May dedicates her premiership to fixing housing

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 4.

You wait a lifetime for a prime minister to make housing their priority and then she gets her P45 while losing her voice with the conference set falling apart behind her.

With all that happening around her it was easy to ignore the substance of Theresa May’s speech.

You may have missed it between coughs but for the first time since the 1950s here was a prime minister promising to put housing at the heart of their premiership.

And here was a Conservative prime minister not just promising an extra £2bn for ‘affordable’ housing but even allowing bids for social rent too.

But as the letters slowly dropped off the conference slogan about ‘BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE’ you wondered how long she will have a premiership to put anything at the heart of.

And even then it is hard to avoid drawing the obvious conclusions from the comparison between an extra £2bn for affordable housing and an extra £10bn for Help to Buy.

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Housing in the Conservative manifesto

Originally posted on May 18 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

This is a Conservative manifesto with only two firm targets on housing but lots of interesting hints about future direction and some intriguing omissions.

The first target is to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it completely by 2027 by implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act and piloting a Housing First approach.

The 2022 target may seem bold but it would mean that rough sleeping would still be significantly higher than it was in 2010 when the coalition came to power.

The one for 2027 is incredibly ambitious and would mean matching Finland’s incredible record on homelessness within ten years.

Sajid Javid obviously returned fired up from his visit to Helsinki but you wonder if he took on board just how comprehensive and well-funded the Finnish version of Housing First needed to be to work.

The second target is ‘meet our 2015 commitment to deliver a million homes by the end of 2020 and we will deliver half a million more by the end of 2022’.

The first bit is unambitious and should be achievable, especially as the end point has been shifted from May 2020 (the original end of the parliament) to December 2020.

As the National Audit Office pointed out in January, that would actually mean that fewer new homes will be built over the next three years than were achieved last year. This is on the basis of the net additional supply of homes rather than just housebuilding completions.

The second bit is a different matter. A quick look at the net supply figures shows that there have only been three years in the last 25 when we have exceeded 200,000.

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Blue futures

Originally published on July 5 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

I wouldn’t pretend for a second that housing is anywhere near top of the to do list for the five contenders to be the new Conservative leader and prime minister – or that the winner will mean a radical change in approach.

But so many political certainties have been overturned in the last week or so that nothing can be ruled out. Not least, George Osborne’s decision to abandon his budget surplus target changes the financial parameters for housing policy in ways that are only just beginning to be thought through.

This could open up new possibilities for housing in the Autumn Statement under a new prime minister and quite possibly a new chancellor. However, it’s also likely to mean that austerity will continue into the 2020s.

The background of the contenders alone will be a change. Unlike David Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson, all five of them are state-educated. Two (Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox) were even brought up in council housing.

So what about housing? There are divisions between the contenders on their attitudes: some are ready to concede a role for social housing while others focus completely on the market and three of the five appear to be saying that housing will be a bigger priority with a bigger budget.

However, the main dividing line is between supporters of and objectors to new homes. This tension between ‘supporters’ and ‘objectors’ has been evident throughout the coalition and Conservative governments and reached uneasy compromise in the National Planning Policy Framework, with ‘localism’ balanced by the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

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Farewell to the Great Social Reformer

You go away for the weekend and suddenly everything goes mad: it turns out that Iain Duncan Smith was really a Socialist or a Liberal Democrat all along.

The Great Social Reformer (this is what the many ‘friends of’ IDS speaking to journalists call him) has not just resigned, not just skewered George Osborne, he’s also questioned the fundamentals of the post-2010 Conservatives narrative. We are not ‘all in this together’, the most vulnerable will not be ‘protected’ and the deficit reduction target is ‘more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest’.

Yet this (apparent) modern day heir to Tory Great Social Reformers like Shaftesbury and Wilberforce is also the same Iain Duncan Smith responsible for punitive benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, the £30 a week ESA cut and all the other salami slices taken out of the social security system in the last six years that were not ‘compromises too far’. The man who took the moral high ground about cuts that benefit the better-off is the same one who stood on a manifesto of cutting inheritance tax and £12 billion from benefits.

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Under new ownership

Originally posted on October 7 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Forget social housing, any kind of affordable rented housing is living on borrowed time in the wake of this year’s Conservative conference.

In his speech on Wednesday David Cameron announced ‘a national crusade to get homes built’ and go from ‘Generation Rent into Generation Buy’.

The headline policy of starter homes does not look any better than it did the first two times he announced it (in December 2014 and again when he doubled the target in March). The original policy had potential because it offered the prospect of additional homes on sites that would not have got planning permission before. Though there were potential problems, what would amount to urban exception sites looked like a good idea, especially if the uplift in land values could be captured to pay for infrastructure.

But the idea has looked worse and worse the more it has evolved. Research by Shelter has shown that even at a 20 per cent discount the homes will not be affordable in most of the country. Despite an advisory committee on design, there’s not much to stop housebuilders cutting costs by making them starter hutches rather than homes and no mechanism has been suggested so far to check that the discount really is a discount. And even if there is a deal to be had for Generation Rent some of the benefits will go to people who could have afforded to buy at the undiscounted price.

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Beyond the deal

Originally posted on October 13 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

If the result of the NHF ballot was a foregone conclusion, just about everything else about the extension of the right to buy remains unclear.

With a majority of 93% by stock and 86% by membership, the NHF has a result it can present to the government as a resounding endorsement of its voluntary deal. True, it’s only 55% of those eligible to vote (or, as Joe Halewood argues, 20% of all registered providers) but that presentation is what really counts. Given the dubious nature and timing of the vote, this was always going to be the result (see my related post Deal or No Deal?).

But anyone looking for a response from Greg Clark at the Conservative conference on Monday will have come away disappointed. The communities secretary extolled the virtues of the right to buy, argued housing association tenants have the same ambitions to own as everyone else and delivered the line Tories wanted to hear: ‘We are doing what we promised, we are extending the right to buy to housing association tenants.’ But there was no explicit reference to the deal rushed through in time for the conference.

The omission may just be a demonstration of the political sensitivity involved. Early reports said Clark had watered down the manifesto pledge (something he denied, though the voluntary arrangement may result in the right to a discount rather than a right to buy for some tenants). However, it’s also a reflection of how much has still to be resolved.

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The 101st day

The Conservatives must be pinching themselves after 100 days in government. What can possibly go wrong?

For three months they’ve been able to do pretty much as they like. The Liberal Democrats are humiliated, Labour is demoralised and distracted and the opposition that has come from the SNP is a comforting reminder of the Scottish card that won the election. Thanks to all of that, plus expectations formed by inaccurate opinion polls, a government with a tiny majority elected with just over a third of the vote can behave as though it’s won a victory on a par with 1945, 1979 and 1997.

Yet the Tory luck cannot hold for ever. The obvious cloud on the horizon is Europe, with no sign that Brussels will hand David Cameron concessions meaningful enough to sell to his sceptical party ahead of the election. Economically, it’s far easier to start with a recession turn it into a recovery than it is to manage expectations in improving times.

But could the Conservatives turn out to be most immediately vulnerable where they seem strongest: on the ground they’ve staked out since the election to be ‘the real party of working people’? As Cameron put it in an article for the Telegraph on Saturday:

‘On the challenge of delivering an economy that supports working people, it is Conservatives who believe that a free enterprise economy is an ally not an enemy in generating wealth and extending opportunity. By cutting taxes, reforming welfare and increasing minimum wages we are showing we are the real party of working people.’

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Enemies of the state

Originally posted on July 5 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Bring it on. We are determined take you on. Who do David Cameron and George Osborne have in mind?

If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to read their op-ed in Saturday’s Times on ‘Here’s how to build a homeowning Britain’. They mean England of course. You can read extracts on the Number 10 website but that only gives a flavour of the full article so I’ve posted it here.

Ahead of the Budget, they promise that ‘a shake-up of inheritance tax and crackdown on nimby councils will give young people a foothold on the property ladder’. It is not just an explicitly, distinctively Conservative vision for housing but also a declaration of war against anyone opposed to that vision. Here’s my take on the key points:

‘Having your own place is an important stake in our economy. It’s also one of the best expressions of the aspirational country we want to build, where hard work is rewarded.

‘It’s also about social justice. We don’t want this to be a country where if you’re rich you can buy a home, but if you’re less well off you can’t. We want it to be One Nation, where whoever you are, you can get on in life.’

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Fly in the ointment

Could the Conservatives really admit they got it wrong on the bedroom tax? Hard as it is to imagine Iain Duncan Smith admitting he was wrong about anything, pressure is growing for a rethink.

In the Times yesterday, David Cameron’s former speechwriter Clare Foges offered her ex-boss some advice a series of options on how to break with the party’s image as the nasty party, including this one:

‘Move on from the bedroom tax. It is not working as had been hoped and will remain a fly in the one-nation ointment. Have a mea culpa moment and move on.’

Note the lack of pretence that it’s really the removal of the spare room subsidy and that it’s all working brilliantly to save money and use social housing more fairly.

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Blue skies: Part two

Is One Nation Conservatism anything more than PR puff? The conclusion of my blog sets out 12 tests of what it could and should mean in housing.

In the wake of the unexpected election result influential voices within the Conservative Party talked about the need for a new appeal to the aspirational working classes. Whether it’s called Blue Collar or One Nation Conservatism, the idea is to shake off the negativity of the nasty party, steal Labour’s clothes and lock in another majority for 2020.

Part one of this blog featured calls by people like Tim Montgomerie, David Green, Nick de Bois and Christian Guy not just for a radical new approach to housebuilding to spread the benefits of home ownership but also a new approach to housing to meet the needs of renters. Guy called housing ‘one of the social justice issues of our time’. There was more of this over the weekend, with Chris Walker of Policy Exchange calling housing ‘key to a Conservative vision for working people’.

But what does all this Tory philosophising amount to? The desire to appeal to aspirational workers (and for power in 2020) is certainly genuine enough but is the party really ready for its implications? The suspicion remains that this is as much about redefining the meaning of ‘One Nation’ as it is about changing course: one nation for those able to Work Hard and Do the Right Thing that looks the other way when it comes to those who cannot and ignores the fact that many of them will still not be able to pay their rent.

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