Scrapping the borrowing cap

Originally posted on October 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

After Theresa May’s warm words for housing associations, the big question was why she could not offer something similar for council housing.

She answered it today with the surprise announcement at the end of her Conservative conference speech that the borrowing cap will be scrapped.

Vital details remain to be seen. When and how the cap will be lifted? What’s in the small print? What strings will be attached to the deal?

However, the move deserves the warm initial welcome it has already received from organisations across local government and housing.

The surprise reflects what was assumed to be entrenched Treasury resistance to lifting the cap, despite years of patient advocacy from campaigners, commitment from Labour and outspoken support from the Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter.

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A new message from a Conservative prime minister

Originally published on September 19 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Anyone familiar with prime ministerial speeches about housing will approach today’s announcement of £2 bn of ‘new’ funding for affordable homes with a healthy dose of scepticism.

They may remember Theresa May pledging an ‘extra’ (but seemingly different) £2 bn in her leader’s speech at last year’s Conservative conference – a month later it emerged that that this had been redistributed from other unspent bits of the housing budget.

This week’s £2 bn seems even flakier: it will not apply until 2022 so we won’t know for certain whether it’s ‘new’ or ‘extra’ until we see what’s in the rest of the spending review; there may well be a different party in government by then, and almost certainly a different prime minister; and Brexit may mean all bets are off, especially if no deal brings to power Tories keen to use it as an excuse to deregulate their way to the promised land.

Even if it does turn out to be new money it will not build a single new home now, there is no guarantee that it will be for genuinely affordable rent then, and will it will still not bring the affordable homes budget back to the level it was when the Conservatives took power in 2010.

Despite all that, though, it’s hard not to be struck by the rest of the message delivered by Theresa May to the National Housing Federation (NHF) summit today: housing associations have ‘a central role to play’; the ‘most ambitious’ will be given ‘long-term certainty’; and the prime minister wants to see them ‘taking on and leading major developments themselves’ rather than buying properties from private developers.

That last bit seems significant of a change in attitude towards development at the heart of government as she went on to tell the summit:

‘Your unique status as public interested, non-profit private institutions allows you to attract patient investment and deploy it to secure long-term returns on quality rather than short-term speculative gains.

‘Your expertise as property managers means you can nurture attractive, thriving places for decades to come.

‘You are capable of riding out the ups and downs of the business cycle, as we saw in the years after the economic crash when housing associations carried on building even as private developers hunkered down.

‘And you do all this with the discipline, rigour and management qualities of the serious multi-million pound businesses that many of you are.’

All that will be music to the ears of big associations like L&Q and Peabody (who both get namechecked) and her hosts will also have lapped up her statement she was the first prime minister to speak at ‘the biggest event on the housing association calendar’.

However, she also restated her commitment to social housing: ‘Whether it is owned by local authorities, TMOs or housing associations, I want to see social housing that is so good people are proud to call it their home.’

Yes, it’s easy to be cynical, yes, she has to make the right noises after Grenfell and, yes ,the government is still pouring far more in to Help to Buy than it is into social and affordable housing.

But think back to what we were hearing up to 2016 from Tory leaders and the contrast is huge.

When May says in her speech that ‘on the outside, many people in society – including too many politicians – continue to look down on social housing’ who exactly could she have in mind?

Could it be David Cameron and George Osborne, who according to Nick Clegg privately dismissed social housing as a breeding ground for Labour voters?

As recently as 2015 housing associations were being lumped in with other opponents of their plans to boost home ownership at all costs that they were determined to ‘take on’.

And it’s not just the tone that’s changed: May reminded associations that it was her government that returned long-term certainty on rents and agreed not to extend the Local Housing Allowance cap to social housing.

She could have added the u-turns on many of her predecessor’s other policies including compulsory fixed-term tenancies for council housing, the high-value levy on forced council house sales (for now), starter homes, Pay to Stay and the withdrawal of housing benefit for under-21s.

And without the levy there is no way to fund the flagship 2015 manifesto pledge to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants – or meet the government’s end of the deal agreed with the NHF at the same conference three years ago.

Whatever you think of the ‘extra’ money, and however crazed and unworkable those policies were, these are not just changes of tone but of substance too.

The final section of her speech (which did not feature in the advance trails this morning) almost goes overboard in her determination to praise housing associations and social housing.

Mrs May (or more likely one of her advisers) has been doing some background reading.

She quotes first from Tony Parker’s The People of Providence, an oral history about the people of the Brandon Estate In Southwark published in 1983.

Where one resident says he does not want to be thought of as an ‘estate person’ that becomes an endorsement of mixed tenure development where ’you should not be able to tell simply by looking which homes are affordable and which were sold at the market rate’ and where you should be ‘proud to be thought of as an “estate person”.’

She praises ‘the social justice mission of the pioneers who created the sector in Victorian times – and their descendants who stepped up half a century ago in the wake of Cathy Come Home’.

And she says that ‘the rise of social housing in this country provided what has been called the “biggest collective leap in living standards in British history”.’ This, I think, is a quote from Homes and Places: A History of Nottingham’s Council Houses by Chris Matthews.

May says that ‘It brought about the end of the slums and tenements, a recognition that all of us, whoever we are and whatever our circumstances, deserve a decent place to call our own’.

That ‘biggest collective leap’ was of course council housing, which came along when government’s recognised that more was required than the philanthropy of Victorian housing associations.

So it will irritate many people that May says that ‘today, housing associations are the keepers of that legacy’ and they will await a similarly enthusiastic speech to the Local Government Association, where even Conservative politicians despair about the government’s refusal to give council housing more freedom.

But that important point aside, when was the last time a Conservative prime minister made a speech more favourable to social housing that this one?


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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Working for everyone

Originally posted on October 6 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

What would ‘housing that works for everyone’ look like?

Housing was a constant theme running through the Conservative conference this week. Communities secretary Sajid Javid said it was his ‘number one priority’ and announced a new(ish) £2bn fund for accelerated construction on public land plus ‘further significant measures’ in a white paper in the Autumn.

Housing minister Gavin Barwell is said to have addressed 17 different fringe meetings on housing and continued his charm offensive with more sensible comments about the need to encourage all tenures and tone down the obsession with home ownership and starter homes.

And Theresa May herself singled out housing as one example of market failure that requires government intervention to create ‘a country that works for everyone’ and an economy where ‘everyone plays by the same rules’:

‘That’s why where markets are dysfunctional, we should be prepared to intervene. Where companies are exploiting the failures of the market in which they operate, where consumer choice is inhibited by deliberately complex pricing structures, we must set the market right.’

‘It’s just not right, for example, that half of people living in rural areas, and so many small businesses, can’t get a decent broadband connection.

‘It’s just not right that two thirds of energy customers are stuck on the most expensive tariffs.

‘And it’s just not right that the housing market continues to fail working people either.’

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Going lower

Originally posted on August 4 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Record low interest rates have been great for people with mortgages but terrible for the housing system as a whole.

Like the Bank of England’s decision in March 2009 to cut the base rate to 0.5%, Thursday’s further reduction to 0.25% is motivated by concern about the economy as a whole. But nobody imagined in 2009 that seven and a half years later interest rates would still be as low, still less even lower.

The result has been severe distortion in the housing market. What was only meant to be a temporary fix has instead become a semi-permanent feature of the system that has benefitted home owners and landlords at the expense of everyone else. The effect of Thursday’s small cut will be limited in itself but it means that effects of the low rate regime will be with us for much longer.

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Looking for clues

Originally published on July 26 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

After a month of turmoil and political change, suddenly everything is on hold.

I was on holiday for the week that saw yet another new housing minister and a concerted effort by housing organisations to persuade Theresa May’s new government to change course but also the non-appearance of crucial details of previous policies.

The delays obviously reflect the political fall-out from the Brexit vote followed by the appointment of a new prime minister and an almost entirely new Cabinet. Old certainties have gone, apparently including the entire economic framework for policy, but the outlines of the new approach remain unclear.

As I blogged before I went away, Theresa May’s speeches during the brief Conservative leadership campaign can be read in two different ways. Signs of change on, for example, workers on company boards do not necessarily mean change everywhere.

Do her comments on housing signal a new ‘One Nation’ approach or one that continues to see the housing crisis solely in terms of home ownership? Is it to be business as usual or will the government listen to the critique of the previous Tory government published by an influential House of Lords committee?

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Blue futures

Originally published on July 5 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

I wouldn’t pretend for a second that housing is anywhere near top of the to do list for the five contenders to be the new Conservative leader and prime minister – or that the winner will mean a radical change in approach.

But so many political certainties have been overturned in the last week or so that nothing can be ruled out. Not least, George Osborne’s decision to abandon his budget surplus target changes the financial parameters for housing policy in ways that are only just beginning to be thought through.

This could open up new possibilities for housing in the Autumn Statement under a new prime minister and quite possibly a new chancellor. However, it’s also likely to mean that austerity will continue into the 2020s.

The background of the contenders alone will be a change. Unlike David Cameron, Osborne and Boris Johnson, all five of them are state-educated. Two (Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox) were even brought up in council housing.

So what about housing? There are divisions between the contenders on their attitudes: some are ready to concede a role for social housing while others focus completely on the market and three of the five appear to be saying that housing will be a bigger priority with a bigger budget.

However, the main dividing line is between supporters of and objectors to new homes. This tension between ‘supporters’ and ‘objectors’ has been evident throughout the coalition and Conservative governments and reached uneasy compromise in the National Planning Policy Framework, with ‘localism’ balanced by the presumption in favour of sustainable development.

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