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!