Looking on the bright side

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

There was a depressingly common theme at a conference in London on the future of housing organised by Shelter this week.

Speaker after speaker felt the need to apologise for what would be a litany of gloom and doom and attempted to find something, anything, to lighten the mood.

Toby Lloyd of Shelter started with the good news on the Housing and Planning Bill. There is some, believe it or not, in the small steps towards tackling bad private landlords. But even then there’s a worry that measures to help genuine landlords tackle abandonment could turn into a fast track for evictions for more unscrupulous ones.

Then it was time for the real gloom. From Starter Homes to Pay to Stay and fixed-term tenancies to forced council house sales, the bill looks set to accelerate the slow death of social housing. As Toby put it, up to now all forms of affordable housing provision have had two things in common: they remained affordable in perpetuity; and the subsidy was recycled into more housing. Housing Bill-style ‘affordable’ (Starter Homes and whatever Greg Clark says) does neither. What hope there is now rests on what improvements (if any) can be won in the House of Lords.

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Peer review – part 2

Originally posted on January 27 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Part 1 of this blog covered the opening skirmishes in the Lords on the Housing Bill. This second part covers all-party criticism of the detail of the Bill where the sums don’t add up or don’t exist yet. What are the prospects for changes?

Starter homes. Peers criticised both their affordability and the fact that the discount disappears into the back pocket of the first buyer. As Labour’s Baroness Andrews put it:

‘We know from all the evidence that starter homes are not even affordable for most low and middle-income families, whether in rural areas or central London. However, it is not even a fair policy for future buyers. The 20% discount will apply only to the first tranche of buyers; they will be free to sell their assets after five years at market value. We will be minting a new generation of property speculators.’

Tory peer Viscount Eccles said the scheme had ‘not been thoroughly thought through’ and called for much more detail.

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The Housing Bill: From bad to worse


Originally posted on January 13 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing 

If it is an achievement to pilot a Bill through the House of Commons and end up with legislation that is worse than what you started with, then congratulations Brandon Lewis and Greg Clark.

Back in October I blogged that the Housing and Planning Bill is written on the back of a fag packetOn Tuesday it completed its report stage and got a third reading with additions and amendments scribbled all over the front as well. It was hard to disagree with the verdict of shadow housing minister John Healey in his closing speech: ‘Usually, we hope to improve a Bill as it goes through the House. This was a bad Bill; it is now a very bad Bill.’

Healey cited late amendments to change the definition of ‘affordable’ to include starter homes costing up to £450,000 (‘the Government are not building enough affordable homes, so they are simply branding more homes as affordable’) and to force councils to offer fixed-term tenancies (‘meaning the end of long-term rented housing, the end of a stable home for many children as they go through school, and the end of security for pensioners who move into bungalows or sheltered flats later in life’).

It was hard to disagree either with his view that ‘the Bill sounds the death knell for social housing’. That much will be obvious to anyone working in housing or who has followed the progress of the Bill. The tab for the Conservative manifesto pledges of extending the right to buy and building 200,000 starter homes is effectively being picked up by councils that still own their homes, tenants and people who will not get the chance of a social tenancy in future.

The Bill accelerates the slow death of social housing through a combination of deliberate culling (forced sales, Pay to Stay and fixed term tenancies for council housing), euthanasia (voluntary right to buy for housing associations plus conversions) and redefining the conditions for life (‘affordable’ will now not just mean starter homes but anything the secretary of state says). It is also now official that a private rented home does not have to be fit for human habitation.

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10 things about 2015: part 2

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

My look back at the year in housing on my blog concludes with five more big issues including the future of social landlords, welfare reform and poverty. For Part 1 go here.

6) Wrong or right to buy

Nothing sums up how just much turned on the election result as what happened with the Right to Buy. In February I blogged about the clarification that meant even fewer homes sold under the existing policy were being replaced than previously thought. April brought a buccaneering Tory pledge to extend it to housing association tenants and fund it by forcing councils the sell their ‘expensive’ stock. It was hard to see how it could possibly stack up except as a political gimmick but that was pretty much the point. It was an eye-catching election promise by a party desperate for victory and it seemed designed as a manifesto commitment that could be traded away in coalition negotiations.

Except that it worked. The Tories were unexpectedly elected with an overall majority and the mash-up of think tank proposals written on the back of an envelope somehow had to be implemented. The results would be disastrous for local authorities and the government faced a long battle in the House of Lords. And then everything changed all over again as the most vociferous opponents of the policy decided to accept it voluntarily.

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10 things about 2015: part 1

Originally posted on December 30 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Has there ever been a year quite like it for housing? Here’s the first part of my look back at the issues I’ve been blogging about in 2015. 

1) Be careful what you wish for

It was the year that Homes for Britain became Home Ownership for Britain as political campaigning turned into political salvaging. Housing professionals made their case from Land’s End to London, filled the Albert Hall and secured wide ranging support for its case for more homes. But the election result changed all that – and many of them had booed the representative of the party that won.

True, housing and the need for new homes moved up the political agenda as the year went on but not quite in the way campaigners had imagined. As the election neared the Tories promised a ‘housing revolution’. What amounted to Plan C, the third revolution in five years, took a poor record on supply, and traded it in for what amounted to homes for votes on a grand scale. The campaigners who had filled the Albert Hall found themselves facing the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants.

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Voluntary service

Originally posted on December 15 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Tuesday morning’s announcement by Brandon Lewis on deregulation of housing associations delivers on the government’s side of The Deal and its pledge to get them reclassified as soon as possible,

However, it also completes the division of what we used to call the housing ‘sector’ into two very different camps: councils forced to do what the government says; and associations giving a new meaning to the ‘voluntary’ sector.

The housing minister told the Communities and Local Government Committee that amendments will be laid to the Housing and Planning Bill aimed at enabling the ONS to re-reclassify housing associations as private sector while maintaining proportionate protection for lenders and tenants.

The biggest move was to make Pay to Stay voluntary for housing associations, which is quite a climbdown. However, the amendments will also include removal of the consents and disposals regimes so that associations no longer have to seek permission of the regulator and the abolition of the disposals proceeds fund so that they no longer have to spend receipts from the right to buy according to criteria set by the regulator. More detail is here.

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Beyond meaning

Originally posted on November 11 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

So now it is official. Brandon Lewis has confirmed that ‘affordable’ means 80% of the market rate.

His statement at a Communities and Local Government Committee hearing on the Housing Bill confirms a direction of travel that has been clear ever since the creation of ‘affordable’ rent. Starter homes at a 20% discount to the full price now represent ‘affordable’ home ownership. Needless to say, neither is exactly affordable by any conventional definition of the word.

The minister’s statement came in this exchange with Labour MP Jo Cox:

Cox: Do you think there should be a statutory definition of affordability for both rent and purchase?’

Lewis: At the moment it’s 80% of the market value, whether to rent or purchase.

Cox: But there isn’t a statutory definition.

Lewis: Well, the definition of affordability… an affordable rent is 80% of market value and affordable purchase with starter homes it would effectively be 80% of market value.

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Noises off

Originally posted on November 3 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

As MPs debated the Housing and Planning Bill on Monday it was hard to escape the impression that the real action was elsewhere.

From the extension of the right to buy to the forced sale of council houses to starter homes, key discussions had either already happened or were still taking place outside the Commons chamber. Yes, talks behind the scenes are an inevitable part of any Bill, but far more so with this one than any other that I can remember. Yes, the Deal removes what would have been a key element in the legislation from parliamentary scrutiny but this is about more than just that.

That’s partly because this is a back of a fag packet Bill that sets out some general principles with the detail to be filled in later. We still  know little more about how the sums will add up for paying housing association discounts from forced council sales than during the election campaign. And, as Alex Marsh points out in relation to Pay to Stay, there are whole chunks of the Bill that give the secretary of state the power to do pretty much whatever they like.

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The Pay to Stay work tax

Originally posted on October 29 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The impact assessment of the Housing Bill reveals two devils buried in the detail of proposals for a compulsory Pay to Stay.

First, the principles. The assessment says ‘the Government believes that those on higher incomes should not be subsidised through social rents’. There are 350,000 social rented tenants with household incomes over £30,000 a year including 40,000 with incomes over £50,000. Higher rents for these High Income Social Tenants (HISTs) are justified by the fact that they ‘benefit from a subsidised rent that could be as much as £3,500 less, on average, compared to equivalent rents in the private sector’. 
Needless to say, neither of these figures is sourced. The government has form when it comes to changing its estimates of high earners (not to mention statistics in general) but:

‘This intervention is designed to remove an unfair subsidy. Households with a sufficiently high income do not require this, as they are able to access market housing.’

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Look on the back

Originally posted on October 20 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

A few answers and yet more questions: my round-up of the latest developments on the Housing Bill.

An ex-colleague used to speak in awed tones about the time he saw an old-school football reporter compose his match report for the Football Pink as the final whistle sounded. He took a cigarette packet out of this pocket, drew lines on it in the shape of paragraphs, and then dictated a word-perfect report down the line to the copy takers.

Much has changed since the olden days: smoking in public places; laptops and the internet have replaced phones and copy takers; and Pink ‘Uns died out long ago in most cities. But looking back at the events of the past week it seems that cigarette packets remain as popular as ever for drawing up plans – and for things infinitely more complicated than football matches.

This was exactly the metaphor used by an anonymous source in Jill Sherman’s story in The Times last week that the government is set to phase in the extension of the right to buy because of concern over the costs. ‘The Treasury people are hanging their heads in despair,’ the source said. ‘How did this policy that was made up on the back of a fag packet get adopted during the election campaign?’

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