We need to talk about tax reform

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on November 12.

When the pandemic is eventually over, one of the big political questions will be how the  government will go about recouping the huge sums pumped into keeping the economy going.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the Conservative conference that he believes it is his ‘sacred duty’ to balance the books. Even before the costs of the second wave, a document leaked from the Treasury in May suggested that tax rises or spending cuts equivalent to £25-£30 billion would be needed.

However, Mr Sunak is boxed in by manifesto promises not to increase income tax, VAT and national insurance and not to scrap the triple lock on pensions.

Cutting public spending will not be easy either. If anything the pressure will be the other way as the government looks to implement its levelling up agenda.

That applies even to the depressingly familiar remedy of cutting benefits, with calls for temporary increases in universal credit and local housing allowance to be made permanent set to grow as unemployment rises.

However, housing could still be a key battleground when it comes to tax and areas not covered by those manifesto promises. So far, it’s been another cost to the Treasury, with the £3.8 billon earmarked for the stamp duty holiday, but sooner or later attention will turn to the other side of the ledger.

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The problems with Johnson’s housing priorities

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing on October 6.

You are prime minister. You have £5.8 billion to spend on housing. What do you do?

Before you answer there is a catch. You are a Tory prime minister. So this has to be all about home ownership.

This is not about the Affordable Homes Programme either – although the modest increase in that is tilted towards home ownership too.

You may have guessed by now that this is about decisions already taken by Boris Johnson’s chancellor Rishi Sunak, decisions that are looking worse and worse the more time goes on.

That thought was prompted by the only ‘new’ idea that I’ve seen emerging from the Conservative Party conference: a plan to create ‘Generation Buy’ by encouraging low-deposit mortgages to help young people on to the housing ladder.

The idea revealed by Mr Johnson in a Telegraph interview on Saturday is not especially new – essentially it’s a rehash of the mortgage guarantee part of Help to Buy and it harks back to the days when Gordon Brown wanted to encourage long-term, fixed-rate mortgages – and it seems to be inspired by a report published by the Centre for Policy Studies last month.

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A Cabinet of housing ministers

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on July 16.

We have become so used to lamenting the revolving door for housing ministers that it’s easy to miss the fact that Boris Johnson Cabinet is now full of people with housing connections.

That thought was prompted by the realisation that less than a year ago the man who could very well become our next prime minister was still on the most junior rung of the ladder at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

Rishi Sunak has won widespread praise for his performance and chancellor during the pandemic and currently seems hot favourite to be the next Conservative leader if the Tories go through another Dr Who-style regeneration ahead of the next election.

In July 2019, though, the current chancellor was still answering questions about council reorganisation in Northamptonshire, anti-social behaviour and non-domestic rates as parliamentary under-secretary for local government.

But he had already boosted his career prospects significantly by signing a joint letter with two other new-ish Tory MPs giving early backing to Boris Johnson as party leader. Appointed chief secretary to the Treasury a year ago next week, he was joined in the Cabinet by the other signatories: housing secretary Robert Jenrick and culture secretary Oliver Dowden.

Previous housing secretary Sajid Javid became the new chancellor but within seven months he resigned in a row with Dominic Cummings over special advisers and Mr Sunak stepped into his shoes.

Within another month, the lockdown began, the new chancellor was doling out the cash and Brand Rishi was building its glossy momentum.

His own ties may be more to the LG end of the MHCLG brief but look around the rest of the Cabinet table and you cannot move for former housing ministers. Read the rest of this entry »


Sunak fails to look beyond the short term

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on July 8.

This was a Summer Statement that was all about protecting jobs and getting money into the economy as quickly as possible.

Judged in those terms, while it does not go as far as some had advocated, the two big housing measures in chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Plan for Jobs look carefully calibrated to achieve both.

The £3.8 billion cut in stamp duty (increasing the nil rate from £125,000 to £500,000) is calculated to boost transactions, generate jobs and drive additional spending estimated at around 5 per cent of the house value.

And the Treasury reckons that the £2 billion Green Homes Grant (funding two thirds of the cost of energy efficiency work up to £5,000 for owners and landlords and all of the cost up to £10,000 to low income owners) could support over 100,000 green jobs as well as cutting carbon emissions and fuel bills.

But it’s not hard to find holes in the Summer Statement where other housing responses could and should have been: the statement does nothing more for affordable housing, it fails to fill holes in the safety net and, as  Generation Rent points out, vouchers to eat out are not much use if you cannot afford to stay in.

And though the two measures that are there should boost the economy in the short term the longer-term benefits of both look uncertain at best even when you judge them in isolation and in their own terms.

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What help for housing?

Originally posted on insidehousing.co.uk on April 23.

An extension of Help to Buy looks likely, a stamp duty holiday probable, but what else should the government do when the housing market eventually emerges from its Coronavirus freeze?

Vested interests are already out in force making their case and can cite the effect of a downturn on housebuilding numbers, the economy and tax receipts in their support.

And if anyone is feeling a sense of déjà vu this is of course pretty much where we were in 2008, when the housing market slumped in the wake of the credit crunch.

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A stamp duty denial and the Budget(s)

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

A stamp duty plan that apparently never was offers a tantalising preview of a Budget and spending review that will take place in neverland.

Saturday’s Times reported that sellers rather than buyers would pay stamp duty under plans for a tax shake-up by chancellor Sajid Javid.

The plan seemed either fraught with problems (sales would dry up as buyers waited for the change to take effect) or pretty meaningless (sellers would simply add the extra cost to their asking price).

And the story seemed built on flimsy foundations and journalistic hype – in the interview itself Javid was asked if he was considering the change and did not deny it but that escalated into a definite change in the headline – but presumably there was off-the-record corroboration too.

By Sunday the man himself was taking to Twitter to deny that he was planning anything of the sort:

Clearly this government is not quite the messaging machine with iron discipline that we’ve been led to believe and is just as prone to getting its wires crossed as any of its predecessors.

But what does this episode tell us about what’s to come for housing in the Budget – there is no confirmation yet whether that will be before or after the ‘do or die’ Brexit date on October 31 and there could even be one before and one after  – and the spending review to follow next year?

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Regime change

Originally posted on July 22 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Three different news stories in the last 24 hours provide a powerful reminder of what could be at stake for housing in the transition from Theresa May to Boris Johnson due on Wednesday.

The government’s consultation on ending Section 21 no-fault evictions was finally published on Sunday along with a proposal to give private renters access to the government’s database of rogue landlords.

But the Sunday Telegraph already had two stories based on think-tank reports due on Monday that put the emphasis firmly back on home ownership.

Conservative think-tank Onward called for cuts in stamp duty with proposals very similar to those put forward by Johnson during the leadership campaign.

And the Conservative Brexiteer-in-chief Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote a pamphlet for the Tory Institute of Economic Affairs putting the libertarian case for an end to ‘socialist’ interference in the housing market. .

The timing of all three is significant as it provides some indications of what the outgoing regime thought important enough to get out before the other lot take over and what the wider Conservative party thinks might be possible under the new regime.

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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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Who owns Britain?

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on November 29.

What happens to the huge wealth generated by soaring house prices is a crucial issue not just for housing but also for the future of Britain.

The Office for National Statistics puts the value of unmortgaged housing equity at just under £4 trillion and second only to pension wealth of £4.5 trillion in total personal wealth of £11.1 trillion.

Savills estimates unmortgaged equity at over £5 trillion and says housing is now the single biggest source of wealth in the country and a report today by the Halifax says the total value of the UK housing stock has passed £6 trillion for the first time.

Whatever the number you put in front of those 12 zeros that is a serious amount of money- the UK’s national debt is currently worth £1.8 trillion.

As by far the most visible divide between baby boomers like me lucky enough to have been born and buy houses at the right time and millennials born at the wrong time and stuck in the wrong housing tenure, housing dominated an event on wealth inequality that I went to in Bristol recently.

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A look ahead to the Budget part three: welfare and tax

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on May 20. 

Some very big questions on housing, welfare and tax are looming ahead of this Budget.

If there is not the same sense of raised expectations that surrounds the prospects for land and investment, the answers given by Philip Hammond on November 22 will still go a long way to determining what type of housing system we will have going into the 2020s.

I’ve written many times before about the way that the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2008 and the policies adopted under George Osborne since 2010 have combined to create a system in which older and better-off home owners have gained at the expense of younger and poorer renters.

A piece in the Financial Times last week used figures from the Resolution Foundation to quantify just how much: housing costs for households below average incomes rose by £714 between 2007/08 while they fell by £271 for those on above average incomes. The biggest gains went to the richest 10% of households, whose average housing costs fell by £1,206.

And that these figures do not include substantial increases in housing wealth over the same period as house prices have risen.

Many factors have driven this including falling rates of home ownership and rock bottom mortgage rates but policies on tax and welfare set by central government have also played a part.

So what could Hammond do to redress the balance?

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