Dissolution disillusion

In a splendid journalistic error*, the Times reported that Sir Eric Pickles is expected to be given a seat in the House of Lords ‘as part of Mrs May’s disillusion honours list’. It may of course have been a deliberate choice of words, as Eric contributed quite a lot to the failure of housing policy during his years in charge.

In and around his former housing brief, the dissolution of Parliament meant a deluge of last minute actions. Most important, the Homelessness Reduction Bill became an Act just in time. Red Brick’s line has been that the Act is very worthwhile but underfunded and has virtually no chance of succeeding in its basic aims in the high-pressure areas of the country, and especially in London. This is because every other aspect of Government policy, from the lack of supply of social housing to the dreadfully punitive changes in benefits, will lead inexorably to an increase in homelessness at the same time as local authorities’ ability to respond is reducing fast. The Act will need a lot of scrutiny as it is implemented, but for those who have the energy to read the whole thing, it can be found here.

The Communities and Local Government and Work and Pensions Select Committees managed to publish their joint inquiry report on The  Future of Supported Housing. They conclude that the Government’s proposed funding model for supported housing is unlikely to achieve the objective of establishing long-term and sustainable funding, echoing the unanimous view of the sector itself. Rather than relying on housing benefit or universal credit up to the local housing allowance level, with a top-up fund available for disbursement to councils, the Committees support the introduction of a Supported Housing Allowance which would reflect the diversity of the sector, with separate funding mechanisms for emergency accommodation and refuges.

The CLG Committee also published its report on Capacity in the Homebuilding Industry. Starting with the now unanimous view that ‘the housing market is broken’ the Committee sought to find out whether the homebuilding industry was capable of boosting housebuilding output to the levels required. Their conclusions suggest that it is not! They found the industry dominated by a small number of volume housebuilders, and that their commercial self-interest means they have ‘little incentive to build any quicker’. A far greater mix of builders and more competition is needed. They identify the speculative land market as a particular problem, with high prices leading to increased densities and less affordable housing, and recommend that their successors return to this issue. They want to increase the role of local councils and call for changes to the limitations on councils’ ability to borrow to build. Local authorities, they conclude, do not have the tools they need to make an effective contribution to solving our housing crisis. They support growth in housing association activity, but note that they ‘require greater certainty over their income from social rent’ and that ‘they must remain conscious of their charitable objectives’. They also caution about the growing skills crisis facing the industry and the dangers posed by the process of leaving the European Union.

And finally in this little round-up, the Public Accounts Committee published its report entitled Housing: The State of the Nation. Despite the slightly grand title, the report looks at two main issues – the ‘housing gap’ (England) and ‘getting more out of housing benefit’. The housing gap section has a familiar analysis of the huge failure in housebuilding compared to need, and its effects. Even if the Government meets its objective of 1 million homes over five years, it will not come close to meeting the actual level of need. The Committee criticises ‘The Department’s lack of ambition on such a fundamental issue’. The section on housing benefit complains specifically about the lack of information available ‘on the impacts and value for money of the roughly £21 billion that the Government spends each year on housing benefit’, and highlights in particular ‘the poor value for money obtained from the £8 billion or so of housing benefit with which it annually subsidises private landlords’.

With the Election underway, Labour has already made a number of announcements about its housing policies, including a commitment to providing 500k genuinely affordable homes during a Parliament and a raft of policies to improve standards in the private rented sector. It’s a good start, and we will try to look at all of the main Manifestoes as they are published.


*spotted by Private Eye

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