Can Gove put the social back in ‘affordable’?

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Michael Gove’s challenge to ‘Thatcher-worshipping’ Tories to want more social rented housing feels like another significant milestone in the Conservative journey on the issue but the final destination remains unclear.

Speaking at a conference organised by Shelter, the levelling up secretary said he was exploring ways to increase support for social rent and change rules that restrict funding for it outside of the most unaffordable parts of the country.

He also admitted that previous Tory policies have ‘tilted more towards a particular set of products that are not truly affordable and have not enabled housing associations and others to generate the housing at the social rent that they need’.

The speech followed a report in the Sunday Telegraph that he is set to scrap the Section 106 of planning contributions and replace it with an infrastructure fund that will pave the way for a ‘council housing explosion’.

John Rentoul in The Independent sees all this, plus his success in bullying developers into paying up for building safety, as evidence that Gove will be a strong contender in the undeclared 2022 Conservative leadership contest.

At the same time, Telegraph columnist Liam Halligan, another speaker at the Shelter conference, argues that ‘council housing should be central to the Conservative brand’ and that the party should shift subsidies from benefits to bricks. 

Now keen-eyed readers may spot the odd example of cognitive dissonance in this reversal of 40 years of Conservative orthodoxy.

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The tide turns on deregulation and the private sector

The package of building safety changes announced this week by Michael Gove represents an extraordinary shift on any number of different levels.

Whether it’s effectively banning developers from building anything if they fail to cooperate or rewriting the terms of tens of thousands of leasehold contracts, the amendments to the Building Safety Bill will fundamentally change the way that flats (at least those over 11m) are maintained and managed.

The package inevitably raises a whole series of questions that I’ll return to in a future column but for now I want to concentrate on what it says about the extent of the change in the government’s attitude towards the private sector in housing.

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The long history of levelling up

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

Whether you put it down to coincidence, cock-up or an acute sense of history the decision to launch the Levelling Up white paper on Groundhog Day looks singularly appropriate.

My day began with the Today programme’s report from Wakefield rather than Sonny & Cher on the radio but the effect was similar. It took me straight back to the late 1980s when I was reporting on regeneration plans for the same city.

That was after Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘walk in the wilderness’ and promise on night she won the 1987 election that: ‘Tomorrow morning we must do something about those inner cities, because we want them too next time.’

Her government had spent the previous eight years destroying the traditional industries that provided the well-paid jobs in those same areas but now she would put things right. Regeneration programmes like City Challenge, Development Corporations and Estate Action duly followed.

Flash forward 35 years and, after winning many of the seats that eluded Mrs Thatcher, another Tory government is promising to ‘level up’ exactly the same areas. This after spending nine years slashing their local authority budgets.

And these are only two moments in a long history of attempts to rebalance the regional economies of the UK that date back to the 1920s.

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Gove’s grand plan leaves gaps to fill

As one MP put it, we welcome the steps forward in ministerial statements on building safety only to find problems in the steps backward that follow.

Michael Gove’s plans to ‘make developers pay’ represent the most positive steps seen so far but there are still major concerns over what comes next.

For starters, how exactly will he ‘make’ them? The initial plan in talks before Easter seems to be persuasion but the levelling up secretary has limited levers that he can pull and why would companies that have previously resisted calls to ‘do the right thing’ change their minds now?

He cited the way that Rydon Homes, sister company of the main contractor in the Grenfell refurbishment, was barred from Help to Buy but the scheme ends in 2023 and most of the £29 billion in equity loans has already been committed.

This highlights yet again a major flaw in the government’s support for housebuilders that I highlighted even before the creation of Help to Buy: its failure to get a quid pro quo for all that help for profits, bonuses and dividends.

Short of another support scheme, which may ironically be needed if supply plummets, that leaves blacklisting from Homes England programmes and naming and shaming as his principal weapons. Neither is a negligible threat but will they be enough?

That leaves coercion, legal action or the ‘high-level threat’ of a new tax that Gove is authorised to make in the letter leaked to Newsnight from chief secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke.

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Putting the interest rate rise in perspective

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

‘Millions hit by higher mortgage bills,’ ran the headlines after the Bank of England raised interest rates for the first time in three years.  

‘Worst blow to first-time buyers since financial crisis,’ was the Telegraph’s verdict on the increase from 0.1 to 0.25 per cent. The move had been long expected but it was still enough to send shares in housebuilders lower and banks higher.

Most mortgages are now on fixed-rate terms so most borrowers will not see an increase immediately, although the decision will add around £10 a month to repayments for someone on the standard variable rate and £15 a month for a tracker mortgage customer.

With energy bills already rising, council tax bills going up next year and price inflation at 5.1 per cent and rising that can only add to the worry for those borrowers who are already stretched.

Another way of looking at the interest rate rise is that 0.25 per cent is 20 times lower than what would have been considered a ‘low’ rate before 2008. The record lows since the financial crisis have now lasted for more than half the term of what used to be a standard 25-year mortgage.

Little wonder that house prices have boomed and the wealth of home owners has rocketed and that first-time buyers have faced a ‘worst blow’ more or less every month.

Nevertheless there are bigger questions that lie behind what is largely a symbolic decision driven by the Monetary Policy Committee need to meet market expectations about a rent increase to tackle inflation that is now far above its 2 per cent target.

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Parallel scandals

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

The building safety and leasehold scandals have run in tandem for some time but the parallels really hit home in parliament this week.

The parallels between the two issues go well beyond the fact that both concern leaseholders and the power imbalance between them and freeholders.

While the government is acting to change things for the future, progress on protecting existing leaseholders and residents of buildings with safety issues has been slow. Ministers have repeatedly promised action only to lament the complexities of the issues involved.

Building safety dominated the initial exchanges in Commons questions on Monday as MP after MP asked Michael Gove about the plight of leaseholders in their constituencies.

The levelling up secretary dropped yet more hints of a series of new measures to tackle the ‘invidious vice’ in which leaseholders are caught that will be announced ‘shortly’, ‘in due course’ and eventually ‘before Christmas’.

Adopting the more aggressive tone towards developers and the construction industry that has marked his approach to the issue since the reshuffle, he said that ‘my Department are looking at every available means to ensure that the burden is lifted from leaseholders’ shoulders and placed where it truly belongs’.

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An empty vision from the Conservatives

So now we know. The way to tackle the affordability crisis is to pretend that it does not exist.

There is no official confirmation yet but the clear message from the Conservative Party conference is that radical planning reform and the attempt to force through new housebuilding in the least affordable parts of the country are both dead.

In their place are vague assurances that building more homes in the North will help both to level up the country and take the pressure off the South East. 

It was there front and centre in Boris Johnson’s invitation in his conference speech  to: 

‘Look at this country from the air. Go on google maps, you can also see how much room there is to build the homes that young families need in this country, not on green fields, not just jammed in the South East, but beautiful homes on brownfield sites in places where homes make sense.’

The prime minister still talked about ‘fixing the broken housing market’ but that is no longer a goal to be achieved by building more homes in expensive areas but a means to a different end:

‘Housing in the right place at an affordable price will add massively not just to your general joie de vivre but to your productivity. And that is how we solve the national productivity puzzle by fixing the broken housing market by plugging in the gigabit, by putting in decent safe bus routes and all other transport infrastructure and by investing in skills, skills, skills and that by the way is how we help to cut the cost of living for everyone because housing, energy, transport are now huge parts of our monthly bills.’

There was more in the same vein and some guff about ‘the dream of home ownership’ but you get the picture. Needless to say he had nothing to say about fixing parts of the market that are most broken for tens of thousands of leaseholders stuck in dangerous and defective flats. 

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