Friday, 28 April 2017

Winning the election may prove easier than fixing housing

From: Inside Edge 2

Here are some quick thoughts on what the snap general election might mean for housing.

First, what about the campaign? Labour and Jeremy Corbyn will make housing a big part of their alternative vision for Britain.  

There will be lots about council and social housing and lots to appeal to private renters. Housing will be more prominent in the campaign of one of the two major parties than it has been for years.

But will any of that matter? Theresa May and the Conservatives will not need to say much about housing because their campaign will be all about Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn.

“A Conservative government on 9 June will no longer be bound by what the Tory manifesto said in 2015.”

Housing won’t matter much to any of the other parties either, as the Liberal Democrats try to win back seats by appealing to Remainers and the SNP and Plaid Cymru use the looming Tory apocalypse in England to win votes in Scotland and Wales. 

Second, what about the manifestos? Again, Labour’s will be the most housing-friendly in years but barring something completely unexpected during the campaign that will be irrelevant after 8 June.

But what will Theresa May’s Conservatives say about housing and how will that differ from what the Tories said in 2015?

You’ll remember that David Cameron’s plans featured headline pledges on housing that were at best half-baked and at worst written on the back of a fag packet fished out of the bins at Policy Exchange. 

They may have worked in terms of giving him an unexpected majority but getting them to work in practice has been a much tougher ask.

The pledge to build 200,000 Starter Homes to be sold at a 20% discount has been quietly dropped in favour of 200,000 homes of all kinds from ownership schemes.

The targets of a million homes and doubling the number of first-time buyers were never as ambitious as they seemed but they both applied by 2020. Will they be kept or dropped?

The line that “we will protect the Green Belt” is still there but with a few asterisks added in the White Paper.

And what about the most controversial housing promise of all: the extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants funded by the forced sale of high-value council houses?

It may have won votes for a desperate David Cameron but getting it to work has proved an uphill struggle.

The Right to Buy extension is still being piloted and it would not be a big surprise to see its national introduction slip again.  

The detail of how forced sales will work has still not been published more than a year after the Housing and Planning Act and it was not even mentioned in the White Paper.

In an interview with Inside Housing three weeks ago, housing minister Gavin Barwell denied that this meant the government had gone cool on the idea, but he did not seem a fan.

He said: “The manifesto was very explicit that [Right to Buy] should be paid for by the sale of high-value assets.”

However, a Conservative government on 9 June will no longer be bound by what the Tory manifesto said in 2015. A new start means a chance to drop the policy… if he wants to.

Except that Barwell also said that he was a “strong supporter” of Right to Buy and added that once critics in local government see the detail he is “confident… they will feel we have listened to their concerns and tried to mitigate them”.

Much of the rest of the 2015 manifesto was about austerity (the benefits freeze, the end of automatic entitlement to housing support for 18-21s and the lower benefit cap all featured prominently) and election bribes that contradicted it (the cut in inheritance tax on housing wealth).

Ms May’s government has rowed back on some of that and the general election does give it an opportunity to go further – if it wishes. The continuing impact of the benefits freeze and cap, the cut for under-22s and the looming threat of the Local Housing Allowance cap and review of supported housing make for quite an agenda.

“Winning next month’s election could prove to be a lot easier than fixing the broken housing system.”    

They will not have it all their own way – in the South West the Liberal Democrats stand a good chance of washing out some of the ‘blue rinse’ that won Cameron his majority – but they hold most of the other cards.

In terms of housing, the most immediate question will be about the shape of the government.

Assuming he holds on to his highly marginal seat in Croydon, many people in the sector will want Barwell to continue in his job after 8 June.

Ms May did change virtually all her ministers last year but if she goes for a post-election reshuffle we could see yet another housing minister go through the revolving door.

The longer-term question will obviously be what Ms May’s “country that works for everyone” will look like for housing. Yes, we’ve had the White Paper, but winning next month’s election could prove to be a lot easier than fixing the broken housing system.

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