The great housing budget. Is that it?

A tweet from fellow SHOUT campaigner Tom Murtha summed up the Budget: ‘Is that it?’ he said.

SHOUT’s response to the Budget calls it ‘a missed opportunity’. A bit on the polite side!

Of course there are a few things to welcome. Some lifting of the appalling burden of getting onto Universal Credit. More money for the housing infrastructure fund and a proposal to raise the borrowing caps on local authority housing revenue accounts (but they will have to bid for it). And more money for Grenfell victims and for the surrounding estate.

There are some mysteries still: the £2 billion extra for ‘25,000 council houses’ announced by Theresa May in her Conference speech is now described in the government’s Budget ‘Red Book’ as 25,000 additional affordable homes, which could mean anything. There are still vague promises to ‘look at’ bids for extra money to pay for additional fire safety measures, but no hard cash given to anyone who has asked so far. There is a ‘Land Assembly Fund’ but no clarity yet about who will assemble it and for what purpose. And veteran back room thinker Oliver ‘two brains’ Letwin is going to be let loose again trying to work out why planning permissions don’t get ‘built out’ and turned into real homes. There will be more unspecified planning reforms, as if we haven’t had enough, but no mention of getting rid of the ‘viability tests’ used everywhere to help developers get out of commitments to affordable homes. There are ideas for changing the Community Infrastructure Levy arrangements but they don’t at first sight seem enough to tackle the issue of land value uplift, and another consultation will ensue.

Then there is the plain daft. On top of the already announced extra £10 billion for the inflationary ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, there is to be a reduction in stamp duty aimed at first time buyers. Yet the government’s own forecasters say that the main effect of this will be to put up prices and that the primary beneficiaries will be, not first time buyers, but existing home owners. Never has so much been spent in a totally counterproductive way.

In the middle of all this demand-side nonsense, the Red Book has a little essay on the importance of housing supply and its beneficial impact on what is now seen to be the key economic problem of poor productivity. It’s worth quoting:  Box 5.1:

Housing supply and productivity

Increasing the supply of housing in the right places brings productivity gains. It supports flexible and responsive labour markets, enabling people to work where they are most productive, and allows successful towns and cities to become even more productive by realising agglomeration economies.

Expanding the stock of housing in urban areas can lead to agglomeration benefits where it increases the density of economic activity. Studies find larger cities boost productivity: doubling a city size or density increases productivity by 3 to 8%.

Increasing housing supply guards against macroeconomic instability. House prices tend to rise faster in environments with lower responsiveness of new housing supply. Cross‑country studies show that lower house price variability is associated with lower variability in inflation, interest rates and real incomes.

On supply, the Chancellor has played the numbers game again. Now they’re committing to build 300,000 new homes a year by the mid-2020s. This figure, plucked out of thin air it seems, is so far in the future that it is of almost no value as an operational target.

You would expect that such a figure would be backed up by meaningful housing supply initiatives which might get us up towards that kind of figure. Instead there is more tinkering with planning: intervention where councils have not agreed plans, the use of land ‘outside the local plan’ if it is to be used for discounted homes for first time buyers, greater housing density in urban areas, and easier conversion from commercial and retail use to residential. Plus some fiddling about with investment rules, the land assembly fund (beware – it’s about ‘private developers and strategic sites’), garden towns (AGAIN!!).

And on affordable housing: ‘The government has already shown its commitment to increasing the supply of affordable homes’ (pause for laughs) citing the extra and currently undefined £2b, a promise to raise HRA caps (through a bidding process), more loans for estate regeneration (not sure about that one either).

And don’t forget the homeless. Well, they nearly did. After Boris Johnson failed to meet his promise to end rough sleeping in London by 2012, the government is now promising to halve it by 2022. If they achieve that, which has to be doubted, they will be back to the level they started with in 2010. And there will be three ‘Housing First’ pilots (three!).

So, there we have it. This was to be the great housing budget.

As an antidote, I recommend re-reading the SHOUT report showing how we could get to building 100,000 social rent homes a year, even with Brexit.

What a Budget that would make!

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It’s the 21st century: homes should not be unfit for human habitation

I get to speak at meetings a fair bit, normally Labour Party or tenant campaign meetings around the place. Recently I’ve taken to asking audiences if it is possible for a landlord to let a home that is ‘unfit for human habitation’. Of course not, they usually say (although some think it was probably a new measure brought in by David Cameron….).

If they were right there would be no need for the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill which Karen Buck MP has introduced as a private member’s Bill. It is scheduled to have its second reading on 19 January 2018.

Having been involved in one successful private member’s Bill in the past (on standards in houses in multiple occupation, which passed the Commons but was lost when the 1983 general election was called) I know how hard it is to make progress with one unless it is something around which there is a strong consensus and government support (or at least acquiescence).

There have been two recent attempts to ban the letting of homes that are unfit – Tories ‘talked out’ a previous Bill and voted against it when it was brought up as an amendment subsequently. However, the electoral arithmetic has changed since June, the government is beginning to be embarrassed by its reputation for being callous in its treatment of poor people, and the time might be right for them to want to be seen to be doing the right thing.

Crucially, for the Bill to proceed there must be 100 MPs present on 19 January to guarantee a vote. It’s not as easy as it sounds because private member’s Bills are debated on a Friday when most MPs have returned to their constituencies. So: that’s where everyone interested in progressive housing policies comes in. Please make sure your MP is there to vote for the Bill!

Karen is advised by a team of legal experts and the Nearly Legal website has had excellent coverage of the detail of the Bill and its progress. Giles Peaker of Anthony Gold solicitors has written a short briefing on the Bill, setting out why it is important and what it does. I’ve extracted key points below, but the Nearly Legal website will be the best destination for detailed information about the Bill.

Giles is asking that you should contact your MP and to ask them to attend on 19 January. You can find your MP here. He also refers to Shelter’s petition in support of the Bill.

As Giles says:

“I make no apology for going on about this. It is a relatively simple change to the law, but one that could have significant and lasting effects. It is too important to be allowed to be filibustered out. Some one million rented homes in England, social and private, have category 1 HHSRS hazards, amounting to a serious risk to health.”

Please support this important Bill.

Thanks

Steve

Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill promoted by Karen Buck MP

Why is the Bill needed?

Currently, landlords have no obligation to their tenants to put or keep the property in a condition fit for habitation. There is an obligation on the landlord to repair the structure of the property, and keep in repair, heating, gas, water and electricity installations, but that only applies where something is broken or damaged. It does not cover things like fire safety, or inadequate heating, or poor ventilation causing condensation and mould growth.

There are a whole range of ‘fitness’ issues, which seriously affect the well-being and safety of tenants, about which tenants can do nothing at all. For private sector tenants, or housing association tenants, it is possible for the local authority to enforce fitness standards under the Housing Health and Safety Rating System and Housing Act 2004.

However, there is a huge degree of variability in inspection, notices and enforcement rates by councils. About 50% of councils have served none or only one HA 2004 notice in the last year. One London council, which has an active enforcement policy, amounted to 50% of notices served nationally and 70% in London. What this means is that there is a complete postcode lottery on the prospects of councils taking steps – with the real prospect being that the council won’t do so.

For council tenants, the Housing Act 2004/HHSRS standards are all but pointless. Local Housing Authorities cannot enforce against themselves. So council tenants have no way to enforce or seek to have enforced basic fitness standards, including fire safety, if their landlord doesn’t do anything.

Poor standards are a widespread problem. According to the latest English Housing Survey, 16.8% of private tenanted properties have Category 1 HHSRS hazards (which are classed as a serious risk to the occupiers’ health). That is 756,000 households, at least 36% of which contain children, and there are a further 244,000 social tenanted properties which have Category 1 HHSRS hazards. That is a million properties altogether. It is likely that more than 3 million people, including children, live in rented properties that present a serious risk to their health and safety.

What does the Bill do?

The Bill aims to complement local authority enforcement powers, by enabling all tenants to take action on the same issues and standards as local authorities can, and to give council tenants recourse. It follows the recommendations of the Law Commission and the Court of Appeal.

For any tenancy granted for less than 7 years term (including all periodic tenancies), the Bill will add an implied term that

(a) that the dwelling is fit for human habitation at the time of the grant; and,

(b) that the lessor will thereafter keep it fit for human habitation.

If the property is a flat, the obligation extends to all parts of the building in which the landlord has an interest, so it would include the common parts and the outside of a block of flats if all owned by the same landlord.

There are some exceptions, where the problem is caused by the tenant, or where the landlord can’t do anything to fix the problem without breaking the law, or where they can’t do anything without the permission of a superior landlord and that has been refused.

What this would mean is that the tenant could take action against the landlord to make them put right any problems or hazards that make the property unfit and could seek compensation when the landlord hasn’t done so.

It is not a replacement for the council’s own powers, but works alongside them, enabling tenants to take action where the council hasn’t, or can’t. For all new tenancies after the Bill comes into force, it will make it a right to have a home fit for living in.

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Is this really the turning point for social housing?

In the week when the final death toll of the Grenfell Tower disaster was announced to be 71, it is right that social housing should move further into the spotlight. The Chartered Institute of Housing has announced a major new project aimed at shaping the future of the sector, called ‘Rethinking Social Housing’. It joins the government, which is holding its own review, and the Labour Party, which is close to confirming the details of the review announced by Jeremy Corbyn during his conference speech.

The Grenfell Tower Inquiry, chaired by Sir Martin Moore-Bick, also moved two steps forward this week with the appointment of three expert assessors – to join a huge team of lawyers and a team of fire experts – and by publishing an update on the Inquiry so far.

The progress report illustrates what a complex Inquiry this will be. It has had an unprecedented number of applications to be Core Participants in the Inquiry – 545 applications, of which 393 have already been granted – and has embarked on a review of the first 200,000 documents received. Detailed attention is being given to tracking the generation and movement of fire and smoke and taking witness statements from, amongst others, the 225 residents who escaped the fire and the 260 firefighters who attended. Phase 1 of the Inquiry will focus on the ‘factual narrative’ of what happened on 14 June. Meanwhile, the silent marches every 14th get bigger every month.

grenfell the sun Grenfell Silent March 14 Nov 2017. Pic: Barcroft media for the Sun.

Link to Justice for Grenfell campaign.

It is natural, given the track record since 2010, to be cynical about what the government is up to. Less than two years ago it seemed on course to eliminate social rented housing entirely from the new building programme and to pursue the rapid managed decline of the sector. The 2016 Housing and Planning Act was the nadir with the introduction of right to buy for housing associations paid for by the sale of ‘high value’ council houses.

Things are more confused now. Gavin Barwell, a Minister who plainly did not believe in his own government’s policies, has moved to the centre as Theresa May’s chief of staff, and new Minister Alok Sharma has won some plaudits for travelling the country post-Grenfell ‘listening to tenants’. Importantly, there is no sign of high value sales being implemented, warmer words are being spoken about social housing, Theresa May announced £2 billion for 25,000 ‘council houses’ in her conference speech (alongside £10 billion for ‘Help to Buy’), and the government has been rowing back (slowly) on some of its worst welfare reforms. The post-2020 rent increase settlement was warmly welcomed by the sector because it supported investment (although the tenants who will pay for it were rather less pleased).

Next week’s budget is the next significant milestone, with more details expected on funding for social housing (is it real extra money or another three- card trick?), issues like council borrowing capacity and retention of right to buy receipts, and welfare reform including Universal Credit. The mood music has definitely changed – as the ever-prescient Jules Birch notes in his pre-budget blog, “The clamouring is not just coming from the usual suspects but also from investment bankers, right-wing thinktanks and Conservative MPs.” As Jules concludes: ‘It’s hard to remember the run-up to a Budget with such raised expectations – or so much potential for them to be dashed.’

The Budget might not see much hard cash but it may see some funny financial fiddling to enable more to be spent on homes without the cost impacting on the government’s deficit. There has been a frisson of excitement because the Office for National Statistics seems willing to redefine housing association borrowing as ‘private’ not ‘public’. In practice the ONS decision to go the other way a couple of years ago seems to have had little effect, but it raises the possibility of more significant changes for the local authority sector, either by reclassifying public corporations outside the definition of public borrowing (because they are trading activities) or by new financial instruments that could take borrowing for new housing outside the definition of public borrowing. Nerdy, certainly; important, definitely – as we’ve pointed out on Red Brick before.

So we are entering an important phase for social housing: imminent are the budget, Sadiq Khan’s proposals for The London Plan, the myriad of reviews, and the Grenfell Inquiry. There will be a lot of technical detail flying about, but there will also be plenty of us determined to keep the debate focused on people, their safety and well-being, and meeting their housing needs. Time alone will tell if this really is the turning point.

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Land and house prices – the Tories are getting it so wrong

Some weeks there are just too many interesting things to read, and my highlights this week were a report from Shelter on the use of viability assessments in housebuilding and a blog from the Resolution Foundation on impact of Help to Buy. Both show how poorly-designed policies are pushing up prices and making homes even less affordable.

The Shelter report, by Rose Grayston, ‘Slipping through the Loophole’, based on original research, looks at the ways in which the provision of affordable homes in new development has been undermined since new planning rules were introduced in 2012.

The rules allowed developers to reduce the amount of community benefit they are required to produce as part of a development scheme if their profits are estimated to fall below 20%. (Yes, 20%, sound like a good rake-in for anyone, but this is the minimum figure seen to be competitive in the 2012 rules). As Shelter says, the system ‘rewards developers who overpay for land to guarantee they win sites, safe in the knowledge they will be able to argue down community benefits to make their money back later’.

Shelter calls for the government to amend the national planning rules to limit such assessments to defined genuinely exceptional cases. Certainty about the required number of affordable homes will, they say, become part of the normal cost of doing business. Developers will still make good returns but there will be a downward pressure in the system on land prices. The change would not require any additional public money.

Between 2012-13 and 2015-16 so-called ‘section 106′ planning obligation agreements delivered 38% of the new affordable homes built in England, an average of 17,000 homes a year, around 10,000 homes a year fewer than the previous four years – a period which also included the global financial crash and recession.

Shelter’s research covered 11 council areas around the country. Where viability assessments were deployed, new sites produced just 7% affordable housing, on average 79% below the levels required by the policies of the councils concerned. Viability assessments were used in half of all the developments in the study – but they were skewed towards bigger developers on bigger sites, with small and medium sized developers much less likely to deploy the technique. Councils varied in their policies to resist viability assessments, and it is hard for councils to compete with the large resources some developers can muster to prepare the assessments in the first place. There are often lengthy and costly negotiations. Assessments have generally been confidential and therefore not open to scrutiny by bodies outside the council, especially campaigning groups.

The Resolution Foundation blog, by Lindsay Judge, called ‘Helping or Hindering? The latest on Help to Buy’ assesses the impact of the ‘Help to Buy’ scheme following the government’s announcement that it would put another £10 billion into the scheme. Supposedly designed to help people fulfil their dream of home ownership. Lindsay asks ‘is this expensive policy really doing people any favours?

HTB was introduced in 2013 when the housing market was weak. By offering buyers additional help it was intended to bolster supply by more effectively guaranteeing that developers would be able to sell new homes to someone. ‘Four years on’, says Lindsay, ‘the real world effects…. are plain to see’. In particular, the risk that the policy would actually stoke prices ‘has come to pass’. Worse, ‘the HTB discount is being ‘baked in’ to the price of new properties by developers’. One indicator is that the price of new homes is inflating significantly faster than the price of existing homes when they are resold (see chart). The policy is also not well targeted and has a lot of ‘deadweight’ – that is, it is used by people who could have bought a home without the subsidy – estimated even by the DCLG to be 35%. Some people with incomes over £100k have used the scheme.

 

House price index by type of build (April 2013=100): England Source: RF analysis of ONS house price index (graph taken from Resolution Foundation Lindsay Judge blog)tenure change ONS graphHTB now takes 45% of the national housing spend in 2016-17. So, why does government do this? HTB of course is not the same type of money as spending on housing grant for affordable homes. It is a loan not a grant. As Lindsay explains, just like student loans, it shows up in the government accounts as a debt but not as part of the deficit. It is a smoke and mirrors policy to be seen to be doing something about declining home ownership, offering people who are struggling to buy now some help – but at the expense of those following later who will have to pay more as a result.

If HTB is not in the long term a subsidy for home owners, who have to repay, it is a subsidy for developers who get the sum in cash when a HTB home is bought. It directly enables them to put their prices up, so the policy itself become self-defeating in the medium term.

£10 billion would build something like 125,000 social homes. That option might be an evil in the eyes of the Treasury, says Lindsay, ‘but it would be a far greater good than HTB from a living standards point of view’.

Looking after developers and landowners is the underlying theme of both policies. But with the government now in retreat on many fronts, and even starting to concede the case on the importance of social housing, new campaigning opportunities are beginning to emerge.

(amended 4/11/2017 to correct bad link to Shelter report).

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No new money will be made available for post-Grenfell works

“Fund it yourselves” was the clear message from communities secretary Sajid Javid to the Communities Select Committee and then again in response to an emergency question from John Healey last Thursday. Red Brick had already outlined the options available to the government to help authorities make their tower blocks safe, and before that we called on the government to foot the bill. Javid has now made it clear he has no intention of doing so.

Of course he found some warm words with which to give the impression he was bending over backwards to help. “What we will absolutely do with every local authority,” he said to the committee, “is work with them closely and make sure that, through that work with them and the financial assistance that we can provide and the financial flexibilities, they are able to pay for any essential works that they deem necessary.” But he went on to say “we are not planning grants” and that his assistance is limited to “financial flexibilities that can provide the funding.”

The options appear to be twofold. Either councils will be allowed to borrow more, if they would otherwise hit the borrowing caps that apply to their council housing finances. Or they will be allowed to make transfers from their General Funds, for example from reserves, to bolster their Housing Revenue Accounts. The latter could mean that council tenants are not burdened with extra costs, unless of course (as seems likely) such a transfer only covers part of the costs of fire prevention work, and some still has to be paid from rental income. The first option, relaxed borrowing caps, offers nothing to councils at all, except the ability to spend more of their tenants’ money. Either way, local people – whether just tenants or a combination of tenants and council taxpayers (which include tenants too, of course) – will be meeting the cost of the work, not central government. The “financial assistance that we can provide” turns out to be zilch.

These options are those foreseen by Red Brick in July. We said that, in all probability, the government would force councils to pay for remedial works from tenants’ rents, perhaps offering “help” in the form of looser borrowing caps or (we speculated) permission to raise rents. Even if extra subsidy were offered in the form of grant, we suggested that the government would simply take this from its existing capital programmes. In the event, it’s not even going that far.

Why is this important? Council housing accounts are already under severe pressure. A four-year period of compulsory rent cuts still has two years to run, arrears are shooting up as universal credit and other ‘welfare reforms’ are rolled out, right to buy continues apace and councils are still faced with the threat of having to sell off their highest value properties, even though this may well now not happen. Furthermore, councils have already been told there will be no more government money to keep houses at the Decent Homes Standard, even though a stubborn 15% of the stock has failed the standard over the last four years. If they divert money to post-Grenfell safety works, this will almost certainly be at the expense of their obligation to meet the DHS.

Furthermore, it is only a short time since the prime minister was promising a new generation of council houses. For the councils that have a significant volume of post-Grenfell work, the pressures on rental income that were already intense look set to get worse. Now that Sajid Javid has explained that his “flexibilities” will offer them no extra cash, the prime ministerial promise looks vacuous.

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Why doesn’t Kensington & Chelsea council want to assume direct management control of its own housing stock?

By Ross Fraser

In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire, many local residents expressed the view that the outsourcing of housing management and (in part) major works programmes to the KCTMO had contributed to the disaster.  They also called for the TMO to be wound up.

Residents were clear, and continue to insist, that they want the council’s housing stock to be managed directly by the council.   They believe that direct political control of the housing stock by elected councillors is preferable to any outsourcing arrangement.

Recently, LB Kensington & Chelsea has decided to terminate its management agreement with the KCTMO – which will mean that the TMO is going to be wound up.

However, LB Kensington & Chelsea is now urgently meeting housing associations to determine whether they would be willing to manage part or all of the management of the its housing stock.

This puts housing associations in a difficult position.  They want to do as much as they can to help the victims of Grenfell and others who have also lost their homes as a result of the disaster. But they know – particularly as the public enquiry evolves – that organisations acting against the express wishes of local residents will not be welcome.

Which begs the question: why can’t Kensington & Chelsea recreate a housing department?

There is no shortage of support available.  The highly experienced Barry Quirk is running the council and knows all about housing from his time as Chief Executive at LB Lewisham.  The government has sent in a Task Force to advise the council – which includes the highly-respected Chris Wood who has been Director of Housing in three London boroughs.   They could visit LB Wandsworth to see how an excellent housing department operates.

With council elections set for next year it might be wise for the council to work jointly with local residents – and in complete transparency – to explore a range of options in a measured manner.  Decisions can be made post-election.

But common-sense still seems to be in short supply amongst the council leadership.

 

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The strange case of a government housing policy that won’t happen

By Ross Fraser

Everyone in the sector will recall the surprise late insertion into the 2015 Conservative election manifesto of a policy to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants – funded by the enforced sale of council assets.

I recall chairing a post-election consultation meeting between DCLG and housing association CEOs and local authority directors of housing in July 2015 – when DCLG asked for advice on how to implement the sale of council assets.

Over two years on, DCLG still hasn’t arrived at a formula setting out how it will calculate the value of assets to be disposed by each authority – let alone consult the sector on it.   There is a simple reason for this – developing the formula is extremely difficult and ensuring that all authorities will deem it ‘fair’ is simply impossible.

Then there is the issue that the bulk of asset sales are likely to fall on the London stock-retaining boroughs.  A flat rate formula (requiring say the top 5% in value of all English retained council stock to be sold when vacant) will not raise enough money to fund the extension of right to buy to associations, so any levy is likely to be tougher on London. The authorities most-affected will be Conservative controlled councils such as Kensington & Chelsea, Westminster and Wandsworth.   The leadership of these councils has indicated complete opposition to the government’s proposals.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that there was no reference in the 2017 Conservative election manifesto to housing association right to buy or forced council asset sales.

Post-Grenfell – and DCLG’s apparent refusal to support council (and housing association) reinvestment in fire safety – the concept of forced asset sales has become even more toxic.

Then there is the fact that the policy requires secondary Parliamentary approval before it can be enacted.  The government only has a simple majority with DUP support.  Inside Housing has reported that up to 15 Conservative MPS are prepared to either vote against the measure or abstain – presumably including members whose constituencies fall within Conservative-controlled London boroughs.  And as we have been recently reminded, DUP support for the government’s legislative programme does not extend to social or welfare legislation.

The simple fact is that the forced asset sales measure will never gain Parliamentary approval and will eventually go the way of the now discarded Pay to Stay proposals.    And if there are no forced asset sales there will be no extension of the right to buy to housing association tenants.

My advice to DCLG is ‘come clean’ and formally drop the policy – any further work is a waste of time.  Councils need to know where they stand as, according to senior sources in local government, the uncertainty is holding back their ability to invest in new housing, essential maintenance and fire safety remedial works.   It’s in no-one’s interest to maintain this facade any longer.

 

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Nobody’s Perfect

By Ross Fraser

“Nobody’s perfect” (Closing line of Some Like It Hot: Billy Wilder 1959)

Red Brick readers will be familiar with local authority concerns about the lack of alignment between new housing association supply and the social rent housing they need to meet their statutory obligations to those in housing need.

But the problem goes deeper.  New lets are only 12% of the quantum of social lettings each year.  The government-enforced conversion of social rent lets into higher ‘Affordable Rent’ lets is of equal concern.  Around 25% of housing association lets are now at the (so called) Affordable Rent.

The issue of affordability of housing association lettings is the primary reason that relationships between authorities and associations have deteriorated in recent years.  Yet few authorities have acted proactively by sitting down with housing association partners and defining what affordability means at a local level, across a range of housing products (rental and for sale) and what changes will be required to housing association rent policy to meet local needs.

In Building Bridges – A guide to better partnership working between local authorities and housing associations, we argue that authorities should take the lead by setting up Local Housing Affordability Frameworks which research the topic of affordability on a local authority or sub-regional basis and negotiate a deal with housing associations in respect of new supply and relets.    We propose that the cost of this work is shared equally by authorities and their housing association partners.

Authorities might be surprised by the commitment of the best associations – like Sovereign which refused ‘on principle’ to convert social rent lets into affordable rents or Family Mosaic (now merged with Peabody) which secured grant for Affordable Rent housing and then let it at social rents through extensive cross subsidy.

Building Bridges also explores the vexed issue of nominations and allocations.   Authorities are getting frustrated by associations refusing nominations because the applicant won’t be able to afford a (so called) Affordable Rent.   Authorities are alarmed by those associations that are letting new homes on Rightmove rather than making them available for council nominees.

But associations validly complain that housing registers are being restricted to the very poor or locally connected, when there is clear evidence of housing need and a desire for mobility amongst young professionals and aspirant working families and a need to jointly intervene in the private rented sector.  As a result, housing registers are no longer an accurate measurement of local housing need.  Authorities are failing to work together at a sub-regional level to ensure mobility across housing markets and are (perhaps understandably) focusing their housing strategy on social rent and neglecting demand for other housing ‘products’.

In Building Bridges, we propose a new tech-driven system of allocations (linked to the local affordability framework) that covers all housing products – social rent, Affordable Rent, market rent, low cost home ownership – and ensures a steady supply of appropriate nominations for each.  Again, we propose that the cost of this work is shared equally by authorities and their housing association partners.  We propose that this system is operated collaboratively – and can be led by the authority or, where capacity is limited, by a well-resourced regional housing association.  Midland Heart housing association is already operating such a scheme in the West Midlands.

Yet if authorities have valid criticisms about associations they should realise that its government funding policy that is the primary reason that associations aren’t supplying the homes and allocations that they need.  Sure, there is a quota of associations that see themselves as property developers rather than as part of the social housing sector but the vast majority of associations want a return to government funding of social rent.

Authorities should also recognise that (not everywhere but very often) their performance on planning needs to improve.  Only 41% have local plans which comply with the NHPPF.  And it’s the authorities without compliant plans that are worst offenders in helping bring new sites to market.  Only a minority of authorities have a planning strategy that makes sites available for genuinely affordable housing for five years.   This is completely indefensible.  Clearly, the 40% cut in planning staff in recent years and the loss of ‘enabling’ officers have contributed to this problem but why don’t authorities follow the example of mega-cash-strapped Bristol and increase investment in planning and enabling notwithstanding their financial pressures?

In Building Bridges, we propose a range of actions that authorities can take to maximise social rent housing provision, support development that can cross-subsidise non-grant-funded provision of social rent and combat developer attempts to undermine section 106 agreements – which currently account for 45% of new housing association supply.

The message for authorities in Building Bridges is simple.   If you engage proactively with associations on affordability and allocations, and manage the market, you are more likely to get what you need from associations.   And get your own act together on planning.

Ross Fraser

Building Bridges – A guide to better partnership working between local authorities and housing associations was published on 25 September by the Chartered Institute of Housing, sponsored by Vivid Homes and the Association of Retained Council Housing and written by Ross Fraser, John Perry and Gemma Duggan.  It is available online.


 

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Tories try to steal Labour clothes

Investing in council housing was just one of the new policies that Theresa May pinched from Labour in her disastrous speech. Tackling student debt, mental health, energy prices and even organ donations all figured in the list of stolen policies she launched at the Tory conference. But there was another one that was uniquely Tory: putting an extra £10 billion into Help to Buy loans, which means the scheme will make over £22 billion worth of loans in total, all to help those already well up the income ladder.

How much difference will the £2 billion for social housing over five years actually make? First the positives. It raises the total allocated to ‘affordable’ housing investment to £9 billion over the next few years, or to £10 billion if other bits and pieces are taken into account. But as Red Brick pointed out recently, this compares with over £30 billion in support for the private market, and this was before the Tories added the extra £10 billion for Help to Buy. So the split between affordable and private market investment has just got worse – but at least there is more cash in the ‘affordable’ pot.

Second, it recognises that grant has to be higher if rents are to be kept down. An average grant of £80,000 (based on £2 billion generating 25,000 new homes) is higher than that being paid by Sadiq Khan for ‘London Affordable Rent’ units in the capital and probably quite a bit higher than is needed to build social rented homes elsewhere. Even if the grant level comes down, possibly leading to higher output, it should be enough to deliver a significant number of homes at genuinely affordable rents.

Third, the announcement is coupled with a new policy on rents to kick in in 2020. There are a number of caveats about this too, but at least there is recognition that higher grant alone won’t lead to more investment: stability of rental income is also important.

Now the downsides. First, if it produces 25,000 social rented units, that’s a drop in the bucket compared with the 122,000 already lost (through right to buy, and conversion to higher ‘affordable’ rent) since 2011. If output reaches 5,000 per year, it will only restore social rent building to the level of a couple of years ago and will be well below the peak years of Labour’s National Affordable Housing Programme when social rent output alone reached nearly 40,000 units.

Second, we don’t yet know the mix – will all these be new homes for social rent? Why not also improve the mix of the existing programme, to deliver more social rent (not permitted until this week’s announcement) alongside the other ‘products’? If the government is serious, it needs to re-evaluate its whole programme, not merely tag on a bit of new money.

Third, while this is billed as extra council housing, in practice housing associations are going to be much better placed to use the new money. Relations been them and local councils, already under strain, might be made worse. Why are they better placed? Because with the extra certainty of rising rents after 2020, and their already much greater development capacity, they can bid very competitively for the new cash. Just when collaboration between the two parts of the sector is most needed, it might only happen if the GLA and HCA specifically prioritise bids that give councils a role.

Finally, councils continue to be hamstrung by constraints over which they have little control unless the government steps in and makes additional changes. Right to buy sales continue, with heavy restrictions on the use of receipts (including a prohibition on combining them with grant aid). Borrowing caps are still in place, and councils have suffered more than associations have from the recent curbs on rent increases. Despite the government remaining silent on the promised right to buy for housing association tenants, the threat to force councils to sell their higher value stock hasn’t been removed: this has already made councils cautious about building more houses that might simply have to be sold off. And as well, councils have been hit more than associations by the need to invest in tower blocks following the Grenfell Tower fire, with no promise of government help.

Despite these reservations, the new money is better than a poke in the eye with a bent stick. Even if May’s stated ambition of a ‘new generation of council houses’ is hardly likely to result, it’s much better than the Cameron-Osborne attitude that council housing was obsolete and only served to create more Labour voters. The fact that Labour already has a plan to build much more council housing (and housing at social rents built by associations) is given added credibility by the Tory proposals, inadequate though they are. If the Tories are convinced that a Corbyn government will turn Britain into a ‘failed socialist state’ as Phillip Hammond suggested, why are they so keen to borrow the policy ideas that (according to them) will achieve exactly this outcome?

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Where will the money come from for Labour’s housing plans?

Labour was under scrutiny at its conference last week for the announcement of supposedly costly policies that can only be funded by tax increases or extra borrowing. One such promise of course was to end PFI contracts, and it was immediately challenged by Margaret Hodge. However, PFI has continuing high costs and big profits are being made by the contractors: whether the annual cost of rescinding contracts will exceed that of leaving them in place will hinge on the terms of compensation. Ditching PFI could well be a good deal.

Labour’s plan to build up to 100,000 social rented homes is another commitment that needs costing but fortunately there is an argument that it could actually save money. In the long term, as shadow minister John Healey has shown (and, as Steve just reminded us, was confirmed by work by Capital Economics for SHOUT), building to let at low rents will pay for itself via savings in housing benefit. The problem is that the savings accrue over 30 years while the capital cost must be borne now.

Fortunately George Osborne pumped such large sums into housing, with commitments running years ahead, that there is plenty of scope for finding this money from the existing housing budget. None of this appeared in the government’s housing white paper earlier this year, of course, nor can we expect to see figures in Sajid Javid’s promised green paper on social housing. But the details – insofar as they can be pieced together from different government sources – are there in the September update of the annual UK Housing Review.

In a new estimate it says that, from now until 2020/21, some £8 billion will be spent on ‘affordable’ housing (mainly Affordable Rent and shared ownership), and most of this money is made up of the two concurrent Affordable Homes Programmes run by the HCA and GLA. However, far more money – the Review estimates it at over £31 billion – will be spent on propping up the private market (see pie chart).

This is largely Osborne’s legacy – a raft of Treasury-led initiatives aimed either at helping builders directly or helping people to buy. Much of the money is in the form of loans or guarantees rather than grants, but the costs are huge and in some cases will run on into the future, growing year-on-year. (This applies to the Help to Buy and Lifetime ISAs, which give cash payments to people when they buy a house, and will cost over £2 billion annually if allowed to continue beyond 2020.)

The NHF has already suggested that the money for Starter Homes (whose original allocation was £2.3 billion) could be better spent on building for social rent, and CIH has proposed that diverting £1.5 billion annually would allow a programme to build 28,000 social rented homes per year. The list of programmes that could be trimmed or ended is impressive, for example (in addition to Starter Homes):

  • Help to Buy equity loans (potentially over £12 billion, the white paper said £8 billion is already committed)
  • Help to Buy and Lifetime ISAs (£4.2 billion to 2020/21)
  • Home Building Fund (loan finance for developers – £3 billion)

Yet rather than cut such programmes, Sajid Javid has promised today (Sunday) that an extra £10 billion will be pumped into Help to Buy. We’ve yet to see how this will work (and if it is really new money), but if added to the total of private sector support it would reduce the proportion of government spending going to affordable housing from 21% to just 16%.

Of course if changes are made by Labour there will be squeals of rage that the party no longer wants to help first-time buyers, but there is surely scope to target the available money on those who really can’t afford a deposit (rather than those who could save the cash by waiting for another year or two) and release some of it for those who have no hope of buying and are stuck paying ever higher private sector rents.

The point is that Osborne’s schemes may have had individual targets but were not part of an overall plan for housing. The February white paper barely mentioned government spending and made no attempt at an overall appraisal of the different programmes. Untouched, Osborne ‘s legacy will represent a huge commitment for an incoming government. The builders will, of course, argue that the incentives are vital to keep them building, but the truth is that while they have become dependent on subsidy their output has hardly grown in proportion to the extra sums being spent each year. Labour’s Treasury team should commit to a review, alongside the housing ministry, of how the total spend of £40 billion plus can be reconfigured. The aim should be to ensure that much more of it is directed to helping those struggling to rent, not only those struggling to buy.

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