Repairing the safety net

Originally published on August 18 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Today’s report by the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee recommending significant improvements to the homelessness safety net is getting a warm welcome – and no wonder.

The first select committee inquiry on homelessness since 2005 uncovers evidence of a system at breaking point as social housing provision declines, insecure private renting expands and welfare is ‘reformed’.

The report aims to help families falling through the gaps in the existing legislation as well as single people not covered by it, calls for a cross-government approach to homelessness and also makes specific recommendations to help vulnerable groups such as people with mental health problems, care leavers and ex-prisoners.

And in case you’re thinking this is just another select committee report whose recommendations will be ignored by the government, this one comes complete with legislation attached: a private members’ bill promoted by one of its members.

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Home thoughts

Originally published on July 28 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

A housebuilding slump? Rising homelessness? Unaffordable house prices and rents? The housing crisis faced by the new government in Ireland is every bit as serious as the one confronting the new administration on this side of the Irish Sea – but then the similarities start to break down.

Just 75 days after coming to power, the coalition government in Dublin has published a comprehensive plan and a Cabinet-level housing minister is in charge of delivery. If that’s some indication of the priority it gives to housing, then the housing, planning and local government minister Simon Coveney compares the task of proving affordable and accessible homes for all to the introduction of free education 50 years ago.

Allowances have to be made for political hype and the plan has also been criticised for its failure to be more radical, but the contrast with England is still glaring even though the government is led by the closest equivalent Ireland has to the Conservatives. One reason could be that it took two months after a stalemate election In Ireland to form a government: the plan has been developed with the help of an all-party parliamentary committee; and Fine Gael depends not just on independents for support but also the rival Fianna Fail not to vote against its plans.

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Looking for clues

Originally published on July 26 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

After a month of turmoil and political change, suddenly everything is on hold.

I was on holiday for the week that saw yet another new housing minister and a concerted effort by housing organisations to persuade Theresa May’s new government to change course but also the non-appearance of crucial details of previous policies.

The delays obviously reflect the political fall-out from the Brexit vote followed by the appointment of a new prime minister and an almost entirely new Cabinet. Old certainties have gone, apparently including the entire economic framework for policy, but the outlines of the new approach remain unclear.

As I blogged before I went away, Theresa May’s speeches during the brief Conservative leadership campaign can be read in two different ways. Signs of change on, for example, workers on company boards do not necessarily mean change everywhere.

Do her comments on housing signal a new ‘One Nation’ approach or one that continues to see the housing crisis solely in terms of home ownership? Is it to be business as usual or will the government listen to the critique of the previous Tory government published by an influential House of Lords committee?

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Blue futures

Originally published on July 5 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

I wouldn’t pretend for a second that housing is anywhere near top of the to do list for the five contenders to be the new Conservative leader and prime minister – or that the winner will mean a radical change in approach.

But so many political certainties have been overturned in the last week or so that nothing can be ruled out. Not least, George Osborne’s decision to abandon his budget surplus target changes the financial parameters for housing policy in ways that are only just beginning to be thought through.

This could open up new possibilities for housing in the Autumn Statement under a new prime minister and quite possibly a new chancellor. However, it’s also likely to mean that austerity will continue into the 2020s.

The background of the contenders alone will be a change. Unlike David Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson, all five of them are state-educated. Two (Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox) were even brought up in council housing.

So what about housing? There are divisions between the contenders on their attitudes: some are ready to concede a role for social housing while others focus completely on the market and three of the five appear to be saying that housing will be a bigger priority with a bigger budget.

However, the main dividing line is between supporters of and objectors to new homes. This tension between ‘supporters’ and ‘objectors’ has been evident throughout the coalition and Conservative governments and reached uneasy compromise in the National Planning Policy Framework, with ‘localism’ balanced by the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

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Owning the future

Originally published on June 30 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The shift in subsidy from renting to owning under this government may be obvious but it’s only when you see it laid out in total that you appreciate its scale.

This year’s UK Housing Review Briefing, published at the CIH conference on Thursday, sets out total government support for different kinds of housing from 2015/16 onwards. The total for social and affordable rent is just over £2 bn. The total for home ownership and the private market is a cool 21 times bigger than that: £42.7 bn.

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Red flags flying over Right to Buy

How can people who can’t afford the rent suddenly afford to buy?

To recap in case you missed it, a joint investigation by Inside Housing and BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 found that 16% of Right to Buy sales by 10 councils were to tenants on housing benefit.

This is not in itself evidence of fraud: the 721 tenants concerned could have got money from their family or from a third party. But it is seen as a ‘red flag’ of potential fraudulent activity and a particular cause for concern in the councils with the highest levels of sales to tenants on benefit:  Dudley (37%) and Westminster (29%) and Croydon and Birmingham (who each estimate around half).

And it’s one aspect of a fraud problem that should also set the alarm bells ringing about the 1.2m tenants who are about to get a form of Right to Buy from housing associations that will not have the same expertise as local authorities in detecting fraud and money laundering.

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Brexit door

Originally published on June 16 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing 

In two days’ time you could be having your breakfast to the news that the UK has voted to leave the European Union.

Whether that thought makes you choke on your cornflakes or rejoice that this is the last time the blurb on the box will be dictated by Brussels, I think we can all agree that the consequences will be profound.

Housing has only featured as a second rank issue in the campaign, well behind the economy, immigration, sovereignty and our place in the world. Yet the effect of a Leave vote on the housing market is just as much a part of Remain’s pitch as the housing impacts of immigration are part of Leave’s.

So what if Project Lie really does beat Project Fear on Thursday?

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