How we got from there to here

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Where next for affordable housing funding? That’s one of the key questions posed in this year’s edition of the UK Housing Review.

The essential guide to the key issues and statistics in housing is celebrating its 30th anniversary and complements its usual analysis of contemporary trends with a long view of how we’ve got from 1992 to here.

One of the strengths of the review has always been the way it considers policy on housing in the round, not just in terms of all tenures but also in the way that the housing system relates to broader policy.

If only that were true of how governments think about housing. A point made powerfully by Mark Stephens in his opening chapter on 30 years of housing policy in the UK is that this has only really happened twice in the last five decades and not at all since 2005.

As usual, readers will find plenty of food for thought in chapters on social housing, private renting, home ownership, homelessness and support for housing costs plus the usual comprehensive array of housing statistics.

But my eye was drawn to the chapter on affordable housing supply and the challenges ahead by John Perry and Peter Williams.

Another strength of the Review is the way that it draws together ever more divergent policy in the four nations of the UK.

On affordable housing as a whole England lags well behind Scotland and Northern Ireland and has competed with Wales for last place in terms of delivery by population size.

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A statement of lack of intent from Sunak

Rishi Sunak was always going to have to tackle the cost of living crisis in his Spring Statement and the big questions were how and who would benefit.

Faced with a choice between measures that would benefit the well-off, those on middle incomes and the least well-off, the chancellor did a bit for the first and second groups but more or less ignored the third.

He chose to increase the threshold for National Insurance at a cost of around £25bn over the next five years and followed that up with a 1p cut in the standard rate of income tax at a cost of more than £17bn over the three years from just before the next election in 2024 – though his previous decisions to freeze the tax thresholds and increase NI rates mean these tax ‘cuts’ were really tax rises.

Of the three new measures that he billed as ‘helping families with the cost of living’, the temporary 5p cut in fuel duty (£2.4bn next year) and cut in VAT on energy efficiency materials (£280m over the next five years) are good news if you can afford a car or improvements to your home but not much use otherwise.

The £500m increase in the Household Support Fund in 2022/23 will enable local authorities to help the most vulnerable households with the cost of essentials but it is a drop in the ocean compared to his action (or lack of it) on benefits in general.

The car wasn’t his and the fuel duty cut is not much use if you can’t afford a car

To put this in perspective, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecasts that average real disposable incomes will fall by 2.2 per cent next year, the most since records began.

However, the squeeze on benefits will be much greater than that.

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Mind the gaps on building safety

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Who is guilty, who is innocent and who is merely collateral damage? The answers, when it comes to building safety, are not as simple as it first seems.

Guilt in a legal sense remains to be seen but just about everyone involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower seems to bear some responsibility, starting with the governments that set the building regulations and reaching down via organisations involved in product testing and certification and building control to the companies that supplied the cladding and insulation, the contractor, designers, subcontractors and client. 

All of the above plus developers are seen as ‘guilty’ when it comes to the wider building safety crisis while leaseholders are the innocent parties that the government has finally accepted should be protected from the costs.

And yet scratch a little deeper in the debates over the Building Safety Bill and the new approach initiated by Michael Gove and the dividing line between innocent and guilty is not remotely as clear cut as that.

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The political choices on homelessness

Everyone In was one of the few success stories in housing policy this century but all that progress in tackling homelessness is about to go into reverse.

The stark warning in the latest Homelessness Monitor for England from Crisis is that levels of core homelessness will have gone up by a third between 2019 and 2024 if nothing changes.

If the reasons for the forecast are not hard to guess, the contrast with the progress made at the start of the pandemic when 37,000 people sleeping rough or at risk of doing so were given accommodation makes this even more depressing. So too the contrast between England and the continuing ambitions of devolved governments elsewhere in Britain to end homelessness altogether.   

Rough sleeping was down 33 per cent and sofa surfing down 11 per cent in England in 2020 after that extraordinary initial effort under Everyone In but it soon morphed from a policy into branding for an initiative.

The result was that core homelessness (which means the most acute forms of homelessness including rough sleeping, sofa surfing and being in temporary accommodation) was also down 5 per cent on 2019 levels at 203,400 in 2020.

The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, another success story, also helped single homeless households, although the report points to weaknesses including continued lack of entitlement to accommodation for some groups (another issue being addressed elsewhere but not England).

So the good news is that the pandemic saw a welcome interruption in the upward trend in homelessness since 2012.

That’s backed up by the latest figures published this week showing that the number of rough sleepers fell for the fourth year in a row in the government’s latest annual snapshot survey – and by the repeal of the Vagrancy Act.

The bad news is that most of the support introduced during the pandemic has since been reversed, with the uplift withdrawn, LHA rates refrozen despite rising rents and mounting concern that evictions could rise sharply in 2022.

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The tide turns on deregulation and the private sector

The package of building safety changes announced this week by Michael Gove represents an extraordinary shift on any number of different levels.

Whether it’s effectively banning developers from building anything if they fail to cooperate or rewriting the terms of tens of thousands of leasehold contracts, the amendments to the Building Safety Bill will fundamentally change the way that flats (at least those over 11m) are maintained and managed.

The package inevitably raises a whole series of questions that I’ll return to in a future column but for now I want to concentrate on what it says about the extent of the change in the government’s attitude towards the private sector in housing.

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The long history of levelling up

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Whether you put it down to coincidence, cock-up or an acute sense of history the decision to launch the Levelling Up white paper on Groundhog Day looks singularly appropriate.

My day began with the Today programme’s report from Wakefield rather than Sonny & Cher on the radio but the effect was similar. It took me straight back to the late 1980s when I was reporting on regeneration plans for the same city.

That was after Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘walk in the wilderness’ and promise on night she won the 1987 election that: ‘Tomorrow morning we must do something about those inner cities, because we want them too next time.’

Her government had spent the previous eight years destroying the traditional industries that provided the well-paid jobs in those same areas but now she would put things right. Regeneration programmes like City Challenge, Development Corporations and Estate Action duly followed.

Flash forward 35 years and, after winning many of the seats that eluded Mrs Thatcher, another Tory government is promising to ‘level up’ exactly the same areas. This after spending nine years slashing their local authority budgets.

And these are only two moments in a long history of attempts to rebalance the regional economies of the UK that date back to the 1920s.

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Johnson, Partygate and manifesto commitments

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It’s been just over two years but thanks to Covid-19 it feels like a lifetime ago.

Leaving aside the question of whether he has really delivered on his headline promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’ how much of Boris Johnson’s 2019 election manifesto has survived into the post-Coronavirus age?

The question was originally prompted by the outcome of the judicial review over Everyone In. The scheme launched at the start of the pandemic to get rough sleepers off the streets and into hotels within a few days was a great success.

It also signalled that the manifesto promise to ‘end the blight of rough sleeping by the end of the next parliament’ should be well within reach.

Except that, for all that rhetoric, Everyone In morphed from a policy into an initiative with an asterisk attached. From around May 2020, it was no longer a promise but branding for an initiative exhorting local authorities to act without giving them any extra resources.

And then I realised the wider context as we continue the seemingly interminable wait for Sue Gray’s report.

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The ‘problem of rent’ has just got worse

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

The UK has among the lowest levels of basic benefits in the developed world but spends more than any other country on housing benefits.

The two statements, which come from a new report by the Resolution Foundation, are of course connected and they are the result of deliberate policy choices over decades.

The first relates to the way that the benefits system evolved in the wake of the Beveridge report with low levels of working-age benefits supplemented by extra support for housing, children and ill-health.

Beveridge had confessed that he was unable to solve what he called ‘the problem of rent’ – how you account for housing costs that vary between different areas – in his blueprint for social security after the Second World War.

His fudged solution was to add a flat rate housing allowance to contributory unemployment benefit but that was rejected in favour of means testing in the scheme that was introduced. 

However, his whole report was written on the assumptions that full employment, mass council housebuilding and private sector rent control would continue.

By contrast, most European countries have more generous contributory and earnings-related benefits supplemented by a means-tested safety net.

This graph from the report shows the difference:

For clarity it’s worth pointing out that this is based on the OECD definition of housing benefits in kind, which includes payments for housing costs but not mortgage tax relief (still paid in some countries) or capital investment in social housing or the ‘subsidy’ of the lower rents it produces.

The second policy choice dates back to the deregulation of rents and decline of social housing in the 80s and 90s – reversing those assumptions made by Beveridge – and more recent falls in home ownership among low-income households that have left them paying higher rents.

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Gove’s grand plan leaves gaps to fill

As one MP put it, we welcome the steps forward in ministerial statements on building safety only to find problems in the steps backward that follow.

Michael Gove’s plans to ‘make developers pay’ represent the most positive steps seen so far but there are still major concerns over what comes next.

For starters, how exactly will he ‘make’ them? The initial plan in talks before Easter seems to be persuasion but the levelling up secretary has limited levers that he can pull and why would companies that have previously resisted calls to ‘do the right thing’ change their minds now?

He cited the way that Rydon Homes, sister company of the main contractor in the Grenfell refurbishment, was barred from Help to Buy but the scheme ends in 2023 and most of the £29 billion in equity loans has already been committed.

This highlights yet again a major flaw in the government’s support for housebuilders that I highlighted even before the creation of Help to Buy: its failure to get a quid pro quo for all that help for profits, bonuses and dividends.

Short of another support scheme, which may ironically be needed if supply plummets, that leaves blacklisting from Homes England programmes and naming and shaming as his principal weapons. Neither is a negligible threat but will they be enough?

That leaves coercion, legal action or the ‘high-level threat’ of a new tax that Gove is authorised to make in the letter leaked to Newsnight from chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke.

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Crazy lending v insane housing system

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

It sounds crazy and it is. New mortgages at up to seven times a person’s income look like a reminder of the excessively loose lending seen before the financial crisis and the collapse of Northern Rock.

At the end of a year in which house prices have risen at their fastest rate since 2006 and interest rates began to rise from record lows, and at the start of one in which household incomes face a squeeze, the timing of the new deal from online broker Habito looks, shall we say, interesting.

Take that seven times income and add five times a partner’s salary and a couple each earning £25,000 could borrow £300,000 to buy a £330,000 home, well above the Nationwide’s new UK average of £255,000. Take out the loan for 40 years rather than the traditional 25 and they can reduce their monthly payments too.

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