From One Planet to Dr Earth

Part 2 of my blog on what housing could expect from a multi-party government looks at what the Greens and UKIP are saying.

I suspect many Inside Housing readers would welcome a Green housing minister committed to implementing its manifesto pledges to ‘provide 500,000 social homes for rent over the five-year parliament, control excessive rents and achieve house price stability’.

The manifesto is the only one from the English parties already represented at Westminster that offers a genuine alternative to the current system. While many will question its feasibility, few would quarrel with its principle of ‘making property investment and speculation less attractive and increasing housing supply’. Among the policies on offer are the removal of borrowing caps on councils, the end of the right to buy at a discount, more rights to homeless people, five-year private tenancies with rent increases limited to CPI, removal of tax relief for buy to let landlords and preparations for a land value tax.

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Heart, brain and Clegg

What could housing expect from a government influenced by parties other than the Conservatives and Labour? Part 1: the Lib Dems.

Assuming the polls are right and there will be another hung parliament,  any of the other five parties who took  part in the first TV debate could have an influence. The SNP and Plaid Cymru would seek concessions for Scotland and Wales while demanding less austerity from a Labour government, especially on welfare [though later the SNP reached out to the rest of the UK with a call for 100,000 affordable homes]. However, most housing issues are devolved from Westminster, so I’ll concentrate in this two-part blog on the other three parties. Power may matter a lot more than policies, there are some hints in the Lib Dem, Green and UKIP manifestos of what might offer common ground with one of the bigger parties.

So first, the Lib Dems. Assuming enough of them keep their seats, they could be a coalition partner (or a less formal supporter) for either a Tory or Labour government and they are the only party with a track record in coalition at Westminster.

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No surprises from Labour

If you’re looking for anything new on housing in the Labour manifesto you’re going to have to search very hard for it.

The party’s priorities were clearly elsewhere in the document launched this morning and the housing sections are largely rehashes of Labour’s response to the Lyons Review and of previous statements on social security.

Housing gets a mention in the introduction but only in relation to housebuilding and home ownership:

‘We are not building the homes we need. Our sons and daughters have been shut out of the housing market and too often they are forced to leave the communities where they were brought up.’

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Minority rule

How do flawed policies that are opposed by a majority of MPs manage to survive unscathed?

One of the remaining mysteries of this parliament was solved in the Commons yesterday. Why has it taken the government almost a year to fail to respond to the all-party work and pensions committee’s report on housing benefit? The answer has much to say about how coalition government, and power, work.

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Overpaid and overclaimed

Too expensive to repeal the bedroom tax? Look what’s happened to housing benefit overpayments.

A damning report published on Tuesday by the Commons public accounts committee reveals that overpayments cost £1.4 billion in 2013/14, the first year of the under-occupation penalty. That is an increase of £420 million since 2010/11.

Of that £1.4 billion, the DWP estimates that £900 million was claimant error, £340 million claimant fraud and £150 million official error. Overpayments since 2000/01 now total a staggering £12.6 billion – and there seem to be no figures on how much of the money that is overpaid is ever recovered.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing


10 things about 2014: part 1

The first of a two-part look back at the issues and people that I’ve been blogging about this year.

1) Groundhog Day on the bedroom tax

The year ended as it began, in a welter of parliamentary accusation and counter-accusation that left tenants in England and Wales still having to pay the under-occupation penalty. A Commons debate in December just before the Christmas recess a classic example: Labour called a vote condemning the bedroom tax that didn’t actually change anything; the Lib Dems voted in favour and produced a weasly justification for the decision; and the Conservatives went from claiming it would save £1 million a day in January to £500 million, £1 billion and even £2 billion by the end of the year.

However, there were at least three occasions during the year when it looked as though significant changes would be achieved.

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Time loop

More than one MP compared Wednesday’s debate on the bedroom tax to Groundhog Day and it was not hard to see why.

Labour calls a debate that will not change anything but is designed to expose the Conservatives as callous and the Liberal Democrats as collaborators. The Conservatives (as personified by pictures of a laughing Iain Duncan Smith) duly live up to their billing. The Lib Dems accuse Labour of playing games but end up seeming to vote for something that they were against before they were in favour of it. We’ve been here many times before.

A Labour motion ‘that this House believes…the bedroom tax should be abolished with immediate effect’ was voted down by 298-266. A coalition amendment approved by 300-262 extols its record on cutting the welfare bill but also ‘notes’ that ‘the part of the coalition led by the deputy prime minister has proposed reforms to introduce other formal exemptions to the policy, including where claimants have not been made a reasonable alternative offer of accommodation’.

The net result of all that politics was that nothing much changed yesterday apart from UKIP’s Douglas Carswell voting against the policy he supported as a Conservative. But the sense of déjà vu hanging over the opposition day debate was about much more than just that. Here are some high (or low) lights:

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing


The long goodbye to the bedroom tax

Three images spring to mind in the aftermath of Friday’s momentous vote to amend the bedroom tax.

The first is of a bunker deep in the bowels of DWP headquarters Caxton House. Iain Duncan Smith sits at a desk surrounded by a dwindling band of loyalists who still believe in the policy: his ministers Mark Harper and Lord Freud plus a loyal special adviser and perhaps a press officer.

AS IDS raves that nothing has changed (and that the universal credit is on time and on budget) I imagine the others exchanging nervous looks between themselves as they assure him that the removal of the spare room subsidy really is saving £1 million a day and making housing fairer.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing


Mind the gaps

Spot the gaps between rhetoric and reality in the speech by David Cameron about family-friendly policies.

The prime minister spoke on Monday about how he will put families at the centre of new domestic policy-making. He asked three questions on this, none of which are directly housing issues but all of which touch on housing: How can we help families come together? How can we help families stay together? And how can we help troubled families and those children who don’t even have families?

Cameron also promised to introduce a family test as part of the impact assessment of all domestic government policies. That has to be good news even if the government has a track record of ignoring inconvenient evidence from impact assessments. However, it also prompts the obvious question of how existing government policies would fare under the test.

Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing


Housing benefit and the coalition

What has happened to housing benefit in the four years since the government inherited a system it claimed was ‘out of control’?

New housing benefit statistics published this week cover the period up to May 2014. They reflect not just successive government cuts but a changing pattern of claims and changing tenure over the last four years. Here are five things that struck me:

1) The housing benefit bill continues to grow despite all of the coalition’s reforms. The May 2014 figures show just under five million claims for an average of £92.69 a week, a total of £24.0 billion. That compares with £20.8 billion in May 2010 (4.8 million claims averaging £84.20 a week).

The coalition never claimed that its reforms would reduce the total bill, just that they would reduce the rate of growth from previous forecasts. The bill has grown by 15.4 per cent over the last four years. However, the annual increase has slowed from 6.2 per cent in 2010/11 to 1.3 per cent in 2013/14.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing