After 5 years and approaching 700 posts, Red Brick is going to have a winter rest. A hibernation? That sounds like a good phrase, implying a comeback with renewed vigour and energy. That will certainly be needed for the fight ahead. I’m off to New Zealand for two months to look restfully on high mountains, beautiful lakes, and stunning coastlines, from the tropical rainforest and volcanoes of the north to the glaciers and fjords of the south. There may be the occasional flurry: I might be moved to comment on something from afar, my brilliant colleague known here as Monimbo may have a few things to say, and, through the wonders of the internet, I will get any other submissions people care to offer – we have always tried to be an open forum. But we will be troubling your inbox less frequently between now and February. My apologies for those who would like to see more regular rants against the Housing and Planning Bill.
When Tony Clements and I hatched the idea of a ‘progressive’ housing blog five years ago, we were still in the early flush of the coalition. We thought housing would be a big part of the LibDem resistance within the Government – it wasn’t – and we thought housing would become central to a new Labour offer – it didn’t really do that either. We thought that Grant Shapps was a bit of a fool, a spin fetishist and a caricature of a Tory politician. Despite his PR-led approach, he proved to be a transformative figure, and I don’t just mean through his alter ego Michael Green. With a stroke of evil genius, he turned logic on its head by virtually doubling the rent of new social homes and calling his new unaffordable product ‘affordable rent’. Opponents never got past this as the Government and mayor of London constantly talked, usually unchallenged in the media, about their performance in providing affordable homes.
If the truth never reached the public it became common to talk about the policy as ‘Orwellian’. George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ examined the connection between phrases used by politicians and the debasement of language. He could have been writing with Shapps in mind when he said that political language is about ‘the defence of the indefensible’ and ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ Shapps’ great achievement was to cover up George Osborne’s immediate cut in housing investment of over 60%, probably the most damaging single decision in the history of housing policy. There was scarcely a peep from the LibDems, setting the pattern for total complicity on housing for the rest of the Parliament.
Five years back, our first posts were also about the attack on security of tenure and the dangers of a high rent policy for the long term benefit bill. We argued the case, and still do, for the retention of security for social tenants – I won’t dally with the equally Orwellian term ‘lifetime tenancy’, a concept that doesn’t exist but is much discussed – and the extension of security for private tenants. We supported the ‘benefits to bricks’ approach which has been much debated since – as Tony wrote at the time, Coalition policy was ‘like a great big housing PFI – avoid the capital investment up-front, pay more in the long-term’.
In the early days, and indeed ever since, Red Brick was accused of scaremongering. In the election, Labour had been accused of whipping up unfounded fears about the Tories’ secret and malicious plans. David Cameron himself had personally rebutted claims that the Tories would hike social rents and abolish security of tenure, claiming it was part of a ‘scare campaign’ and that the Tories believed in the ‘security (that social housing) provides’. Nick Clegg joined in: also accusing Labour of scaremongering for saying that housing benefit cuts would compel people to move out of their communities. Yet even the wildest imaginings came to pass and Cameron learned that he could get away with the boldest of denials – as is now even more apparent due to his 2015 commitment not to take away tax credits for working people.
Cameron always reminds me of that old idiom ‘the louder he talked of his honour the faster we counted the spoons’. How does he get away with it? The only available answer lies in the politics of our media – an overwhelmingly right-wing written media and a broadcasting media that is led by the nose by the newspapers. There is a pattern, they destroyed Brown, they destroyed Miliband, and now they are destroying Corbyn (in all three cases with a little help from our own side). In housing, the media are obsessed with virtuous home owners and the stigmatisation of social tenants (unless of course they want to become home owners).
Our belief that the Tories had a secret housing agenda and policies that were hugely different from those set out in their rather benign 2010 manifesto was set out in a post called ‘Less Localism and More Localis’. We argued that the policies that Shapps was actually following were clearly set out in a pamphlet published by the right wing think tank Localis before the election. None appeared in the manifesto. But it was all there in their document: moving social housing towards market rents, removing security of tenure so that the sector would meet temporary and not permanent housing needs, letting housing benefit take the strain before cutting that as well. In short, the full marketisation of social housing. Five years on, it is the writings of Policy Exchange that seem to foretell Government policy.
That blog post also introduced another of our themes: the complicity of much of the housing sector and especially key people in the housing association movement. Two housing association chief executives were fully engaged in the development of the Localis policies. When the Government changed, the sector whinged about the policies but probably less vocally than it had done under Labour. They could have destroyed ‘affordable rent’ by refusing to deliver it on the Government’s terms. Instead, under the pretence of ‘accepting the inevitable’ and playing, in a favourite phrase of the time, ‘the only game in town’, it dawned on us that more than a few of the big associations saw this not as a disaster but as a historic opportunity to break free from regulation and become truly commercial and ‘independent’. They saw their future as really big developers, leaving behind their original mission, their charitable objectives, and the tradition of providing genuinely affordable social housing. They loved the world of big bond launches and mega land deals and wanted to break free from being told to house homeless people by local councils. Of course it is hard to generalise about the huge variety of associations, and many retain their original zeal for meeting housing need, but many of the biggest and most powerful players and their trade body the NHF are now almost beyond redemption.
Red Brick has covered social housing a lot but we have tried to take an eclectic view of the housing world. Just a little bit of training in economics led to the conclusion that the Government’s obsession with demand-side subsidies for home ownership would put prices up in the long run. The objective, better affordability for first time buyers, would continue to move out of reach but large amounts of public money, amounts that make the affordable housing programme look puny, would be spent or forgone or committed as guarantees. We identified the problems with housebuilding to lie less in demand and more on the supply side: in the business model of the existing volume housebuilders, the total failure of the land market, a reactive rather than proactive planning system, and the 35-year long removal of the biggest players, local authorities, from the game. We scoffed at the so-called localism agenda: a policy that moved in two directions at once – highly centralising that which the Government cared about most whilst decentralising what they couldn’t be bothered about. Even so, we found much to praise in the fact that they carried through John Healey’s proposed reform of council housing finance, a genuinely decentralising move that brought enormous potential benefits. After an encouraging start, even this policy has sadly beeen abandoned due to centrally-imposed rent cuts (to reduce housing benefit) and forced council house sales (to fund the right to buy).
Of course, writing ‘the Tories are bastards’ a couple of times a week is not satisfying after a while for any writer – how Mail journalists churn out their poison day after day is beyond me – and it has always been part of the Red Brick focus to look for good policies wherever they emerge, at home or overseas. Here are three regular refrains.
First, housing policy is economic policy, social policy, health policy and education policy rolled into one. Cutting public housing investment was like cutting the throat of the economy, and raising housing investment would have enormously beneficial multiplier effects (as recent work by the SHOUT campaign and by John Healey MP has shown). It is so beneficial that it knocks the case for austerity for six. Put simply, a decent home is the foundation for everything else and everyone should have a place to rest that fits their needs and their families.
Secondly, only a balanced and comprehensive approach to housing policy will do the job. It is pointless to obsess about one tenure, whether it is home ownership, social housing, or private renting. The fortunes of the tenures are closely inter-related and the housing story of the last 100 years can be seen in the chart showing the changing balance between them. The recent decline in both home ownership and social renting, contrasted to the rise in private renting, is, together with overall investment levels, the central housing story of our times. Recent work by Ipsos-Mori shows public support for more housing to be at its highest for many years, with people wanting both more housebuilding generally and more affordable homes, but it still isn’t a decisive issue for them.
Thirdly, it is vital to make the case for direct housing provision for people on low incomes. The mood music is that ‘trickle down’ somehow works in housing. It is a constant unstated assumption. We will have to build a huge number of homes for many years before we begin to see a price effect in terms of values and rents. Building a luxury home on the river or an executive mansion in a leafy area will never have the knock-on effect of helping people in housing need. Providing homes for first time buyers is a good thing to do but it will not release homes for people who will always need to rent because faster household formation amongst the slightly better-off will fill the space. The only reliable way to provide homes to people on low incomes is to build homes specifically for that purpose and to let them directly to people on the basis of need, on genuinely affordable rents and with the security that will allow them to build their lives. The idea of aspiration does not apply solely to home ownership; people on low incomes aspire to a decent home that works for them. The socialised model, whether councils or housing associations or other forms of tenure like co-operatives, is incredibly effective and an efficient use of resources. It works for people in low incomes, and the marketised model does not.
One feature of the blogging world, unlike mainstream journalism, is that it is not dog-eat-dog. Housing bloggers have a lot of respect for each other, even if their politics differ. Whilst Red Brick takes a little rest, there are other bloggers that you can follow if you do not already do so. The most reliable source of great information and analysis anywhere in housing is Jules Birch. He blogs regularly for Inside Housing but an even wider range of material features on his own blog. Also highly recommended is my colleague in SHOUT, Colin Wiles. He now blogs in many places, Inside Housing and the Guardian mainly, but he is always worth a read.
London’s blogging needs are well looked after by Dave Hill of the Guardian. Other blogs I regularly look at include the inspirational Municipal Dreams, the SHOUT campaign blog, the original and always challenging Joe Halewood, the Women in Housing blog, the LibDem Alex Marsh, the JRF’s Julia Unwin, and the many authors of the Shelter blog. It’s also always worth looking out for articles by Rob Gershon and Tom Murtha.
Most of them can also be found on Twitter, which will remain my primary source of news and opinion in the Antipodes. I will continue to tweet @stevehilditch
Thank you for reading. And let me be the first to say: Happy New Year.