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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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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Falling short

What do the final housebuilding figures for England before the election have to say about the deficit and the debt – in new homes?

Needless to say, ministers have greeted them with their usual mix of spin and agility in finding the measure that looks best in PR terms. So housing minister Brandon Lewis says ‘housebuilding continues to climb’ on the basis that housing starts in 2014 were 10 per cent up on a year ago. That may be but starts have been falling for the last two quarters: October to December 2014 was down 10 per cent on the previous quarter and 8 per cent on a year ago, suggesting perhaps that the recovery sparked by Help to Buy is petering out.

Lewis also claims that ‘overall 700,000 new homes have been delivered since the end of 2009’ without any acknowledgment that he is talking about completely different figures – additions to the council tax register – or that he has to borrow six months of the last Labour government to come up with the number.

Starts may indicate current activity but you can’t live in a start and completions are a more reliable measure of housebuilding progress. Curiously, Lewis does not mention these even though the news is actually not bad for the government: October to December completions were up 1 per cent on the previous quarter and 8 per cent on a year ago; and the 118,830 new homes built in 2014 represented an 8 per cent increase on 2013.

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Helping hand

So it turns out that subsidising housebuilders may not have been the best way to boost housebuilding after all.

It’s bad enough that even developers are now arguing that the government has made too many concessions to them. Now it turns out that George Osborne was warned by his own civil servants that Help to Buy could end up going to homes that would have been built anyway.

I’m catching up on a week’s worth of news that  shakes the twin pillars of government policy on housebuilding and home ownership: cutting ‘red tape’ to make sites more viable for new homes and funding equity loan and guarantee schemes to persuade people to buy them.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing


10 things about 2014: part 2

The final part of my look back at the issues I’ve been blogging about this year also looks forward to 2015.

6) Maybe to homes

If words were bricks the housing crisis would have been over long ago. Instead housebuilding continued to flatline in 2014 even as the political rhetoric soared.

In January I compared politicians arguing about who had the worst record since the 1920s to bald men squabbling over a comb. A month later Eric Pickles perfected his combover by claiming that in 2013 the coalition had built the most homes since 2007. He’d chosen to emphasise housing starts rather than housing completions. That was understandable but you can’t live in a start and completions were lower than in 2012, 2011, 2009 and 2008 and still less than half the level needed to meet demand.

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing


Bonus verdict

The New Homes Bonus, the government’s flagship policy on housing supply, is listing badly. Does it deserve to stay afloat?

Labour has pledged to scrap the policy introduced by Grant Shapps as a ‘powerful new incentive’ for local communities to support new homes. The National Audit Office delivered a damning verdict last year. And a Conservative member of the public accounts committee memorably described it as a Rolls Royce idea that ended up as a Reliant Robin in practice.

Now, the government has finally published an evaluation, which summarises the results of internal DCLG and externally commissioned the research. So what’s the verdict?

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing


Starter for 20

The government’s plan for starter homes with a 20 per cent discount begs all sorts of questions. Today we got some of the answers.

The scheme announced by David Cameron this morning was first trailed in his conference speech in October as an idea for after the election but has now apparently been brought forward to start early next year.

Some of the details of Dave’s Dream Homes seem to have changed along the way. According to a DCLG consultation also published today,  the starter homes initiative seems to amount to an extension of rural exceptions sites to urban areas. So how will it work?

-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing


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