The legacy of the 1988 Housing Act 30 years on

This week marks the 30th anniversary of Royal Assent for the Act that set the framework for the housing system as we have known it ever since – but as its influence wanes is it going into reverse?

The 1988 Housing Act led to lasting change in social and private rented housing. Not everything happened at once – some provisions were amended in later legislation and some took time to have an effect – but this was what set the basic ground rules for what followed.

In the social rented sector, it meant private finance, higher rents, stock transfer and housing associations replacing local authorities as the main providers. In the private rented sector, it meant the end of security of tenure and regulated rents and the arrival of assured shortholds and Section 21.

But it also created a system that was full of contradictions that are now only too clear. The stage was set for the revival of rentier landlordism but also the eventual decline of home ownership, the fall of municipal empires but the rise of mega housing associations and a belief that housing benefit could ‘take the strain’ of higher rents that always seemed unlikely and drained away with austerity.

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Scrapping the borrowing cap

Originally posted on October 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

After Theresa May’s warm words for housing associations, the big question was why she could not offer something similar for council housing.

She answered it today with the surprise announcement at the end of her Conservative conference speech that the borrowing cap will be scrapped.

Vital details remain to be seen. When and how the cap will be lifted? What’s in the small print? What strings will be attached to the deal?

However, the move deserves the warm initial welcome it has already received from organisations across local government and housing.

The surprise reflects what was assumed to be entrenched Treasury resistance to lifting the cap, despite years of patient advocacy from campaigners, commitment from Labour and outspoken support from the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter.

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A new message from a Conservative prime minister

Originally published on September 19 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Anyone familiar with prime ministerial speeches about housing will approach today’s announcement of £2 bn of ‘new’ funding for affordable homes with a healthy dose of scepticism.

They may remember Theresa May pledging an ‘extra’ (but seemingly different) £2 bn in her leader’s speech at last year’s Conservative conference – a month later it emerged that that this had been redistributed from other unspent bits of the housing budget.

This week’s £2 bn seems even flakier: it will not apply until 2022 so we won’t know for certain whether it’s ‘new’ or ‘extra’ until we see what’s in the rest of the spending review; there may well be a different party in government by then, and almost certainly a different prime minister; and Brexit may mean all bets are off, especially if no deal brings to power Tories keen to use it as an excuse to deregulate their way to the promised land.

Even if it does turn out to be new money it will not build a single new home now, there is no guarantee that it will be for genuinely affordable rent then, and will it will still not bring the affordable homes budget back to the level it was when the Conservatives took power in 2010.

Despite all that, though, it’s hard not to be struck by the rest of the message delivered by Theresa May to the National Housing Federation (NHF) summit today: housing associations have ‘a central role to play’; the ‘most ambitious’ will be given ‘long-term certainty’; and the prime minister wants to see them ‘taking on and leading major developments themselves’ rather than buying properties from private developers.

That last bit seems significant of a change in attitude towards development at the heart of government as she went on to tell the summit:

‘Your unique status as public interested, non-profit private institutions allows you to attract patient investment and deploy it to secure long-term returns on quality rather than short-term speculative gains.

‘Your expertise as property managers means you can nurture attractive, thriving places for decades to come.

‘You are capable of riding out the ups and downs of the business cycle, as we saw in the years after the economic crash when housing associations carried on building even as private developers hunkered down.

‘And you do all this with the discipline, rigour and management qualities of the serious multi-million pound businesses that many of you are.’

All that will be music to the ears of big associations like L&Q and Peabody (who both get namechecked) and her hosts will also have lapped up her statement she was the first prime minister to speak at ‘the biggest event on the housing association calendar’.

However, she also restated her commitment to social housing: ‘Whether it is owned by local authorities, TMOs or housing associations, I want to see social housing that is so good people are proud to call it their home.’

Yes, it’s easy to be cynical, yes, she has to make the right noises after Grenfell and, yes ,the government is still pouring far more in to Help to Buy than it is into social and affordable housing.

But think back to what we were hearing up to 2016 from Tory leaders and the contrast is huge.

When May says in her speech that ‘on the outside, many people in society – including too many politicians – continue to look down on social housing’ who exactly could she have in mind?

Could it be David Cameron and George Osborne, who according to Nick Clegg privately dismissed social housing as a breeding ground for Labour voters?

As recently as 2015 housing associations were being lumped in with other opponents of their plans to boost home ownership at all costs that they were determined to ‘take on’.

And it’s not just the tone that’s changed: May reminded associations that it was her government that returned long-term certainty on rents and agreed not to extend the Local Housing Allowance cap to social housing.

She could have added the u-turns on many of her predecessor’s other policies including compulsory fixed-term tenancies for council housing, the high-value levy on forced council house sales (for now), starter homes, Pay to Stay and the withdrawal of housing benefit for under-21s.

And without the levy there is no way to fund the flagship 2015 manifesto pledge to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants – or meet the government’s end of the deal agreed with the NHF at the same conference three years ago.

Whatever you think of the ‘extra’ money, and however crazed and unworkable those policies were, these are not just changes of tone but of substance too.

The final section of her speech (which did not feature in the advance trails this morning) almost goes overboard in her determination to praise housing associations and social housing.

Mrs May (or more likely one of her advisers) has been doing some background reading.

She quotes first from Tony Parker’s The People of Providence, an oral history about the people of the Brandon Estate In Southwark published in 1983.

Where one resident says he does not want to be thought of as an ‘estate person’ that becomes an endorsement of mixed tenure development where ’you should not be able to tell simply by looking which homes are affordable and which were sold at the market rate’ and where you should be ‘proud to be thought of as an “estate person”.’

She praises ‘the social justice mission of the pioneers who created the sector in Victorian times – and their descendants who stepped up half a century ago in the wake of Cathy Come Home’.

And she says that ‘the rise of social housing in this country provided what has been called the “biggest collective leap in living standards in British history”.’ This, I think, is a quote from Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses by Chris Matthews.

May says that ‘It brought about the end of the slums and tenements, a recognition that all of us, whoever we are and whatever our circumstances, deserve a decent place to call our own’.

That ‘biggest collective leap’ was of course council housing, which came along when government’s recognised that more was required than the philanthropy of Victorian housing associations.

So it will irritate many people that May says that ‘today, housing associations are the keepers of that legacy’ and they will await a similarly enthusiastic speech to the Local Government Association, where even Conservative politicians despair about the government’s refusal to give council housing more freedom.

But that important point aside, when was the last time a Conservative prime minister made a speech more favourable to social housing that this one?


That was the (housing) week that wasn’t

Originally posted on August 20 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

An open letter to James Brokenshire on Monday puts a lacklustre Housing Week into true perspective.

Organised by the Conservative think tank Onward, the letter calls for a change in the law to allow local authorities to buy land for housing at fair market value rather than a price that includes the ‘hope value’ that includes planning permission.

The call for a change to the 1961 Land Compensation Act is supported by a wide range of organisations including think tanks from across the political spectrum as well as Shelter, Crisis, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, National Housing Federation, National Landlords Association and Generation Rent and even the Campaign to Protect Rural England.

And it is also signed by former Downing Street insiders Will Tanner and Neil O’Brien MP, now director and an advisory board member at Onward.

Reform to allow councils to buy land at close to existing use value would go much further that tentative government moves on land value capture and open up the possibility of a new generation of new towns or urban extensions with funding for infrastructure and affordable housing.

There are caveats to this. First, any such measure would have to withstand resistance by powerful landed interests inside the Conservative party with pockets deep enough to fund a legal challenge like the one that overturned compulsory purchase powers in the original New Towns Act and led to the 1961 Act.

Second, while few would disagree that up to £9 billion a year in land value gains could be put to better use than lining the pockets of landowners, there might be less agreement about what to do next: a report by Onwardin June argued for a programme of discounted rent homes for young people to buy and appeared to argue for less, rather than more, social housing.

However, the contrast between this week’s call for reform and last week’s highlights is still a striking one.

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U-turns but no vision in social housing green paper

Originally posted on August 14 on my blog for Inside Housing.

For all its faults (and there are many), the social housing green paper is still a remarkable document.

What I think it is the first-ever housing green paper from a Conservative government represents progress in itself: rather than taking half-baked ideas from right wing think tanks and putting them straight into legislation, the government is actually consulting us on its policies.

But that is just for starters: the green paper runs up the white flag on two of the barmiest and most controversial elements of the Housing and Planning Act 2016 and goes on to propose what amounts to a rewrite of much more of what the government has done since 2010.

The two explicit u-turns mean that local authorities will no longer be required to pay a levy on higher-value council homes as they fall vacant and fixed-term tenancies will no longer be mandatory for new council tenants.

This is not a complete surprise – neither policy had yet been implemented – but it is an indication of just how much the Grenfell Tower fire has changed the politics of social housing.

And the non-implementation (or even repeal) of the forced sales levy means that there is no source of funding for a third policy that was a flagship Tory manifesto pledge in 2015 -the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants.

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‘Housing week’ off to an uncertain start

For once this is a silly season that has some substance. If you can tear yourself away from the sun lounger or the latest pronouncement by the Etonian Katie Hopkins, mid-August sees a trio of government announcements that are crucial for housing and homelessness.

Last week featured another big benefits u-turn: confirmation that housing benefit will continue for supported accommodation removes a cloud that has been hanging over projects including homeless hostels and women’s refuges.

Monday saw the launch of the strategy that the government says will enable it to meet its target of halving rough sleeping in England by 2022 and ending it by 2027.

And what is billed as ‘housing week’ is set to continue on Tuesday with the launch of the social housing green paper – originally promised in the Spring, then before the parliamentary recess last month, but now appearing while most MPs are on holiday.

The timing does at least ensure some media attention, including an uncertain performance by James Brokenshire in the TV and radio studios on Monday morning.

After a lively appearance on Good Morning Britain, the housing secretary struggled on the Today programme when asked whether government policies are to blame for the relentless rise in rough sleeping and floundered when asked how much of the promised ‘£100 million plan’ is new money. (Somewhere between none and not much was the eventual answer).

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New NPPF but no green paper

Originally published on July 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Pick your moment: the appointment of a new housing minister only two weeks ago; the non-appearance of advance trails in the Sunday papers; or the failure of housing secretary James Brokenshire to rise to Labour’s bait in the Commons on Monday.

They were all strong signals that the social housing green paper, first promised early this year, then in the Spring and then before the recess, would fail to make its appearance by the time MPs went on their summer break on Tuesday.

Challenged over the decision by the BBC’s Mark Easton, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) said that: ‘Providing high quality and well managed social housing is a top priority for this government. Shortly we will publish a Green Paper that sets out a new deal for social housing tenants.’

‘Shortly’ in this context might mean over the recess or (more likely) when MPs return in September (though there is some speculation that tensions over Brexit could see this delayed until October).

Either way, social housing seems to be just as much of a ‘top priority’ as it was when Kit Malthouse became the third different housing minister this year, leaving none of the politicians in place who personally assured tenants that they were ‘listening’ to their concerns.

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