Freezing out ‘No DSS’ landlords

Originally published on March 5 as a blog for Inside Housing.

The way that responsibility for housing is split between different government departments means that sometimes the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing.

The classic example of this came in parliament yesterday when even as MPs were approving another year of frozen working-age benefits, the housing secretary was making a written statement attacking landlords for refusing to let to tenants on housing benefit.

The vote means that the local housing allowance (LHA) will be frozen for the fourth year in succession and the benefit cap will stay stuck at the reduced rate of £20,000 (£23,000 in London).

The impact of that will fall directly in the ‘thousands of vulnerable people and families’ mentioned by James Brokenshire in his written statement and will be felt most by families with children and those living in the most expensive areas.

And it will come on top of the continuing impact of the transition to universal credit and all the problems with waiting times, delays in payment and supposed simplicity for tenants and landlords that it brings in its wake.

If it reinforces the sense of relief among social landlords that the government abandoned plans to cap housing benefit for social and supported housing at LHA rates, it means many social tenants face a freeze on the rest of their incomes despite rising prices.

But the freeze will give private landlords yet more reasons to think twice about letting homes to tenants on benefits.

And the move by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) comes at precisely the moment that ministers at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) give their backing to a campaign by Shelter on ‘No DSS’ adverts.

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Coping with climate change

Originally published on February 21 as a blog for Inside Housing. 

Remember when England was going to lead the world on zero carbon homes?

Three years after that was meant to happen, a report published today (Thursday) by the government’s independent advisor on climate change reveals that instead we are going backwards.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warns that ‘UK homes are not fit for the future’, with progress stalled on reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to adapt the housing stock falling far behind the risks posed by higher temperatures, flooding and water scarcity.

Improving the quality, design and use of homes will not just address the challenges of climate change, it says, but save people money and improve health and wellbeing, especially for vulnerable groups like the elderly.

Many of today’s headlines were generated by its recommendations that would mean no more gas boilers and hobs, with no new homes connected to the gas grid from 2025 .

However, the report as a whole has multiple and far-reaching implications for new and existing homes if the UK is to meet its legally binding target to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.

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Parker Morris and Homes for Today and Tomorrow

Originally posted on February 19 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Listening to a new Radio 4 documentary about Parker Morris and space standards it is impossible not to feel a mix of nostalgia for an era of housing optimism and sadness that our ambitions have shrunk so much since.

As John Grindrod relates in Living Room, the title of the 1961 report was an indication that it was about much more than just a technical exercise in allocating space per person.

Work on Homes for Today and Tomorrow started 60 years ago this year but it was building on a 20th century council housing tradition that began 100 years ago and it was also looking to the future to ensure that homes were fit for it.

‘A good house or flat can never be made out of premises which are too small,’ said the report, which set out a much greater ambition for new homes:

‘An increasing proportion of people are coming to expect their home to do more than just fulfil the basic requirement. It must be something of which they can be proud and in which they can express the fulness of their lives.’

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Shrinking homes to fit

Originally published on January 23 on insidehousing.co.uk.

Shrinkflation made the headlines this week as government statisticians highlighted the way that food manufacturers reduce the size of their packets rather than put up the price of their products.

Most commonly seen in bread and cereals, it means you now get 10 Jaffa Cakes where you used to get 12.

But another news story got me wondering about whether the same thing could happen in housing.

Micro-homes could solve London’s housing crisis,’ said a BBC headline based on a new report from the Adam Smith Institute.

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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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What’s in the Budget small print?

Originally published on November 30 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

If you listened to the chancellor’s speech you may have thought this was a Budget that did not mean much for housing. As ever you may think again after reading the small print.

As I live blogged for Inside Housing yesterday, the big news in the speech was the extra money for universal credit that makes up for many of the cuts imposed in universal credit and delays the roll-out yet again and sounds like it will be enough to avoid a backbench Tory rebellion.

Elsewhere, Philip Hammond found £2.8 bn to bring forward cuts in income tax allowances by a year but he failed to find roughly half that to scrap the final year of the freeze in most working age benefits including the local housing allowance.

This was a clear political choice to go for tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the better-off over benefits that go to the poorest households.

Ahead of the next spending review, numbers crunched by the Resolution Foundation overnight suggest that the squeeze on everything apart from health will continue well into the 2020s.

However, the most interesting developments for housing came in the background documents published as Mr Hammond sat down.

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Six things to look out for in the Budget

Originally published on October 26 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

What might have been the Budget’s headline announcements on housing were made by the prime minister last month at the National Housing Summit and Conservative Party conference.

But the chancellor’s big moment will still set the context for the end of the borrowing cap for council housing from next week that ‘extra’ £2 bn for housing associations in the 2020s.

And it will also reveal the total spending envelope for the 2019 Spending Review, teeing up a race to calculate whether austerity really is as ‘over’ as Theresa May promised.

With Brexit and the NHS to pay for and crises in local government and social care as well as in housing that could be a tall order.

In the meantime, here are six areas to look out for on Monday.

  • The borrowing cap

When the prime minister made her surprise announcement, the concern was that it would come with strings attached when the detail was revealed in the Budget.

That could still happen but one big fear – a long delay before implementation – has already been allayed by last week’s announcement by housing secretary James Brokenshire that the cap will be lifted from Tuesday.

However, the impact of the rent cut, the Right to Buy and welfare reform still loom large and are seen as more important than the borrowing cap by some councils.

And the suspicion remains that the Treasury is not exactly enthusiastic about a move that will increase public borrowing under current rules.

In which case, as John Perry argues, why not bring the UK into line with other countries and give council housing the same financial independence as housing associations?

And why not, as the Local Government Association (LGA) argues in its Budget submission, allow councils to reinvest 100% of Right to Buy receipts and decide discounts locally?

To signal their intent, more than 60 council leaders have signed an open letter pledging an immediate drive to build more homes. Read the rest of this entry »