New foundations built on sand

That dodgy building company Cameron and Clegg (est 2010) today tried to sell us a bogus new housing strategy called ‘Laying the Foundations’.

Deals for first time buyers!  Council homes nearly free!  Free infrastructure on us!  Front door keys for all!  But just like that shiny new tarmac front drive built by a scammer, very soon the cracks will emerge and we will realise no hard core has been laid.

Sick joke of the day – we are all in this together

“You always remember that moment, if you’ve done it, when you get that key and you walk into your first flat, it’s a magic moment. It’s a moment I want everyone in this country to have, not just better-off people.”

David Cameron

I was bowled over to hear Grant Shapps on BBC Breakfast this morning sounding like a late convert to Keynesian economics – arguing that housing investment was a good way to stimulate the economy (I agree!).  But the new sums announced today are tiny (and we need to check that the money really is new) and a drop in the ocean compared to the 60% cut already made to the housing programme.

It may be Plan Aplus but it’s not yet Plan B.  As Ed Miliband commented: ‘These measures are too little, too late from the man who was responsible for choking off growth in the British economy when he came to power. Putting back just 10% of the £4 billion he cut from housing investment last year will convince no-one he is serious about getting growth back into the economy.’

Reading the strategy document is a bit like watching rolling 24 hour news, as the same few points are repeated endlessly.  The occasional piece of wisdom – “we have not built enough homes for more than a generation” – is lost in a sea of false claims, like trying to take credit for an increase in housing starts in 2010/11 which could have had nothing whatever to do with the coalition.

There are a few worthy things and some ideas for further consideration – for example, indemnities for first time buyers, a new fund for infrastructure, development finance for smaller building companies, ‘build now pay later’ for land purchases, a loan fund for self-builders, more support for locally planned major development, build to let.  But every plus has several minuses, and the bulk of the document is a restatement of previous announcements.  Flexible tenancies, more evictions for criminal action away from the home, means-testing all social tenants, changing allocations priorities, reducing homeless rights, etc, are rehearsed again.

So what are some of the missing big things?  Here are four for starters:

  • There is no overall assessment of housing need – the requirement to build new market and sub-market homes and the level of private and public investment needed to maintain the housing stock and improve its energy efficiency.
  • There is no assessment of housing affordability – it describes how the affordability of home ownership has worsened, but sets no expectation or objective for the future.  It expresses no concern at all about the affordability of so-called ‘affordable rent’ homes, nor about the plan to increase social rents at a rate faster than the growth in incomes.
  • There are lots of warm words about home ownership, but no analysis of the dramatic changes in tenure taking place right now and whether the rapid rise in private renting is sustainable.
  • There is virtually nothing that ties together housing policy, taxation and benefits.  And in particular no acknowledgement that higher rents means higher benefits – or greater poverty.

Despite the fact that further work on the right to buy was the reason given for the delay in publishing the strategy, the plan to ‘double’ RTB discounts on average remains mysterious and there are no real figures.  The same can be said about the use of receipts.  The strategy says that the first call on receipts will be ‘to meet debt on additional properties sold’, and the second call will be to meet assumptions already made about the contribution receipts will make to the government’s deficit reduction plan.  But it still boasts that ‘the expected receipts will provide a sufficient contribution to the cost of replacement homes’.  Exactly how they will deliver the commitment to replace each home sold with an affordable home (nb not a social rented home) will not be answered until there is a further round of consultation.

The chapter on the private rented sector is perhaps the most disappointing of all.  Having dismissed Labour’s proposed reforms as ‘red tape’ there has been growing pressure to bring in some form of regulation of private renting and even to find a way of mitigating runaway rent increases.  It appears the Government has been sitting on its hands, saying ‘we are also looking at measures to deal with rogue landlords and encouraging local authorities to make full use of the robust powers they already have to tackle dangerous and poorly maintained homes.’  ‘Looking at’ is not good enough: it means the Government has nothing at all to say to private tenants.  As it is the only tenure that is growing in numbers, it demonstrates that this is not much of a strategy.

This document proves once again that writing down lots of little policies in one place is different from writing a strategy.  A strategy should have a vision for where you want to be, a detailed analysis of all the trends and information, clear objectives and an ordered set of priorities.  This document has none of these.

In a strategy that uses the word ‘radical’ so often, I give the final word to Campbell Robb of Shelter, so right but very understated when he says ‘Unfortunately these aren’t the bold and radical solutions we need to solve a housing crisis that’s been decades in the making.’

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3 Responses to New foundations built on sand

  1. Pingback: Gaps and contradictions… and a challenge for Labour | Red Brick

  2. Beth says:

    I’m going to print this out because I’m having real problems holding the disparate bits together in my head. One bit that did catch my eye was the end of the requirement of the council to maintain a housing list.
    Is this because everyone is already linked in through Choice Based Lettings or is it because the Gov’t are such fans of Chaos Theory they really don’t want to know how many people still need a house.

  3. MmeLindor says:

    Very good post, outlining pretty much all my objections to the strategy.

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