tory backbenchers over housebuilding in the South East.

A cynical outcome from the white paper would be to emphasise local growth as you allow councils in expensive areas to designate large parts of them for protection. This would do next to nothing to tackle affordability – or address the very real questions about the future of Section 106 – but the politics will be very tempting.

In the wake of Grenfell, the government will ‘continue to deliver on the Social Housing White Paper proposals’ and ‘legislate as soon as practicable’.

But Grenfell was almost four years ago and the social housing white paper that was published in November that took more than three years. Practicable? Grenfell United has already called it a ‘betrayal’.

Improvements will come in the proposed Building Safety Bill which is at last delivering on the improved regime promised after the fire.

However, that in itself is a delayed opportunity to address the plight of hundreds of thousands of leaseholders after ministers steadfastly resisted all amendments to the Fire Safety Bill to make it clear they should not have to pay for problems that are not their fault. The stage is set for another huge Commons battle.

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When green becomes white

Originally published as a column in the December issue of Inside Housing.

What’s the difference between a ‘new deal for social housing’ and a ‘charter for social housing residents’?

The shift in language between the green and white papers certainly seems to signal a change in emphasis – and not in a good way if you are old enough to remember John Major’s Citizens’ Charter and Cones Hotline from the 1990s.

White paper plans to strengthen consumer regulation, make it easier for tenants to complain to the ombudsman and introduce independent inspection of landlords look generally positive – even the Conservatives are essentially recreating the system they scrapped so confidently in 2010. The regulator will also get new powers over for-profit landlords.

But for me what’s really telling is what has gone missing between the green paper and the white paper and what that says about the government’s wider vision for social housing.

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Where is the Winter Housing Plan?

Originally written as a column for insidehousing.co.uk.

In March housing secretary Robert Jenrick promised that nobody will lose their home because of the pandemic. In June that turned out to mean that nobody will lose their home ‘this summer’.

The evictions moratorium was extended twice at the 11th hour but there was no movement this time and it ended last Monday – a day before the Autumnal equinox – with an empty promise of ‘comprehensive support for renters’.

If the moratorium had expired a week later – after the new pandemic restrictions for the next six months announced by Boris Johnson on Tuesday and after the new Job Support Scheme announced by Rishi Sunak on Thursday – the pressure for it to be extended would have been overwhelming.

Instead, with promises of Christmas truces, exemptions for areas in lockdown and prioritisation of cases, we have lurched into a situation that ensures that lots of people definitely will lose their homes in the next few months.

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A route map that leads nowhere

Originally published on September 15 as a column for Inside Housing.

In the wake of Boris Johnson, Brexit and Covid-19, where next for affordable housing?

The last month has revealed the outlines of a government route map that combines some of Theresa May’s commitments on social rent with an update of David Cameron’s vision for home ownership and adds a big dose of planning reform to housebuilding targets.

On the plus side, housing secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed that the new Affordable Homes Programme will include homes for social rent, and more of them than in the previous one.

As expressed in a speech to the virtual Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) conference and an announcement last week, that is definitely more May than .

However, it still falls way short of the 90,000 social rent homes a year called for by the Conservative-controlled housing select committee in July or likely demand from 1.6 million households revealed in research for the National Housing Federation on Tuesday.

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England gets there in the end with evictions climbdown

Originally written on August 24 as a column for Inside Housing.

The u-turn was not as dramatic as the one over exam results and it means Robert Jenrick will not for now be joining Gavin Williamson in detention after the politics class.

But, now that it’s happened, does the 11th-hour climbdown over the Coronavirus evictions ban foreshadow a more permanent improvement renters’ rights after the pandemic?

The package announced on Friday following consultation with the judiciary extends the ban by four weeks from August 23 to September 20 in England and Wales. It also extends the notice period for tenants in England from three to six months in all cases except those involving anti-social behaviour and domestic abuse.

This is the second extension to the ban announced at the 11th hour, as it was originally only meant to last until June, then extended to August.

You still have to wonder what took so long: the Welsh Government introduced a six-month notice period under its devolved housing powers a month ago but is reliant on decisions in Westminster about the evictions ban because judicial affairs are not devolved.

It has also announced low-interest loans for tenants in arrears worth £8 million (the equivalent of £140 million in England given its far larger population) and maxed out discretionary housing payments but is still facing pressure to go further.

At least England got there in the end, though. The question now, given that four weeks is not very long, is what comes next?

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Jenrick faces evictions exam

Originally published on insidehousing.co.uk on August 24 – before the extension of the evictions ban the following day. Post on that to come.

Just like with Coronavirus and the A levels fiasco, ministers cannot say they have not been warned.

As the clock counts down to the restart of evictions, they can turn a deaf ear to claims from Shelter, Citizens Advice and Generation Rent, the shadow housing secretary and now a range of public health organisations about the wave of evictions and homelessness that is about to hit them.

They can turn a blind eye to the action taken by their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and now Northern Ireland to get ahead of the situation and deliver more help for renters.

And they can choose to ignore what’s already happening in parts of the United States, where some cities have turned convention centres into huge court annexes to cope with the surge of cases there.

As I write this on Thursday morning, nothing, including a last-minute u-turn, can be ruled out with this government, but as it stands things will return to insecure normality for renters from the start of next week.

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Conservative backbenchers are listening but are ministers?

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing on July 27.

Today’s report from the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) Committee feels like the political fruit machine has finally come up with three social rented homes in a row.

That a committee with a Conservative majority should come out in full support of 90,000 social rented homes a year is significant enough in itself. That it should give its full backing to the case that such a programme will pay itself back in full to the Exchequer over the long term should feel like a vindication for those who conducted the sometimes lonely campaign for social housing.

That it should do so now, and argue that a social housebuilding programme should be ‘top of the government’s agenda to rebuild the country from the impact of COVID-19’, makes it feel like an idea whose time really has come round again.

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