Ministers still running to catch up on fire safety

Originally posted on January 24 as a blog for Inside Housing.

This week’s flurry of announcements on fire safety comes from a government desperate to show that it is getting on top of the crisis.

But it still leaves ministers running to catch up and facing yet more questions about the adequacy of their response.

Timed to coincide with this week’s government response to phase one of the Grenfell inquiry and next week’s start of phase two, the announcements from housing secretary Robert Jenrick included a new Building Safety Regulator, clarified and consolidated fire safety advice and a pledge to name building owners who have not acted to make their buildings safe.

He is minded to lower the threshold for sprinklers in new residential buildings from 18m to 11m and match that in a consultation in the ban on combustible materials and he also launched a call for evidence on the prioritisation of risks from external wall systems in existing buildings.

More help for residents of buildings with non-ACM cladding could be on the way as Jenrick told the Commons that he was discussing the options with the Treasury and that the chancellor ‘will set out further details in due course’.

Finally, testing results of other cladding materials are to be published next month but the housing secretary said these would confirm the decision to prioritise ACM and make it clear that it is ‘significantly more dangerous than any other substance’.

Presented this way it seemed that the government is finally coming up with a response that is moving faster than the problems are mounting up on thousands of buildings around the country. As Jenrick summed it up: ‘As that work continues, it becomes ever more evident that problems have developed over many decades, leading to serious incidents and the risk of further loss of life. This is completely unacceptable.’

But that feeling soon began to dissipate under scrutiny from MPs in debates on Monday and Tuesday.

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The decade in housing

Originally published in Inside Housing on January 10.

It was a decade of four elections, four prime ministers and three referenda. It began in the midst of a Global Financial Crisis and ended with the political crisis of Brexit. It was scarred by the disaster at Grenfell Tower.

All but 15 of the 520 weeks in the 2010s had a Conservative prime minister but four different governments brought four different approaches. David Cameron was all about cuts in coalition followed by radical (but mostly failed) marketising reforms once he had elbowed Nick Clegg aside. Theresa May brought a profound change in rhetoric and some significant changes of substance. Boris Johnson shifted the emphasis back to home ownership.

Here is the decade summed up in 10 headings: Read the rest of this entry »


Housing benefit problems a taste of what’s to come

Originally posted on January 9 on my blog for Inside Housing.

We’ve become so used to the misery caused by housing benefit failing to cover the cost of rents that problems with its administration have an almost retro feel to them.

From the perspective of 2020, the 2010s were the decade it turned out that housing benefit would no longer ‘take the strain’ of higher rents but instead passed the costs on to tenants via the bedroom tax, benefit cap, local housing allowance freeze and all the other ‘reforms’ instituted by Conservative-led governments.

But a report out this week from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman makes clear that the overpayments, underpayments and other errors that scarred claimants’ experiences of housing benefit from the 1990s to the 2000s are still happening.

It details a whole series of issues with the administration of the system by local authorities and the way the appeal process was handled. But it is the individual horror stories that really bring home the scale of the problems.

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No votes in housing?

Originally published as a blog for Inside Housing on December 13.

It would be very easy for the Conservatives to conclude after this election that they do not need to bother about housing.

The striking thing about their biggest victory since 1987 is that most of the places where various forms of the housing crisis are most acute voted for other parties. And it did not matter.

That’s most obviously true in London where Labour retained most of the seats with the highest levels of homelessness and families in temporary accommodation.

In London and other major cities where house prices have risen most and Generation Rent has grown fastest, gains for Labour from 2017 were consolidated in 2019, albeit with reduced majorities.

Labour’s only real victory last night was in Putney, which the Tories captured in the 1980s on the back of the right to buy, control of Wandsworth council and an influx of well-heeled professionals.

If there was a backlash against Tory inaction from leaseholders in thousands of apartment buildings around the country, most of them (a sweeping generalisation, I know) are in metropolitan, remain-voting constituencies that for the most part did not change hands last night.

As for housing supply as a whole, voters in affluent seats in the South East may not much like Brexit but they will probably have been reassured by the Tories’ downgrading of their ambitions on new homes and promises to protect the green belt. Ex-housing minister Dominic Raab fended off the Lib Dem challenge in Esher and Walton.

So maybe the Conservatives were right to conclude, as I argued in my blog on their performance at the pre-election housing hustings, that there were no votes in housing.

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Tories out on a limb at housing hustings

Originally published on December 5 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The most illuminating answer in Wednesday night’s housing hustings came with the final question.

Politicians at the event organised by a coalition of different housing organisations were asked: ‘How much of your income do you think it’s reasonable and right to spend on housing?’

They were asked for a quickfire answer to an affordability question that covers lots of complicated issues. What counts as income and what as housing costs? Do you include housing benefit? Do you account for differences in incomes and tenures?

The standard answer is a maximum of a third – and that was the one given by John Healey for Labour, Sian Berry for the Greens and Tom Brake (who said 30%) for the Lib Dems.

But Luke Hall, junior housing minister in the last Conservative government, went first and went out on a limb with 50%.

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Conservatives fail to rise to the housing challenge

Originally posted on November 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.

A Conservative election manifesto with little new to offer signals that housing has moved a long way down the party’s list of priorities.

The contrast between the Labour manifesto plan for 150,000 council and housing association homes a year and the Lib Dem manifesto promise of 100,000 homes for social rent a year could hardly be starker.

The Tory document launched by Boris Johnson does have three pages on housing but the only new policies in it had already been launched in separate announcements earlier in the campaign.

These include encouraging a new market for long-term fixed-rate mortgages to slash the costs of deposits, a First Home scheme of homes at a 30% discount in perpetuity for local families and a stamp duty surcharge on overseas buyers to fund more help for rough sleepers.

Even these are not strictly speaking new: long-term fixed rates were encouraged by Gordon Brown but never took off; David Cameron promised 200,000 starter homes at a discount but none were ever built and the new scheme seems to involve only 19,000 homes by the mid-2020s; and Theresa May proposed exactly the same levy on overseas buyers last year before it was watered down.

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The penny drops that homes are worth it

Originally posted on November 11 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Look behind the headlines about going back to the 1970s and the shift in the debate on public investment in the opening week of the election campaign could have a huge impact on housing.

On the surface Thursday’s speeches by chancellor Sajid Javid and shadow chancellor John McDonnell are about who will spend more on public services and who will be more responsible on borrowing.

But they are also about a more fundamental change in the fiscal targets and measures that the government sets itself.

Javid has abandoned the government’s previous fiscal rules and loosened his previous target of reducing net debt in favour of one that it should be flat or falling by the end of the next parliament.

By allowing investment in infrastructure of up to 3% of national output, he would create room for an extra £20 bn a year of investment – although he does not appear to see housing as part of his ‘infrastructure revolution’ and ‘decade of renewal’.

McDonnell would go much further by excluding borrowing for investment from his borrowing targets and looking instead for an improvement in the overall government balance sheet by the end of the next parliament.

He plans an extra £50 bn a year of investment via a National Transformation Fund overseen by the Treasury and based in the north of England.

This revolution involves a Green Transformation Fund and a Social Transformation Fund and it definitely does include housing – retrofitting existing homes and building new ones.

For all the political arguments about reckless borrowing and soaring debt, both plans are essentially about raising borrowing to increase investment.

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