10 things about 2016: part one

Originally published on December 23 on my blog for Inside Housing

It was a year that fell neatly into two halves: before and after everything was turned upside down. The vote for Brexit on 23 June transformed politics, and the complete change of government and ministers has shifted priorities that had seemed set in stone until 2020.

But as some things change, others remain very much the same. Here’s the first of my two-part look back on the things I was blogging about in 2016.

1. Ambitions for new homes

The year began with what David Cameron hailed as a “radical new policy shift for housing”. The prime minister said that “for the first time in more than three decades” the government would directly commission homes itself on public land, giving priority to small builders. It was a welcome move but it was hard not to think of previous housing strategies that turned out not to be as “radical and unashamedly ambitious” as he claimed.

Cameron’s commitment to a million new homes by 2020 – or 200,000 a year for five years – seemed to be exactly that when the government’s own housebuilding figures showed completions running at around 140,000 a year. However, in May I questioned whether the target was really as ambitious as it seemed. It was already becoming clear that ministers were using higher figures for the net additional supply of homes as their yardstick. The total for 2015/16, the first of the five years, was just 10,000 short of the 200,000 a year benchmark.

An influential House of Lords committee gave short shrift to a claim by Brandon Lewis that the housing plans were “very ambitious”. It called instead for 300,000 new homes a year, backed by a series of radical changes to policy on investment, planning and tax.

2016 ends with Lewis in a different job, Cameron out of a job and the promise of yet another housing plan. The White Paper will no doubt be equally as ‘ambitious’ when it is finally published but the signs are that this one will have fewer adjectives and more substance.

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The Housing Bill: Last word

Originally posted on May 11 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The end of resistance to the Housing and Planning Bill leaves one big question hanging: why was the government so completely determined to undo an amendment that delivered its manifesto commitment on higher-value sales?

On the face of it, the amendment by Lord Kerslake that ping-ponged back between the Commons and the Lords should not have been such an issue. It would have put on the face of the bill the funding of replacements for ‘higher-value’ homes where local authorities sign an agreement with the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). It also gave them the chance to make the case for social rented replacements, though the DCLG would not be required to accept this.

But ministers treated this as a wrecking amendment and claimed financial privilege on the grounds that it would fatally undermine their plans to pay for Right to Buy discounts for housing association tenants. Their determination was reflected in a piece in Wednesday’s Sun that included a threat to make the Commons sit all night and a personal attack on Lord Kerslake by Brandon Lewis.

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The Housing Bill: Price to pay

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

On Tuesday Brandon Lewis told the press that there would be no further concessions on the Housing Bill. A little over 24 hours later there were…further concessions.

On a day of five more defeats in the House of Lords, which will now ping pong back to the Commons, the biggest surprise for me was the last-minute changes to Pay to Stay announced by communities minister Baroness Williams.

The House of Commons overturned three previous Lords defeats on the controversial policy on Tuesday. To recap, the Lords had increased the thresholds to £40,000 and £50,000 in London, called for the thresholds to be increased in line with inflation every three years and reduced the taper rate from 20p to 10p. On all three the government claimed ‘financial privilege’, a strong message to the Lords to back off.

The stage was set for a new battle on Wednesday over slightly watered down Lords amendments but (probably fearing defeat) the minister announced a compromise – a taper rate of 15p and annual uprating of the thresholds in line with CPI inflation – that was accepted by peers.

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The Housing Bill: Mind the gap

Originally posted on May 4 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

What is the difference between ‘high’ and ‘higher’ value when it comes to the forced sale of council homes?

The two letters were added to the Housing and Planning Bill in a government amendment in the House of Lords last month. The government argued that the switch would help areas facing the highest housing pressure – inner London boroughs plus places like Harrogate, Oxford and Cambridge – that would all have ‘a high proportion of their stock defined as “high value”. The minister, Baroness Williams, said she could ‘confirm absolutely’ that it would not be used to raise more money.

But new analysis by Shelter suggests that the shift in the Bill to a levy on ‘higher value’ sales could mean councils having to sell 23,500 homes a year, six times more than under the previous ‘high value’ thresholds.

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The Housing Bill: The final lap

Originally published on April 29 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The worst excuse for a Bill that I can remember in 25 years of writing about housing limps back to the House of Commons next week.

The Housing and Planning Bill’s tail is not quite between its legs as all the key elements are still there and the Commons will reverse some changes. But it’s been gutted in the Lords, with two more defeats for the government on Wednesday, and this morning (Friday) it’s the subject of withering criticism by the all-party Public Accounts Committee.

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The Housing Bill: the better part of valour

Originally posted on April 19 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

It was another day, another session of watering down the Housing and Planning Bill in the Lords. Peers reached sections of the Bill including Pay to Stay and security of tenure in the latest Report stage debate on Monday.

On Pay to Stay for ‘high income’ council tenants, they inflicted three more defeats on the government and they also forced some interesting clarifications of the detail out of ministers. As the Bill now stands, local authorities will have discretion about whether to apply Pay to Stay, the thresholds will be increased to £40,000 outside London and £50,000 in London, and the taper for higher rents will be 10p.

Obviously it remains to be seen how much of this the government will look to reverse in the Commons, perhaps citing financial privilege because the money raised by the policy goes back to the Treasury.

The government version of the policy – set out in an email to peers an hour before the debate – is that it will be compulsory for councils, the thresholds will be £31,000 and £40,000 and the taper will be 20p. That means tenants would pay an extra £200 a year in rent for each £1,000 they earn above the thresholds. (It’s not clear to me why the out-of-London threshold has been increased from the previous £30,000).

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The Housing Bill: Higher power

Originally published on April 14 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Day two of the Lords report stage on the Housing Bill brought concessions on forced sales but there were inevitably more questions too.

Peers reached Part 4 of the Bill covering social housing in England and the main business of the day was the first two chapters: implementation of the voluntary right to buy and the levy on sales of high value council houses to pay for it.

This has always been one of the elements of the legislation that most resembled the back of a fag packet. The only figures ever published on how forced sales would work came in a Conservative party press release during the election campaign. This suggested that the most valuable third of council homes would be sold as they fall vacant, with values assessed against regional thresholds by bedroom size.

That raised many problems but two that stood out in particular. First, setting the values like that would mean local authorities in areas with high house prices would lose virtually all of their stock.

Second, it didn’t stack up: receipts would simply not be enough to cover right to buy discounts, the promised replacement homes and a proposed brownfield regeneration fund. That was clear right at the start and the CIH estimated the shortfall at £2.2bn.

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