The Westferry affair and planning reform

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on June 29.

A cartoon in a national newspaper last week showed a pig about to dive into a trough from a springboard marked ‘Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government’ saying ‘I declare this development officially open’.

It was an indication if any were needed of how the Westferry Printworks affair has left the impression that the planning system is a ‘Tory funny money’ game of Monopoly (another cartoon two days later).

Richard Desmond’s £12,000 donation to the Conservatives may be small change but the timing shortly after housing secretary Robert Jenrick approved his plans for a £1 billion housing development still stinks.

It leaves the housing secretary looking – in the most generous interpretation of events – naïve in his dealings with the billionaire.

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Doing the right thing on fire safety

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on June 18.

In the 36 months since Grenfell ministers have repeatedly appealed to others to ‘do the right thing’ and pay for the replacement of dangerous cladding on high-rise homes.

Ministers have resisted doing anything themselves but the pressure has always told eventually.

After 11 months, a £400 million fund was announced for social housing blocks with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding. After 23 months, another £200 million was found for private blocks with ACM. After 32 months, the £1 billion Building Safety Fund was announced in the Spring Budget this year to cover hundreds more high-rise blocks with non-ACM but still dangerous cladding

Three years on from the fire, work has only been completed on a third of the ACM blocks – 149 out of 457 – according to the latest government statistics.  Of the remaining 307, work had not even started on 140.

The minister responsible for building safety (the fifth since Grenfell) told the Housing Communities and Local Government (HCLG) committee that there are another 11,300 buildings with other types of dangerous cladding and that 1,700 of them are classed as high risk.

Even as the funding has been grudgingly announced, so the estimated cost of fixing the problem has risen. Add the costs of other internal and external fire safety measures that go well beyond the clading, and the HCLG committee puts the total cost at £15 billion.

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Where should we draw the line between the social and the private?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on June 15.

The borderline between the social and the private has been blurring for decades for housing associations.

Ever since private finance was introduced in 1988, they have been free (or forced) to match grant with borrowing in the knowledge that higher rents would mostly be covered by housing benefit.

If it’s always been something of a Faustian pact with governments intent on reducing public spending and lenders focussed on the bottom line, there have been undoubted benefits not just in terms of homes delivered in the short term but also surpluses reinvested and major social businesses developed for the long term.

But the question has always been whether and when the housing Dr Faustus would have to deliver on the price of the pact.

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Three years on from Grenfell, where does the buck stop on fire safety?

This Sunday is the third anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. There are still 2,000 high-risk residential buildings out there with dangerous cladding.

Let that sink in for a second because it’s easy to let time obscure the scale of the problem if you’ve followed the twists and turns of the cladding saga since 2017 from afar.

Not so easy if you are one of the tens of thousands of people living in thousands of flats in those buildings. In a survey released by the UK Cladding Action Group on Thursday, 23 per cent of residents said they had felt suicidal or a desire to self-harm as a result.

This morning (Friday) the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee describes the situation as ‘deeply shocking and completely unacceptable’ in a report that lacerates the government’s slow and inadequate response. The committee has a Conservative majority but is doing an increasingly impressive job of holding ministers to account. Read the rest of this entry »


Time running out for temporary fixes

Originally posted on May 28 as a column for Inside Housing.

What then? It’s the question that’s been left hanging in most of the housing elements of the government’s response to the Coronavirus and much more besides.

There was a partial answer on what happens to thousands of temporarily accommodated rough sleepers as the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) accelerated funding to make 3,300 housing units available over the next 12 months.

There was an answer of sorts for leaseholders living in unsafe buildings as MHCLG opened registrations for its new £1 billion Building Safety Fund that extends help to other forms of dangerous cladding as well as Aluminium Composite Material (ACM).

And there was a welcome one for millions of home owners with mortgages as the Treasury extended the chance to apply for a payment holiday by another three months and Financial Conduct Authority guidance made clear that banks should not start of continue repossession proceedings until the end of October given the uncertainty faced by customers and government advice on social distancing and self-isolation.

But there is still no answer for millions of social and private renters asking what will happen when the moratorium on evictions ends on June 25.

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MPs call for action on rough sleeping and renting

The government will miss a ‘golden opportunity’ to end rough sleeping once and for all if it fails to turn temporary measures into something more permanent.

And ministers must beef up ‘toothless’ plans to protect renters in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis or risk a new wave of homelessness.

Those are the top-line messages from an all-party group of MPs today. But an interim report on protecting rough sleepers and renters from the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee also goes much further in endorsing calls by campaigners for wider changes to the housing system.

They recommend:

  • A dedicated funding stream to end rough sleeping, likely to be at least £100 million a year
  • Improved support for councils to help people with no recourse to public funds who will otherwise end up back on the streets
  • Boosting the supply of suitable housing by re-establishing the National Clearing House Scheme set up after the financial crisis for unsold homes and giving councils more flexibility to buy them
  • Turning the increase in the Local Housing Allowance to the 30th percentile from a temporary into a long-term measure and looking at the impact of raising rents further.

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Funding the end of rough sleeping

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on May 19.

The row over rough sleeping looks like it could be a preview of many more to come over the housing and homelessness part of the government’s response to Coronavirus.

It began on Thursday night, when Jen Williams of the Manchester Evening News reported that the Everyone In scheme was being ‘wound down’ and scrapped. This was based on a leak of an internal report to the Greater Manchester Combined Authority that central government had ‘drawn a line’ under the scheme.

Cue a furious response from the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHLCG) that went well beyond a denial.

The full retort went up on the new MHCLG media blog, which seems reserved for stories that have particularly annoyed ministers or special advisers or both.

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‘Stay alert’ proves to be good advice

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on May 14.

So it turns out that the change in prime ministerial messaging was more finely tuned than we thought.

When Boris Johnson told us to ‘stay alert’ rather than ‘stay at home’ in his broadcast on Sunday, the sense was of a change of emphasis that signalled a slow release from the lockdown in England.

Most immediately that seemed to mean builders returning to work on construction sites on Monday, which it then turned out meant Wednesday.

By Wednesday, with only a few hours’ notice, the government was reopening the housing market in England with profound implications for anyone buying, selling or renting a home.

In a country in which we are still prevented from visiting our elderly parents or friends there was detailed guidance for any number of strangers working in other people’s homes.

In a sales market caught on the hop, we will now start to find out the impact of the crisis on prices as buyers decide whether to go ahead with deals they agreed before March 23, lenders decide whether to revise their mortgage offers and developers find out whether they can sell stock they can now work till 9pm to complete.

The sense in housing secretary Robert Jenrick’s statement to parliament on Wednesday was of a government desperate to restart a key part of the economy, as home sales feed into construction and all the other industries that follow in its wake.

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How will we live after Corona?

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on May 4.

How will Coronavirus change how we live and work – and how will that change housing?

In one sense these are impossible questions to answer since so much depends on how quickly we find a vaccine or an effective treatment for Covid-19 and how deep the recession will become.

Find either quickly and politics and the economy could soon return to something close to what we knew before February. After all, it seemed obvious that nobody would want to live or work in tall buildings after September 2001 and that house prices would fall after 2008.

If the search takes longer, if there is a second or third wave, if another Coronavirus hits us, the effects could be far more profound as social distancing and self-isolation change how we think about how we should live.

But in between those two scenarios many of the effects of the crisis will linger and a series of more marginal changes may add up to something bigger.

After months in which our homes have become the centre of our lives, not just places to eat and sleep but places to work and stay safe, the effects on housing could be just as profound.

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Cladding questions have not gone away

Originally published on April 30 as a column for Inside Housing.

The first parliamentary questions on housing since the Coronavirus lockdown saw pleas for construction and housebuilding sites to get back to work.

But this was anything but a return to normal as a socially distanced and virtual House of Commons saw scrutiny of ministers truncated by the parliamentary timetable and technical gremlins.

Though questions about the costs of Covid-19 for local government took top billing, Tuesday afternoon’s Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) questions only underlined the fact that the top housing issue before the outbreak has not gone away.

Six short weeks ago there was some good news for victims of the cladding scandal as the Budget extended government help beyond Grenfell-style ACM cladding to cover other materials such as High Pressure Laminate (HPL).

Full details of the £1 billion fund are expected in May but there are still big questions about how it will operate.

And in the meantime the plight of residents has got worse as bills escalate for insurance premiums and for waking watches in blocks where work to replace the cladding has been halted by the lockdown. These interim measures are not covered by the fund.

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