Village vision

Inner city council estates were once the solution to the housing crisis, then the problem. Now they could be the solution again. But for who?

There is arguably no more controversial issue in housing than the regeneration of existing social housing estates, especially in London. Schemes in boroughs right across the capital have hit the headlines, mostly for the wrong reasons.

In a report this week, the Labour peer Lord Adonis and the think tank IPPR presents a vision for what they call ‘city villages’. The scope is broad, with town centres, private renting and the great private estates of central London discussed alongside some opposing views about new towns. However, the focus is overwhelmingly on the densification of existing council estates with mixed tenure development. If anyone attending the launch needed any reminding that this is controversial territory, tenants from the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in Hammersmith & Fulham were protesting outside.

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The man with a plan who won’t tell us what it is

Question of the day: why won’t George Osborne say where he will find another £10 billion of cuts in welfare?

The obvious answer is that he doesn’t want us to find out before the election but there is a more immediate one too: because he can get away with it.

I found myself shouting at the radio twice today as interviewers failed to pin down first Osborne and then financial secretary David Gauke. The £10 billion figure is the so-far unexplained bit of the total £12 billion of welfare cuts Osborne is planning after the election. It matters both in its own right and because it enables him to deflect the Office for Budget Responsibility’s point about ‘rollercoaster’ cuts in public services.

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Beyond the pale

When if ever will politicians catch up with the scale of the housing crisis unfolding before their eyes?

As the Homes for Britain campaign moves to the heart of Westminster, the default response of the major parties is to promise new homes. Traditionally, these come in multiples of 100,000:  the Conservatives want 100,000 and then 200,000 starter homes; Labour promises 200,000 new homes a year by 2020; the Liberal Democrats say 300,000 with a tenth of those being rent to own; and the Greens want 500,000 rented homes.

It was ever thus of course. Back in the 1950s, Labour and the Conservatives competed with each other to promise more homes. The difference was that they delivered. Macmillan pledged and then exceeded 300,000 a year as housing minister in the 1950s. This numbers game had major downsides in terms of design and build quality that we need to remember but it showed that governments were serious about housing.

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The limits of localism

Have any of the 516 housing announcements made by the DCLG under the coalition plumbed lower depths than this week’s ‘ending the tenant tax to help tackle rogue landlords’?

It’s not that there is no tenant tax out there to be tackled. The government could end the extortionate letting agent fees. It could stop the rent shortfalls faced by tenants whose local housing allowance has been cut. And it could limit the tax and financing advantages enjoyed by buy-to-let landlords that trap people as renters. Even if we limit the term to the private rented sector, and don’t include the bedroom tax, there are any number of options.

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Sign of four

It’s time once again for a comprehensive overview of the state of the housing nation. Here are four key points I drew from this year’s UK Housing Review.

The headlines so far have been made by falls in home ownership for young people, but the 2015 Review also highlights these other key points for housing across all tenures:

1) Universal dependency

This isn’t the first time the Review has made this point but it is the first time I’ve seen it summed up so clearly in one graph.

All the rhetoric about universal credit says that it will reward those ‘hardworking families’ and help to end the ‘dependency culture’ of the benefits system. The new scheme does improve the poverty trap caused by the rate at which housing benefit is withdrawn as your earnings rise. A failure to include council tax benefit plus cuts in recent Budgets and Autumn Statement detract from this objective but it does still seem better designed to ‘make work pay’.

However, there is a price to be paid for this improvement.

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Minority rule

How do flawed policies that are opposed by a majority of MPs manage to survive unscathed?

One of the remaining mysteries of this parliament was solved in the Commons yesterday. Why has it taken the government almost a year to fail to respond to the all-party work and pensions committee’s report on housing benefit? The answer has much to say about how coalition government, and power, work.

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Starters’ orders

So the national housing strategy now comes down to this ahead of the election: think of a big number and double it.

Even by recent standards, the starter home initiative plumbs new depths in allowing the politics to drive the policy. The idea of building 100,000 homes at a 20 per cent discount for first-time buyers was first proposed in David Cameron’s conference speech in October. The launch (of a website to register interest, as no homes will be built for some time) was accelerated to this month when the consultation was published in December. And in Cameron’s housing speech today it’s been doubled to 200,000 homes.

Housing minister Brandon Lewis made a written statement earlier that is an extraordinarily rapid government response to a consultation that only ended three weeks ago. However, the response (full version here) is only to the original plan for 100,000 homes, not Cameron’s doubling of it. Reading through some of the responses to the consultation today, I was especially struck by this comment from the Council of Mortgage Lenders:

‘Our overall view of the scheme as outlined is that it could provide a modest addition to the flow of lower cost housing for FTBs and we would support this main objective. But we would warn against setting over-ambitious targets for the scheme at this juncture, before the attractiveness of this particular proposition has been tested on the market.’

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