Alike in dignity: common housing themes in Bradford and London

IPPR – the Institute for Public Policy Research – releases two important and well-argued reports today as part of their comprehensive review of housing policy.  Some common themes emerge even though there couldn’t be a stronger contrast between the geographical focus of the reports: ‘Alike in Dignity’ looks mainly at Bradford, ‘Affordable Capital’ follows a more well-trodden path in looking at London.

One of the reasons I like the reports is that they do not look at housing in isolation, but develop a narrative that brings together housing, benefits policy, and the needs of the local economy, especially in relation to jobs and incomes.  Housing policy has been bedevilled by the separation between the two Whitehall silos of Communities and Local Government on the one hand and Work and Pensions on the other.  By far the biggest flow of money into housing – housing benefit – has had little to do with delivering strategic housing objectives, and IPPR is making a big contribution to bringing these separate worlds together.

This may or may not lead logically to supporting IPPR’s developing position in favour of the localisation of housing benefits.  The reports both argue the case, showing how different circumstances in each area lead to a clear need for housing benefit policies to be tailored to local requirements – for example enabling the better matching of rates, thresholds and caps.  They point out that localisation would require housing benefit to be taken out of the proposed Universal Credit, and there are other reasons for supporting that.

I must admit to a deep-seated fear that the outcome of localisation might be worse not better, so I need to wrestle with these arguments a bit longer.  It may be just that I have a deep-seated fear of Boris Johnson, because I can see the case for localisation more clearly in London, where the Mayor oversees an entire region, than other parts of the country where accountable regional institutions are weak or non-existent and there is often little relationship between local government boundaries and housing markets or journey to work areas.

A second common theme is the irresistible case IPPR make for a new ‘something for something’ deal with the private rented sector, based on accreditation and a new mechanism for rent stabilisation like the New York model.  Local priorities might vary – for example if the dominant PRS issue is standards or rents – but the sector must become a more important concern for local government as more and more families are accommodated in it, including more vulnerable households.  It is a simple quid pro quo: the amount of money pouring into the sector should also be capable of delivering increasing professionalisation of management, less bad practice and improving standards.

The focus on Bradford is welcome following the recent controversial by-election.  IPPR shows how it is England’s most economically polarised district, with the biggest gap between its most and least deprived areas, including between housing ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.  Those on the lowest incomes and living in the cheapest areas still face the worst affordability constraints, measured as the proportion of their income taken up by rent.  The areas with high concentrations of low income households are also associated with the poorest quality housing stock, overcrowding on the one hand and empty properties on the other.

There are a couple of points in the London report that are worth highlighting as well.  IPPR says that London is different – although not detached – from the rest of the country and that its uniqueness as a world city requires unique policies.  Despite the mayor’s new powers and control over public housing investment resources, the London housing strategy is largely just a restatement of the dogma of national policy.

IPPR is highly persuasive in arguing for a regional increase (they propose £10 per week) in the local housing allowance caps.  This relatively small adjustment would mean that the majority of claimants would not lose out as a result of the reforms, and that all of the others would see their losses reduced accordingly.

They also support the introduction of new taxes on the foreign buyers of prime London property.  A huge proportion of turnover in London – with inflationary consequences across the housing market – has been based on foreign money, much of it a flight of capital from volatile economies (Russia then Greece and now apparently Italy).  Recycling some of this wealth seems a good idea in principle although finding a regime which has stickability when put up against legions of tax consultants and lawyers may be the real challenge.

Both reports have a wealth of data and analysis and are well worth downloading.

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