The latest new housing minister takes his turn

So it’s farewell to Mr Buggins – many thanks for all you’ve achieved in your 181 days as housing minister.

And it’s hello to Mr Buggins – you appear not to know (or care) very much about housing as you take your turn in the job but then neither did most of your predecessors.

Housing felt the knock-on effects of the latest round of the Great British Brexit Farce as Theresa May decided that Dominic Buggins would be the replacement for David Davis as Brexit secretary.

That Mr Buggins was appointed to the housing job because he was a prominent Eurosceptic and he spent half of his interviews as minister talking about Brexit.

On the assumption that he has decided he believes in the Chequers compromise and can cheerlead for it, this looks like a good appointment for the government.

Which is more than can be said for his previous post. Thinking back over those 181 days, I can remember him using his position to generate publicity about immigration and offering lawyerly denials that the government’s approach to regulation was in any way to blame for the Grenfell Tower fire.

But his major achievement must surely be to have dodged publication of the social housing green paper.

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Rethinking social housing

Originally posted on June 26 on my blog for Inside Housing.

As we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS an older part of the welfare state is at a crossroads.

The road already taken reaches back to the birth of council housing at the end of the 19th century and its rise and fall through the 20th century.

While other parts of the UK have sought to protect the role of social housing, until recently in England only one direction seemed possible.  This offered a motorway towards fixed-term tenancies, the housing association right to buy, forced sales of council houses, with social housing seen as a way station rather than a destination for the most vulnerable.

But the events of 2017 have reconfigured the road signs to leave other options for the way ahead. Grenfell means it is no longer possible for governments of any party to ignore social housing and social tenants, the rhetoric of the Conservative prime minister has changed, the Labour party has put forward a coherent plan for ‘genuinely affordable’ housing and any number of different projects is underway to rethink the role and purpose of social housing.

Today it’s the turn of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), which marks its 2018 conference with publication of the final report from its Rethinking Social Housing project.

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Seven big questions facing James Brokenshire

Originally posted on May 1 on my blog for Inside Housing.

New housing secretary James Brokenshire takes over at a critical time from Sajid Javid. With little previous experience of housing, he will have to make some crucial decisions in the weeks ahead, set the longer-term direction for policy and tackle what many Conservatives now see as a key political issue for them.

Here are seven big questions for him to address.

  • How will he follow Sajid Javid?

Brokenshire becomes the fourth Conservative secretary of state responsible for housing since 2010, following Eric Pickles, Greg Clark and Sajid Javid.

Javid has to go down as the best of the bunch (admittedly the bar is not set very high here) and he talked such a good game that he even changed the name of his department to include the word ‘housing’.

As Terrie Alafat says, his time in office saw an important shift in the narrative as housing became a top domestic priority.

But how much of it was just talk? Sajid Javid sometimes raised expectations and sometimes left the impression of doing just enough to look like he was doing something – and no more.

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April arrives with some rare good news

Originally published on March 29 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Sometimes it feels like I’ve written a blog at this time every year with the headline ‘April is the cruellest month’.

It’s not that I have a TS Eliot fixation nor (I hope) that I endlessly repeat myself but because ever since 2010 the start of the financial year seems to have meant yet another benefit cut or housing policy change to cope with.

This year is a bit different not so much because there is no bad news but because there is some good news as well. Here are some examples:

  • The u-turn on the withdrawal of support for housing costs for 18-21 year olds under universal credit announced on Thursday. This was a cumbersome policy that required significant exemptions and barely saved any money but it’s still a significant change to the original pledge to make young people ‘earn or learn’.
  • The Homelessness Reduction Act passed in 2017 applies from April 3. The legislation should be a big step forward in ensuring that more people get help earlier but despite a recent announcement on funding there are still well-founded concerns about whether councils have the money to implement it.
  • Claimants already getting housing benefit who move on to universal credit will from April be paid an additional two weeks of housing benefit. That may not be much consolation for the (in theory) five-week wait for their first universal credit but the payment (worth an average of £233) should ease the transition a bit –and it is not recoverable.
  • It will be unlawful for landlords to give new tenancies on the least energy efficient property from April 1 – all rented property will have to qualify for at least an Energy Performance Certificate rating of E so (in theory) tenants will no longer be stuck paying high heating bills for the worst F and G property.
  • More measures introduced against rogue landlords in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 come into force, including powers for councils to issue banning orders against the worst offenders and implementation of a database of landlords and letting agents convicted of some offences.

Bear in mind too that it’s not so long ago that I would have been writing about plans to apply a Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap to social and supported housing from…April 2018.

For all that good news, though, the suspicion remains that it will at best mitigate the impact of policies already implemented and still in the pipeline.

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Five wishes for 2018

It’s the time of year again. The time for New Year’s Resolutions that last only a little longer than the next day’s hangover and the time to hope that maybe things will get better once the clock strikes midnight.

So here are five things that bugged me in 2017 that I hope are about to change over the next 12 months.

1) That it will be 2018 not 1958

This seems a vain hope given a prevailing political climate that is blowing us back to the glory days of ‘iconic blue passports’. The Home Office is even making an early bid to take us back to the land of warm beer and black and white telly.

Maybe Britain will wake up in 2018. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn the lessons that were sinking in back in 1958 and realise that the Empire has gone and we need to look closer to home. Read the rest of this entry »


Look beyond the rate rise for the real housing squeeze

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on November 2.

Today’s first rise in interest rates for a decade is an important symbolic moment but it will make little or no immediate difference to the housing costs of millions of home owners with a mortgage.

The increase from 0.25% to 0.5% could see average mortgage payments rise by around £15 a month but it will not apply straight away to people with fixed rate mortgages and in any case it only restores the base rate to what was a record low between 2009 and the aftermath of the referendum.

Compare that with the continuing squeeze on benefits and tax credits/universal credit that the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts today will help to increase the percentage of children in relative poverty after housing costs from 30% now to 37% by 2022.

And contrast it with the latest overall benefit cap statistics also published today: as at August 68,000 families were hit by the lower cap that came into effect a year ago and nearly a third of them are losing between £50 and £100 a week. The cap is now £26,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere.

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Are things moving at last on housing?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on October 23.

Two of the many things about housing that have been obvious since 2010 could be set to change at last.

First, at a time when interest rates are at a record low, it makes sense to borrow to invest in homes and the infrastructure for them.

Sajid Javid committed this heresy against austerity when he told the Marr Show on Sunday that: ‘Investing for the future, taking advantage of record low interest rates, can be the right thing if done sensibly.’

Second, private housebuilders will build homes only as fast as they can sell them, so if we want more homes the state needs to intervene.

As I’ve argued many times before, it makes financial sense even for a government committed to austerity to commission homes directly, rent them at first and then sell them to recoup the money.

Ministers have taken tentative steps towards this position in the last few Budgets but according to a report in The Sunday Times a giant leap towards it is under consideration for November 22.

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