Getting ready for decarbonisation

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

Decarbonisation took two more important steps up the housing agenda this week as the UK Labour conference endorsed radical plans for a Green New Deal and the Welsh Government accepted in principle all of the recommendations of a landmark independent review.

There is still some way to go before all of this starts impacting on housing organisations, tenants and home owners but the general direction seems clear and prepare to hear a lot more about what could become the dominant housing issue of the next decade.

In Scotland, meanwhile, a Climate Change Bill passed this week that set targets of reducing carbon emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 and becoming a net zero society by 2045.

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Help to Buy and wider housing policy

Originally posted as a blog for Inside Housing.

So much has been written about Help to Buy that by now everyone knows what they think.

If you’re a housebuilder the equity loan scheme introduced in 2013 has meant more new homes and more buyers.

If you unable to get a mortgage, the scheme may have offered a first step on to the housing ladder that would not otherwise have been available but you may be wondering about the quality of your new build.

If you’re a critic, even if you concede the first two points, the biggest impact has been on housebuilder share prices, dividends and executive bonuses.

Evaluations published so far have provided evidence to back up both sides of the argument. On the positive side, 37% of borrowers said they could not have afforded to buy without it; on the negative, that could also mean 63% did not need help.

The new feature of a report published yesterday by the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is that it takes a step back and considers the impact on the government and on wider housing policy.

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Still waiting for the end of austerity

Originally posted on September 4 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Austerity may be over, according to the chancellor, but it remains to be seen what that really means for the spending programmes that matter most to housing.

What Sajid Javid meant by that boast in Wednesday’s Spending Round speech was that all departmental budgets will be increased at least in line with inflation in 2020/21.

But it soon became clear – if it wasn’t already – that housing is not one of the so-called ‘people’s priorities’ of crime, education and health and so does not qualify for any headline-grabbing investment.

The only housing-related announcement in the speech itself was a £54m increase in funding for homelessness and rough sleeping to £422m in 2020/21, which Mr Javid said amounted to a 13% real terms increase.

That’s just as well because both the speech and background document were completely silent on what the government intends to do about one of the biggest drivers for homelessness.

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Home ownership gimmicks won’t change much

Originally published on August 28 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The first big announcement on housing since regime change at Westminster confirms the expected change of emphasis but still leaves some big unanswered questions.

The emphasis is firmly on home ownership in plans widely reported this morning to make it easier for shared owners to buy an increased share in their homes.

The government will consult on plans to make it easier to staircase up by allowing them to buy an extra 1% at a time rather than the current 10%.

That may be attractive to some shared owners but it will do very little to tackle other longstanding problems with the tenure – rising service charges, repair bills, problems selling – and the government will have to find a way to stop transaction costs such as mortgage fees and surveys making it unaffordable.

This isn’t a new idea for shared ownership – Thames Valley already has a scheme called Shared Ownership Plus that allows people to buy an extra 1% of their home each year without paying those extra costs.

However, in terms of a big idea to fix the housing crisis it is hard to disagree with the Labour verdict that this is ‘tinkering’.

At the same time the government will make it easier for people buying under Help to Buy to take out a mortgage that runs for 35 years rather than the current 25.

That is in line with developments elsewhere in the mortgage market and it will reduce monthly repayments but it could lead to increased prices and will cost more in the long run.

However, it seems clear that these could be just the first in a series of measures aimed at boosting home ownership.

Writing in the Times this morning, housing secretary Robert Jenrick hints at more more radical plans to revive what he sees as the ‘moral mission’ of a property owning democracy.

Part of that could be a ‘homes for locals’ scheme:

‘I want local young people, whether growing up in Cornwall or Cumbria, to be able to stay in their communities and build a family where they feel at home. It’s not right that people on low incomes risk being forced out, and I will be tackling this challenge head on. And to get Britain building, I want communities to feel that new housing brings real benefits to local people. What a difference it might make to the planning system if existing residents knew that a good proportion of new homes would be sold at discounted prices to people from that area trying to get on a foot on the ladder.’

The Times reports that ministers are considering a scheme to give first-time buyers a 20% discount to buy in the area where they grew up with the cost to be ‘borne by developers’.

It sounds like a revival of David Cameron’s starter homes plan and it will raise exactly the same issues plus some new ones.

What happens to the discount? Will it remain in perpetuity or be pocketed by the first buyer?

Who really bears the costs? As things stand, the developer will simply cut its other planning contributions, making the discounted homes a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ as people who need other forms of affordable housing will lose out.

And how will they decide whether someone is a local – some people grow up in one place, but many others move around a lot before their 20s and 30s.

All of these ideas sound like gimmicks that will not change very much but this is all about sending out the right signals ahead of the election that everyone assumes is coming, whether or not the government’s plan to suspend parliament until a new Queen’s Speech on October 14 goes through.

Preparations for an election are already underway, with departmental special advisors told to draw up plans for their sections of the next Tory manifesto.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government would use up its best (or worst) ideas at this stage.

As Inside Housing has already reported, they could include a new part rent-part buy programme – and in the Spring the government issued a call for proposals for private shared ownership.

So what price a rehash of the failed manifesto from 2015 and a lurch back to the ownership-at-all-costs agenda of David Cameron and George Osborne?

First, though, there is the small matter of the spending review for next year that chancellor Sajid Javid has just announced will be next Wednesday (September 4).

The prospects for housing are already looking ominous ahead of that. Writing in The Telegraph, the chancellor singles out Brexit preparations, the NHS and education as his priorities but warns that spending departments cannot expect a blank cheque.

According to the Financial Times:

‘While the spending review will be billed as an “end to austerity” for schools, hospitals and the police, other departments will face a continued squeeze. Housing and defence are among those likely to face a tough settlement.’


How ‘temporary’ became permanent

Originally published on August 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Today’s report by the Children’s Commissioner on families in temporary accommodation is a shocking indictment of a system that has become institutionalised into permanence.

If you judge it by the types of building involved – the shipping containers and converted office blocks that make most of this morning’s press coverage – and you have the physical manifestation of what are almost the opposite of ‘homes’.

For all the effort put into finding ‘meanwhile’ sites for containers and despite the fact that some schemes are well designed and that many other forms of temporary accommodation are much worse, just look at the headlines for what the media makes of it.

Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield speaks of containers that are ‘blisteringly hot in summer and freezing in the winter months’ and of ‘homes’ in office blocks converted under permitted development that are barely bigger than a parking space.

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A stamp duty denial and the Budget(s)

Originally published on August 20 on my blog for Inside Housing.

A stamp duty plan that apparently never was offers a tantalising preview of a Budget and spending review that will take place in neverland.

Saturday’s Times reported that sellers rather than buyers would pay stamp duty under plans for a tax shake-up by chancellor Sajid Javid.

The plan seemed either fraught with problems (sales would dry up as buyers waited for the change to take effect) or pretty meaningless (sellers would simply add the extra cost to their asking price).

And the story seemed built on flimsy foundations and journalistic hype – in the interview itself Javid was asked if he was considering the change and did not deny it but that escalated into a definite change in the headline – but presumably there was off-the-record corroboration too.

By Sunday the man himself was taking to Twitter to deny that he was planning anything of the sort:

Clearly this government is not quite the messaging machine with iron discipline that we’ve been led to believe and is just as prone to getting its wires crossed as any of its predecessors.

But what does this episode tell us about what’s to come for housing in the Budget – there is no confirmation yet whether that will be before or after the ‘do or die’ Brexit date on October 31 and there could even be one before and one after  – and the spending review to follow next year?

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A new mindset on decarbonisation

Originally posted on August 9 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Decarbonisation is set to be one of the biggest housing issues of the next decade but the debate about how to do it and how to pay for it is only just getting started.

If the need for dramatic action has long been clear, so too has a tendency to put off doing anything meaningful – witness the way that England’s ambition to make all new homes zero carbon by 2016 was watered down and then dropped by the self-styled ‘greenest government ever’.

But as extreme weather and Extinction Rebellion bring the climate emergency to the top of the agenda the issue is back with a vengeance.

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