Pensions for property is still a bad idea

Originally published on June 4 as a blog for Inside Housing.

Every seven years or so, it seems, a senior politician will be tempted by the alluring idea of linking pension savings to home ownership.

When James Brokenshire said on Monday that young people should be allowed to use some of their pension pot to buy their first home, he was following in the footsteps of Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander in 2012 and Gordon Brown in 2005.

He told a meeting organised by Policy Exchange:

‘It seems rather obtuse that we would deny people the opportunity to do this, given that we know those who own their own home by retirement are on average a) wealthier and b) do not have the burden of the largest expense in retirement – accommodation.’

This was one of several what he described as ‘personal ideas’ to ‘help empower consumers in the housing market’ and it’s one that seems superficially attractive given the size of deposit required by many first-time buyers.

And it was an indication of what the housing secretary really thinks about a brief that he could well lose once we have a result from the contest to be the new prime minister and Conservative leader (he ruled himself out).

For him, the idea of allowing people to use their pensions for housing is common sense:

‘It is, after all, their money. Not the fund’s, not the state’s, it’s yours and the next Conservative government should free that capital up, and trust the individual to make the choice for themselves.’

The choice of venue seemed appropriate given that Policy Exchange has been the source of so many of the worst ideas in housing since 2010.

But this one has drawn condemnation from two different directions, with housing groups saying it would fuel house price inflation with tax-subsidised pensions and the pensions lobby arguing that it could destabilise saving for retirement.

Within hours of Mr Brokenshire’s speech, Sky News was reporting that the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had complained to Downing Street about a ‘risky’ plan that had not been discussed with them.

A source said:

‘We cannot support this policy because the evidence shows it will be risky and does not help the people it intends to help. The housing market doesn’t need people to dip into their pensions to buy more houses.’

Though this may seem a bit rich coming from those who designed universal credit, the DWP is quite right about the plan: tax breaks are there to boost pension saving not house prices.

Rising house prices would skew the housing market even more in favour of people with wealthy families but falling prices would undermine retirement incomes and increase costs for the DWP.

In fairness, though, Mr Brokenshire was joining an all-party group of senior ministers seduced by different versions of the same idea.

Go back seven years to 2012 and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg and Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander were proposing ‘pensions for property’ at the Lib Dem conference.

The scheme to allow parents and grandparents use their retirement savings to guarantee a deposit for their children and grandchildren had far more detail than the one floated by Mr Brokenshire but it looked just as dumb. Thankfully nothing ever came of it.

Go back another seven years to 2005 and Labour chancellor Gordon Brown was proposing that residential property should be one of the eligible categories for investment by people with self-invested personal pensions (SIPPs).

This idea was if anything even worse, with huge tax subsidy for housing investment by the wealthiest section of the population and no benefits for first-time buyers.

Thankfully, the Treasury saw sense at the 11th hour and ruled that residential property would not be eligible but that did not mean that the housing and pensions issue had gone away.

The boom in Buy to Let that was just starting to get underway was partly fuelled by older home owners seeing investment in renting as a more flexible way of saving for retirement but it took ministers years to see the impact on would-be first-time buyers.

James Brokenshire is not the first politician to connect pensions and housing and see a way of appealing to aspirational voters but this is a seven-year itch that does not need scratching.

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Meanwhile, in other news…

Originally posted on January 29 as a blog for Inside Housing.

In the brief lull between Brexit chaos, the politics of housing just about continues as normal at Westminster.

The first Housing, Communities and Local Government (HCLG) questions of the year was dominated by two all-too-familiar issues (homelessness and fire safety) while the HCLG committee inquiry into reform of the building regulations heard from the main expert and the minister.

First up in the main chamber was what the government is doing to reduce death rates among homeless people, with housing secretary James Brokenshire saying that every death is ‘one too many’.

Given the 597 deaths recorded in 2017, an increase of 24% in five years, his script about £100m for the rough sleeping strategy and £1.2bn for homelessness prevention, let alone £5m for colder weather, did not exactly sound convincing.

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10 things about 2018 – part two

Originally posted on December 28 as a column for Inside Housing. 

The second part of my look back at the year runs from land to Brexit via renting and council housing. Part one is here.

6. The land question

If 2018 was the year of the tenant, then another issue was not far behind as the land question took on an importance arguably not seen since before the First World War.

A developing political consensus around the potential of land value capture as a funding mechanism for infrastructure and affordable housing found expression in a favourable report from the all-party Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee and an open letter signed by former Downing Street insiders and think tanks and organisations across the political spectrum. One report put the net profit made by landowners just for getting planning permission for housing at a cool £13 bn a year.

At the same time the chancellor appointed former Cabinet minister Sir Oliver Letwin to lead out an independent review of the slow pace at which homes get built. Letwin quickly focussed on slow-build out rates on large sites but concluded that the reason why they take an average of more than 15 years to complete has less to do with landbanking (hoarding land with planning permission) than the absorption rate (the fact that developers only build as fast as they can sell for a required profit in local markets).

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10 things about 2018 – part one

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 21.

It was the year of three housing ministers and two secretaries of states (so far), the year that the department went back to being a ministry and a new government agency promised to ‘disrupt’ the housing market.

It was also the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, of Sir Oliver Letwin and Lord Porter and of some significant anniversaries.

Above all, it was the year after Grenfell and the year before Brexit. Here is the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about in 2018.

1. New names, new ministers

January had barely begun when the Department for Communities and Local Government became the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The name harked back to the glory days when housing was ‘our first social service’ and housing secretary Sajid Javid became the first full member of the cabinet with housing in his title since 1970.

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More housing questions than answers

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on December 11. 

As Westminster grinds to a halt over Brexit at least some progress is still being made on housing – or is it?

In the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, some things have undoubtedly moved but the signs at Housing Communities and Local Government questions on Monday were that others are grinding to a halt.

First up was the land question and specifically the way that MHCLG dashed hopes of radical reform of land value capture in its response to a Housing Communities and Local Government Committee report recommending big changes to a system that sees planning permission for housing increase the value of agricultural land by 100 times.

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‘Housing week’ off to an uncertain start

For once this is a silly season that has some substance. If you can tear yourself away from the sun lounger or the latest pronouncement by the Etonian Katie Hopkins, mid-August sees a trio of government announcements that are crucial for housing and homelessness.

Last week featured another big benefits u-turn: confirmation that housing benefit will continue for supported accommodation removes a cloud that has been hanging over projects including homeless hostels and women’s refuges.

Monday saw the launch of the strategy that the government says will enable it to meet its target of halving rough sleeping in England by 2022 and ending it by 2027.

And what is billed as ‘housing week’ is set to continue on Tuesday with the launch of the social housing green paper – originally promised in the Spring, then before the parliamentary recess last month, but now appearing while most MPs are on holiday.

The timing does at least ensure some media attention, including an uncertain performance by James Brokenshire in the TV and radio studios on Monday morning.

After a lively appearance on Good Morning Britain, the housing secretary struggled on the Today programme when asked whether government policies are to blame for the relentless rise in rough sleeping and floundered when asked how much of the promised ‘£100 million plan’ is new money. (Somewhere between none and not much was the eventual answer).

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