Will we have the fifteenth housing minister since 1997 by the end of June?

In July last year I wrote that we now have our fourteenth housing minister since 1997 and concluded that none had got the job done.  I was hoping that Gavin Barwell would be different and I have to say he did make some progress, albeit small.

With the calling of a general election for June, the chances of a fifteenth housing minister is increased.  Mr Barwell is defending a majority of 165 votes and the seat is 47th on Labour’s target list.

Far be for me to make a prediction regarding the overall election results, or the result in his Croydon Central constituency, but whatever the result, Mr. Barwell is unlikely to be the housing minister in seven weeks time. He will either lose his seat, be moved to another job if his party forms the next government, or he will be in opposition.

Discuss.

Actually please don’t!

All I will say is that housing is the issue that impacts more profoundly on the lives of so many people and I hope it takes centre stage in the election. Unless the housing crisis is tackled soon, it will remain with us for generations, long after the changes in our trading arrangements with Europe have been forgotten!

You might wish to discuss that!

What the government’s housing white paper needs to say

This could be a big week for housing, with the government publishing its long-awaited housing strategy. Today (Sunday 5th February) the government has hinted at a new emphasis on people who rent their homes.

imageI welcome what Housing Minister Gavin Barwell has said, that there will be minimum term tenancies and more homes built for rent, signaling a “change of tone” from previous Conservative Party policy. But the key issue is what sort of rental homes they will be? Will tenants have greater security of tenure and, critically, will they be truly affordable?

I have lost count of the number of announcement, housing strategies, policy documents and white papers there have been over the last 25 years. Most have delivered little. Some have been disastrous. And the housing crisis has just got worse.

Will this latest iteration be any different. Yes, if as promised there is a shift from the obsession with home ownership. As I have already said do one of the key issues is whether the promised homes for rent will be truly affordable.

If, as I suspect, the government will be looking for institutional investors (pension funds, for example) to make it happen, then we will be disappointed. Yes, pension funds are keen to invest in property. Unlike governments, pension funds take a long term view, beyond the immediate political cycle. But they are, by their very nature, looking for the best possible return. If there are rent controls, as I believe there should be, the pension funds won’t be interested.

Private landlords already make a valuable contribution to meeting housing need, but with land prices being what they are, they will not be producing any homes in the affordability bracket needed.

The average privately rented one bed flat in Brighton is now £971 per month. The most housing benefit will pay is £612 per month (the Local Housing Allowance – LHA). To make the private rented sector affordable to those on medium, low and no income, the government could either abolish the LHA, but that would cost billions of Pounds, year on year and forever. It could put a cap on the amount a landlord can charge, but then investors in the private rented market would disappear. Anyway, I cannot see any government intervening in the market in this way.

There is another way, which makes financial sense in the long term: invest and build council houses along with housing association homes. This will require upfront capital investment, in the acquisition of land, and the building of homes. A one-off subsidy in capital investment can ensure that there isn’t a need for ongoing rent subsidies through housing benefit.

I have no illusion about local councils, many of whom lack imagination and courage when it comes to modern design and construction methods. They will have to up their game considerably.

What of the right to buy? It must surely be ended. More than a third of the homes sold through the right to buy have ended up in the private rented sector with rents three of four higher than when they were in council ownership. It makes no sense in economic or housing terms, although it has proven to be political popular in spite of the negative impact it has had on the provision of homes for people in the greatest need.

So what of aspiration? Gavin Barwell has said that the government had not given up making home ownership available to all. Most people, when asked, say they would like to own their own home. But for around half the population, that aspiration is unachievable, even with the huge public subsidies on offer. A more achievable aspiration could be the provision a homes for people who need them, at rents that people can afford.

I hope that secure tenancies will be reintroduced. People need that security, as well as the flexibility that renting should offer. I disagree with Jeremy Corbyn who has been quoted as saying that the rental market was “incapable of giving people the security they need”. I disagree. People used to have much greater security of tenure, and there is no reason why that can’t happen again for those who pay their rent and don’t cause anti-social behaviour. It requires a change in the law and investment in services offering advice and representation so that tenants’ rights can be enforced. That is something the government can deliver on, and quickly.

New_Prime_Minister_Theresa_May_makes_a_speech_outside_10_Downing_Street_London_after_meeti-xlarge_trans++uWljxTX2ToqwW26CTqWzx8B_jeBzq4FpvJVTUwJgaqgTheresa May said on the steps of Downing Street that her government will help those who are “just about managing”. This housing strategy needs to go beyond that. It needs to help those who already aren’t managing. Her housing strategy will be judged on whether it addresses the issue of affordability and supply.

I am not holding my breath, but hope to be pleasantly surprised.

Has the extension of the Right to Buy to housing associations hit the buffers?

I have been, and remain, highly critical of the government’s intention to extend the Right to Buy to housing associations. I felt that not only was it ethically wrong and economically flawed, I felt it had been a policy worked out on the back of an envelope. The pledge for a one-for-one replacement has never really been credible and, especially for small associations like BHT, deliverable. The government had clearly not worked out how much it would cost and how it would be paid for.

It is an expensive policy that helps those who are already adequately housed. It has nothing to do with tackling the housing crisis and everything to do with appealing to an electoral demographic.

The funding plan (“I have a cunning plan” said Baldrick) was to get councils to sell off high-value council homes and to pay a levy to the Treasury.

I feel sorry for the Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell, who has had to pick up this flawed policy from his predecessor. It is a shame the National Housing Federation has hitched its wagon so clearly to this runaway train.

As part of the Autumn Statement the government has pushed back implementation for a year and the Minister has announced the launch next year of a five year regional pilot. This can be viewed in two ways: first that the government is being cautious, wanting to get the detail right, or second, that it is quietly trying to kill off this ridiculous policy and pushing it into the long grass might be a quiet way of doing just that.

Mr Barwell would gain lots of plaudits if he was to put the policy out of its misery. He has nothing to lose and plenty to gain. The National Housing Federation, however, might end up with egg on its face.

Homelessness Reduction Bill – a move in the right direction?

I wrote recently about the Homelessness Reduction Bill urging our local Members of Parliament to support the Bill brought forward by the Conservative Bob Blackman.

The Bill, which will be debated by MP’s on Friday 28th October, aims to improve the support that homeless people receive from local councils.

The relatively new Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell, has said that the government would fund any new duty …. and the Treasury has yet, as far as I am aware, to countermand his commitment. Here is what I have written about the Housing Minister.

I did say I have some concerns regarding some measures in the Bill, specifically ‘intentionality’, for example, someone being deemed as intentionally homeless for not engaging, which could be a problem with very chaotic or vulnerable clients.

Now the cross-party Communities and Local Government Committee has recommended a number of amendments to the Bill including to the clause on intentionality whereby people could become ineligible for housing assistance for failing to ‘cooperate’ with the council’s support.

The Chair of the Committee, Labour MP Clive Betts, said: “Despite measures elsewhere in the draft bill that foster a partnership approach, clause 8 reverts to the adversarial ‘take it or leave it’ approach. If the clause is to stay in the bill, we believe it should be redrafted to ensure that protections for vulnerable people in priority need are not weakened.”

I hope this simple amendment can be made to what is, overall, a very welcome step in the right direction.

You can still write to your MP to urge them to attend the debate. You can contact your MP by completing the short form on this link.

Council housing is needed to reduce the inequality experienced by Theresa May’s “just about managing” families

New_Prime_Minister_Theresa_May_makes_a_speech_outside_10_Downing_Street_London_after_meeti-xlarge_trans++uWljxTX2ToqwW26CTqWzx8B_jeBzq4FpvJVTUwJgaqgWhen she became Prime Minister, Theresa May spoke on the steps of Downing Street of the “just about managing” families

A report published last week by the Resolution Foundation, Hanging on: The stresses and strains of Britain’s ‘just managing’ families found that “just managing” families were more than twice as likely to rent privately rather than own their own home, exactly the opposite of two decades ago.

Regarding housing costs, the report said: “The combination of rising housing costs across all tenures and the increasing concentration of low to middle income (LMI) households in the relatively more expensive private rented sector mean that the proportion of income spent on housing within the group has increased sharply over the same period – equivalent to an extra 14p on the basic rate of income tax for an LMI couple with children. Roughly 25p of every £1 of income within the group is now diverted into accommodation costs on average, with some households facing much higher ratios. Taking these housing costs into account, we found that typical incomes in the group are at a 13 year low.”

imageMy reason for quoting this is to contrast this indicator of inequality with a statement made yesterday (Sunday 2nd October) by the Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell MP.  Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference he said he wanted to see more homes “of every single kind” built but when he listed the kinds of homes he wanted built he did not mention council housing.

In fact he said that a 500,000 increase in council houses as part of an increase in 1 million homes to be built would increase inequality, and rather than solving the housing crisis, it would widen the divide in society.

He said: “If you’re going to build at the current rate … and half the people are going to go in council homes and half of them are going to own, the divide in society is only going to get wider and wider.”

The divide, Minister, is already huge and getting wider, and the dysfunctional housing market is at its core. I wrote on Friday about the reason why the number of homeless households has gone up by 10% over the last year.  Council housing is needed to reverse that trend.

And I wrote yesterday about the economic case for building lots of council houses, and referred to research that pointed to savings in the hundreds of billions over 50 years if the government was to invest in council house building.

The Resolution Foundation is clear that the high cost of housing, and rent in the private rented sector in particular, was a significant factor in the “just managing” households.

It must be clear to the Minister that the “just managing” households will probably now never own their own home – it is just too expensive – and the private rented sector, too, is testing even those who are “just managing”.

Any ideological opposition to council housing is not helpful. The Minister is right to want housing “of every single kind” but that must include council housing.

(Footnote: Previously I have been very positive about Gavin Barwell – My affection for the new Housing Minister is almost absolute! – but on his refusal to see the importance of council housing I believe he is just plain wrong).

The Housing Minister has described homelessness as a “moral shame”

The new housing minister, Gavin Barwell, has described homelessness as a “moral shame”. He is right about this and also to say that it cannot be tackled solely by government.

image

Gavin Barwell MP

The minister gave a nod in the direction of a private members bill that has been tabled by the Conservative MP, Bob Blackman, the Homelessness Prevention Bill. Gavin Barwell has said that, if the Bill becomes law, the government would resource any new duty.

This is fantastic news coming from the housing minister, and the promise to resource the duty is particularly welcome.

I hope that the Treasury will not undermine his commitment by saying that the resourcing of the duty will be included in the Standard Spending Assessment for local authorities.

It will be important that this prevention work is properly resourced if we are to put an end to this “moral shame” within the next few years.

The minister added: “Across all parties there is a passion to do something about (homelessness) and money is part of it.”

His words are very reassuring and some of the things he said could have come from the usual suspects like me!

Referring to people who are sleeping rough, Mr Barwell said that they are “probably the most visible indicator of the profound housing problems that we have in this country…”.

If this is how he continues in his role, and assuming that the Treasury does not clip his wings, I hope he will serve for many years as Housing Minister, unlike most of his predecessors who have seen the role as a stepping stone to other things (see my post on this trend – Gavin Barwell is the fourteenth Housing Minister since 1997).

Theresa May throws a possible lifeline to women’s refuges, and must now do the same for specialist supported housing

Last December and January I possibly overstepped the mark on party political comment by being quite critical of government (see here and here). The issue related to the proposed cap on the benefits paid to residents of specialist supported housing, known as the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) Cap.

At first I felt quite a lone voice on that the issue which did not seem to be causing much concern in the housing sector.

The issue was then picked up by the then Shadow Housing Minister, John Healey, and he and BHT appeared in a special Channel 4 News feature. Since then it has become a mainstream concern in the social housing world.

Now it has cropped up on Prime Minister’s Questions when, last Wednesday, Jeremy Corbyn asked Theresa May to provide assurances that women’s refuges would not be subject to the cap.  This follows a warning from Women’s Aid that two out of three refuges might have to close.

Theresa_MayI was delighted with the Prime Minister’s response: “The right honourable gentleman raises a very important issue on the issue of domestic violence. We are doing all we can to stop these terrible crimes taking place and to provide support to the victims and survivors of these crimes. That’s why we are working on exempting refuges from the cap.”

This is great news for women’s refuges, but my concern is much, much wider. BHT’s own research says that many of our supported housing schemes will become unaffordable for anybody under the age of 35 and some accommodation will be unaffordable for those over 35.

Many housing associations are now reviewing their lettings policy to exclude lettings to those under 35 (who are eligible for lower rates of benefit).

I hope the Prime Minister will be able to say where all these young people will live when, currently, special supported housing is the only place that will accept many of them due to their particular needs.

The new Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell, recently said some very positive things about ending rough sleeping, but the LHA cap alone could see a deluge of young people ending up on the street.

Let us not forget that research has shown that every pound spent on especially supported housing saves the public purse £4.11. This return on investment, surely, provides a rationale for proper and stable investment in this vital, life-saving provision. The LHA cap is absolutely ill-conceived.

The government must abandon this ridiculous, damaging and dangerous proposal.