12 tests for the Housing White Paper

This is an updated version of a post originally published on January 12 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The moment is finally here but will radical plans to boost housing supply live up to their advance billing? Here are my tests.

  1. How half-baked is it?

In one very important way, ministers have already passed my first test. Publication of a White Paper seems to mark a return to an earlier era of government when policies went through consultation and scrutiny before they were enacted.

Contrast that with the way that half-baked ideas from thinktanks were turned into equally half-baked legislation in the back of a fag packet Housing and Planning Act.

Speaking of which, how much will we hear about the loose ends that still need tying up from the act? Pay to Stay may be dead in its compulsory form, and the extension of the Right to Buy delayed by another pilot, but we still don’t know what’s happening with forced sales of higher-value council houses or to the receipts they raise.

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The trouble with starter homes

Originally posted on January 3 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The new year ‘green light’ for Starter Homes raises yet more questions about the flagship Conservative policy.

The announcement covers 30 local authority partnerships that will get help from the £1.2bn Starter Home Land Fund to develop schemes with “thousands of new homes” on brownfield sites. These will then be sold at a discount of “at least 20% below market value” to first-time buyers aged between 23 and 40.

So far, so faithful then to the policy as it evolved under David Cameron and George Osborne. But note that vague reference to “thousands” and compare it with the very specific pledge to build 200,000 Starter Homes in the 2015 Conservative manifesto. The Starter Homes Land Fund was launched in the Spring Budget to deliver “at least 30,000 homes”. Note too that only five or six of the 30 areas are in the politically sensitive South East and that the announcement does not cover London.

What this looks like is the more acceptable end of the policy: a plan to get homes built on sites that might not otherwise be developed. True, the £1.2bn could be better spent in other ways but this is not yet the subsidy-hungry, Section 106-hogging ‘cuckoo in the nest’ of affordable housing specified in the Housing and Planning Act.

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Manifestly without details

Originally published on November 8 on my blog for Inside Housing

There are no guarantees but the penny has dropped at the DCLG that policies that were written on the back of a fag packet need lots more work. Six months after the Housing and Planning Act received Royal Assent, we are still waiting for the key details. Could it be that the new ministers have realised that some of what their predecessors did was manifestly without reason too?

Things are not remotely clear with the Housing and Planning Act but perhaps the fact that I’m even able to write that six months after it became law is good news of a sort. It remains to be seen how much will be changed or watered down but the new ministerial team at the DCLG clearly do not share the gung-ho assumptions of their predecessors and the government as a whole has bigger things on its mind. Watch the first five minutes or so of yesterday’s session at the Communities and Local Government Committee to see what I mean.

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The ides of November

Originally posted on October 31 on my blog for Inside Housing

The last four months have seemed to offer a series of new possibilities for housing from Theresa May’s new government. From the prime minister’s rhetoric about ‘a country that works for everyone’ to housing minister Gavin Barwell’s emphasis on the importance of all tenures, the signals have been pointing to a significant shift away from the stance of the previous Tory administration. Friday brought good news when the Homelessness Reduction Bill won a second reading with the support of the government.

But events in the next month or so will go a long way to determining where those signals are really leading us. For all the rhetoric we don’t know much more detail than when the government went back to work at the beginning of September. While the dates of some events are already set, others are expected “shortly”. Here’s a selected list:

November 7

A week today sees the start of the reduction in the overall household benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere.

An updated impact assessment published in August estimates that 88,000 households (107,000 adults and 244,000 children) will be affected by the lower cap, including 64,000 who would not have been covered by the original cap.

That is much less than in the original impact assessment, one reason being that the government has introduced new exemptions for guardians and carers in response to defeat in the courts. It also seems on the low side given that it means housing benefit will not cover the rent for families in more expensive areas and with higher rents and for larger families everywhere, even in social housing. And it will only encourage more landlords to restrict their lettings of ‘affordable’ homes to ‘working families’.

To borrow a line from Steve Hilditch, if October ended with the Homelessness Reduction Bill’s second reading, then November will kick off what can only be a homelessness expansion policy.

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Beyond the fringe

Originally posted on October 11 on my blog for Inside Housing

Gavin Barwell has apparently spent the last two weeks telling old people who should inherit their property wealth and young people they should live in rabbit hutches.

The comments prompted outrage online and in the comment pages of the newspapers and the ones about inheritance saw him ‘slapped down’ by Downing Street. These were ‘personal comments’ and ‘certainly not policy’, said No 10.

But what did the housing minister actually say?

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Question and answers

Originally posted on September 29 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Gavin Barwell told the NHF conference last week that he’s spent his first two months as housing minister asking everyone one simple question: ‘Why don’t we build enough homes in this country?’

It’s a good question that instantly made me think that he should ask one of his predecessors in the housing and planning job. I’m in the middle of reading Nick Raynsford’s new book Substance not Spin. After 43 years of experience as a campaigner and minister it’s subtitled ‘an insider’s view of success and failure in government’.

Any book from (for my money) one of the best housing ministers we’ve had during that time is going to be well worth reading. However, the title of one chapter in particular chimes exactly with what Barwell was talking about: ‘Why can’t we build enough homes?’

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What next?

Originally published on September 13 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

As Theresa May’s government busies itself trashing the legacy of David Whatsisname and George Wotsit, what about housing?

The new government’s pick-and-mix approach to the pre-referendum commitments now includes the budget surplus target, a sudden switch to grammar schools, a delay on Hinkley Point and a downgrading of the Northern Powerhouse.

But housing is still stuck in the tray marked pending. The soundbite of ‘a country that works for everyone’ could signal a change of direction but equally well it might just mean one that works for everyone providing they are home owners.

So comments by Gavin Barwell in his first major speech as housing minister yesterday make for interesting reading. Speaking at RESI in Newport (curiously a conference held in Wales that is all about England) he said:

‘The way you make housing in this country more affordable to rent and buy is you build more homes. There is still a role for the government doing specific things to help people on to the first rung but this can’t be at the exclusion of all else.’

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