Mind the gaps in the net zero strategy

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

In so far as it can be called a strategy, the government’s plan for heat and buildings largely relies on the private sector plus regulation to deliver its ambitious targets for net zero in housing.

What ‘new’ money there is – £800m for the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, £950m for Home Upgrade Grants – seems mostly to consist of allocations from sums already promised in the Conservative manifesto.  

The exception seems to be £450m for a Boiler Upgrade Scheme that will fund 90,000 replacement heat pumps over the next three years, with the government arguing that this will prime the market for its ‘ambition’ of 600,000 a year for the next three years.

But that mismatch only highlights the contrast with Labour’s pledge of £60bn investment over the next 10 years and the Climate Change Committee’s estimate that it will cost a total of £250bn to decarbonise housing by 2050.

There is an even bigger gap between the strategy’s rhetoric about net zero and the reality that bringing as many homes as possible up to EPC band C by 2035 will involve costly retrofits. Around 60 per cent of existing homes are below EPC C.

And there are still big questions about whether new technologies will work, how decarbonisation will be delivered and how the targets and standards will be enforced.

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Winners and losers in the hunt for A Home of Our Own

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on October 20.

A young couple living in a caravan because they can’t find anywhere to rent let alone buy wait for winter and cold weather.

It might be an everyday story from the housing crisis except for two things. First, this is the final episode in an excellent 10-part Radio 4 series that shows that there are many different local crises not just a single national one. Second, one of them works as a housing officer for the local council.

A Home of Our Own finished on Friday but is well worth catching on BBC Sounds over the next few weeks. Presented by Lynsey Hanley, it’s a journey right around the UK that begins in Cornwall and ends in Pembrokeshire via London, Belfast, Glasgow, Middlesbrough and most points in between.

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An empty vision from the Conservatives

So now we know. The way to tackle the affordability crisis is to pretend that it does not exist.

There is no official confirmation yet but the clear message from the Conservative Party conference is that radical planning reform and the attempt to force through new housebuilding in the least affordable parts of the country are both dead.

In their place are vague assurances that building more homes in the North will help both to level up the country and take the pressure off the South East. 

It was there front and centre in Boris Johnson’s invitation in his conference speech  to: 

‘Look at this country from the air. Go on google maps, you can also see how much room there is to build the homes that young families need in this country, not on green fields, not just jammed in the South East, but beautiful homes on brownfield sites in places where homes make sense.’

The prime minister still talked about ‘fixing the broken housing market’ but that is no longer a goal to be achieved by building more homes in expensive areas but a means to a different end:

‘Housing in the right place at an affordable price will add massively not just to your general joie de vivre but to your productivity. And that is how we solve the national productivity puzzle by fixing the broken housing market by plugging in the gigabit, by putting in decent safe bus routes and all other transport infrastructure and by investing in skills, skills, skills and that by the way is how we help to cut the cost of living for everyone because housing, energy, transport are now huge parts of our monthly bills.’

There was more in the same vein and some guff about ‘the dream of home ownership’ but you get the picture. Needless to say he had nothing to say about fixing parts of the market that are most broken for tens of thousands of leaseholders stuck in dangerous and defective flats. 

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Labour’s ‘new settlement’ for housing

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

If the tone sounded very New Labour at times, this week’s party conference in Brighton also signalled that some of the radical housing policies of the Corbyn era are here to stay. 

The speeches on tackling anti-social behaviour recalled the early days of Tony Blair while the promise of new fiscal rules and an Office for Value for Money were very Gordon Brown. 

But the influence of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell was also evident in a leader’s speech from Keir Starmer in which he pledged a Green New Deal.

This would include a national mission to retrofit every home in the country within a decade ‘to make sure that it is warm, well insulated and costs less to heat and we will create thousands of jobs in the process’. 

That timetable is just as ambitious as when Labour promised ‘Warm Homes for All’ in 2019 and, while there is not much detail, it suggests that housing decarbonisation will swallow up much of the £28 billion a year in green investment promised by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves. 

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The levelling up of MHCLG

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on September 23.

So it’s farewell to the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government and hello to the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. 

As rumoured last week, we have new brass plates and stationery to go with new secretary of state Michael Gove at Marsham Street and its new office in Wolverhampton. 

So what’s the difference between MHCLG and DLUHC? First, and most obvious, is that top billing for levelling up, as DLUHC becomes the unpronounceable in pursuit of the undefinable.

Second, it’s worth remembering why the rebranding to MHCLG seemed so significant when it happened three and a half years and three secretaries of state ago. 

It was not just the H in the title, it was the way it was a deliberate echo of the 1950s and 1960s, when the two main parties competed with each other to build more council houses, and Macmillan rather than Thatcher seemed the reference point for the Tories on housing.  

Third, an important caveat to that: although relegated to second billing, housing is still there in the name, which is more than can be said for its predecessors since the 1970s. 

Within a department with significant extra responsibilities (not just levelling up but preserving the union as well) housing is at least still a priority of sorts. Local government has disappeared. 

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New secretary of state, same old problems

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

So it’s farewell to Robert Jenrick and time to ‘welcome’ a new housing secretary in Michael Gove. 

The removal of Mr Jenrick is not a great surprise given a record that includes Westferry, failure to fix the building safety crisis and a flagship policy on planning reform that seems to be sinking. 

Still more so when he ranked third bottom in Conservative Home’s survey of grassroots Tories on how they see members of the Cabinet. Only Gavin Williamson (sacked) and Amanda Milling (demoted) were less popular than him. 

But he also got more money out of the Treasury for building safety than either of his two predecessors and that unpopularity may deserve more respect if it was based on nimby opposition to his planning reform agenda to deliver more homes 

The former housing secretary was an early supporter of Boris Johnson and was loyal to the point of defending government policies on the Sunday morning talk shows that were scrapped in u-turns an hour later.

But loyalty is not always what counts in politics and as if to prove the point he is replaced by Michael Gove, the man who famously stabbed Johnson in the back in the 2016 Tory leadership contest. 

The former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is the longest-serving current cabinet minister and brings with him cross-departmental clout that will include driving forward the manifesto commitments to deliver 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s and end rough sleeping by the end of this parliament

He was the shadow housing minister before Grant Shapps so he will be familiar with the issues and the main players and he will get an early reminder today of the biggest new issue in his in-tray when leaseholders and building safety campaigners hold a rally in Westminster.

However, such an apparently known quantity still leaves plenty of questions about what his priorities will be and he retains a capacity to surprise (not least on the dance floor). 

He comes with a reputation for delivery forged in the Cabinet Office but while some of this morning’s papers see his new job as central to the government’s mission to level up, others see it as a demotion or disappointment compared to his hopes of higher office. 

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Fixing social care by protecting property wealth

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

Boris Johnson has broken all kinds of election promises in his announcement on health and social care levy but for housing purposes there is one pledge remains front and centre.

Amid the wreckage of the triple locks on pensions and tax rates, it’s a survivor of the sunlit days of July 2019 when the new prime minister stood outside Number 10 and said: ‘My job is to protect you or your parents of grandparents from the fear of having to sell your home to pay for the costs of care. And so I am announcing now on the steps of Downing Street that we will fix the crisis in social care once and for all with a clear plan we have prepared to give every older person the dignity and security they deserve.’ Note the order of priorities.

It was there too in the Conservative manifesto in December, even though the ‘clear plan’ had become a somewhat vaguer aspiration for a cross-party consensus.  The significant bit came next (with original emphasis): ‘That consensus will consider a range of options but one condition we do make is that nobody needing care should be forced to sell their home to pay for it.’

And it’s there front and centre in the plan announced this week for a new £86,000 cap on the amount that anyone in England will have to spend on their personal care costs.

There are still some big caveats to mention – not least that the cap does not include accommodation costs and that social care comes after the NHS in the queue for cash – but the net effect should still be that people get to keep far more of their housing wealth and pass it on to their children and grandchildren.

Yet when we consider the details of the Health and Social Care Levy that will pay for it all, it’s striking that one category of assets and income is left completely untouched.

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Tackling the blight of second homes

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing

As the staycation summer starts to draw to a close, spare a thought for everyone living in the places where the rest of us have been on holiday.

Coastal areas and beauty spots in the countryside are well used to tourists but this year has really brought home the impact of second homes, holiday lets and relocating buyers on housing for locals.

On the beach on the  Llyn peninsula in North Wales, the message is Hawl i Fyw Adra (the Right to Live at Home) while demonstrators have scaled the country’s highest mountains to protest that Nid yw Cymru ar Werth (Wales is not for Sale).

In the South West of England, there are persistent reports of Londoners snapping up homes they’ve seen online without even viewing them in person and of tenants being evicted to make way for lucrative holiday lets.

House prices beyond the reach of local wages and rents inflated by holiday lets have long been features of the market but a new development this year is an acute shortage of any homes for rent, let alone affordable ones.

A quick search on Rightmove for my home town in Cornwall reveals just four rentals listed all summer – a studio flat, two bedsits in an HMO and a retirement flat.

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Why are house prices rising around the world?

Originally written as a column for insidehousing.co.uk

News that house prices are rising at their fastest rate since 2004 highlights both the perverse effects of the pandemic and long-term problems with affordability.

Average prices across the UK rose by 13.2 per cent in the year to June according to the official UK House Price Index  with Wales and the North of England leading the way.

While a low level of transactions suggests a need for some caution in interpretation, the same pattern has emerged in other house price surveys of double digit inflation led by regions outside London and the South East.

That confounds expectations at the start of the pandemic of recession about a declining market. The stamp duty holiday announced last Summer looks like an expensive mistake that has just helped fuel house price inflation.

In normal circumstances a bust might well follow the boom but continued support for the market will come from the estimated £180 billion in savings  that households have built up during the pandemic and the wealth gap  between housing haves and have-nots seems set to widen still further.

There is evidence of the same pattern emerging in housing markets around the world: annual house price growth across the 38 richest nations has more than doubled during the pandemic to hit 9.4 per cent, according to the OECD.

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Shopping for homes

Originally published on August 12 as a column for Inside Housing.

Walk down most High Streets in the country and you’ll see empty shops and offices. What’s the best way to turn them into homes?

That’s the question this month’s extension of permitted development rights (PDR) in England attempts to address but is the answer as simple as the government makes out?  

PDR for residential conversion has applied to some commercial buildings since 2013. But the regime has now been significantly expanded to more types of property and in some cases its demolition and replacement as well as conversion.

The results look they will be significant. Enthusiastic analysis by Nimbus Maps, which advises developers, says that around 31,000 properties and more than 8m sq m of floor space could be converted into 135,000 two-bedroom flats. The combined value of the buildings would almost double from £23 billion with commercial use to £43 billion as residential, it says.

A much more sceptical, but equally dramatic, view comes in research by University College London for the Town and Country Planning Association: based on case studies of Barnet, Crawley, Huntingdonshire and Leicester, it concludes that the total floorspace eligible for residential conversion will double under the new regime.

In terms of housing, the issues may seem straightforward. What’s  the problem if the policy could create so many extra homes in buildings that would otherwise lie empty or under-utilised?

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