The ability to create the illusion of power, to use mirrors and blue smoke…*

On the first occasion I appeared in the 24 Housing ‘Power List’ my son commented that he couldn’t imagine that I would want to be in any list where Grant Shapps was number one. Last year the stars of both Grant and myself waned, and we dropped out (I’m not suggesting any connection). This year we are both back as minor players, but now I’m ahead of him. I wish our relative power in the real world was that way round; unfortunately not.

The Power Player List is a bit of fun and has a highly selective constituency but most people would be quite pleased to be on it rather than off it. Deservedly at the top of both last year’s and this year’s lists is David Orr of the National Housing Federation. Despite having a difficult membership to please, David consistently gets good coverage on the need for more affordable housing and is the most effective of the housing professionals/lobbyists. CIH’s Grainia Long remains near the top but Julia Unwin of the Rowntree Foundation is coming up fast on the rails. JRF have had a good year especially on making the links between housing and poverty – and the Resolution Foundation’s Gavin Kelly might deserve to be there as well given their recent hugely influential work. Campbell Robb of Shelter has disappeared off the list, which may mean that the organisation continues to punch below its weight, or it may just reflect the disgracefully low place that homelessness now occupies on the housing agenda.

It’s hard to know how and whether to nominate politicians for the list, especially people like George Osborne who has a considerably wider brief. But he makes it up from 4th to 2nd and displaces Lord Freud as the top politician. I guess Lord Fraud, as he was announced in the House of Lords this week, has had a quieter year and his boss, the biggest fraud of them all, Iain Duncan Smith, has leapfrogged him.

You would expect the Housing Minister of the day to feature. Shapps certainly did, and Mark Prisk made it to 5th last year, despite being a fairly anonymous figure. So what does that tell us about the current incumbent, Kris Hopkins, who only makes it to 13th, behind the noisier Nick Boles and a new entrant, the man behind the scenes at No 10, housing and planning adviser Alex Morton (he of the notorious ‘sell off the expensive social homes’ policy).

It’s interesting that the top Labour politician, shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds, makes it to 15th, exactly the same as last year’s spokesperson, Jack Dromey. In fact she is the only national Labour figure to feature; this is a little surprising given that Ed Balls has made several important housing speeches in the recent past and is the key person in deciding what will happen to housing investment if Labour wins in 2015. Karen Buck drops out this year, largely due to having a more backroom (but probably more influential) role as Ed Miliband’s PPS. The most prominent non-party politician remains Lord Richard Best, who continues to have significant influence on events from his seat in the House of Lords. He is the nearest thing in housing to a national treasure.

Reynolds is one of 12 women in the list, the same as last year.

Of the London politicians, Boris Johnson has slipped down the list from 5th to 35th, heading towards well deserved obscurity, and is now only one place ahead of his new nemesis on the GLA, the very energetic rising star Tom Copley. I can only spot one other local politician in this year’s list, Islington Labour’s James Murray, who has done more than most to launch a new generation of affordable council houses.

It may tell us more about the voting constituency than anything else, but a rather large number of housing association chief executives feature. Several deserve the accolade but it’s overcooked: there are 20 in the list. I do hope there’s no conspiracy involved. This year, South Yorkshire’s Tony Stacey is a nose ahead of Riverside’s Carol Matthews, who was the top CE last year, followed by Steve Stride of Poplar, David Montague of L&Q, Paul Tennant of Orbit and Geeta Nanda of Thames Valley. That’s a good selection and mix. Three ALMO people feature, Eamon McGoldrick of NatFedALMOs, Sue Roberts the current NFA chair, and former chair Alison Inman, who is also heavily involved in CIH, TPAS and now SHOUT, the campaign for social rented housing.

In an industry that was once dominated by powerful Directors of Housing, this year I can only spot one council officer in the top 50, Carmarthenshire’s Robin Staines. 20 housing association CEs and one Director of Housing tells its own story.

Not surprisingly, civil servants and regulators feature. Julian Ashby of the HCA regulation committee is in at 12. Terrie Alafat, Director of Housing Growth at CLG, takes over from her boss, Sir Bob Kerslake, at the highest ranked civil servant.

And a final word about bloggers. Jules Birch is deservedly top blogger in the list. Next year, I expect to see Colin Wiles climbing high, not just for his excellent blogs but also because he has been the driving force behind SHOUT. I also think Hannah Fearn should feature for her consistently excellent writing, in the Guardian and elsewhere.

I’m not sure if my 29th place is a pat on the back for Red Brick or London Labour Housing Group (which contributes 3 of the 50). Whichever, belief must be suspended by the fact that I am immediately followed by the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney and Grant Shapps, and ahead of both Boris Johnson and his sidekick, Deputy Mayor for Housing Richard Blakeway. As I intimated above, the power list is not meant to be taken too seriously. It is meant to be fun and the methodology is plainly flawed. Because in the real world, those four have a lot more power than is good for us.

Housing’s top 50 Power Players are revealed in the April edition of 24housing magazine out today.

*Jimmy Breslin Notes from Impeachment Summer, 1975

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Half a great housing strategy – unfortunately, the wrong half

The new London Housing Strategy from the Mayor of London is half a great document. The analysis is broadly sound and it is quite well written and clear. The critical weakness is that the policy prescriptions just don’t match up to the problems identified and the proposals fall apart under scrutiny.

The strategy revolves around a classic Boris Johnson trick. As you’d expect, the document identifies the need for additional housing, concluding there is a requirement for market, intermediate and social rented homes. It estimates that just short of 16,000 homes for social rent are needed each year. Then it switches to how the Mayor will provide these homes. Now you see it now you don’t, suddenly the phrase ‘social rent’ disappears and is replaced by ‘Affordable Rent’. You want juicy apples at 40p each! I’ve got dry oranges, £1 a go.

Unaffordable ‘Affordable Rent’ is of little use to London. Under the current programme (2011-14) rents are far too high and the programme is partly paid for by selling existing social rented homes on the market and ‘converting’ many others from social rent to ‘Affordable Rent’ when they become vacant. The desperate attempt to keep up the headline number of ‘affordable homes’ being built is at the expense of ever more social rented homes being removed from the stock. It is a disgrace but it is also a con. What used to be called ‘intermediate rent’ levels under Ken Livingstone – sub-market homes targeted at key workers – is now the main offer to people on very low incomes in acute housing need (assuming they are not diverted into the private rented sector first).

Now, to give Johnson a little credit, he has realised the error of the Government’s ways in relation to ‘Affordable Rent’. So he has edged back towards the Livingstone categorisation of affordable rented homes into ‘social rent’ and ‘intermediate rent’ but without admitting it. In the new programme (2015-18) 40% of the affordable homes he hopes to provide will be shared ownership and 60% will be ‘Affordable Rent’. But the AR component will be split into two: half of it (ie 30% of the programme total) will be capped at 50% of market rents and the other half will be pushed up to the top of the range, ie 80% of market rents. He regards the former as being targeted to vulnerable people, downsizers, tenants affected by regeneration, or people on benefits; and the latter towards people ‘in work’. This division is a nonsense due to the very low incomes of many people in work. Rents at 80% of London market rates are so high that they push more and more people in work onto housing benefit, so they face very high marginal rates of tax and benefit withdrawal – the very opposite of ‘making work pay’.

To be helpful in the extreme, it could be argued that the ‘capped’ programme is vaguely equivalent to social rent. Johnson’s own analysis concludes that there is a need to build 16,000 homes for social rent a year for at least 20 years. So what will his strategy deliver? He claims it ‘seeks to deliver 45,000 affordable homes over 3 years’, or 15,000 a year. Of these, 30% will be at ‘capped’ rents, around 4,500.

So Johnson’s strategy fails before it starts. Instead of the needed 16,000 social rented homes, on a generous interpretation he will provide 4,500 homes for ‘capped affordable rents’.

The strategy makes much of how many affordable homes Johnson has delivered so far. And here lies the second trick. It takes a long time to finance, plan and build homes. Johnson inherited Ken Livingstone’s 2008-11 programme, funded in full by Gordon Brown’s Government until 2010. It was a big part of Labour’s National Affordable Housing Strategy. This one Labour programme delivered a huge slice of what Johnson now claims as his achievement – 11,500 homes in 2008/09, 12,600 in 2009/10, 12,500 in 2010/11, 15,400 in 2011/12, and as many as 6,800 in 2012/13, 5 years into Johnson’s mayoralty. Nearly two-thirds of these homes were for social rent.

Johnson’s main programme, cunningly called the Affordable Housing programme, took 3 years to get running. It produced 265 affordable homes in 2011/12, 671 in 2012/13, and 1,582 in 2013/14 (11 months up to end of February). Around 560 of these were for social rent.

So there we have it. Johnson’s fine strategy is a cover for a total failure in delivery. Most of his claims to have produced affordable homes turn out to be the achievements of Ken Livingstone and Gordon Brown. His own programme has been characterised by delay and confusion and failed delivery. When some supposedly affordable rented homes come through, we find that they are at unaffordable rents. And when he announces his new strategy, with a fanfare, a whole five years into his mayoralty, we find it plans for an even more serious  deficit of homes at social rents or their equivalent into the future.

Fail, fail, and fail again.

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It’s time to call time on the right to buy

Given reports of the difficulties councils face in replacing houses they are forced to sell, shouldn’t the right to buy be curtailed before it does even more damage?

A survey by the LGA reports that four out of five councils are finding it hard to replace on a one-for-one basis the houses they’ve sold through right to buy. There is a range of obstacles. For nearly three-quarters, the biggest problem is that they can’t finance enough replacements from the capital receipts they’re able to keep. There are various reasons for this and the arrangements are complex, and this is why the LGA is calling for the restrictions to be dropped in an amendment to the Deregulation Bill now going through parliament. The government is of course unlikely to accept this amendment, because it would prevent them getting a share of RTB receipts to help bring down debt. But what’s more important, a tiny reduction in debt or ensuring that the RTB doesn’t result in a loss of rented housing stock?

One of the virtues of the UK Housing Review, extolled in Red Brick on various occasions, is that it provides the data on which we can take a long-term view of policies like RTB. The 2013 edition showed that, across Britain, RTB sales since 1980 had reached over 2.5m homes. It also showed that total receipts from those sales were slightly under £50bn. In other words, the RTB has been a prolonged fire sale in which houses and flats have been sold at an average price of only £20,000. This might be excellent value for buyers, especially when many of them later sell the property to a private landlord, but it represents dreadful value for the public sector. Even if more recent sales are likely to have produced higher average receipts, it’s hardly surprising that a combination of high new build costs and being forced to share the receipts with the Treasury means that one-for-one replacement is extremely hard to achieve.

We all know what the consequences have been, and one of the most important has been the impact on social rented stock. Back in 1981, across Great Britain this stood at over 6.5m dwellings (councils and associations added together). It’s now fallen to 4.8m, even though we’ve been building an average of 35,000 new social rented homes per year over the intervening 33 years. In other words, successive governments’ building programmes have made up less than half of the loss in stock: it’s hardly surprising that we’ve got such a huge backlog of housing need.

Supporters of RTB will of course protest that the houses haven’t been ‘lost’ they are still there. And even if they hadn’t been sold, the tenants who bought them would likely have used them for the rest of their lives in many cases. Both of these points are true, but the failure to reinvest means that we now have a much smaller social stock to meet the needs of those on low incomes (quite apart from the ambition we might have had to continue catering for middle-income households in social housing, as was the case before 1980).

Ending the right to buy may not be an election winning strategy (although it seems to have done no harm in Scotland). But three reforms would curtail its worst effects. One would be to restore maximum discounts and other safeguards to what they were before 2010. This would be a perfectly reasonable move, given current demand for social housing. The second would be to ensure that all receipts are used for new building, if necessary dedicating part of the HCA’s budget to the (possibly fairly small) grant that would be needed to top up the receipt. Of course, Red Brick would add to this a third reform – that borrowing controls on councils should be eased or preferably removed.

An indication of the potential that would be released by fairer rules is given by other responses to the LGA survey. They confirm replies to a recent one by ARCH which show that councils are currently planning to build 4-5,000 houses per year. LGA suggest the potential with different rules could be extra output of 48,000 units over five years. There is now a run of studies in the two years since council housing became self-financing that point to the extra capacity waiting to be unleashed. If the government’s review of the role of councils in housing supply, confirmed this week, doesn’t take up this challenge, will Labour’s Lyons Review?

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Goodbye annuities, hello social care accounts?

Like many others I sit and look at the pile of paper I have about my pension scheme and a fog descends. I was considering sorting it out and buying an annuity last year, but put it off because the process involved using up more brain cells than I felt I could afford.

It turns out for once that laziness and procrastination has a dividend. The Government’s Budget announcement seems to offer me better alternatives than a miserable annuity and opens up the possibility of taking most or all of the whole pension pot and doing something else with it.

So I am in the camp that says that more flexibility is a good thing and I will not weep for the annuities industry losing some of their share value. However I am no better than anyone else at predicting how long I will live and for how long I will need an income. Having the money in the hand could well prove a temptation, even putting to one side LibDem Minister Steve Webb’s ludicrous comment about buying Lamborghinis. Labour has been attacked for making points that are blatantly obvious – if people spend their money early, they may be left with insufficient income and be more dependent on the State later. David Cameron mocks such genuine concerns as being ‘patronising’ but it just shows how out of touch he is with the really difficult decisions that ordinary people have to make.

In his blog for the Financial Times, John McDermott raised an interesting point about what the Coalition is up to. Alongside general concerns that the policy will lead to short-termism and that there may be scope for new charlatans to operate in the market, he wonders how much this liberalisation of pensions has to do with paying for social care.

Sometimes two otherwise benign policies can collide in an unfortunate way, but with this Government more malevolent motivations should always be expected. They want to cap the costs of some aspects of care to avoid people having to sell their homes to pay for it. But now they can sell their pension entitlement instead. By foregoing a regular annuity income they may have capital sitting in the bank or in investments – waiting to be assessed. Even with the cap, care is expensive, and some costs, such as general living costs in a care home, are not included within the cap. ‘Goodbye annuities, hello social care accounts’ says John.

Julia Unwin of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation was one of several charity leaders to also raise concerns about a pensions reform that could lead to people incurring social care costs which they would otherwise have avoided. As I understand it, someone with assets of less than £118,000, or £27,000 excluding their home, will have all their care costs paid. A pension being received in the form of an income from an annuity would be disregarded but a lump sum taken out of their pension pot could take them over the limit.

This flexibility over pensions does not come free. Any amount above 25% being taken out of your pension pot would be subject to tax. George Osborne has spotted that this could contribute painlessly to reducing the deficit in years ahead. Is this a  classic case of short term gain but long term pain?

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Bingo Bob shows what the Eton Mess really think about the British public

The astonishing advert and tweet published by the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Grant Shapps (aka Michael Green aka Bingo Bob) illustrates the condescending and insulting view that the Tories – the Eton Mess – have of the great British public.

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If Bingo Bob thought a penny off a pint and cheaper Bingo would woo millions of working class voters then he was wrong – but it does illustrate that there is no money left, unless it has a political purpose of course.

The Budget holds out little hope for housing and has nothing at all to say about affordable homes.  However the detail of the Budget documents always includes some items that get little attention but do have an impact on the housing world, so here are some initial thoughts.

The Government are obviously still thrashing around looking for a magic bullet to get housebuilding up. They have the cheek to claim that the extension of the Help to Buy equity loan scheme counts as ‘further action to boost housing supply’ but it is perhaps more significant that they have not extended the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme – is that an admission that it is misguided? A small builders finance fund is probably quite useful and is something Labour have been talking about. Small and medium-sized builders cite lack of access to finance as a key constraint on their activities.

The Urban Development Corporation for Ebbsfleet has a ring of deju vu about it, possibly because this small New Town has been announced before. A new prospectus for additional Garden Cities will be published but they will be ‘locally-led’, a policy we have criticised on Red Brick before. Their boast that planning approvals for housing are at a 5 year high is not much to write home about given the scale of the recession and the absolute certainty that the economy would eventually recover irrespective of Government actions. Most people will support a little more help being given to self-builders.

I shiver whenever I hear the word ‘regeneration’ these days because I have seen too many council estates being pulled down for private housing with the social rented element not replaced. So a new fund available to private developers will need to be watched. More support for infrastructure around Cambridge and a new rail connection to help open up Barking Riverside (a move supported by London Labour Housing Group in its submission to Lyons) may unlock thousands of new homes. We need many more plans like these. More planning relaxations are to be proposed but the Government still seem to be missing the point that planning authorities need to be working strategically at a regional level and to be operating as proactive bodies rather than just responding to private development proposals.

The Budget also includes welcome changes to the use of ‘corporate envelopes’ to purchase property, thereby avoiding stamp duty land tax, bringing properties of value over £500K into the new regime. It involves the extraordinarily named new Annual Tax on Enveloped Dwellings (ATED).

There is also a pre-announcement of a proposed ‘Right to Move’ for social tenants to increase their mobility for work-related reasons. Options will include giving such tenants priority when a new social home becomes available, and setting aside a pool of vacant lets to enable them to move across local authority boundaries. This seems totally at odds with everything done previously on housing allocations, with a stronger emphasis on residential requirements and ‘locals first’.

There is to be a pilot project on passing a share of development benefits directly to individual households. We will have to wait to see if this is a scheme after the style of Islington’s innovative approach to development.

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There is lots of money left – it’s just being spent by the wrong people on the wrong things for the wrong purpose

Boris Johnson was sunning himself in Cannes last week at the World’s greatest property development conference, obscurely called MIPIM (20,000 participants, 2,000 exhibitors from 80 countries) encouraging more global investment in totally unaffordable London property and making jokes in very bad taste about German invasions (watch his speech here if you have 32 minutes to waste in pointless activity).

Meanwhile, Chancellor George Osborne was busily working away at next week’s Budget. With a flick of a pencil, George could double the affordable housing investment programme and it would still be within the margin of error of the housing benefit budget. There are endless changes he could make to fund such an increase – for example, additional taxes on the most expensive properties, penalties for land hoarding, or ending the ridiculously ineffective New Homes Bonus.

But no. Instead Osborne is, according to the Sunday Times (paywall), beavering away on an extension to the Help to Buy scheme. Spun as a scheme designed to help people get on the property ladder, Help to Buy has been widely criticised as being inflationary at a time when the UK economy needs a property bubble like a hole in the head. It is of course a political rather than a housing policy – Osborne believes that rising house prices will make a key sector of the electorate feel richer and therefore better-off.

Right wing commentator Fraser Nelson in the Spectator says that pouring more petrol on the property market fire by extending this ‘discredited’ scheme ‘would be laughable if it were not so plausible.’  It is, he says ‘a flagrant example of politicians using taxpayers’ money in an attempt to buy votes. It’s a sign that Osborne intends to use help-to-buy as an election weapon, and as loaned money doesn’t show up on the deficit figures he’s quite relaxed.

And he adds: ‘The last conservative leader who tried to manipulate the property market for political purposes (to claim to voters he was on the side of hard-working people etc) was George W Bush – and we all know how subprime lending worked out for America. But before its damage, it did bring a property boom – and that’s what Osborne seems to be trying to seek now.’ He also quotes a report from Bloomberg based on a survey of analysts, which concluded that Help to Buy is ‘creating the illusion of wealth by subsidizing house prices and encouraging a further levering up.’

So what is Labour saying? Labour appears unwilling at this stage to get caught up in an argument about who is in favour and who is against helping aspirational people to buy their own homes. Ed Balls is therefore not presenting a simple ‘end it’ message. Instead he is arguing for major reform, restrictions that would prevent the scheme from creating an unbalanced housing market that could put economic recovery at risk. He would cut the upper limit on the scheme from £600K to £400K, possibly with regional variations, and consider restricting the scheme to first time buyers.  He argues : “The lack of funding for affordable housing, alongside a housing market that has been very slow to respond to rising demand, means there is a real risk for our economy” – by which he means greater pressure to raise interest rates faster.

Balls raises the interesting concept of a ‘Help to Build’ scheme as an alternative, using Government guarantees in a different way to help small and medium-sized builders to access finance. He thinks such a scheme could help provide an extra 10,000 homes a year. He has also floated the idea of using Government guarantees to back a new generation of New Town Corporations.

Help to Buy demonstrates that Government money is sloshing around in housing in its billions. Yet it is only when the conversation turns to genuinely affordable housing that the language of austerity reappears. There is no money left we are told. In my view, there is lots of money left. It is just being spent on the wrong things by the wrong people for the wrong purpose.

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Planners say they’re needed to solve the housing crisis, so why don’t they promote section 106?

The RTPI says planners are essential to increased housing output, pointing to their submission to the Lyons Review. But why do they ignore the potential of planning gain created through section 106 agreements?

Neither the RTPI nor the Town and Country Planning Association make much mention of planning gain and section 106 in their submissions to the review, seeming to accept the coalition’s sidelining of the measure since it took office. The government’s attitude to s106 was confirmed this week when its new online guidance also made little mention of its role in providing affordable housing. Yet it’s arguable that it’s one of the most important ways in which planners can contribute to the output of new homes at social rents.

In contrast, three of the other Lyons submissions – from ARCH, CIH and JRF – focussed strongly on the potential revival of s106, and a little background history quickly shows why this is the case. ‘Planning gain’ was first established by section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, hence its alternative name. This measure allows planning authorities to oblige developers to include affordable housing (and potentially other things like schools) in their developments, either by setting land aside or by building the homes or by paying cash instead. It took a while for the use of planning gain to grow and for good practice to develop. But by 2010/11, as the graph from Savills shows, s106 accounted for 60 per cent of affordable housing completions.

Savills graphThis is particularly pertinent to Lyons and to Labour as this was the peak year of the old National Affordable Housing Programme, that the Tories brought to a halt in the 2010 Spending Review.

Since then, goaded by the developers, the Tories have poured cold water on s106, coming up with various ways to reduce its impact that culminated in last year’s Growth and Infrastructure Act, which invited developers to appeal against uneconomic s106 requirements. Of course, there was a case for looking at planning obligations after the credit crunch, and many local planning authorities were evidently doing so on a voluntary basis. But it was also apparent that developers would try to kill off s106 in the recession so that it wouldn’t bug them again when the market started to grow. Which of course is what is now happening.

The Tories seem strangely indifferent to the effects of weakened s106 agreements on their own Affordable Homes Programme.  But even now they still make a significant contribution, providing 4,820 units in 2012/13 alone, in recent years even with no grant from the Homes and Communities Agency. Clearly they now need to be harnessed as part of Labour’s drive to build 200,000 homes per year: in fact, not to do so would invite failure.

There are plenty of issues about the working of s106, for example why its use is so variable between local authorities. Clearly it needs to be reappraised and guidance strengthened. However, Labour has so far been rather indifferent to it. Roberta Blackman-Woods MP, the planning spokesperson, has said that it would be reviewed alongside the Community Infrastructure Levy with the idea of replacing it with a ‘community investment fund’. The problem with this is that if the planning gain is taken as a financial contribution it misses out many of the successful attributes of s106, especially the fact that land is made available and new developments as a result are often mixed. There is also the danger that, with so much pressure to renew or extend infrastructure under limited capital budgets, that’s where the money will be spent, rather than on housing.

Lyons should be well aware of the risks of dropping s106 and also of the potential gains from keeping and strengthening it. After all, at the peak of output under the last government, when output from planning gain was at its height, we were building 140,000 homes per year in total.  Rather than holding back development, section 106 was one of the leading drivers of it.

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Could Labour and the LibDems work together on housing?

Alex Marsh, a Liberal Democrat, blogs a lot of sense about housing. But what is most noteworthy about his latest piece, a report on the various housing debates and fringe meetings at LibDem Conference last weekend, is the similarity between the Labour and LibDem parties when it comes to housing policy. Conference-going party members seem to have the same natural instincts.

We’ve commented before on Red Brick that LibDem official Party policy on housing is very strong, and at one point I went so far as to say that I would be happy if Labour adopted it. Some key points from the weekend: the Conference passed a motion which is critical of planning policy in similar terms to those used by Labour; there were robust criticisms of the right to buy and the failure of the policy of replacement; there was solid support for raising the cap on local authority borrowing; there was a widespread desire to switch back to bricks and mortar subsidies and away from reliance on housing benefit; there was backing for mechanisms to tackle landbanking and bring more land forward for development. Alex’s report even confirms similar areas of argument and debate – for example the importance of a brownfield first policy; whether an era of higher housebuilding rates will actually moderate house prices given trends the current housing market; whether there should be German-style private rent controls. From his detailed description of the discussions, I couldn’t spot any major differences between what they discussed and what I hear discussed in the Labour Party every week.

If, depending on the outcome of the General Election (and given the state of the LibDems that may be a big if), Labour was faced with the prospect of governing by forming a coalition or some other kind of pact with the LibDems, then housing should not be the issue that stands in the way. It would take less than an afternoon to come up with an excellent common policy platform that the vast majority of Labour and LibDem members could agree on.

There are two big barriers to this being possible: the historic enmity between the parties (in my own borough, Brent, Labour has had to deal with Sarah Teather) and the disgraceful record on housing of the LibDems in power. Weak LibDem Ministers in the CLG department (Andrew Stunell, Don Foster) have failed to constrain their highly ideological Tory Secretary of State (Eric Pickles) and the initial driver of many of the policies, that most political of men, Grant Shapps. Junior LibDem Ministers have provided full cover. At the top, only Vince Cable has raised doubts about the policy, especially the lack of investment and the risk of house price inflation from help to buy.

Policies supported in Government have been in direct contradiction to the LibDem Party’s stated policy: for example, ending the national social rented programme, ending security of tenure in social housing, supporting huge rent hikes with the ‘affordable rent’ policy, supporting the bedroom tax, failing to regulate private renting, the list goes on.

The LibDems have little credibility left in terms of delivering in Government what they support outside Parliament. If coalition or joint working is to happen, at the very least they will need to admit the error of their ways. Perhaps we should dust off the famous Nick Clegg ‘I’m sorry’ video?

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Money should be no object for homelessness too

There can be no doubt that the flooding of your home is a dreadful and traumatic event and that Government should be doing far more to improve flood defences and to mitigate the impact of climate change on our homes.

But the most surprising statistic to come out of the floods since Xmas is that the number of homes flooded was less than 6,000 and that media attention escalated when it affected residents in the Thames Valley. There has been a feeling of outrage in some parts of the north where much larger numbers of homes were flooded last year but without the same amount of attention being paid to them by the media and Ministers. No-one said to them that ‘money is no object’.

But there is a more astonishing comparison that can be made: with the number of families made homeless each and every year for reasons that are not as visually photogenic as the floods. You can’t normally see the homeless from a helicopter. The latest figures, showing yet more increases, created scarcely a ripple on the media and there were no statements of intent by David Cameron to spend more money on affordable homes.

Under the Coalition, homelessness is again rising rapidly after many years of falling. In the first full year of the Labour Government, the inheritance from John Major meant that 104,000 families were accepted as homeless by councils in England. It took Labour six years to bring it under control, by which time the figure had risen to 135,000 (2003/04). Each year after that the number of acceptances fell, down to 40,000 in Labour’s last year (2009/10). Since the General Election it has started to rise again, to 44,000 in 2010/11, 50,000 in 2011/12 and 54,000 in 2012/13. (NB figures rounded – they count households who are deemed to be unintentionally homeless and in ‘priority need’, mainly households containing children or a member who is ‘vulnerable’ due to mental or physical ill-health or age).

The detailed homelessness statistics are remarkably consistent year by year (eg which regions are most affected, the reasons for homelessness, the size of households, and so on). But there is one significant recent trend that is noteworthy. Homelessness that is attributed to the ‘end of assured shorthold tenancy’, which was 15% of cases when Labour came into office and fell to 11% in 2009/10, is now on a steep upward curve, rising to 22% in 2012/13 and 25% for calendar year 2013. This is now the biggest single reason for homelessness. It illustrates the ‘revolving door’ of Government homelessness policy: the duty to homeless households is increasingly discharged by placing them in private rented accommodation, but the loss of a private let is the biggest single reason for homelessness.

One of the most controversial aspects of homelessness is the use of temporary accommodation for long periods prior to a housing solution being found. Labour’s slow, but eventually effective, response to rising homelessness is again illustrated by these figures. The number of households in temporary accommodation stood at 47,000 when Labour came into power, but rose to over 101,000 in 2005. Following the implementation of a series of policies designed to meet a Government target to halve the number in TA, the figure began to fall, reducing each year to reach 50,000 when Labour left office (and thereby meeting the target). Since then the trend has been reversed and the number in TA has been rising again, standing just short of 57,000 at the end of 2013.

Households in temporary accommodation contain an astonishing number of  81,000 children. Everything that has ever been written about TA shows that it is bad for children. They become dislocated from school and child care, from friends and family, and from the place they identified as ‘home’. Educational attainment and socialisation suffer and behavioural problems become more common.

Of the households in TA, 7% are in bed and breakfast hotels. 500 households, containing 1,550 children have been resident in B&B beyond the statutory limit of 6 weeks. The contribution of private sector leasing (primarily where the property is managed by a housing association) is waning, and the number of households placed directly into private accommodation on a temporary accommodation basis has grown – doubling from 6,200 at the 2010 Election to 13,500 at the end of 2013. This is a hugely expensive option in terms of housing benefit costs.

Some authorities have great difficulty in procuring temporary accommodation within their own district – which everyone recognises is the best option for families and individuals if they are to retain contact with their network of family, friends, schools, health services and other public services. Receiving authorities also often face additional costs of providing services to these families. Nearly 6,000 households were placed in TA in another district at the time of the General Election, this has now doubled to just short of 12,000.

The problems associated with homelessness and temporary accommodation are at their most acute in London – three quarters of the households in TA are from London – but they are certainly not restricted to the capital.

The geographical concentration of temporary accommodation use is illustrated in a helpful map contained within the official statistics (Live Table 775). The incidence is very low in most parts of the country but there are hot spots around the country and a major concentration in London.

TA across England March 2014

High and rising levels of homelessness are an extreme symptom of wider levels of inequality in British society and our growing failure to meet basic human needs. Someone once said that the way we treat our most vulnerable people is the basic test of our civilisation. Quite.

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Surge of support for social rented housing

Friday night’s deadline for Labour’s Lyons Housing Commission brought a burst of last minute submissions from organisations and individuals.

The Commission, chaired by Sir Michael Lyons, was set up after Labour’s Annual Conference in September 2013 when Ed Miliband announced his plans for a Labour Government to increase the supply of new homes in England above 200,000 a year by the end of the next Parliament. It is tasked with drawing up a road map for the housing and planning policies and practice that are required to deliver the new homes and communities we need.

One of the most interesting submissions is from the new campaign group SHOUT, a cross Party group that is arguing the case for a return to traditional social rented housing. It says that, if Labour plans to build 200,000 homes a year, then 100,000 of those need to be at genuinely affordable social rent levels. The group argues that this is the only way to meet the needs of people on low incomes and to increase the extent to which work pays. Rather than ever increasing housing benefit bills, a new social rented programme will create major new assets that will generate social and financial benefits indefinitely. The net impact of the £4.5 bn capital cost would be much less as there would be savings in welfare, health and other programmes. The group also says there is a ‘strong case for reclassifying the housing borrowing and spending of local authorities outside the core public sector definitions in line with international practice and the self-financing business model of social housing’.

In a comprehensive submission the Chartered Institute of Housing make the case for fully restoring ‘s.106’ requirements. They remind us that ten years ago a significant amount of housing association output came via s.106 planning gain. They raise concerns about the operation of the Community Infrastructure Levy and the fact that it excludes funding for affordable housing. They make the point strongly that achieving 200,000 homes a year requires an increase in investment and that much of that will have to come from the public sector: the private sector has only exceeded 150,000 homes a year 3 times since 1950. They argue that there is a strong value-for-money case for a ‘higher-grant lower-rent’ (ie social rent levels) programme rather than ‘lower-grant higher rent’ (as in ‘affordable rent’). Like almost everyone, they emphasise the need to give councils more freedom to borrow by either raising the ‘cap’ on housing revenue account borrowing or by changing borrowing rules to bring them in line with international conventions.

Former Housing and Planning Minister Nick Raynsford MP sets out some of the key principles that should be followed to reach the target of 200,000 homes. But he emphasises that there is no single magic bullet – the contribution of every provider will have to be maximised to achieve the goal. Mixed tenure development has the most potential for achieving higher volumes of output, schemes involving social and private renting as well as part and full sale. He also supports councils having greater freedom to borrow. And he is one of many making a plea for a ‘benefits-to-bricks’ approach:  ‘While in the short-term it is difficult to see how the current level of [housing benefit] expenditure (c. £23 billion) can be reduced without causing substantial homelessness and hardship, the long-term objective must be to redress the unsatisfactory balance in public spending between investment incentives and revenue subsidies.’

The Riverside Group complains of a planning ‘free-for-all’ – ‘a lack of local direction and thus less predictability in securing planning approvals’ and identifies the lack of resources in planning department as a growing barrier to the progress of specific schemes. They argue that the current ‘affordable rent’ regime is unsustainable, dependent on higher rents at a time when welfare reform and uncertain household incomes is causing uncertainty about income streams, and that a doubling of grant per unit is needed. They also focus on issues around regeneration: ‘We are calling for a national enquiry into the future of regeneration, considering how housing and economic regeneration can be considered as part of a single, complementary framework with appropriate investment streams and incentives.’

And finally in this little selection, the London Labour Housing Group identifies the failure of Boris Johnson’s housing policy, especially his removal of requirements in relation to social rented housing from the London Plan and the removal of grant for social rented homes from his affordable housing programme. LLHG say ‘London has been characterised by its inclusivity and social mix, it is rapidly becoming socially polarised.’  They call for a new programme of grant for social rented housing in London – genuinely affordable homes – and a return to the objective of building mixed communities. They say that the principle of ‘planning gain’ must be restored and that it is a disgrace that luxury developments are being built across London with no social housing because it is supposedly ‘not viable’ to include it. They also call for a ‘benefits to bricks’ policy: ‘It is wrong that 95% of public money spent on housing is in the form of housing benefit and only 5% in the form of investment grants. The initial subsidy for social rented keeps rents low for the lifetime of the homes, but it pays for itself eventually through savings in housing benefit compared to either ‘affordable rent’ or requiring people to rent privately.’

There are many other contributions posted on the Your Britain/Lyons website and no doubt more have been received and will be posted shortly. This is undoubtedly a key debate for Labour and we will keep an eye on developments as Sir Michael Lyons and his team complete their review.

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