Two-way street

Originally published on December 7 on my blog for Inside Housing

The minister announces more investment in social housing – social, not affordable – and signs a pact with housing associations and local authorities.

This is not a fantasy or a trip down memory lane but something that happened last week in Wales, a country where the government and the housing sector are very much in sync.

Carl Sargeant, communities and children secretary, told the Community Housing Cymru (CHC) annual conference that Social Housing Grant (SHG) will be increased by £30m this year, or 44% on previous plans. He also signed a pact with CHC and the Welsh Local Government Association to deliver 13,500 affordable homes by 2021.

Though CHC is the Welsh counterpart of the National Housing Federation, the pact is not a deal that requires forced conversion to the merits of homeownership or that turns a blind eye to forced sales of council homes.The Right to Buy is being scrapped rather than extended and the pact sets out a series of other aspirations on everything from jobs and training to energy efficiency and rents to homelessness.

Housing in Wales works very differently to England thanks to devolution and a political culture that works on consensus.While London and Manchester are blazing a trail with new investment powers, Wales can make its own legislation. Greater regulation of the private rented sector and homelessness prevention are already in force, the end is nigh for the Right to Buy and stamp duty is being replaced with the first Welsh tax for almost 800 years.

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Repairing the safety net

Originally published on August 18 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Today’s report by the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee recommending significant improvements to the homelessness safety net is getting a warm welcome – and no wonder.

The first select committee inquiry on homelessness since 2005 uncovers evidence of a system at breaking point as social housing provision declines, insecure private renting expands and welfare is ‘reformed’.

The report aims to help families falling through the gaps in the existing legislation as well as single people not covered by it, calls for a cross-government approach to homelessness and also makes specific recommendations to help vulnerable groups such as people with mental health problems, care leavers and ex-prisoners.

And in case you’re thinking this is just another select committee report whose recommendations will be ignored by the government, this one comes complete with legislation attached: a private members’ bill promoted by one of its members.

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Questions of power

Originally posted on May 9 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The May elections have a common theme when it comes to housing: can the winners really do what they say?

From Sadiq Khan to Marvin Rees, from Nicola Sturgeon to Carwyn Jones and from council leaders all over England to the voters of St Ives, winning the elections last week was the easy bit. The hard work starts now.

I’ll start with the poll closest to me: the referendum in St Ives on a Neighbourhood Plan that will ban the building of new second homes that has brought national attention.

More than 80% of residents supported the plan last Thursday and it’s impossible not to sympathise. Around a quarter of the homes in St Ives are either second homes or holiday lets and the problem is even worse in other Cornish communities. That does not just price out locals it also means a lack of year-round residents that makes it hard to sustain vital services and infrastructure.

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United nation

Originally posted on March 7 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Campaigners gather in the capital city for a pre-election rally to call for decisive action on the housing crisis. Sound familiar?

But this is not Homes for Britain or London and it’s no longer March 2015. Instead this happened on Friday in Cardiff and it’s Homes for Wales.

The campaigns are clearly related – both are aimed at all the political parties, both are supported by a coalition of housing associations and other housing organisations – but there are differences too.

The Homes for Britain rally happened in a big hall with speakers from the housing world and beyond and from all the main political parties. For all the energy and enthusiasm of the day, it left itself open to the accusation that this was just another example of the sector gathering to congratulate itself about how wonderful it is.

In contrast, campaigners for Homes for Wales gathered on the steps of the Senedd Building in Cardiff Bay for speeches before marching through the streets of the capital for a rally in the heart of the pedestrianised city centre. For a couple of hours, shoppers could watch video messages from the political parties, Welsh celebrities such as Michael Sheen and people with personal experience of the housing crisis. Up to 700 people took part and it was the first housing march that anyone could remember in Wales. For more about the campaign see this piece by Kevin Howell.

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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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Doing things differently

Originally posted on December 9 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

In a country not very far away they are doing things differently. Funding for Supporting People (remember that, England?) is protected. Social Housing Grant (remember that?) is increased.

Wales cannot escape the constraints of Westminster-imposed austerity completely – there is also disappointment over a cut in Homelessness Prevention Grant and an announcement on rents policy is still awaited – but the Draft Budget for 2016/16 shows that it continues to go its own way on housing.

Where Supporting People has been savaged in England following the removal of the ringfence, in Wales research has recently demonstrated the positive impact of the programme on the NHS and social services. And a ‘Let’s Carry on Supporting People’ campaign led by Cymorth Cymru and Community Housing Cymru has been successful. The budget for next year will remain at £124.4m.

Where funding for new social housing has been all but abandoned in England, Wales continues to believe in it. Funding will be increased by £5m in 2016/17 to £68.8m.

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Rent control moves closer to home

Whether you’re for or against measures to control private sector rents, it’s going to be worth watching closely what happens to new legislation in Ireland.

After a long row between the Irish coalition partners, the government has finally agreed a package of measures designed to give ‘rent certainty’ to tenants until supply increases. The package includes:

  • For the next four years, landlords will only be allowed to increase their rents once every 24 months rather than 12 months as at present
  • Landlords will have to give 90 days notice of any increase (up from 28)
  • Landlords will have to provide evidence that any future increases are in line with the local market rate and inform tenants of their legal right to challenge them
  • Tenants will have stronger protection against unscrupulous landlords who falsely declare they need to sell the home or move in a family member: landlords will have to sign a statutory declaration and face fines if it is invalid
  • Landlords who house tenants on social security will get 100% mortgage tax relief against their rent (up from 75%).

Note that ‘rent certainty’ is not the same thing as rent control. What’s interesting about the package from this side of the Irish Sea is that it anticipates – and goes beyond – all of the points raised in the growing debate on rent regulation here. The Scottish Government is dipping its toe in the water with a Bill that will allow local rent control in rent pressure areas while Labour will call for new powers to freeze rents in London if Sadiq Khan wins next year’s mayoral election.

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The needs of the many

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

How English housing policy arrived from Vulcan via Wales.

I’ve recently been putting together the 100th issue of Welsh Housing Quarterly. The 25-year history of the magazine is closely bound up with the story of Welsh devolution, a distant prospect when it was first published in 1990 but a developing process that led eventually to the first-ever Welsh Housing Act last year. But there was one period early on that has a very contemporary relevance for England as it prepares for the second reading debate on the Housing Bill on Monday and the spending review later this month.

In May 1993 Wales got a new secretary of state who seemed to come from a distant planet. The Conservative MP John Redwood was an intellectual Thatcherite with an appearance that prompted sketch writer Matthew Parris to come up with a comparison that has stuck ever since: ‘a new creature, half human, half Vulcan, brother of the brilliant, cold-blooded Spock’.

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Scotland goes its own way on private renting

Originally posted on September 2 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Rent control and increased security of tenure are back on the government agenda for the private rented sector for the first time in 30 years.

I am of course talking about the Scottish Government, which yesterday confirmed plans for a Private Tenancies Bill as part of its Programme for Scotland 2015/16. The Bill will ‘provide more predictable rents and protection for tenants against excessive rent increases, including the ability to introduce local rent controls for rent pressure areas’.

And it will introduce a Scottish Private Rented Tenancy to replace the current assured system and remove the ‘no-fault’ ground for repossession. That means the landlord will no longer be able to ask a tenant to leave just because the fixed term has ended but there will be ‘comprehensive and robust grounds for repossession that will allow landlords to regain possession in specified circumstances’.

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The sharp end

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

Wales is setting an example on homelessness prevention but can it escape the UK-driven logic of austerity in housing?

The question is prompted by today’s Homelessness Monitor Wales 2015, the latest in a comprehensive series of assessments from Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on progress (or otherwise) in the UK nations. This one arrives just at the point where Wales is using its relatively new legislative powers to take a different path to England on housing policy.

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