10 things about 2017: part two

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 27.

This second part of my look back at the year in housing starts with the return of the S word and asks how much has really changed. Part one is here.

6) The year of social housing?

The Grenfell fire intensified a debate about the future of social housing that was already underway.

Under David Cameron and George Osborne, the government had relentlessly boosted the right to buy and pursue ‘affordable’ rather than the social housing they saw as a breeding ground for Labour voters.

The year began with an announcement of first wave of part of their legacy, the starter homes that critics warned would displace other affordable homes.

However, the tide was turning against that type of politics. Away from Westminster, protests about estate regeneration (and loss of social housing) had spawned Dispossession, a documentary shown in cinemas across the country.

But the impact was evident inside the village too. When Theresa May called a snap election her manifesto featured plans for ‘a new generation of social housing’. The reality has never quite matched the rhetoric but to hear a Conservative prime minister mention the S word was a change in itself.

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10 things about 2017: part one

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on December 22.

As in 2016, it seemed like nothing would ever be the same again after a momentous event halfway through the year.

The horrific Grenfell Tower fire on June 14 means that the headline on this column should really have read ‘nine other things about 2017’. Just as the Brexit voted has changed everything in politics, so it is almost impossible to see anything in housing except through the prism of that awful night.

That said, 2017 was another year of momentous change for housing, one that brought a few signs of hope too. Here’s the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about.

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A damning verdict on the building regulations and fire safety

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 18.

Six months on from the disaster that changed everything it sometimes feels like not much has changed.

Despite the promises made in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell fire, progress has been painfully slow on rehousing families from the tower and surrounding block.

The police will not complete a full forensic assessment and reconstruction of how the fire spread before autumn 2018 and potential suspects in the criminal investigation will not be interviewed until after that.

Interim findings from the public inquiry were originally due by Easter 2018 but the judge leading it says the scale of the work that is required means that will not now be possible. No date has been set for the final report.

With up to 2,400 witnesses to be interviewed, 31 million documents to be examined and 383 companies identified as having played some role in the refurbishment of the tower, it’s not hard to find good reasons why things are taking so long.

Establishing the causes of the fire to stop the same thing happening again will be complicated enough but that is just part of getting justice for the victims and survivors.

Finding who was to blame will take time and all the while questions will remain about building safety elsewhere.

Tangible progress towards finding some of the answers comes with today’s publication of the interim findings of the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety chaired by Dame Judith Hackitt.

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Over-egging the pudding

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on December 14. 

Is a year that has seen a huge shift in the politics of housing ending with a return to business as usual?

The Grenfell fire is the obvious reason for the change in the terms of the housing debate but it is not the only one.

The prime minister’s party conference speech will be remembered for the prankster, the lost voice and the collapsing stage set but it did seem to mark the culmination of a shift from Help to Buy to help for all tenures. But just as her country is not quite working for everyone, so her social housing revolution may not be quite what it seems.

One clue, I think, lies in the way that parliamentary debate has returned to the bad old days of Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps in terms of the selective use of statistics. The first time I noticed this was at last week’s Communities and Local Government questions.

Alok Sharma seems a nice chap and has quietly impressed with his willingness to listen to tenants at consultations ahead of the social housing green paper. But asked about homes built for social rent last week, he boasted that: ‘Since 2010, nearly 128,000 homes for social rent have been built in England, and 118,000 have been built for affordable rent.’

That’s an answer that does not quite compute at first but check the statistics and he is perfectly correct – and totally misleading – at the same time.

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A look ahead to the Budget part two: investment

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

In normal times, a chancellor who pledged an extra £2bn for social housing and an extra £10bn for home ownership might to be greeted with general acclaim.

But these are not normal times and the pressure to do something big and bold on housing was such that what might have been two key Budget commitments (plus the new rent formula as a third) were announced last month at the party conference.

And, far from being applauded, the government came under fire for doing too little, too late on social housing and for pouring petrol on the flames of house price inflation via Help to Buy.

Philip Hammond was not helped by a curious Conservative briefing to journalists that the £2bn would only be enough for 25,000 homes but even Tory newspapers were checking housebuilder share prices on the day after the budget for Help to Buy was doubled.

This second part of my blog previewing a watershed Budget for housing looks at the prospects for further moves on investment on November 22. Part three (coming soon) will look at tax and welfare.

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A massive relief to social landlords and tenants, but what now?

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 26.

So finally even the prime minister accepts that plans to impose a local housing allowance (LHA) cap on supported and social housing are unworkable.

Theresa May’s announcement at prime minister’s questions that the cap will not be implemented represents a massive u-turn that will be an equally massive relief to social landlords and tenants.

Statements from a succession of different ministers over the last few weeks had signalled the move for supported housing in the face of overwhelming evidence of postponed investment and knock-on costs for the health and social care sectors.

The decision to scrap it for social housing too was more of a surprise, though it may have been influenced by the difficulty of distinguishing social from supported homes.

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Starting with the evidence

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 20. 

Almost everyone agrees there is a housing crisis, that the housing market is broken and dysfunctional and that urgent action is required – but why and what exactly should be done about it?

For most of the last seven years, the answers to these questions seem to been scribbled on the back of a fag packet at Policy Exchange or emerged fully-formed from the brilliant mind of Iain Duncan Smith.

Any idea of evidence-based policy disappeared after 2010, with evaluations of policy published only reluctantly and ignored when their conclusions are inconvenient.

That has begun to change under Theresa May, who became prime minister with a reputation for taking her time over decisions and insisting on looking at the evidence for herself before she took them.

With the Conservatives apparently prepared to consider some ideas that were previously off limits, and even to fund social rent once again, the political consensus about the need to do something about housing is growing.

So the timing could hardly be better for a new initiative dedicated to supplying the evidence to help diagnose the problems with the housing system and come up with solutions.

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