Posted by: Jules Birch17/10/2011
Three very different verdicts on coalition housing policy provide an interesting perspective on what’s happened so far under this government and maybe on where we’re heading.
The first came from the Guardian social affairs commentator Polly Toynbee over the weekend. In a piece inspired by re-watching Cathy Come Home, she contrasts the escalating private sector rents exposed by Shelter last week with the coalition’s housing benefit cuts.
The government points to the soaring cost of housing benefit without acknowledging the cost only rises because rents rise,’ she says. ‘To cut it without offering any other social option is shocking. Before long, they will re-learn the Cathy Come Home lesson. There is no cheap answer, only a decision about how far the poorest must pay the price for property booms and housing shortages: the growing squalor of overcrowding by rogue landlords will not go unseen for long. Now the children of the middle classes feel it too, watch housing become a hot political issue.’
The second comes in the first Housing Report from the National Housing Federation (NHF), Shelter and Chartered Institute of Housing. It’s an attempt to measure the coalition’s performance in 10 key areas according to a traffic light system: with red lights for housing supply, homelessness, help with housing costs and affordability in the private rented sector, green for empty homes and social housing mobility, amber for planning, evictions and arrears and home ownership and a don’t know on overcrowding (because the data is not available yet).
It’s a pretty fair summary from organisations with their own agenda who still want to work with the government, although as they acknowledge it’s hard to judge policies that may have a big time lag before they take effect.
The third comes from John Moss on the Conservativehome website and is more about the underlying agenda. Moss is a Conservative candidate in the Greater London Assembly elections next year but his views carry more weight than that alone might imply.
Far more significantly, he was one of the authors (with Hammersmith & Fulham council leader Stephen Greenhalgh) of one of the key think-tank reports published in the run-up to the last election.
Principles for Social Housing Reform was published by Localis in April 2009. My summary written at the time said that it called for the complete deregulation of social housing, with the end of security of tenure and national allocations policy. Most tenants would pay near-market rents with housing benefit paying up to 85 per cent of housing costs after tax and benefits. Subsidies for capital investment would be scrapped to pay the increased housing benefit bill and social landlords would be allowed to borrow against the increased asset value of their homes to build new ones. Sound familiar?
For Moss, the policy announcements at the Conservative conference are welcome steps in the right direction. The revived right to buy, the ‘pay to stay’ plan for high-earning council tenants, and the clampdown on unlawful sub-letters and tenants who own a second home are part of a bigger reform agenda that sees ‘subsidised’ social tenancies as the problem.
And he credits Grant Shapps with ‘doing it without the sort of furore which has accompanied health reform and changes to higher education funding’.
But the reforms do not go far enough. The right to buy should be extended to all social tenants, the government should write off the grant on housing association balance sheets to free up borrowing power, social landlords should be allowed to set rents at any level they like up to market levels and vary them according to tenants’ income and councils should seek out the 60,000 tenants who allegedly have second homes and put their rents up.
You may agree or disagree. From Moss’s perspective, all that would start the break-up of the culture of dependency, let landlords manage their stock more effectively and allow the construction of thousands of new homes.
It’s one thing to bemoan the impact of the cuts, another to attempt an impartial judgement of the details of the coalition’s record so far, but there is a radical market ideology behind the government’s reforms that is going unchallenged and that is winning the argument.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context