Friday, 28 April 2017

Inside edge

All posts from: December 2012

10 things about 2012: part 2

Mon, 31 Dec 2012

The conclusion of my two-part review of the issues and people I was blogging about in 2012 looks at bullding, owning and affording homes - and a year of anniversaries. 

6) Housebuilding: talking a good game

If you measure the importance of an issue by its media profile, 2012 was certainly the year of housebuilding. The first half of the year saw momentum building behind the idea that investment in new homes would be good for the economy as well as people who need a roof over their heads. Support came from economists and politicians (increasingly from the Lib Dem side of the coalition) and even the director-general of the DCLG was talking about a ‘decade of housebuilding’ at the CIH conference in June. Hopes were genuinely high that the case for housing was winning support at the highest levels of government and David Cameron’s party conference speech in October was heavy on anti-nimby rhetotric.

Those hopes were not dashed completely in the second half of the year but it became increasingly clear that the government was intent on a conventional approach and not minded to try anything as radical as QE for housing or changing the public sector borrowing rules for council housing. The housing and planning package in September and the Autumn Statement in December offered little substance and plenty of retreads of existing policies while the housebuilding numbers remained stuck in the doldrums.

7) Giving housebuilders what they want

A poor year for housebuilding proved to be a very good one for housebuilders as their results revealed rising margins, falling debts and soaring profits. The suspicion grew of an assumption within government that the way to boost housebuilding is to give housebuilders what they want, with a succession of housebuilder-friendly government initiatives included the NewBuy scheme to guarantee mortgages for new homes, a review of red tape, measures to unblock stalled sites and the National Planning Policy Framework. By the end of the year the government was introducing a Growth and Infrastructure Bill that allowed the renegotiation of ‘economically unrealistic’ section 106 agreements. If the evidence to justify it seemed weak, so did the apparent lack of any quid pro quo for all the taxpayer support.

8) The affordable squeeze

The changes to section 106 agreements threatened to put an even greater squeeze on affordable housing investment that was already under severe pressure. After a calamitous 97 per cent fall in April to September 2011, 2012 saw starts of affordable homes bounce back. However, the total of 3,735 was still down 72 per cent on 2010 with the biggest falls coming in social rented housing and in London.

The coalition’s social housing reforms continued with the underwhelming relaunch of the right to buy with an unlikely-sounding buy one, get one free offer. Reports from the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee revealed concerns about the slow progress of the affordable rent programme and the implications for rent levels and the housing benefit bill. I blogged about the slow death of social housing.

9) A year of anniversaries

Appropriately, given the shift to higher ‘affordable’ rents and the rise and rise of private renting, 2012 marked the 21st anniversary of one of the most significant statements in the recent history of housing. ‘Housing benefit will underpin market rents - we have made that absolutely clear,’ Conservative housing minister Sir George Young said in January 1991. ‘If people cannot afford to pay that market rent, housing benefit will take the strain.’ Not for much longer in the wake of a succession of cuts.

As well as the 5th anniversary of this blog, 2012 saw three other big anniversaries for housing. I blogged about the centenary of the death of Octavia Hill and the mixed legacy of the great social reformer and the 150th anniversary of the announcement of a trust ‘to ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy’ of London by an American banker called George Peabody. The year also saw the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge report, the blueprint for the welfare state that never quite managed to solve the problem of housing costs and a succession of attempts by politicians to claim his legacy. On the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, I took a look back at six housing generations and their very different experiences of the housing market.  

10) Going backwards on the housing market

Speaking of which, house prices and transactions continued to flatline and thousands of first-time buyers continued to be excluded from a dysfunctional market. There were some tentative signs of a slight upturn at the end of the year but the billions of pounds poured into schemes like quantitative easing and Funding for Lending largely benefitted banks and existing home owners. Evictions of tenants was a much bigger problem than repossessions of owners in 2012. Two years after it was pronounced ‘absolutely dead’ buy to let continued to grow while a growing proportion of home sales in London were to overseas property investors.

Long-term reform of property taxation looked as far away as ever and a study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concluded that housing market policy was going backwards. The FSA finally published its Mortgage Market Review with the aim of ‘hard-wiring common sense’ into it. However, the legacy of past regulatory failures was graphically illustrated in the tragic case of Malcolm Frost, who was found dead in his garden shed a few days after being evicted from the home he had sold and leased back. 

See part 1 here

10 things about 2012: part 2

Mon, 31 Dec 2012

The conclusion of my two-part review of the issues and people I was blogging about in 2012 looks at bullding, owning and affording homes - and a year of anniversaries. 

6) Housebuilding: talking a good game

If you measure the importance of an issue by its media profile, 2012 was certainly the year of housebuilding. The first half of the year saw momentum building behind the idea that investment in new homes would be good for the economy as well as people who need a roof over their heads. Support came from economists and politicians (increasingly from the Lib Dem side of the coalition) and even the director-general of the DCLG was talking about a ‘decade of housebuilding’ at the CIH conference in June. Hopes were genuinely high that the case for housing was winning support at the highest levels of government and David Cameron’s party conference speech in October was heavy on anti-nimby rhetotric.

Those hopes were not dashed completely in the second half of the year but it became increasingly clear that the government was intent on a conventional approach and not minded to try anything as radical as QE for housing or changing the public sector borrowing rules for council housing. The housing and planning package in September and the Autumn Statement in December offered little substance and plenty of retreads of existing policies while the housebuilding numbers remained stuck in the doldrums.

7) Giving housebuilders what they want

A poor year for housebuilding proved to be a very good one for housebuilders as their results revealed rising margins, falling debts and soaring profits. The suspicion grew of an assumption within government that the way to boost housebuilding is to give housebuilders what they want, with a succession of housebuilder-friendly government initiatives included the NewBuy scheme to guarantee mortgages for new homes, a review of red tape, measures to unblock stalled sites and the National Planning Policy Framework. By the end of the year the government was introducing a Growth and Infrastructure Bill that allowed the renegotiation of ‘economically unrealistic’ section 106 agreements. If the evidence to justify it seemed weak, so did the apparent lack of any quid pro quo for all the taxpayer support.

8) The affordable squeeze

The changes to section 106 agreements threatened to put an even greater squeeze on affordable housing investment that was already under severe pressure. After a calamitous 97 per cent fall in April to September 2011, 2012 saw starts of affordable homes bounce back. However, the total of 3,735 was still down 72 per cent on 2010 with the biggest falls coming in social rented housing and in London.

The coalition’s social housing reforms continued with the underwhelming relaunch of the right to buy with an unlikely-sounding buy one, get one free offer. Reports from the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee revealed concerns about the slow progress of the affordable rent programme and the implications for rent levels and the housing benefit bill. I blogged about the slow death of social housing.

9) A year of anniversaries

Appropriately, given the shift to higher ‘affordable’ rents and the rise and rise of private renting, 2012 marked the 21st anniversary of one of the most significant statements in the recent history of housing. ‘Housing benefit will underpin market rents - we have made that absolutely clear,’ Conservative housing minister Sir George Young said in January 1991. ‘If people cannot afford to pay that market rent, housing benefit will take the strain.’ Not for much longer in the wake of a succession of cuts.

As well as the 5th anniversary of this blog, 2012 saw three other big anniversaries for housing. I blogged about the centenary of the death of Octavia Hill and the mixed legacy of the great social reformer and the 150th anniversary of the announcement of a trust ‘to ameliorate the condition of the poor and needy’ of London by an American banker called George Peabody. The year also saw the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge report, the blueprint for the welfare state that never quite managed to solve the problem of housing costs and a succession of attempts by politicians to claim his legacy. On the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, I took a look back at six housing generations and their very different experiences of the housing market.  

10) Going backwards on the housing market

Speaking of which, house prices and transactions continued to flatline and thousands of first-time buyers continued to be excluded from a dysfunctional market. There were some tentative signs of a slight upturn at the end of the year but the billions of pounds poured into schemes like quantitative easing and Funding for Lending largely benefitted banks and existing home owners. Evictions of tenants was a much bigger problem than repossessions of owners in 2012. Two years after it was pronounced ‘absolutely dead’ buy to let continued to grow while a growing proportion of home sales in London were to overseas property investors.

Long-term reform of property taxation looked as far away as ever and a study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation concluded that housing market policy was going backwards. The FSA finally published its Mortgage Market Review with the aim of ‘hard-wiring common sense’ into it. However, the legacy of past regulatory failures was graphically illustrated in the tragic case of Malcolm Frost, who was found dead in his garden shed a few days after being evicted from the home he had sold and leased back. 

See part 1 here

10 things about 2012: part 1

Fri, 28 Dec 2012

The first of a two-part look back at the issues and people that I was blogging about in a momentous year for housing.   

1) Private renting: a year of growth

I predicted in January that 2012 would see the private rented sector overtake social renting. As things turned out, I was wrong – but not by much. Whether you judge it by the number of homes or the number of households or the answers given by people in the Census, a combination of growth in buy to let, shrinking home ownership and the slow decline of social housing mean it will happen sooner rather than later.

It was also a year that the boundary between the two sectors continue to blur: social housing responded to the tenure shift as a series of social landlords from Thames Valley to L&Q launched private renting initiatives; private landlords like Grainger registered social housing subsidiaries; and the government approved proposals in the Montague report to kick start institutional investment in private renting. 

Yet with size surely comes responsibility. Coalition rhetoric about strong families and stable communities failed to match the reality of short-term, insecure private tenancies. The Labour opposition made tentative proposals for reform of letting agents and tenancies and rents as calls for reform increased.

The year ended with the Census confirming the astonishing rise of private renting and I highlighted some alarming implications for the future housing benefit bill

2) Welfare reform: implementation and some backtracking 

Speaking of which, 2012 was the year of welfare reform implementation, with the bedroom tax understandably dominating the agenda for social landlords but increasing awareness that this was only one part of a perfect storm of changes due from April 2013.

The year began with the final parliamentary stages of the Welfare Reform Act. As the Lords battled with the Commons in a game of parliamentary ping-pong, I highlighted doubts about how the benefit cap would work. By the end of the year, even the DWP seemed to agree, with concessions in the Autumn Statement followed by an announcement that the cap will now be introduced in only four London boroughs from April before being introduced in the  rest of the country over the summer. You would never guess from the DWP press release that this was not the original plan. 

The second half of the year brought growing doubts about the implementation of the universal credit from October 2013. I blogged about how it resembled a slow motion train crash and a whole series of warnings about the detailed regulations. For housing organisations though, direct payment of housing costs to tenants is the key concern and publication of the first results from the demonstration projects and witnesses at a public accounts committee hearing confirmed the impression that we are flying blind on what will happen.

3) Homelessness: a suitable safety net?

A devastating report for Crisis in December spelt out the point that welfare reform cannot be taken in isolation:  key elements of the housing support system are changed too. The year brought continuing tension between local authorities looking to cope with the new system and ministers promising that safeguards would remain. April saw a furious row between housing minister Grant Shapps and Newham mayor Sir Robin Wales over plans to send homeless people as far away as Stoke-on-Trent.

However, this was only a response to the previous year’s changes in the local housing allowance. In November, the homelessness legislation was substantially weakened when Localism Act regulations allowing local authorities to discharge their homelessness duty into the private rented sector became law. Any private tenancy has to be ‘suitable’ in its physical condition, affordability and location but it remains to be seen how this will work in practice.

4) From Shapps to Prisk

Speaking of Grant Shapps, I blogged extensively about his housing reforms, his record on housebuilding, his regular rows about statistics and the man who we learned was not just a minister but a rapper too. However, I never guessed that in addition to his many faces, Shapps also had many names. September saw me blog about his move from the housing portfolio to become chair of the Conservative Party.

The new DCLG team brought us Mark Prisk as housing minister and Nick Boles as planning minister. I blogged early on about the potential for creative tension between the two over issues such as the green belt. Boles carved himself a high profile with public statements about the need for more new homes while Prisk left me unimpressed with his defence of government policies but hoping that delivery matters more to him than his media profile.

5) Welfare reform II: strivers and scroungers

The move from housing to a party role thrust Shapps straight into the growing political row about welfare between the main three parties. The political aspects were nothing new, with the Conservatives attempting to use Labour opposition to the benefit cap to argue that the opposition was therefore opposed to hard-working families. However, the temperature was steadily raised as the budget numbers implied a need for another £10 billion of welfare cuts after the election. In April, news leaked of a Conservative plan to cut benefits for the under-25s. In June David Cameron made that official with a speech contrasting hard-working families and claimants. And by October strivers v scroungers rhetoric was filling the party conference speeches of both the prime minister and chancellor George Osborne.

However, the Lib Dems spent the second half of the year trying to put some distance between themselves and their coalition partners. Notwithstanding Nick Clegg’s plan to allow parents to raid their pension funds to buy houses for their kids, the party made it increasingly clear that it would block more radical Conservative ideas on welfare. In the Autumn Statement there was no sign of ending housing benefit for the under-25s or cutting benefits for large families. However, it also confirmed plans to restrict the increase in most working age benefits including the local housing allowance to just 1 per cent between 2014/15 and 2015/16. Austerity – and the fall-out for housing – will last for at least four more years.

Part two of my review of 2012 follows on Monday morning.

10 things about 2012: part 1

Fri, 28 Dec 2012

The first of a two-part look back at the issues and people that I was blogging about in a momentous year for housing.   

1) Private renting: a year of growth

I predicted in January that 2012 would see the private rented sector overtake social renting. As things turned out, I was wrong – but not by much. Whether you judge it by the number of homes or the number of households or the answers given by people in the Census, a combination of growth in buy to let, shrinking home ownership and the slow decline of social housing mean it will happen sooner rather than later.

It was also a year that the boundary between the two sectors continue to blur: social housing responded to the tenure shift as a series of social landlords from Thames Valley to L&Q launched private renting initiatives; private landlords like Grainger registered social housing subsidiaries; and the government approved proposals in the Montague report to kick start institutional investment in private renting. 

Yet with size surely comes responsibility. Coalition rhetoric about strong families and stable communities failed to match the reality of short-term, insecure private tenancies. The Labour opposition made tentative proposals for reform of letting agents and tenancies and rents as calls for reform increased.

The year ended with the Census confirming the astonishing rise of private renting and I highlighted some alarming implications for the future housing benefit bill

2) Welfare reform: implementation and some backtracking 

Speaking of which, 2012 was the year of welfare reform implementation, with the bedroom tax understandably dominating the agenda for social landlords but increasing awareness that this was only one part of a perfect storm of changes due from April 2013.

The year began with the final parliamentary stages of the Welfare Reform Act. As the Lords battled with the Commons in a game of parliamentary ping-pong, I highlighted doubts about how the benefit cap would work. By the end of the year, even the DWP seemed to agree, with concessions in the Autumn Statement followed by an announcement that the cap will now be introduced in only four London boroughs from April before being introduced in the  rest of the country over the summer. You would never guess from the DWP press release that this was not the original plan. 

The second half of the year brought growing doubts about the implementation of the universal credit from October 2013. I blogged about how it resembled a slow motion train crash and a whole series of warnings about the detailed regulations. For housing organisations though, direct payment of housing costs to tenants is the key concern and publication of the first results from the demonstration projects and witnesses at a public accounts committee hearing confirmed the impression that we are flying blind on what will happen.

3) Homelessness: a suitable safety net?

A devastating report for Crisis in December spelt out the point that welfare reform cannot be taken in isolation:  key elements of the housing support system are changed too. The year brought continuing tension between local authorities looking to cope with the new system and ministers promising that safeguards would remain. April saw a furious row between housing minister Grant Shapps and Newham mayor Sir Robin Wales over plans to send homeless people as far away as Stoke-on-Trent.

However, this was only a response to the previous year’s changes in the local housing allowance. In November, the homelessness legislation was substantially weakened when Localism Act regulations allowing local authorities to discharge their homelessness duty into the private rented sector became law. Any private tenancy has to be ‘suitable’ in its physical condition, affordability and location but it remains to be seen how this will work in practice.

4) From Shapps to Prisk

Speaking of Grant Shapps, I blogged extensively about his housing reforms, his record on housebuilding, his regular rows about statistics and the man who we learned was not just a minister but a rapper too. However, I never guessed that in addition to his many faces, Shapps also had many names. September saw me blog about his move from the housing portfolio to become chair of the Conservative Party.

The new DCLG team brought us Mark Prisk as housing minister and Nick Boles as planning minister. I blogged early on about the potential for creative tension between the two over issues such as the green belt. Boles carved himself a high profile with public statements about the need for more new homes while Prisk left me unimpressed with his defence of government policies but hoping that delivery matters more to him than his media profile.

5) Welfare reform II: strivers and scroungers

The move from housing to a party role thrust Shapps straight into the growing political row about welfare between the main three parties. The political aspects were nothing new, with the Conservatives attempting to use Labour opposition to the benefit cap to argue that the opposition was therefore opposed to hard-working families. However, the temperature was steadily raised as the budget numbers implied a need for another £10 billion of welfare cuts after the election. In April, news leaked of a Conservative plan to cut benefits for the under-25s. In June David Cameron made that official with a speech contrasting hard-working families and claimants. And by October strivers v scroungers rhetoric was filling the party conference speeches of both the prime minister and chancellor George Osborne.

However, the Lib Dems spent the second half of the year trying to put some distance between themselves and their coalition partners. Notwithstanding Nick Clegg’s plan to allow parents to raid their pension funds to buy houses for their kids, the party made it increasingly clear that it would block more radical Conservative ideas on welfare. In the Autumn Statement there was no sign of ending housing benefit for the under-25s or cutting benefits for large families. However, it also confirmed plans to restrict the increase in most working age benefits including the local housing allowance to just 1 per cent between 2014/15 and 2015/16. Austerity – and the fall-out for housing – will last for at least four more years.

Part two of my review of 2012 follows on Monday morning.

Flying blind

Wed, 19 Dec 2012

It seems about as realistic to expect clear answers from the direct payment demonstration projects as it does to expect them from senior civil servants at a select committee hearing – and that’s exactly how things turned out this week.

As the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was publishing the first data from the projects, witnesses including its permanent secretary Robert Devereux and head of housing policy division Andrew Parfitt were appearing before MPs at the public accounts committee (watch again here). The two things happened so simultaneously that the officials told the MPs that there was ‘no data on arrears so far’.

Which was almost true given that the report was only 18 pages long and consisted of brief snapshots from the six projects. As Carl Brown reported yesterday, the headline results are that they failed to collect around 8 per cent of the rent on average (about double the normal level) and switched 316 tenants out of 6,220 back to direct payment to the landlord in the first four months of the projects.

On the surface, those results look worrying but not as bad as many people had feared. Look beneath it, though, and the picture is much murkier. First, I believe that participation is voluntary for tenants, so the results may exclude groups who are more likely to run up arrears but even so there were still 8 per cent arrears. Second, greater support and resources is available in the project areas than will be the case once direct payment is in place nationwide. Third, the projects have different triggers for the reintroduction of payment to the landlord, which is sensible in terms of seeing what works best but makes it hard to generalise from the results.

And perhaps most importantly these demonstration projects are taking place in isolation from the wave of other changes in welfare payments that will happen before the universal credit and direct payment are introduced. It’s one thing to pay your rent on time now but it may be quite another in the wake of the bedroom tax, the benefit cap and all the other housing benefit changes due in April 2013. And once housing costs are paid direct to the tenant any of the other elements of universal credit is a potential trigger for rent arrears.  As Professor John Hills of the LSE pointed out in the first session of the PAC hearing: ‘All of this is happening at once so as well as the percentage of rent loss we need to think what people will be left with to pay for everything else.’

None of that reckons with behaviour change – a mantra repeated constantly by the DWP officials. The ‘reforms’ are designed to save money but they are also designed to push people into employment (if there are jobs) and cheaper accommodation (if there is any). It is not so much nudge as shove theory. As Professor Hills said, the knock-on effects depend on what people do. If they stay put, there will be rent arrears and debt; if they move, other public authorities including schools could feel the effects.

Sitting alongside him, Mike Donaldson, the group director of strategy and operations at L&Q, said it had already made allowance in its accounts for rent arrears to double from 3.5 per cent to 7 per cent. While it would be working hard to try not to let that happen and had created a hardship fund, he added that: ‘The reality is we do think there is going to be a group of people who fall between the cracks.’

He pointed out that the the local housing allowance and all the behavioural issues involved there had been piloted over six years before being introduced around the country. ‘This is being done incredibly quickly and on a much broader scale,’ he said. ‘And I think to a certain extent the department is flying blind and we won’t know what the consequences will be until it’s far too late.’

And will it actually save any money? The worry for L&Q is that the government will impose more cuts as the housing benefit bill continues to increase because of rising rents.  and that the government will therefore impose more cuts. It estimates that the housing benefit bill from rents on its affordable rent properties will go up by £4.5 to £5 million.

‘Multiply that across the country and add increases in the private rented sector as well and we cannot understand how those savings can be achieved because rents are only going in one direction,’ he said. ‘Our concern is that what will happen is that there will be more cuts over and above those introduced so far to achieve that level of savings for the department.’

The second part of the hearing consisted of jousting between PAC MPs and the DWP officials that switched back and forth bewilderingly from the LHA caps to the 30th percentile to the bedroom tax to the benefit cap to affordable rent to direct payment.

The MPs were considering November’s report from the National Audit Office on the housing benefit changes warning of ‘unplanned and perhaps un-plannable challenges ahead’. They wanted to know how much money will really be saved if the housing benefit bill is still rising.  

The answer was like something out of Yes, Minister or The Thick of It. ‘I don’t know if I’ve got a bit of paper that tells me what I’ve done,’ said Robert Devereux, the DWP’s Sir Humphrey, before going on to argue effectively that the DWP will save more money than first estimated because housing benefit is costing more.

It is actually a reasonable explanation in the crazy world of housing benefit. The state of the economy means that the claimant count has gone up, which in turn means the total bill has gone up, so each individual cut could save more than originally forecast at the same time as it costs more. However, it still sounded like a compulsive shopper convincing themselves that the more they spend in the January sales the more money they will save.

‘It’s all smoke and mirrors,’ exclaimed Conservative committee member Richard Bacon. It is indeed and it doesn’t bring us much closer to what we really want to know: what the impact of direct payment will be on top of all the other ‘reforms’. We really are flying blind. 

Flying blind

Wed, 19 Dec 2012

It seems about as realistic to expect clear answers from the direct payment demonstration projects as it does to expect them from senior civil servants at a select committee hearing – and that’s exactly how things turned out this week.

As the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was publishing the first data from the projects, witnesses including its permanent secretary Robert Devereux and head of housing policy division Andrew Parfitt were appearing before MPs at the public accounts committee (watch again here). The two things happened so simultaneously that the officials told the MPs that there was ‘no data on arrears so far’.

Which was almost true given that the report was only 18 pages long and consisted of brief snapshots from the six projects. As Carl Brown reported yesterday, the headline results are that they failed to collect around 8 per cent of the rent on average (about double the normal level) and switched 316 tenants out of 6,220 back to direct payment to the landlord in the first four months of the projects.

On the surface, those results look worrying but not as bad as many people had feared. Look beneath it, though, and the picture is much murkier. First, I believe that participation is voluntary for tenants, so the results may exclude groups who are more likely to run up arrears but even so there were still 8 per cent arrears. Second, greater support and resources is available in the project areas than will be the case once direct payment is in place nationwide. Third, the projects have different triggers for the reintroduction of payment to the landlord, which is sensible in terms of seeing what works best but makes it hard to generalise from the results.

And perhaps most importantly these demonstration projects are taking place in isolation from the wave of other changes in welfare payments that will happen before the universal credit and direct payment are introduced. It’s one thing to pay your rent on time now but it may be quite another in the wake of the bedroom tax, the benefit cap and all the other housing benefit changes due in April 2013. And once housing costs are paid direct to the tenant any of the other elements of universal credit is a potential trigger for rent arrears.  As Professor John Hills of the LSE pointed out in the first session of the PAC hearing: ‘All of this is happening at once so as well as the percentage of rent loss we need to think what people will be left with to pay for everything else.’

None of that reckons with behaviour change – a mantra repeated constantly by the DWP officials. The ‘reforms’ are designed to save money but they are also designed to push people into employment (if there are jobs) and cheaper accommodation (if there is any). It is not so much nudge as shove theory. As Professor Hills said, the knock-on effects depend on what people do. If they stay put, there will be rent arrears and debt; if they move, other public authorities including schools could feel the effects.

Sitting alongside him, Mike Donaldson, the group director of strategy and operations at L&Q, said it had already made allowance in its accounts for rent arrears to double from 3.5 per cent to 7 per cent. While it would be working hard to try not to let that happen and had created a hardship fund, he added that: ‘The reality is we do think there is going to be a group of people who fall between the cracks.’

He pointed out that the the local housing allowance and all the behavioural issues involved there had been piloted over six years before being introduced around the country. ‘This is being done incredibly quickly and on a much broader scale,’ he said. ‘And I think to a certain extent the department is flying blind and we won’t know what the consequences will be until it’s far too late.’

And will it actually save any money? The worry for L&Q is that the government will impose more cuts as the housing benefit bill continues to increase because of rising rents.  and that the government will therefore impose more cuts. It estimates that the housing benefit bill from rents on its affordable rent properties will go up by £4.5 to £5 million.

‘Multiply that across the country and add increases in the private rented sector as well and we cannot understand how those savings can be achieved because rents are only going in one direction,’ he said. ‘Our concern is that what will happen is that there will be more cuts over and above those introduced so far to achieve that level of savings for the department.’

The second part of the hearing consisted of jousting between PAC MPs and the DWP officials that switched back and forth bewilderingly from the LHA caps to the 30th percentile to the bedroom tax to the benefit cap to affordable rent to direct payment.

The MPs were considering November’s report from the National Audit Office on the housing benefit changes warning of ‘unplanned and perhaps un-plannable challenges ahead’. They wanted to know how much money will really be saved if the housing benefit bill is still rising.  

The answer was like something out of Yes, Minister or The Thick of It. ‘I don’t know if I’ve got a bit of paper that tells me what I’ve done,’ said Robert Devereux, the DWP’s Sir Humphrey, before going on to argue effectively that the DWP will save more money than first estimated because housing benefit is costing more.

It is actually a reasonable explanation in the crazy world of housing benefit. The state of the economy means that the claimant count has gone up, which in turn means the total bill has gone up, so each individual cut could save more than originally forecast at the same time as it costs more. However, it still sounded like a compulsive shopper convincing themselves that the more they spend in the January sales the more money they will save.

‘It’s all smoke and mirrors,’ exclaimed Conservative committee member Richard Bacon. It is indeed and it doesn’t bring us much closer to what we really want to know: what the impact of direct payment will be on top of all the other ‘reforms’. We really are flying blind. 

A housing timebomb

Mon, 17 Dec 2012

The big shift from owning to renting revealed in the census has potentially massive implications for government spending on housing costs.

The headline results revealed by the Office for National Statistics last week were that home ownership fell from 68.3 per cent of households if England and Wales in 2001 to 63.5 per cent in 2011. Private renting increased from 9 per cent to 15 per cent and social renting fell from 19.3 per cent to 17.6 per cent.

However, within that total for home ownership, the proportion of households owning outright actually increased, so the really significant change was the fall in the number buying with a mortgage from 8.4 million (38.8 per cent of households) in 2001 to 7.6 million (32.7 per cent) in 2011.

As I highlight on my other blog, if mortgaged ownership had maintained its 2001 share of total tenure, there would now be an extra 1.4 million households with between one and ten years on the housing ladder. Instead they are tenants, mostly of buy-to-let landlords. The number of outstanding buy-to-let mortgages in 2011 was – by complete coincidence of course – 1.4 million. I also have more analysis of the overall trends in tenure, including the areas with the highest and lowest owning and renting.

In this blog I want to concentrate on two long-term consequences of this change.

The first is obviously the growth of the private rented sector beyond what might be considered its traditional role as a flexible housing option for the young. As research by Shelter – and last week’s Labour policy paper – highlighted the sector is now home to more than a million families with children and its short-term tenancies look increasingly ill-suited to people who need long-term stability.

At the same time, the government appears to want an increase in private renting financed by pension funds and institutions along the lines recommended by the Montague report. So with mortgage lending constrained and social housing investment in short supply, further growth in private renting looks inevitable. Many housing associations are seeing an opportunity for expansion by applying professional management standards to a portfolio that can be used to diversify their business and cross subsidise their affordable housing. And changes to the homelessness legislation will create expanding demand for private rented homes for homeless families from local authorities.

Which brings me to the second long-term consequence of the change in tenure. Expanding home ownership has formed a key part of moves towards asset-based welfare over the last 20 years. Owners have an asset to fall back on later in life. Once they have paid off their mortgage, their only housing costs are council tax and repair and maintenance, and when it comes to long-term care or income in retirement, the equity in their home is a potential source of income.

In contrast, renters not only have no asset to fall back on and use to pay for their care or living expenses, but they also have to continue to pay rent in retirement.  Unless they have built up substantial pension assets – and all the trends are against this too – that means the state will have to step in and help with housing benefit. The more private renting continues to grow, the higher that housing benefit bill will be.

The census confirms that home ownership is shrinking and so is the scope for asset-based welfare. A report by the Strategic Society Centre in the summer highlighted this issue alongside the long-term growth in the number of pensioners from 12.6 million now to 15.9 million in 2020 and 18.8 million in 2060 (when today’s 20-year-olds will be over 70).

In 2009/10, 1.5 million pensioner households received housing benefit and up to another 390,000 were entitled to claim but did not do so. They claimed an average of £69 a week at a total cost of £5.3 billion.

The report projected that by 2060 around 40 per cent of pensioners – 7.5 million  – will be renting and that around half of them will receive housing benefit. It put the total cost of pensioner housing benefit in 2060 at £13.4 billion or £8.1 billion a year more than now.

However, even that projection was based on some very conservative assumptions about tenure and rents. For a start, it was based on a forecast that home ownership in England would fall to 63.8 per cent in 2021. Last week’s Census revealed that it was already lower than that in 2011.

As things stand, home ownership looks certain to fall even more over the next ten years.  A report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in June warned of a looming housing crisis with an extra 1.5 million under-30s forced into private renting by 2020. Another out today from the Building Societies Association says that one in four prospective first-time buyers believes that it will take them at least 10 years to save a deposit.

Second, the estimate was based on the same £69 a week average pensioner housing benefit claim as now.  While that allows a comparison in today’s terms, it does not reflect the continuing shift in tenure within renting. About 11 per cent of current pensioners receiving housing benefit rent privately compared to 28 per cent of non-pensioners. If the shift to private renting (and even within social housing to higher rents) continues, the proportion of pensioners paying higher private rents looks set to rise significantly in the longer term and so does the housing benefit bill.

So that projection that the housing benefit bill will rise by 40 per cent as a result of changes in tenure and demographics is likely to prove a highly conservative estimate. Faced with those kind of numbers, what should the government do?

The Strategic Society Centre argued for ‘aggressive steps to increase rates of ownership’: ‘Since declining rates of home-ownership will have severe fiscal consequences in the long-term, policymakers should therefore explicitly target the highest possible rates of owner-occupation consistent with economic stability (i.e. a lack of “housing bubbles”, or high-rates of foreclosures) and labour market flexibility. In short, policymakers should not be neutral to tenure. Higher rates of home-ownership are ultimately cheaper for the taxpayer.’

It added that policy makers should also look at over-consumption and multiple ownership of housing including second homes and buy-to-let investment. As I argued on my other blog, the census results show less a fall in home ownership than a fall in owner-occupation. Many of those 1.4 million buy-to-let mortgages are being paid by people who see their investment as their pension. Far better, surely, to come up with incentives for pension investment that do not push up house prices and leave the taxpayer to pick up much of the long-term bill. Alongside the increases in housing supply now supported by all parties, the job of government would be to strike the right long-term balance between tenures.

The looming housing timebomb should also mean increased investment in genuinely affordable housing and intervention in the private rented sector to go with measures to make it easier to get on the housing ladder at affordable prices. There is a debate to be had about whether that should just mean increased regulation and greater security or rent control too but it is one that is needed urgently. 

The complete opposite, in other words, of what we currently do: short-term schemes to boost ownership for a few that just increase prices and make it less accessible for everyone else; laissez-faire policies for the private rented sector; and the slow death of social housing.

Oh yes, and squeezing entitlement to housing benefit, first for the under-25s, then for the under-35s, then for private tenants, then for social tenants. So far pensioners have been protected from any cuts – but for how much longer if nothing changes?

A housing timebomb

Mon, 17 Dec 2012

The big shift from owning to renting revealed in the census has potentially massive implications for government spending on housing costs.

The headline results revealed by the Office for National Statistics last week were that home ownership fell from 68.3 per cent of households if England and Wales in 2001 to 63.5 per cent in 2011. Private renting increased from 9 per cent to 15 per cent and social renting fell from 19.3 per cent to 17.6 per cent.

However, within that total for home ownership, the proportion of households owning outright actually increased, so the really significant change was the fall in the number buying with a mortgage from 8.4 million (38.8 per cent of households) in 2001 to 7.6 million (32.7 per cent) in 2011.

As I highlight on my other blog, if mortgaged ownership had maintained its 2001 share of total tenure, there would now be an extra 1.4 million households with between one and ten years on the housing ladder. Instead they are tenants, mostly of buy-to-let landlords. The number of outstanding buy-to-let mortgages in 2011 was – by complete coincidence of course – 1.4 million. I also have more analysis of the overall trends in tenure, including the areas with the highest and lowest owning and renting.

In this blog I want to concentrate on two long-term consequences of this change.

The first is obviously the growth of the private rented sector beyond what might be considered its traditional role as a flexible housing option for the young. As research by Shelter – and last week’s Labour policy paper – highlighted the sector is now home to more than a million families with children and its short-term tenancies look increasingly ill-suited to people who need long-term stability.

At the same time, the government appears to want an increase in private renting financed by pension funds and institutions along the lines recommended by the Montague report. So with mortgage lending constrained and social housing investment in short supply, further growth in private renting looks inevitable. Many housing associations are seeing an opportunity for expansion by applying professional management standards to a portfolio that can be used to diversify their business and cross subsidise their affordable housing. And changes to the homelessness legislation will create expanding demand for private rented homes for homeless families from local authorities.

Which brings me to the second long-term consequence of the change in tenure. Expanding home ownership has formed a key part of moves towards asset-based welfare over the last 20 years. Owners have an asset to fall back on later in life. Once they have paid off their mortgage, their only housing costs are council tax and repair and maintenance, and when it comes to long-term care or income in retirement, the equity in their home is a potential source of income.

In contrast, renters not only have no asset to fall back on and use to pay for their care or living expenses, but they also have to continue to pay rent in retirement.  Unless they have built up substantial pension assets – and all the trends are against this too – that means the state will have to step in and help with housing benefit. The more private renting continues to grow, the higher that housing benefit bill will be.

The census confirms that home ownership is shrinking and so is the scope for asset-based welfare. A report by the Strategic Society Centre in the summer highlighted this issue alongside the long-term growth in the number of pensioners from 12.6 million now to 15.9 million in 2020 and 18.8 million in 2060 (when today’s 20-year-olds will be over 70).

In 2009/10, 1.5 million pensioner households received housing benefit and up to another 390,000 were entitled to claim but did not do so. They claimed an average of £69 a week at a total cost of £5.3 billion.

The report projected that by 2060 around 40 per cent of pensioners – 7.5 million  – will be renting and that around half of them will receive housing benefit. It put the total cost of pensioner housing benefit in 2060 at £13.4 billion or £8.1 billion a year more than now.

However, even that projection was based on some very conservative assumptions about tenure and rents. For a start, it was based on a forecast that home ownership in England would fall to 63.8 per cent in 2021. Last week’s Census revealed that it was already lower than that in 2011.

As things stand, home ownership looks certain to fall even more over the next ten years.  A report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in June warned of a looming housing crisis with an extra 1.5 million under-30s forced into private renting by 2020. Another out today from the Building Societies Association says that one in four prospective first-time buyers believes that it will take them at least 10 years to save a deposit.

Second, the estimate was based on the same £69 a week average pensioner housing benefit claim as now.  While that allows a comparison in today’s terms, it does not reflect the continuing shift in tenure within renting. About 11 per cent of current pensioners receiving housing benefit rent privately compared to 28 per cent of non-pensioners. If the shift to private renting (and even within social housing to higher rents) continues, the proportion of pensioners paying higher private rents looks set to rise significantly in the longer term and so does the housing benefit bill.

So that projection that the housing benefit bill will rise by 40 per cent as a result of changes in tenure and demographics is likely to prove a highly conservative estimate. Faced with those kind of numbers, what should the government do?

The Strategic Society Centre argued for ‘aggressive steps to increase rates of ownership’: ‘Since declining rates of home-ownership will have severe fiscal consequences in the long-term, policymakers should therefore explicitly target the highest possible rates of owner-occupation consistent with economic stability (i.e. a lack of “housing bubbles”, or high-rates of foreclosures) and labour market flexibility. In short, policymakers should not be neutral to tenure. Higher rates of home-ownership are ultimately cheaper for the taxpayer.’

It added that policy makers should also look at over-consumption and multiple ownership of housing including second homes and buy-to-let investment. As I argued on my other blog, the census results show less a fall in home ownership than a fall in owner-occupation. Many of those 1.4 million buy-to-let mortgages are being paid by people who see their investment as their pension. Far better, surely, to come up with incentives for pension investment that do not push up house prices and leave the taxpayer to pick up much of the long-term bill. Alongside the increases in housing supply now supported by all parties, the job of government would be to strike the right long-term balance between tenures.

The looming housing timebomb should also mean increased investment in genuinely affordable housing and intervention in the private rented sector to go with measures to make it easier to get on the housing ladder at affordable prices. There is a debate to be had about whether that should just mean increased regulation and greater security or rent control too but it is one that is needed urgently. 

The complete opposite, in other words, of what we currently do: short-term schemes to boost ownership for a few that just increase prices and make it less accessible for everyone else; laissez-faire policies for the private rented sector; and the slow death of social housing.

Oh yes, and squeezing entitlement to housing benefit, first for the under-25s, then for the under-35s, then for private tenants, then for social tenants. So far pensioners have been protected from any cuts – but for how much longer if nothing changes?

No hiding place

Thu, 13 Dec 2012

A combination of the recession, welfare reform and localism is set to generate increases in almost all forms of homelessness in England, according to comprehensive new analysis.

Homelessness Monitor: England 2012 published yesterday by Crisis is the full version of an academic study from which headline findings were released last week (equivalents will also be published for Wales and Scotland). It draws together evidence not only on what we normally think of as homelessness – rough sleeping and homeless acceptances – but also more hidden forms too such as concealed households, sharing and overcrowding.

On almost every measure, the study concludes that homelessness has got worse over the last year and is set to get much worse over the next three. The headline figures quoted in the report are already bad enough:

  • Rough sleeping up by 23 per cent in the year to Autumn 2011- the most dramatic growth since the 1990s. Recorded rough sleeping is up by 48 per cent in London, although No Second Night Out is having an impact on long-term street homelessness.
  • Homelessness acceptances up 34 per cent since bottoming out in late 2009.
  • Temporary accommodation and bed and breakfast placements are both on the increase. Last week’s homelessness statistics, published too late for this report, showed that the number of families with children in B&B has risen from 740 in second quarter of 2010 when the coalition took power to 2,020 in the third quarter of 2012. The number in B&B beyond the legal limit of six weeks has quintupled from 160 to 880 over the same period.
  • 1.5 million concealed households involving single people and 214,00 involving couples and long parents in 2012
  • An increase in the number of sharing households between 2007 and 2010 after a long-term decline
  • Overcrowding affecting 670,000 households according to the latest figures.
  • Homelessness resulting from the termination of assured shorthold tenancies up 156 per cent in London in the two years to 2011/12.

The report by academics from Heriot-Watt and York concludes that the combination of the downturn plus continuing welfare reform ‘seems certain to drive homelessness up yet further over the next few years’. In the last housing market recession, statutory homelessness fell because falling house prices eased access to home ownership and freed up additional social and private lets but ‘no such benign impact …is likely this time

They say the full effects of the first wave of cuts in housing benefit in April 2011 – the bedroom caps in local housing allowance – will not be felt until later in 2012/13 because of transitional protection and the way that London boroughs have extended it to the maximum with technical breaks in tenancies.

The shared accommodation rate extended to 25 to 34 year olds in January is seen as ‘disastrous’ by charities working in the sector because it increases pressure on a supply of property that is already very constrained. Meanwhile increased conditionality and tougher benefit sanctions are having a negative impact on homeless people with chaotic lifestyles.

In next year’s wave of welfare reforms, the study says:

  • there is ‘little doubt’ that the bedroom tax will ‘drive up rent arrears and/or evictions’ in less pressured parts of the UK
  • the benefit cap will hit higher cots areas and one effect will be to drive up the number of out-of-area placements of homeless families
  • major concerns remain about the universal credit, especially on online claiming, monthly budgeting and direct payment of housing costs to tenants.

On top of all that though the coalition’s localism reforms could make things much worse. The report argues that up to now our housing system – a combination of housing benefit, social housing and the homelessness legislation - has given poorer households greater protection than is true in many other countries. 

It goes on: ‘Moves towards fixed-term tenancies in the social rented sector, and rents at up to 80 per cent of market levels, will in time weaken the sector’s safety net function, while local restrictions on eligibility for social housing risk excluding some marginalised groups in high housing need. ‘

Breaking the link between statutory homelessness and social lettings ‘appears designed to render “minimal” the number of new homelessness applications’ and to discourage family exclusions of young people based on the assumption made with scant evidence that they are jumping the queue.

That implies that there could be an apparent reduction in homelessness as measured by statutory homelessness applications. Allowing local authorities to discharge their duty into the private rented sector creates a mechanism for minimising homelessness applications in the first place and therefore one perception of the problem without doing much at all about the reality.

Ironically, the one form of homelessness that it concludes is not rising is the one that attracts most media attention: middle class homelessness. Thanks to a combination of low interest rates and lender forbearance, mortgage repossessions of well-paid professionals have not reached the levels seen in the early 1990s recession.

Otherwise though the study concludes that the period from now until the next election ‘is a crucial time period over which the homelessness impacts of the recession are likely to intensify, and be severely exacerbated by the government’s radical welfare and housing reforms’.

Ministers at the DWP routinely dismiss warnings like this as ‘scaremongering’ or – if they are really close to the mark – ‘irresponsible scaremongering’. We shall see. 

In the meantime, I’ll be watching Panorama tonight for more on Britain’s Hidden Housing Crisis

No hiding place

Thu, 13 Dec 2012

A combination of the recession, welfare reform and localism is set to generate increases in almost all forms of homelessness in England, according to comprehensive new analysis.

Homelessness Monitor: England 2012 published yesterday by Crisis is the full version of an academic study from which headline findings were released last week (equivalents will also be published for Wales and Scotland). It draws together evidence not only on what we normally think of as homelessness – rough sleeping and homeless acceptances – but also more hidden forms too such as concealed households, sharing and overcrowding.

On almost every measure, the study concludes that homelessness has got worse over the last year and is set to get much worse over the next three. The headline figures quoted in the report are already bad enough:

  • Rough sleeping up by 23 per cent in the year to Autumn 2011- the most dramatic growth since the 1990s. Recorded rough sleeping is up by 48 per cent in London, although No Second Night Out is having an impact on long-term street homelessness.
  • Homelessness acceptances up 34 per cent since bottoming out in late 2009.
  • Temporary accommodation and bed and breakfast placements are both on the increase. Last week’s homelessness statistics, published too late for this report, showed that the number of families with children in B&B has risen from 740 in second quarter of 2010 when the coalition took power to 2,020 in the third quarter of 2012. The number in B&B beyond the legal limit of six weeks has quintupled from 160 to 880 over the same period.
  • 1.5 million concealed households involving single people and 214,00 involving couples and long parents in 2012
  • An increase in the number of sharing households between 2007 and 2010 after a long-term decline
  • Overcrowding affecting 670,000 households according to the latest figures.
  • Homelessness resulting from the termination of assured shorthold tenancies up 156 per cent in London in the two years to 2011/12.

The report by academics from Heriot-Watt and York concludes that the combination of the downturn plus continuing welfare reform ‘seems certain to drive homelessness up yet further over the next few years’. In the last housing market recession, statutory homelessness fell because falling house prices eased access to home ownership and freed up additional social and private lets but ‘no such benign impact …is likely this time

They say the full effects of the first wave of cuts in housing benefit in April 2011 – the bedroom caps in local housing allowance – will not be felt until later in 2012/13 because of transitional protection and the way that London boroughs have extended it to the maximum with technical breaks in tenancies.

The shared accommodation rate extended to 25 to 34 year olds in January is seen as ‘disastrous’ by charities working in the sector because it increases pressure on a supply of property that is already very constrained. Meanwhile increased conditionality and tougher benefit sanctions are having a negative impact on homeless people with chaotic lifestyles.

In next year’s wave of welfare reforms, the study says:

  • there is ‘little doubt’ that the bedroom tax will ‘drive up rent arrears and/or evictions’ in less pressured parts of the UK
  • the benefit cap will hit higher cots areas and one effect will be to drive up the number of out-of-area placements of homeless families
  • major concerns remain about the universal credit, especially on online claiming, monthly budgeting and direct payment of housing costs to tenants.

On top of all that though the coalition’s localism reforms could make things much worse. The report argues that up to now our housing system – a combination of housing benefit, social housing and the homelessness legislation - has given poorer households greater protection than is true in many other countries. 

It goes on: ‘Moves towards fixed-term tenancies in the social rented sector, and rents at up to 80 per cent of market levels, will in time weaken the sector’s safety net function, while local restrictions on eligibility for social housing risk excluding some marginalised groups in high housing need. ‘

Breaking the link between statutory homelessness and social lettings ‘appears designed to render “minimal” the number of new homelessness applications’ and to discourage family exclusions of young people based on the assumption made with scant evidence that they are jumping the queue.

That implies that there could be an apparent reduction in homelessness as measured by statutory homelessness applications. Allowing local authorities to discharge their duty into the private rented sector creates a mechanism for minimising homelessness applications in the first place and therefore one perception of the problem without doing much at all about the reality.

Ironically, the one form of homelessness that it concludes is not rising is the one that attracts most media attention: middle class homelessness. Thanks to a combination of low interest rates and lender forbearance, mortgage repossessions of well-paid professionals have not reached the levels seen in the early 1990s recession.

Otherwise though the study concludes that the period from now until the next election ‘is a crucial time period over which the homelessness impacts of the recession are likely to intensify, and be severely exacerbated by the government’s radical welfare and housing reforms’.

Ministers at the DWP routinely dismiss warnings like this as ‘scaremongering’ or – if they are really close to the mark – ‘irresponsible scaremongering’. We shall see. 

In the meantime, I’ll be watching Panorama tonight for more on Britain’s Hidden Housing Crisis

Two cheers

Tue, 11 Dec 2012

I’d love to give three cheers for Labour’s new approach to the private rented sector but I can only manage two.

Yesterday it published a policy review paper on stability and affordability for renters and families. This is the second of three policy review papers on private renting: the first covered management and letting agents, the third will cover standards and rogue landlords.

My first cheer is for the party’s analysis of the problems faced by private tenants.  

The statistics provide strong backing for a new approach. Figures just published from the 2011 census reveal that private renting now accounts for almost 17 per cent of housing in England and Wales compared to just 9 per cent in 2001.

We know that there are 1.1 million families with children in the private rented sector and that six-month assured shorthold tenancies do absolutely nothing to give them the stability they need. Private renters with children are 11 times more likely to have moved within the last year than home owners with children.

Projections of future trends make an overwhelming case for reform: the policy document quotes predictions of a million people locked out of home ownership by 2020 and 27 per cent of low to middle income families in the private rented sector by 2025. A new report from the IPPR yesterday revealed the impact that these trends are having on young people in particular.

My second cheer is for the future it envisages of greater stability with longer-term tenancies and predictable rents very much along the lines of the one proposed by Shelter recently.

The policy document says: ‘We need real change in the housing market so that private renters can, where they want to, gain access to longer tenancies and obtain greater financial certainty. When renters and landlords enter into these longer tenancies, rent could be indexed for the duration of that tenancy – we will consider the most appropriate type of indexation to allow the market to operate as freely as possible, while giving certainty over future rent levels for renters and landlords.’

It makes a wholly convincing case for longer-term tenancies, one that is overwhelmingly backed by tenants and is also supported by many landlords who see that they could also benefit through reduced costs and greater ability to plan ahead. It is often the practices of letting agents and the conditions imposed by lenders for buy to let mortgages, rather than the preferences of landlords, that get in the way of this.

Labour will look at options ranging from a voluntary incentive-based approach and a ‘something for something’ deal with landlords to one that gives renters greater legal rights to longer tenancies and predictable rents. And it quotes the examples of Germany, where private tenants have a high level of security and there are limits on rent increases, and France, where the minimum term is three years and rents cannot increase by more than the increase in the reference rent index.  

The party will work with mortgage lenders to ensure that buy-to-let mortgages do not prevent landlords offering longer tenancies. And it will look at options including the direct payment of housing benefit and tax incentives to landlords who do offer them.

As shadow housing minister Jack Dromey sums it up: ‘With longer term tenancies and predicable rents, the private rented sector will offer the affordable and stable homes that renters need. Families will feel that their rented house is a home and it will help strengthen communities as people put down roots and get to know their neighbours.’

As for my third cheer, I can’t quite give that because I still have a nagging doubt about Labour’s ultra-cautious approach.

The party is quite right to be concerned about the impact that talk of greater regulation in general and of rent control in particular could have on the supply of privately rented homes. It’s also right that ‘all too often, private renting is unaffordable, unstable and subject to poor conditions and bad management’.

However, when it claims that ‘our first Policy Review paper on housing set out steps to tackle unscrupulous letting agents and to end rip-off charges’, er, no it didn’t. It actually promised to ‘consider’ different models to improve standards, to ‘work in partnership with the sector to develop solutions’ and to ‘consider’ how compliance could be monitored, for example by a regulatory body with enforcement powers’. Again, it was hard to disagree with the content but there were no definite proposals and no actual policy commitments.

It could be argued that two and a half years before the next election is not the time to expect an opposition party to make those sort of commitments. However, when it comes to making all the right noises about private renting and then doing very little, Labour has previous.

Remember the Law Commission’s 2006 report on Renting Homes with its proposals for a shake-up and simplification of the law relating to all forms of renting? The last Labour government let the proposals gather dust on the shelf alongside the draft Bill that would have implemented them.

Remember the Rugg review, the independent report commissioned by Labour that in 2008 proposed regulation of letting agents and registration of landlords? As I blogged in July, the last government produced a green paper in May 2009 pledging mandatory regulation of letting agents and management agents’ but had done nothing by the time it lost power a year later.

The Labour government in Wales is now about to implement most of these proposals through its Housing Bill and Rented Homes Bill. The party in England is making all the right noises and some of what it is talking about could go still further if it wins power in 2015 – but will it actually be prepared to act next time around?

Two cheers

Tue, 11 Dec 2012

I’d love to give three cheers for Labour’s new approach to the private rented sector but I can only manage two.

Yesterday it published a policy review paper on stability and affordability for renters and families. This is the second of three policy review papers on private renting: the first covered management and letting agents, the third will cover standards and rogue landlords.

My first cheer is for the party’s analysis of the problems faced by private tenants.  

The statistics provide strong backing for a new approach. Figures just published from the 2011 census reveal that private renting now accounts for almost 17 per cent of housing in England and Wales compared to just 9 per cent in 2001.

We know that there are 1.1 million families with children in the private rented sector and that six-month assured shorthold tenancies do absolutely nothing to give them the stability they need. Private renters with children are 11 times more likely to have moved within the last year than home owners with children.

Projections of future trends make an overwhelming case for reform: the policy document quotes predictions of a million people locked out of home ownership by 2020 and 27 per cent of low to middle income families in the private rented sector by 2025. A new report from the IPPR yesterday revealed the impact that these trends are having on young people in particular.

My second cheer is for the future it envisages of greater stability with longer-term tenancies and predictable rents very much along the lines of the one proposed by Shelter recently.

The policy document says: ‘We need real change in the housing market so that private renters can, where they want to, gain access to longer tenancies and obtain greater financial certainty. When renters and landlords enter into these longer tenancies, rent could be indexed for the duration of that tenancy – we will consider the most appropriate type of indexation to allow the market to operate as freely as possible, while giving certainty over future rent levels for renters and landlords.’

It makes a wholly convincing case for longer-term tenancies, one that is overwhelmingly backed by tenants and is also supported by many landlords who see that they could also benefit through reduced costs and greater ability to plan ahead. It is often the practices of letting agents and the conditions imposed by lenders for buy to let mortgages, rather than the preferences of landlords, that get in the way of this.

Labour will look at options ranging from a voluntary incentive-based approach and a ‘something for something’ deal with landlords to one that gives renters greater legal rights to longer tenancies and predictable rents. And it quotes the examples of Germany, where private tenants have a high level of security and there are limits on rent increases, and France, where the minimum term is three years and rents cannot increase by more than the increase in the reference rent index.  

The party will work with mortgage lenders to ensure that buy-to-let mortgages do not prevent landlords offering longer tenancies. And it will look at options including the direct payment of housing benefit and tax incentives to landlords who do offer them.

As shadow housing minister Jack Dromey sums it up: ‘With longer term tenancies and predicable rents, the private rented sector will offer the affordable and stable homes that renters need. Families will feel that their rented house is a home and it will help strengthen communities as people put down roots and get to know their neighbours.’

As for my third cheer, I can’t quite give that because I still have a nagging doubt about Labour’s ultra-cautious approach.

The party is quite right to be concerned about the impact that talk of greater regulation in general and of rent control in particular could have on the supply of privately rented homes. It’s also right that ‘all too often, private renting is unaffordable, unstable and subject to poor conditions and bad management’.

However, when it claims that ‘our first Policy Review paper on housing set out steps to tackle unscrupulous letting agents and to end rip-off charges’, er, no it didn’t. It actually promised to ‘consider’ different models to improve standards, to ‘work in partnership with the sector to develop solutions’ and to ‘consider’ how compliance could be monitored, for example by a regulatory body with enforcement powers’. Again, it was hard to disagree with the content but there were no definite proposals and no actual policy commitments.

It could be argued that two and a half years before the next election is not the time to expect an opposition party to make those sort of commitments. However, when it comes to making all the right noises about private renting and then doing very little, Labour has previous.

Remember the Law Commission’s 2006 report on Renting Homes with its proposals for a shake-up and simplification of the law relating to all forms of renting? The last Labour government let the proposals gather dust on the shelf alongside the draft Bill that would have implemented them.

Remember the Rugg review, the independent report commissioned by Labour that in 2008 proposed regulation of letting agents and registration of landlords? As I blogged in July, the last government produced a green paper in May 2009 pledging mandatory regulation of letting agents and management agents’ but had done nothing by the time it lost power a year later.

The Labour government in Wales is now about to implement most of these proposals through its Housing Bill and Rented Homes Bill. The party in England is making all the right noises and some of what it is talking about could go still further if it wins power in 2015 – but will it actually be prepared to act next time around?

AS2012 - live blog

Wed, 5 Dec 2012

16:04: Right, time to pull a few things together. At the start of this blog I posed eight questions that might or might not be resolved in the Autumn Statement. Here’s my assessment of what we know so far:

  • What will he do about those £10 billion cuts in welfare apparently needed in the next spending review period? Have the Lib Dems beaten off calls for cuts in housing benefit for the under-25s and benefits for large families and a freeze on all working age benefits? Even if they have, is something nasty still lurking in the fine print?

There was no mention of the under-25s or large families but there was still something very nasty indeed. Limiting increases in the local housing allowance to 1 per cent was at least balanced by some recognition of its disastrous impact in high rent areas. There was also no mention of housing benefit in the social sector so (presumably) the government has decided against breaking the link with actual rents and the RPI +1 formula that funds new homes. At least I hope so - but what about under universal credit?

However, restricting the increases in other working age benefits and tax credits and the universal credit from 2014 will put even more pressure on household budgets that are already at breaking point. Any cut in any benefit could trigger rent arrears when direct payment of the housing element goes to the tenant.

‘Tough for everyone – but toughest for those at the bottom,’ is how Julia Unwin of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation sums it up.

  • Will he give any sort of signal about what will happen to housing investment after 2015? Social landlords badly need some certainty.

Nope. Talk of single housing pots under local enterprise partnerships could even add an extra institutional uncertainty.

  • Will he give some detail about those guarantees for housebuilding?

No.

  • Will housing gain at all from the rumoured extra £5 billon of capital spending or will it all go to non-housing infrastructure?

In between all the re-announcements about support for 50,000 (or was it 120,000 homes) it’s hard to tell what is really new. As Gav Hollander is reporting, there does seem to be some new cash to unblock small sites and release public sector land. Whether that amounts to anything more than yet more subsidies to housebuilders remains to be seen.

  • Will he and Iain Duncan Smith give some answers to the remaining questions about universal credit?

There were more details – and that 1 per cent uprating – but the devil really is in the detail on this one and I’ll await the verdict of the experts.

  • Will the almost inevitable home ownership wheeze be anything more than window dressing?

Surprisingly perhaps there was no new initiative (SecondBuy had a good ring to it too). However, one of the more surprising aspects of the statement was that Osborne found extra money to extend support for mortgage interest concessions for an extra two years at a time when repossessions are falling and there are cuts everywhere else. Fear of them rising again before the election? Brilliant lobbying by the Council of Mortgage Lenders? Or both?

  • Will he really clamp down on tax avoidance by buyers of high value homes and put any money raised to good use?

Osborne promised no new property taxes but there was no detail that I could see on proposals to levy an annual charge on homes owned through offshore companies. 

  • This one is a long shot but will the government finally admit that any serious plan for housebuilding has to include allowing local authorities more freedom to borrow and invest?

I had it about right with long shot, it seems, although the Greater London Authority is being allowed to borrow £1 billion for the Northern Line extension.

Overall then, there was nothing much on new homes even though there was money to build new schools to replace ones that already exist and roads that take much longer to get off the ground and create fewer jobs per pound spent. And the squeeze continues on working-age benefits and local government spending. Despite all the talk from Nick Clegg and Nick Boles about garden cities there was nothing about them either.

Better hope it works this time. Independent estimates from the Office for Budget Responsibility reveal that the rising caseloads mean the housing benefit bill is higher than it thought only six months ago. And its fiscal forecasts for the future appear to rely on a wildly optimistic expectation of improvement in the housing market, with the take from stamp duty on house sales doubling between 2011/12 and 2017/18.

15:12: Treasury expectations of housing benefit savings in the Autumn Statement will be far outweighed by the cost of more people claiming it, according to forecasts from the Office of Budget Responsibility.

The Autumn Statement documents say that uprating the local housing allowance by only 1 per cent will save £105 millon in 2014/15, £225 million in 2015/16, £245 million in 2016/17 and £260 million in 2017/18. Total saving over those four years: £835 million.

However, the OBR’s Economic and Fiscal Outlook says that higher caseloads mean that housing benefit will cost £600 million more in 2012/13 than it forecast at the time of the Budget in March, £700 million more in 2013/14, £600 million more in 2014/15, £500 million more in 2015/16 and £400 million more in 2016/17.

Those are remarkable figures when you consider that the March forecasts will have included all of the cuts announced so far. Housing benefit will cost a total of £2.8 billion more over the next five years than it forecast just six months ago. 

14:42: The National Housing Federation welcomed Osborne’s commitment to building 120,000 homes and the extra money for the DCLG to buy surplus public sector land.

However, it warned that the below inflation increases in benefits created a very real risk of rising debt and arrears that could damage housing associations’ income streams and result in fewer homes being built.

The NHF added that the proposal to create a single housing pot for local enterprise partnerships raised important questions such as whether the money would be ring-fenced and whether there would be flexibility to move money to areas of greatest need. 

14:37: The government still has not recognised the scale of the housing crisis, says the Chartered Institute of Housing.

It said the Autumn Statement’s £225 million to boost construction of 50,000 homes was welcome but only a small contribution, while it was disappointing that there was no more detail on the £10 billion loan guarantee fund put forward in September and Osborne had ignored calls to lift local authority borrowing caps. 

14:10: The tables at the back of the Autumn Statement documents reveal the sheer scale of the savings that Osborne will be making from uprating benefits by 1 per cent from 2014/15.

On the local housing allowance, the expected saving is £105 million in 2014/15 rising to £260 million in 2017/18. The really serious savings come from working age discretionary benefits and tax credits (£505 million this year rising to £2.6 billion in 2017/18) and universal credit (£170 million in 2014/15 rising to £1.2 billion in 2017/18).

By contrast, only increasing the higher rate tax threshold by 1 per cent saves £295 million in 2014/15 rising to £1.1 billion in 2017/18. And similar restrictions on the thresholds for inheritance tax and capital gains tax raise only £40 million between them by 2017/18.

13:55: Is this good news for supported housing on the benefit cap? ’Housing payments for those in supported exempt accommodation will be disregarded for the purpose of the benefit cap. Funds available for Discretionary Housing Payments will be reduced by £10 million in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and by £5 million in 2015-16 and 2016-17, to fund this measure.’

13:38: Looking at the main Autumn Statement documents now. Here are some highlights:

  • There will be ‘a temporary increase in capital spending to promote growth. This funds £5.5 billion of additional investment in infrastructure and support for businesses, including investment in roads, housing and local infrastructure, regional growth and business, exports, science, and schools and colleges.’ Sounds like quite a shopping list.
  • Some extra funding for housing? ‘To support both housing and commercial development and support growth and jobs, the Government is providing a further £683 million through capital grants and financial transactions. In England, the Government will invest £474 million in local infrastructure on a recoverable basis. Around £60 million of this will be made available to support infrastructure in a limited number of Enterprise Zones. Around £225 million will be used to accelerate delivery of large housing sites, supporting around 50,000 homes. Around £190 million of the funding will be used to de-risk public sector land and enable the quicker disposal of surplus sites for new homes. Alongside this, the Government will provide £100 million to bring forward public sector sites for development.
  • On housing benefit, the government will ‘uprate Local Housing Allowance rates in line with the previously announced policy in April 2013, but will cap increases to 1 per cent in most areas in 2014-15 and 2015-16’
  • However, it will also ‘use 30 per cent of the potential savings to exempt rates in those areas where rent increases are highest, in recognition of the fact that rental markets differ across the country’
  • support for mortgage interest ‘will now be continued at the current level through the SMI scheme to March 2015’
  • More on pay to stay: ‘The Government will respond to this consultation by Budget 2013 to ensure the best use of social housing assets and that those who can afford to make a greater contribution do so, while ensuring that tenants on low incomes are not affected.’

13:25: As George Osborne sits down, that 1 per cent increase in local housing allowance looks worse and worse. Bear in mind that when it was linked to CPI rather than RPI inflation, research by Shelter and the CIH estimated that a private rented home would be unaffordable on LHA in 34 per cent of all local authority districts in England by 2023. 

13:09: So far then, there seems to be a re-annouucement of housebuilding guarantees, a pledge of no new property taxes and benefits will be cut in real terms - no more than 1 per cent in the next three years, including the local housing allowance. 

12.51: This being brought to you courtesy of Virgin Cross-Country Wi-fi, which is less reliable than George Osborne’s spending plans, so bear with me.

To put things in perspective, I’m just going through Totnes where four homeless people have died so far this year. As research for Crisis warns today, things are going to get worse.

12.25 So here it is, the moment of truth. After all the advance speculation, George Osborne is finally about to give us some answers.

Probably not, in fact. That will have to wait until full details are published in the Autumn statement documents later and perhaps in departmental announcements to follow over the next few days.

However, most of the housing interest centres on key questions:

  • What will he do about those £10 billion cuts in welfare apparently needed in the next spending review period? Have the Lib Dems beaten off calls for cuts in housing benefit for the under-25s and benefits for large families and a freeze on all working age benefits? Even if they have, is something nasty still lurking in the fine print?
  • Will he give any sort of signal about what will happen to housing investment after 2015? Social landlords badly need some certainty?
  • Will he give some detail about those guarantees for housebuilding?
  • Will housing gain at all from the rumoured extra £5 billon of capital spending or will it all go to non-housing infrastructure?
  • Will he and Iain Duncan Smith give some answers to the remaining questions about universal credit?
  • Will the almost inevitable home ownership wheeze be anything more than window dressing?
  • Will he really clamp down on tax avoidance by buyers of high value homes and put any money raised to good use?
  • This one is a long shot but will the government finally admit that any serious plan for housebuilding has to include allowing local authorities more freedom to borrow and invest?

More to come, including a few answers hopefully. 

AS2012 - live blog

Wed, 5 Dec 2012

16:04: Right, time to pull a few things together. At the start of this blog I posed eight questions that might or might not be resolved in the Autumn Statement. Here’s my assessment of what we know so far:

  • What will he do about those £10 billion cuts in welfare apparently needed in the next spending review period? Have the Lib Dems beaten off calls for cuts in housing benefit for the under-25s and benefits for large families and a freeze on all working age benefits? Even if they have, is something nasty still lurking in the fine print?

There was no mention of the under-25s or large families but there was still something very nasty indeed. Limiting increases in the local housing allowance to 1 per cent was at least balanced by some recognition of its disastrous impact in high rent areas. There was also no mention of housing benefit in the social sector so (presumably) the government has decided against breaking the link with actual rents and the RPI +1 formula that funds new homes. At least I hope so - but what about under universal credit?

However, restricting the increases in other working age benefits and tax credits and the universal credit from 2014 will put even more pressure on household budgets that are already at breaking point. Any cut in any benefit could trigger rent arrears when direct payment of the housing element goes to the tenant.

‘Tough for everyone – but toughest for those at the bottom,’ is how Julia Unwin of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation sums it up.

  • Will he give any sort of signal about what will happen to housing investment after 2015? Social landlords badly need some certainty.

Nope. Talk of single housing pots under local enterprise partnerships could even add an extra institutional uncertainty.

  • Will he give some detail about those guarantees for housebuilding?

No.

  • Will housing gain at all from the rumoured extra £5 billon of capital spending or will it all go to non-housing infrastructure?

In between all the re-announcements about support for 50,000 (or was it 120,000 homes) it’s hard to tell what is really new. As Gav Hollander is reporting, there does seem to be some new cash to unblock small sites and release public sector land. Whether that amounts to anything more than yet more subsidies to housebuilders remains to be seen.

  • Will he and Iain Duncan Smith give some answers to the remaining questions about universal credit?

There were more details – and that 1 per cent uprating – but the devil really is in the detail on this one and I’ll await the verdict of the experts.

  • Will the almost inevitable home ownership wheeze be anything more than window dressing?

Surprisingly perhaps there was no new initiative (SecondBuy had a good ring to it too). However, one of the more surprising aspects of the statement was that Osborne found extra money to extend support for mortgage interest concessions for an extra two years at a time when repossessions are falling and there are cuts everywhere else. Fear of them rising again before the election? Brilliant lobbying by the Council of Mortgage Lenders? Or both?

  • Will he really clamp down on tax avoidance by buyers of high value homes and put any money raised to good use?

Osborne promised no new property taxes but there was no detail that I could see on proposals to levy an annual charge on homes owned through offshore companies. 

  • This one is a long shot but will the government finally admit that any serious plan for housebuilding has to include allowing local authorities more freedom to borrow and invest?

I had it about right with long shot, it seems, although the Greater London Authority is being allowed to borrow £1 billion for the Northern Line extension.

Overall then, there was nothing much on new homes even though there was money to build new schools to replace ones that already exist and roads that take much longer to get off the ground and create fewer jobs per pound spent. And the squeeze continues on working-age benefits and local government spending. Despite all the talk from Nick Clegg and Nick Boles about garden cities there was nothing about them either.

Better hope it works this time. Independent estimates from the Office for Budget Responsibility reveal that the rising caseloads mean the housing benefit bill is higher than it thought only six months ago. And its fiscal forecasts for the future appear to rely on a wildly optimistic expectation of improvement in the housing market, with the take from stamp duty on house sales doubling between 2011/12 and 2017/18.

15:12: Treasury expectations of housing benefit savings in the Autumn Statement will be far outweighed by the cost of more people claiming it, according to forecasts from the Office of Budget Responsibility.

The Autumn Statement documents say that uprating the local housing allowance by only 1 per cent will save £105 millon in 2014/15, £225 million in 2015/16, £245 million in 2016/17 and £260 million in 2017/18. Total saving over those four years: £835 million.

However, the OBR’s Economic and Fiscal Outlook says that higher caseloads mean that housing benefit will cost £600 million more in 2012/13 than it forecast at the time of the Budget in March, £700 million more in 2013/14, £600 million more in 2014/15, £500 million more in 2015/16 and £400 million more in 2016/17.

Those are remarkable figures when you consider that the March forecasts will have included all of the cuts announced so far. Housing benefit will cost a total of £2.8 billion more over the next five years than it forecast just six months ago. 

14:42: The National Housing Federation welcomed Osborne’s commitment to building 120,000 homes and the extra money for the DCLG to buy surplus public sector land.

However, it warned that the below inflation increases in benefits created a very real risk of rising debt and arrears that could damage housing associations’ income streams and result in fewer homes being built.

The NHF added that the proposal to create a single housing pot for local enterprise partnerships raised important questions such as whether the money would be ring-fenced and whether there would be flexibility to move money to areas of greatest need. 

14:37: The government still has not recognised the scale of the housing crisis, says the Chartered Institute of Housing.

It said the Autumn Statement’s £225 million to boost construction of 50,000 homes was welcome but only a small contribution, while it was disappointing that there was no more detail on the £10 billion loan guarantee fund put forward in September and Osborne had ignored calls to lift local authority borrowing caps. 

14:10: The tables at the back of the Autumn Statement documents reveal the sheer scale of the savings that Osborne will be making from uprating benefits by 1 per cent from 2014/15.

On the local housing allowance, the expected saving is £105 million in 2014/15 rising to £260 million in 2017/18. The really serious savings come from working age discretionary benefits and tax credits (£505 million this year rising to £2.6 billion in 2017/18) and universal credit (£170 million in 2014/15 rising to £1.2 billion in 2017/18).

By contrast, only increasing the higher rate tax threshold by 1 per cent saves £295 million in 2014/15 rising to £1.1 billion in 2017/18. And similar restrictions on the thresholds for inheritance tax and capital gains tax raise only £40 million between them by 2017/18.

13:55: Is this good news for supported housing on the benefit cap? ’Housing payments for those in supported exempt accommodation will be disregarded for the purpose of the benefit cap. Funds available for Discretionary Housing Payments will be reduced by £10 million in 2013-14 and 2014-15, and by £5 million in 2015-16 and 2016-17, to fund this measure.’

13:38: Looking at the main Autumn Statement documents now. Here are some highlights:

  • There will be ‘a temporary increase in capital spending to promote growth. This funds £5.5 billion of additional investment in infrastructure and support for businesses, including investment in roads, housing and local infrastructure, regional growth and business, exports, science, and schools and colleges.’ Sounds like quite a shopping list.
  • Some extra funding for housing? ‘To support both housing and commercial development and support growth and jobs, the Government is providing a further £683 million through capital grants and financial transactions. In England, the Government will invest £474 million in local infrastructure on a recoverable basis. Around £60 million of this will be made available to support infrastructure in a limited number of Enterprise Zones. Around £225 million will be used to accelerate delivery of large housing sites, supporting around 50,000 homes. Around £190 million of the funding will be used to de-risk public sector land and enable the quicker disposal of surplus sites for new homes. Alongside this, the Government will provide £100 million to bring forward public sector sites for development.
  • On housing benefit, the government will ‘uprate Local Housing Allowance rates in line with the previously announced policy in April 2013, but will cap increases to 1 per cent in most areas in 2014-15 and 2015-16’
  • However, it will also ‘use 30 per cent of the potential savings to exempt rates in those areas where rent increases are highest, in recognition of the fact that rental markets differ across the country’
  • support for mortgage interest ‘will now be continued at the current level through the SMI scheme to March 2015’
  • More on pay to stay: ‘The Government will respond to this consultation by Budget 2013 to ensure the best use of social housing assets and that those who can afford to make a greater contribution do so, while ensuring that tenants on low incomes are not affected.’

13:25: As George Osborne sits down, that 1 per cent increase in local housing allowance looks worse and worse. Bear in mind that when it was linked to CPI rather than RPI inflation, research by Shelter and the CIH estimated that a private rented home would be unaffordable on LHA in 34 per cent of all local authority districts in England by 2023. 

13:09: So far then, there seems to be a re-annouucement of housebuilding guarantees, a pledge of no new property taxes and benefits will be cut in real terms - no more than 1 per cent in the next three years, including the local housing allowance. 

12.51: This being brought to you courtesy of Virgin Cross-Country Wi-fi, which is less reliable than George Osborne’s spending plans, so bear with me.

To put things in perspective, I’m just going through Totnes where four homeless people have died so far this year. As research for Crisis warns today, things are going to get worse.

12.25 So here it is, the moment of truth. After all the advance speculation, George Osborne is finally about to give us some answers.

Probably not, in fact. That will have to wait until full details are published in the Autumn statement documents later and perhaps in departmental announcements to follow over the next few days.

However, most of the housing interest centres on key questions:

  • What will he do about those £10 billion cuts in welfare apparently needed in the next spending review period? Have the Lib Dems beaten off calls for cuts in housing benefit for the under-25s and benefits for large families and a freeze on all working age benefits? Even if they have, is something nasty still lurking in the fine print?
  • Will he give any sort of signal about what will happen to housing investment after 2015? Social landlords badly need some certainty?
  • Will he give some detail about those guarantees for housebuilding?
  • Will housing gain at all from the rumoured extra £5 billon of capital spending or will it all go to non-housing infrastructure?
  • Will he and Iain Duncan Smith give some answers to the remaining questions about universal credit?
  • Will the almost inevitable home ownership wheeze be anything more than window dressing?
  • Will he really clamp down on tax avoidance by buyers of high value homes and put any money raised to good use?
  • This one is a long shot but will the government finally admit that any serious plan for housebuilding has to include allowing local authorities more freedom to borrow and invest?

More to come, including a few answers hopefully. 

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