New secretary of state, same old problems

Originally written as a column for Inside Housing.

So it’s farewell to Robert Jenrick and time to ‘welcome’ a new housing secretary in Michael Gove. 

The removal of Mr Jenrick is not a great surprise given a record that includes Westferry, failure to fix the building safety crisis and a flagship policy on planning reform that seems to be sinking. 

Still more so when he ranked third bottom in Conservative Home’s survey of grassroots Tories on how they see members of the Cabinet. Only Gavin Williamson (sacked) and Amanda Milling (demoted) were less popular than him. 

But he also got more money out of the Treasury for building safety than either of his two predecessors and that unpopularity may deserve more respect if it was based on nimby opposition to his planning reform agenda to deliver more homes 

The former housing secretary was an early supporter of Boris Johnson and was loyal to the point of defending government policies on the Sunday morning talk shows that were scrapped in u-turns an hour later.

But loyalty is not always what counts in politics and as if to prove the point he is replaced by Michael Gove, the man who famously stabbed Johnson in the back in the 2016 Tory leadership contest. 

The former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is the longest-serving current cabinet minister and brings with him cross-departmental clout that will include driving forward the manifesto commitments to deliver 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s and end rough sleeping by the end of this parliament

He was the shadow housing minister before Grant Shapps so he will be familiar with the issues and the main players and he will get an early reminder today of the biggest new issue in his in-tray when leaseholders and building safety campaigners hold a rally in Westminster.

However, such an apparently known quantity still leaves plenty of questions about what his priorities will be and he retains a capacity to surprise (not least on the dance floor). 

He comes with a reputation for delivery forged in the Cabinet Office but while some of this morning’s papers see his new job as central to the government’s mission to level up, others see it as a demotion or disappointment compared to his hopes of higher office. 

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Latest attempt to end fire safety crisis leaves more questions than answers

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing.

While everyone will be hoping that Robert Jenrick has finally found a way through some of the worst aspects of the fire safety crisis, it’s hard not to be a bit sceptical.

The housing secretary issued a dramatic written statement just as MPs were preparing for the Second Reading debate on the Building Safety Bill last week. An accompanying press release from the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government said that: ‘Leaseholders in blocks of flats with cladding should be supported to buy, sell or re-mortgage their homes after the government agreed with major lenders to pave the way to ending the need for EWS1 forms. It comes following expert advice that the forms should no longer be needed on buildings below 18 metres.’

However, that use of ‘should’ is telling because the announcement will achieve nothing if mortgage valuers and lenders do not accept it and if potential buyers are not convinced that the flats are risk-free. The banks quoted as supporting the agreement have only promised to review their practices so far.

Previous attempts to reform the EWS1 process have failed and – even though the small print of this announcement contains the potentially significant addition of a government-backed indemnity insurance scheme for external wall system assessors. This one has already hit a significant obstacle as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) says it cannot change its advice to valuers and banks saying they will not change their policies the government changes its own fire safety guidance.

Even if we assume that this is a chicken and egg problem that can be resolved, there are still grounds for scepticism about Jenrick’s attempt to close Pandora’s Box.

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When planning reform meets politics

Originally a column for Inside Housing.

A couple of miles away from where I live in Cornwall a community land trust wants to build 29 affordable homes for people with a strong local connection.

These are the first new affordable homes of any kind in Newlyn for years but (you guessed it) there is a ‘backlash from angry locals’. It’s not the homes they object to (of course not, it never is) but the traffic they will generate.

On the one hand, house prices are way out of reach of local earnings and there is a desperate shortage even of homes for private rent thanks to holiday lets. It would be hard to think of an example of a development more deserving of local support rather than campaign groups organising against it.

It’s a compelling reason why the government’s plans to reform the planning system so that individual planning applications no longer come into the equation and land is simply designated for protection, growth and renewal should be taken very seriously.

On the other, this is one of the rural areas facing the ‘threat’ of 400,000 new homes in a report this week that illustrates the scale of the well-housed Tory rebellion in the shires.

But something else I was reading recently suggests a need for caution. My Style of Government is Nicholas Ridley’s critique of the record of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative administration between 1979 and 1990.

Ridley was one of the main ideologues of Thatcherism and as her environment secretary between 1986 and 1989 he was the architect of the Housing Act 1988 and therefore of much of the housing system as we know it today.

He is also credited with popularising the term NIMBY, although his credibility suffered when it was revealed that he had himself objected to a planning application near his country home in the Cotswolds.

But what’s significant I think is this arch Thatcherite’s admission of complete failure on planning and the political lessons that he drew from it.

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The Westferry affair and planning reform

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on June 29.

A cartoon in a national newspaper last week showed a pig about to dive into a trough from a springboard marked ‘Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government’ saying ‘I declare this development officially open’.

It was an indication if any were needed of how the Westferry Printworks affair has left the impression that the planning system is a ‘Tory funny money’ game of Monopoly (another cartoon two days later).

Richard Desmond’s £12,000 donation to the Conservatives may be small change but the timing shortly after housing secretary Robert Jenrick approved his plans for a £1 billion housing development still stinks.

It leaves the housing secretary looking – in the most generous interpretation of events – naïve in his dealings with the billionaire.

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A strategy full of contradictions

Originally posted on March 17 on my blog for Inside Housing.

What was billed as a statement about planning to follow the Budget was actually a declaration of intent about the future of housing – with some glaring contradictions at the heart of it.

An oral statement to the Commons and accompanying policy paper last Thursday from housing secretary Robert Jenrick foreshadow not just the planning and social housing white papers but also a new housing strategy that will be published alongside the Spending Review in the Autumn.

By my reckoning this will be the first housing strategy to be billed as such since David Cameron ‘radical and unashamedly ambitious’ one that pledged to ‘get Britain building’ in 2011.

Given what’s happened since, and the fact that Thursday’s press release promises exactly the same thing, that begs a few questions about what exactly the government has been doing in the meantime.

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Beyond the good news on new homes

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on November 14.

There was good news and bad news for the government in a new housing statistics out this week that illustrate the scale of the issues it still needs to address.

The good news is that housebuilding in England is up again: there were 241,000 net additional dwellings in 2018/19, an increase of 9% in the last 12 months and 93% in the last six years.

Net additional dwellings make up the government’s preferred measure of housing output and add together new build completions, conversions and change of use less demolitions.

That total is not just higher than at the previous peak of output before the financial crisis and credit crunch – it is also the highest total recorded since the government started collecting the data in this way in 1991/92.

Significantly, for the first time total net additions are higher than the 240,000 a year target that the last Labour government set in the wake of Kate Barker’s landmark review of housing supply in 2004

True, the big increase over the last six years also reflects just how low output had sunk in the wake of the credit crunch, and true a housing market downturn and recession in the building industry could yet derail progress.

However, with more recent council tax data indicating that annual output may now be over 250,000, the government’s target of 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s no longer looks completely outlandish.

Indeed, a separate report from the Home Builders Federation (HBF) estimates that planning permissions were issued for 380,000 new homes in England in the year to June.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick was quick to welcome the figures and make a campaigning point for the general election:

One more bit of good news is that the bulk of the net additions came from new build completions (213,660) rather than conversions of questionable quality (14,107 were delivered via permitted development, which was only a slight increase on 2017/18).

However, focussing purely on how many new homes were delivered does not tell us much about how the government is doing on other housing issues.

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A great leap backwards

Originally published on October 1 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The first two days of the Conservative Party conference make this look like a government that is scraping the barrel for ideas.

Boris Johnson might still have a surprise in store on Wednesday but speeches by housing secretary Robert Jenrick and housing minister Esther McVey were underwhelming at best while chancellor Sajid Javid did not even mention housing in his check-the-small-print bonanza of infrastructure investment.

Jenrick’s big new idea of a right to shared ownership for housing association tenants is not that big and not that new either but it could still have a damaging impact on people who need an affordable home.

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Home ownership gimmicks won’t change much

Originally published on August 28 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The first big announcement on housing since regime change at Westminster confirms the expected change of emphasis but still leaves some big unanswered questions.

The emphasis is firmly on home ownership in plans widely reported this morning to make it easier for shared owners to buy an increased share in their homes.

The government will consult on plans to make it easier to staircase up by allowing them to buy an extra 1% at a time rather than the current 10%.

That may be attractive to some shared owners but it will do very little to tackle other longstanding problems with the tenure – rising service charges, repair bills, problems selling – and the government will have to find a way to stop transaction costs such as mortgage fees and surveys making it unaffordable.

This isn’t a new idea for shared ownership – Thames Valley already has a scheme called Shared Ownership Plus that allows people to buy an extra 1% of their home each year without paying those extra costs.

However, in terms of a big idea to fix the housing crisis it is hard to disagree with the Labour verdict that this is ‘tinkering’.

At the same time the government will make it easier for people buying under Help to Buy to take out a mortgage that runs for 35 years rather than the current 25.

That is in line with developments elsewhere in the mortgage market and it will reduce monthly repayments but it could lead to increased prices and will cost more in the long run.

However, it seems clear that these could be just the first in a series of measures aimed at boosting home ownership.

Writing in the Times this morning, housing secretary Robert Jenrick hints at more more radical plans to revive what he sees as the ‘moral mission’ of a property owning democracy.

Part of that could be a ‘homes for locals’ scheme:

‘I want local young people, whether growing up in Cornwall or Cumbria, to be able to stay in their communities and build a family where they feel at home. It’s not right that people on low incomes risk being forced out, and I will be tackling this challenge head on. And to get Britain building, I want communities to feel that new housing brings real benefits to local people. What a difference it might make to the planning system if existing residents knew that a good proportion of new homes would be sold at discounted prices to people from that area trying to get on a foot on the ladder.’

The Times reports that ministers are considering a scheme to give first-time buyers a 20% discount to buy in the area where they grew up with the cost to be ‘borne by developers’.

It sounds like a revival of David Cameron’s starter homes plan and it will raise exactly the same issues plus some new ones.

What happens to the discount? Will it remain in perpetuity or be pocketed by the first buyer?

Who really bears the costs? As things stand, the developer will simply cut its other planning contributions, making the discounted homes a ‘cuckoo in the nest’ as people who need other forms of affordable housing will lose out.

And how will they decide whether someone is a local – some people grow up in one place, but many others move around a lot before their 20s and 30s.

All of these ideas sound like gimmicks that will not change very much but this is all about sending out the right signals ahead of the election that everyone assumes is coming, whether or not the government’s plan to suspend parliament until a new Queen’s Speech on October 14 goes through.

Preparations for an election are already underway, with departmental special advisors told to draw up plans for their sections of the next Tory manifesto.

It seems unlikely, therefore, that the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government would use up its best (or worst) ideas at this stage.

As Inside Housing has already reported, they could include a new part rent-part buy programme – and in the Spring the government issued a call for proposals for private shared ownership.

So what price a rehash of the failed manifesto from 2015 and a lurch back to the ownership-at-all-costs agenda of David Cameron and George Osborne?

First, though, there is the small matter of the spending review for next year that chancellor Sajid Javid has just announced will be next Wednesday (September 4).

The prospects for housing are already looking ominous ahead of that. Writing in The Telegraph, the chancellor singles out Brexit preparations, the NHS and education as his priorities but warns that spending departments cannot expect a blank cheque.

According to the Financial Times:

‘While the spending review will be billed as an “end to austerity” for schools, hospitals and the police, other departments will face a continued squeeze. Housing and defence are among those likely to face a tough settlement.’


Enter Esther McVey

Originally posted on July 25 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Whichever way you look at it this reshuffle looks like a disaster for social housing and social tenants.

On Monday I predicted that government regime change would shift the focus back to home ownership and joked that the worst nightmare would be Jacob Rees-Mogg as housing secretary.

Wednesday saw Boris Johnson make his first speech as prime minister and lay out a long and expensive list of priorities that did not include housing.

That was followed by an extensive reshuffle that saw junior Treasury minister Robert Jenrick become housing secretary and my worst nightmare trumped by the appointment of Esther McVey as housing minister.

And this morning Inside Housing reports that the Johnson government is indeed considering a switch back from the cautious return to social rent with a new programme of part rent-part buy.

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