A look ahead to the manifestos

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

As we await the manifestos, what are the chances of real change in housing over the next five years?

Give or take the odd leak, there are some positive signs. First, this election has one of the two major parties pinning its election hopes on housing reform and members of the other saying that ‘building more homes‘ is a bigger priority than it has been for years.

Second, a clutch of select committee reports, which were published just before parliament shut down for the election, set down some useful all-party markers for future policy.

Third, in Gavin Barwell and John Healey the two main parties have their best housing spokespeople in years. That may be damning them with faint praise but both seem to be politicians who get the case for housing.

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Tax and the self-employed

For all the sound and fury over national insurance and the self-employed, it is still a sideshow in wider debates about tax, employment status and rights at work.

Philip Hammond’s unraveling Budget matters politically and it signals both the strength and the weakness of the government. Only a chancellor facing the worst opposition in decades could even consider a measure that breaks four separate commitments in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. Only a prime minister with a small majority could be forced to retreat at the first sign of Tory dissent and newspaper headlines about white vans.

hammond

Much of the blame lies with the ex-chancellor now trousering £1m a year on top of his MP’s salary for his advice and speeches. It makes you wonder how George Osborne is being paid for all that hard work and hope that he’s about to get clobbered for tax because it’s through a personal service company.

It was Osborne who in 2015 abolished Class 2 national insurance contributions (NICs) for the self-employed (from 2018) and gave them access to the higher state pension via Class 4. If he had introduced an increase in Class 4 contributions at the same time, few people would have complained. Instead he posed as the great reforming chancellor, agreed the manifesto pledge and left Hammond to fill the holes in his spreadsheet.

Combine these different measures and the treatment of the self-employed looks (reasonably) fair: most of the lowest paid will pay less, there’s a better state pension than before, and the burden falls heaviest on people earning more. But try and defend this week’s Budget announcement using that argument and you look like a shifty betrayer of ‘ordinary working families’ and ‘entrepreneurs’.

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The country that works a lot better for some

Originally published on March 6 on my blog for Inside Housing.

If you are under 22 and you need help with your housing it all depends on who your parents are.

Three measures from George Osborne Budgets apply from next month: the cut in housing support for 18-21 year olds; the Lifetime ISA; and the cut in inheritance tax on main residences.

This time last week hopes were high that the government would row back on the first of these. A government source told The Observer that ministers and civil servants dealing with the cut in housing support ‘hate the policy’. Despite this the regulations implementing it were laid on Friday, a day when parliament was not sitting.

There is no official explanation of the move on the DWP website but a spokesman repeats previous lines about ensuring that 18-21 year olds ‘do not slip straight into a life on benefits’.

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The taxing problem of property

If you think the row over business rates is bad, imagine for a moment what would happen if council tax went through a revaluation.

As I’m writing this, some sort of government climbdown seems inevitable after weeks of press coverage of the rates increases faced by shops and other small businesses.

Some of the furore seems justified. The business rates system seems stuck in the past, unable to cope with out-of-town supermarkets let alone internet retailers and almost seems designed to destroy High Street businesses. There are cliff edges built into the system, especially at the bottom end. It’s not clear why farms are exempt but hospitals are not. Exemptions for empty and unused property create incentives to keep it empty.

Much of it is not. The journalists reporting from the mean streets of Maidenhead and Weybridge seem much less inclined to travel to Merthyr or Wakefield to talk to people whose business rates will be cut. The government maintains that this is a revaluation with no net increase in the tax (though some Tory MPs dispute this). That means the benefits will be felt where they should be: in less affluent areas.

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Marks out of 10 for the housing white paper

Originally published on February 10 on my blog for Inside Housing.

So have Gavin Barwell and Sajid Javid finally grapsed the nettle on the housing crisis?

Critics lined up to call the white paper a damp squib, a white flag and (my personal favourite) like a wet Tuesday in Bognor. Some had even read it first.

Supporters called it a pragmatic shift away from policy under David Cameron and ‘a blueprint for change’. And there was the inevitable ‘cautious welcome’ from housing organisations.

In some ways, the responses of two of the architects of previous Conservative housing policies were the most interesting ones. Former housing minister Grant Shapps said previous plans had not made much difference and this one probably wouldn’t either. Former No 10 adviser Alex Morton revealed the cynical political calculation at the heart of previous policy when he warned that ‘if you get dragged into an argument about renting versus owning, it will quickly become about the need for more council homes’.

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An unambitious ambition

Originally posted on January 19 on my blog for Inside Housing.

A new overview of housing in England from the National Audit Office (NAO) provides some revealing insights on the state of the nation ahead of the Housing White Paper. Here are some highlights.

Moving the goalposts

The NAO estimates that 174,000 net additional homes a year are needed to meet the government’s target of a million new homes by 2020.

That’s fewer than the 190,000 delivered in 2015/16, the first of the five years covered by the target.

Confused? How on earth can the government meet such an ambitious target by building fewer homes? The answer is that it has moved the goalposts twice.

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12 tests for the Housing White Paper

This is an updated version of a post originally published on January 12 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The moment is finally here but will radical plans to boost housing supply live up to their advance billing? Here are my tests.

  1. How half-baked is it?

In one very important way, ministers have already passed my first test. Publication of a White Paper seems to mark a return to an earlier era of government when policies went through consultation and scrutiny before they were enacted.

Contrast that with the way that half-baked ideas from thinktanks were turned into equally half-baked legislation in the back of a fag packet Housing and Planning Act.

Speaking of which, how much will we hear about the loose ends that still need tying up from the act? Pay to Stay may be dead in its compulsory form, and the extension of the Right to Buy delayed by another pilot, but we still don’t know what’s happening with forced sales of higher-value council houses or to the receipts they raise.

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