The penny drops that homes are worth it

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

Look behind the headlines about going back to the 1970s and the shift in the debate on public investment in the opening week of the election campaign could have a huge impact on housing.

On the surface Thursday’s speeches by chancellor Sajid Javid and shadow chancellor John McDonnell are about who will spend more on public services and who will be more responsible on borrowing.

But they are also about a more fundamental change in the fiscal targets and measures that the government sets itself.

Javid has abandoned the government’s previous fiscal rules and loosened his previous target of reducing net debt in favour of one that it should be flat or falling by the end of the next parliament.

By allowing investment in infrastructure of up to 3% of national output, he would create room for an extra £20 bn a year of investment – although he does not appear to see housing as part of his ‘infrastructure revolution’ and ‘decade of renewal’.

McDonnell would go much further by excluding borrowing for investment from his borrowing targets and looking instead for an improvement in the overall government balance sheet by the end of the next parliament.

He plans an extra £50 bn a year of investment via a National Transformation Fund overseen by the Treasury and based in the north of England.

This revolution involves a Green Transformation Fund and a Social Transformation Fund and it definitely does include housing – retrofitting existing homes and building new ones.

For all the political arguments about reckless borrowing and soaring debt, both plans are essentially about raising borrowing to increase investment.

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Still waiting for the end of austerity

Originally posted on September 4 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Austerity may be over, according to the chancellor, but it remains to be seen what that really means for the spending programmes that matter most to housing.

What Sajid Javid meant by that boast in Wednesday’s Spending Round speech was that all departmental budgets will be increased at least in line with inflation in 2020/21.

But it soon became clear – if it wasn’t already – that housing is not one of the so-called ‘people’s priorities’ of crime, education and health and so does not qualify for any headline-grabbing investment.

The only housing-related announcement in the speech itself was a £54m increase in funding for homelessness and rough sleeping to £422m in 2020/21, which Mr Javid said amounted to a 13% real terms increase.

That’s just as well because both the speech and background document were completely silent on what the government intends to do about one of the biggest drivers for homelessness.

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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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May dedicates her premiership to fixing housing

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 4.

You wait a lifetime for a prime minister to make housing their priority and then she gets her P45 while losing her voice with the conference set falling apart behind her.

With all that happening around her it was easy to ignore the substance of Theresa May’s speech.

You may have missed it between coughs but for the first time since the 1950s here was a prime minister promising to put housing at the heart of their premiership.

And here was a Conservative prime minister not just promising an extra £2bn for ‘affordable’ housing but even allowing bids for social rent too.

But as the letters slowly dropped off the conference slogan about ‘BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE’ you wondered how long she will have a premiership to put anything at the heart of.

And even then it is hard to avoid drawing the obvious conclusions from the comparison between an extra £2bn for affordable housing and an extra £10bn for Help to Buy.

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Sajid Javid’s apparent conversion to social housing

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on September 20.

So seven years after all funding ended, three years after the chancellor said it just produces Labour voters and little more than a year after the government legislated to sell a huge chunk of it, social housing is now so ‘treasured’ that it deserves its own green paper.

It’s hard to under-estimate the shift in rhetoric by communities secretary Sajid Javid in his speech to the National Housing Federation (NHF) conference this week but will it be matched by the reality?

He’s not the only one to change his tune. It’s only two years since the same conference saw housing associations rush to endorse the voluntary deal on the Right to Buy.

They did so even though it would be financed by the sale of the most valuable third of council housing and even though replacements for social rented homes sold off could be for shared ownership, part rent-part buy or even starter homes.

That was then. This is now with a weakened government and a context changed utterly by the Grenfell Tower fire.

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12 tests for the Housing White Paper

This is an updated version of a post originally published on January 12 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

The moment is finally here but will radical plans to boost housing supply live up to their advance billing? Here are my tests.

  1. How half-baked is it?

In one very important way, ministers have already passed my first test. Publication of a White Paper seems to mark a return to an earlier era of government when policies went through consultation and scrutiny before they were enacted.

Contrast that with the way that half-baked ideas from thinktanks were turned into equally half-baked legislation in the back of a fag packet Housing and Planning Act.

Speaking of which, how much will we hear about the loose ends that still need tying up from the act? Pay to Stay may be dead in its compulsory form, and the extension of the Right to Buy delayed by another pilot, but we still don’t know what’s happening with forced sales of higher-value council houses or to the receipts they raise.

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Manifestly without details

Originally published on November 8 on my blog for Inside Housing

There are no guarantees but the penny has dropped at the DCLG that policies that were written on the back of a fag packet need lots more work. Six months after the Housing and Planning Act received Royal Assent, we are still waiting for the key details. Could it be that the new ministers have realised that some of what their predecessors did was manifestly without reason too?

Things are not remotely clear with the Housing and Planning Act but perhaps the fact that I’m even able to write that six months after it became law is good news of a sort. It remains to be seen how much will be changed or watered down but the new ministerial team at the DCLG clearly do not share the gung-ho assumptions of their predecessors and the government as a whole has bigger things on its mind. Watch the first five minutes or so of yesterday’s session at the Communities and Local Government Committee to see what I mean.

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