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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Housing in the Labour manifesto

Originally posted on May 16 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

Anyone caught up in the narrative about Labour’s radical manifesto will be left disappointed and a little bit puzzled by the party’s proposals on housing.

They will not be surprised given last week’s leak of the draft but they will find a sensible and pragmatic set of policies that move closer to what is desperately needed to tackle the housing crisis and are actually open to criticism for being too timid.

To give one example, the 2017 manifesto is routinely compared in the media to 1983’s ‘longest suicide note in history’.

But where Michael Foot’s Labour proposed a publicly-owned housebuilder and nationalisation of key parts of the building materials industry, Jeremy Corbyn’s party wants to extend Help to Buy for another seven years.

The equity loan part of the scheme is currently due to end in 2020 but Labour would guarantee funding until 2027 ‘to give long-term certainty to both first-time buyers and the housebuilding industry’.

That goes well beyond necessary action to avoid a cliff edge and abrupt fall in output after 2020.

It should be cause for celebration in the boardrooms of the big housebuilders because Help to Buy would continue to underpin their completions, profit margins, dividends and share options.

Or at least it might be if housebuilder executives were not also going to be hit personally by tax increases on higher earners and corporately by an excessive pay levy on employees paid over £500,000 a year.

But it’s still a surprising move from Labour. As Theresa May found out yesterday, Help to Buy is by no means universally popular and critics argue that too many of the benefits go to the big firms, their shareholders and people who can afford to buy anyway.

Whether you agree or disagree with it, extending Help to Buy until 2027 is evidence that on housing Labour’s approach would be pragmatic rather than ideological.

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Going rogue

Originally published on January 9 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

This week’s Communities and Local Government questions featured rogue policies, rogue landlords and a rogue house builder.

Rogue policy number one is the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap and its impact on supported housing. As Labour MPs lined up to criticise it, housing minister Brandon Lewis pointed to the review expected in the spring and pledged:

‘The changes will come in in 2018, but we are very clear, and have always been very clear, that we will make sure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected.’

That was not good enough for Labour’s Roberta Blackman-Woods, who quoted estimates by Newcastle-based Changing Lives about the losses it and other providers will suffer and argued that the discretionary fund will be inadequate. Lewis responded by pointing to the £400m of funding for new specialist affordable homes in the Spending Review (not much use if housing benefit won’t cover the rent) and the £5.3bn Better Care Fund (which is about health and social care, not housing).

But it was not good enough for Tory MP Peter Aldous either, who called for urgent clarity on whether the cap applies to homeless hostels and foyers. ‘If it does not, there is a real worry that many will close and that, as a result, there will be an unnecessary rise in the numbers of young homeless people.’

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The Housing Bill: From bad to worse


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

If it is an achievement to pilot a Bill through the House of Commons and end up with legislation that is worse than what you started with, then congratulations Brandon Lewis and Greg Clark.

Back in October I blogged that the Housing and Planning Bill is written on the back of a fag packetOn Tuesday it completed its report stage and got a third reading with additions and amendments scribbled all over the front as well. It was hard to disagree with the verdict of shadow housing minister John Healey in his closing speech: ‘Usually, we hope to improve a Bill as it goes through the House. This was a bad Bill; it is now a very bad Bill.’

Healey cited late amendments to change the definition of ‘affordable’ to include starter homes costing up to £450,000 (‘the Government are not building enough affordable homes, so they are simply branding more homes as affordable’) and to force councils to offer fixed-term tenancies (‘meaning the end of long-term rented housing, the end of a stable home for many children as they go through school, and the end of security for pensioners who move into bungalows or sheltered flats later in life’).

It was hard to disagree either with his view that ‘the Bill sounds the death knell for social housing’. That much will be obvious to anyone working in housing or who has followed the progress of the Bill. The tab for the Conservative manifesto pledges of extending the right to buy and building 200,000 starter homes is effectively being picked up by councils that still own their homes, tenants and people who will not get the chance of a social tenancy in future.

The Bill accelerates the slow death of social housing through a combination of deliberate culling (forced sales, Pay to Stay and fixed term tenancies for council housing), euthanasia (voluntary right to buy for housing associations plus conversions) and redefining the conditions for life (‘affordable’ will now not just mean starter homes but anything the secretary of state says). It is also now official that a private rented home does not have to be fit for human habitation.

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Back to the future

Originally posted on September 15 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

The first Communities and Local Government questions with a new opposition brought some familiar faces – and issues – back into the limelight.

The Labour reshuffle following the election of Jeremy Corbyn gave the shadow DCLG team only a couple of hours to prepare so it was just as well that shadow communities secretary Jon Trickett had an experienced man beside him on the front bench.

John Healey was one of the most effective Labour housing ministers and continued to show a strong interest even after he moved on. His warning about the threat to social housing helped inspire the creation of SHOUT. He explained his continuing interest in an Inside Housing interview last year in which he supported lifting the borrowing cap on council housing.

In June he wrote to the National Audit Office to call for an investigation of the Right to Buy. It’s good news that he’s back and even better that he’s a member of the shadow cabinet.

His line of attack at Monday’s DCLG questions was declining home ownership. With George Osborne describing it as ‘a tragedy’, what did communities secretary Greg Clark have to say to millions of ‘middle England, middle-income young people and families’ with no hope of buying?

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