Monday, 20 February 2017

Inside edge

All posts from: June 2014

Chance of a lifetime

Fri, 27 Jun 2014

MPs will get the chance to back major housing reforms including new significant exemptions to the bedroom tax later this year. Will they take it?

Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, has what he describes as ‘the chance of a lifetime’ to change things through legislation after coming first in the ballot for private member’s bills. Talking to him yesterday gave me a fascinating but slightly depressing insight into how the system – and party politics – work.

He consulted his constituents on a shortlist of options including housing, a Cornish Assembly and health care standards and after more than 2,000 comments has decided to plump for an Affordable Homes Bill with four key elements:

  • Extension of Help to Buy or a new Affordable Homes Investment Bank to underpin the ‘intermediate’ market (shared equity/shared ownership/mutual housing) to construct a new lower rung on the housing ladder for those who cannot afford full ownership.
  • New exemptions to the bedroom tax for anyone who has lived at an address for more than three years or who lives in a home with disabled adaptations
  • A new Use Class for ‘non-permanent residential use’ to empower local planning authorities to control the number of second homes in their area.
  • Enhanced powers of compulsory purchase for local authorities where developers land bank development sites or fail to use sites for which planning permission has been granted but development has not advanced or where need for affordable homes cannot be met on ‘exception’ sites through community land auctions/trusts.

To give a bit of context, Andrew George is my MP so I know he has a longstanding interest in affordable homes and a particular local one in the pernicious impact of second homes. More recently he’s been named the most rebellious Liberal Democrat MP of this parliament and has voted against the government on issues such as the bedroom tax, NHS reform and tuition fees.

All four of his proposals have the potential to attract cross-party support but there could be issues with all of them too. This is the starting point but not necessarily what the final Bill will look like since he may have to narrow it down to get majority support.

On intermediate housing, he argues that the market has not taken off because lenders are ‘iffy’ about it and people who buy a share struggle to sell. ‘I can’t see why anyone would object to it,’ he told me. ‘The Treasury might be worried about the budgetary implications but the principles can’t be objected to.’ Shared ownership sceptics may disagree but it could be a big improvement to Help to Buy.

Private member’s bills can only amend, rather than repeal, legislation, which is why he’s gone for exemptions to the bedroom tax. ‘The thing I’ve found offensive about it is the implication that because you’re poor you’re less entitled to a stable family home,’ he says. ‘This would significantly neutralise [the bedroom tax] and carve out a large number of cases.’ By my reckoning, his proposals would exempt the majority of those affected. Some 83 per cent of social tenants have lived in their home for more than three years (though that includes pensioners and the proportion of working age will be lower) and some newer tenants will be in specially adapted homes.

On second homes, his proposal could get support from other rural MPs but it does go against the grain of Tory deregulation (as I blogged earlier this week, the Deregulation Bill will liberalise short-term rentals in London). George says he has campaigned on the issue for years but been turned down by housing ministers under both the Conservatives and Labour.

Finally, his proposals on land banking chime with Labour policy but something similar has been proposed by Boris Johnson in London.

So what next? The reason that topping the private member’s bill ballot is the equivalent of winning the lottery for a backbench MP is that parliamentary time is very limited and the winner has the best chance of seeing their Bill become law. It’s not a guarantee though. The last MP who won the ballot and was successful was Labour’s Brian Iddon before the last election with a Bill to protect the rights of tenants of repossessed landlords and he was a member of the largest party and had government backing. MPs promoting Bills have to be prepared to negotiate to win support. 

George had to strike a balance between proposing something small to maximise support and something bigger with a higher risk of not getting it through. ‘I wasn’t going to run with something tame and anodyne,’ he says. ‘This is once in a lifetime chance to advance a cause rather than tinker at the edges.’ 

However, while all of us might hope that law-making at Westminster is a rational process in which proposals are debated and enacted on their merits, the reality is not quite like that. Party politics inevitably intrudes.

Take the bedroom tax, for example. My guess is that it would not survive a genuinely free vote in the Commons in its current form if the right compromise could be found. The all-party Work and Pensions Committee recommended significant exemptions and changes in a report in April. Some Lib Dems and even a few Conservatives have voted against it or abstained at various points.

However, with ministers and their aides expected to vote for government policy or resign, there have never been enough of them to succeed. Labour, meanwhile, has used opposition day debates to call for repeal of the bedroom tax but seemed more intent on pinning the blame on the Tories and Lib Dems at the next election than securing concessions in the meantime.

Too often then the parliamentary system and tribal party politics have seemed to trump changes to what most MPs know is a bad policy. Will it be any different this time? The early signs are not promising. ‘I’ve spoken to the Labour leads and they have indicated that they may not go for my bedroom tax change,’ says George.

From the Conservative side of the House, meanwhile, he’s had dark threats from Eurosceptics with their own agenda. ‘The Tories have threatened to talk my Bill out unless I allow the European Referendum Bill to get in first,’ he says. ‘The only way to prevent that is to get 100 people there on the day and I may struggle to do that.’

Andrew George is currently drafting his Bill and is prepared to narrow it down to the elements that will attract enough votes to pass. Can the Lib Dem rebel succeed? The first debate in the Commons is set for September 5. Watch this space.

Chance of a lifetime

Fri, 27 Jun 2014

MPs will get the chance to back major housing reforms including new significant exemptions to the bedroom tax later this year. Will they take it?

Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, has what he describes as ‘the chance of a lifetime’ to change things through legislation after coming first in the ballot for private member’s bills. Talking to him yesterday gave me a fascinating but slightly depressing insight into how the system – and party politics – work.

He consulted his constituents on a shortlist of options including housing, a Cornish Assembly and health care standards and after more than 2,000 comments has decided to plump for an Affordable Homes Bill with four key elements:

  • Extension of Help to Buy or a new Affordable Homes Investment Bank to underpin the ‘intermediate’ market (shared equity/shared ownership/mutual housing) to construct a new lower rung on the housing ladder for those who cannot afford full ownership.
  • New exemptions to the bedroom tax for anyone who has lived at an address for more than three years or who lives in a home with disabled adaptations
  • A new Use Class for ‘non-permanent residential use’ to empower local planning authorities to control the number of second homes in their area.
  • Enhanced powers of compulsory purchase for local authorities where developers land bank development sites or fail to use sites for which planning permission has been granted but development has not advanced or where need for affordable homes cannot be met on ‘exception’ sites through community land auctions/trusts.

To give a bit of context, Andrew George is my MP so I know he has a longstanding interest in affordable homes and a particular local one in the pernicious impact of second homes. More recently he’s been named the most rebellious Liberal Democrat MP of this parliament and has voted against the government on issues such as the bedroom tax, NHS reform and tuition fees.

All four of his proposals have the potential to attract cross-party support but there could be issues with all of them too. This is the starting point but not necessarily what the final Bill will look like since he may have to narrow it down to get majority support.

On intermediate housing, he argues that the market has not taken off because lenders are ‘iffy’ about it and people who buy a share struggle to sell. ‘I can’t see why anyone would object to it,’ he told me. ‘The Treasury might be worried about the budgetary implications but the principles can’t be objected to.’ Shared ownership sceptics may disagree but it could be a big improvement to Help to Buy.

Private member’s bills can only amend, rather than repeal, legislation, which is why he’s gone for exemptions to the bedroom tax. ‘The thing I’ve found offensive about it is the implication that because you’re poor you’re less entitled to a stable family home,’ he says. ‘This would significantly neutralise [the bedroom tax] and carve out a large number of cases.’ By my reckoning, his proposals would exempt the majority of those affected. Some 83 per cent of social tenants have lived in their home for more than three years (though that includes pensioners and the proportion of working age will be lower) and some newer tenants will be in specially adapted homes.

On second homes, his proposal could get support from other rural MPs but it does go against the grain of Tory deregulation (as I blogged earlier this week, the Deregulation Bill will liberalise short-term rentals in London). George says he has campaigned on the issue for years but been turned down by housing ministers under both the Conservatives and Labour.

Finally, his proposals on land banking chime with Labour policy but something similar has been proposed by Boris Johnson in London.

So what next? The reason that topping the private member’s bill ballot is the equivalent of winning the lottery for a backbench MP is that parliamentary time is very limited and the winner has the best chance of seeing their Bill become law. It’s not a guarantee though. The last MP who won the ballot and was successful was Labour’s Brian Iddon before the last election with a Bill to protect the rights of tenants of repossessed landlords and he was a member of the largest party and had government backing. MPs promoting Bills have to be prepared to negotiate to win support. 

George had to strike a balance between proposing something small to maximise support and something bigger with a higher risk of not getting it through. ‘I wasn’t going to run with something tame and anodyne,’ he says. ‘This is once in a lifetime chance to advance a cause rather than tinker at the edges.’ 

However, while all of us might hope that law-making at Westminster is a rational process in which proposals are debated and enacted on their merits, the reality is not quite like that. Party politics inevitably intrudes.

Take the bedroom tax, for example. My guess is that it would not survive a genuinely free vote in the Commons in its current form if the right compromise could be found. The all-party Work and Pensions Committee recommended significant exemptions and changes in a report in April. Some Lib Dems and even a few Conservatives have voted against it or abstained at various points.

However, with ministers and their aides expected to vote for government policy or resign, there have never been enough of them to succeed. Labour, meanwhile, has used opposition day debates to call for repeal of the bedroom tax but seemed more intent on pinning the blame on the Tories and Lib Dems at the next election than securing concessions in the meantime.

Too often then the parliamentary system and tribal party politics have seemed to trump changes to what most MPs know is a bad policy. Will it be any different this time? The early signs are not promising. ‘I’ve spoken to the Labour leads and they have indicated that they may not go for my bedroom tax change,’ says George.

From the Conservative side of the House, meanwhile, he’s had dark threats from Eurosceptics with their own agenda. ‘The Tories have threatened to talk my Bill out unless I allow the European Referendum Bill to get in first,’ he says. ‘The only way to prevent that is to get 100 people there on the day and I may struggle to do that.’

Andrew George is currently drafting his Bill and is prepared to narrow it down to the elements that will attract enough votes to pass. Can the Lib Dem rebel succeed? The first debate in the Commons is set for September 5. Watch this space.

Passing the buck

Fri, 27 Jun 2014

George Osborne has spent so long outsourcing responsibility for the housing market to Mark Carney that it’s easy to forget the Bank of England’s actual brief.

Far from controlling house prices, or tackling affordability or making the market less dysfunctional, the Bank’s Financial Policy Committee (FPC) ‘is charged with a primary objective of identifying, monitoring and taking action to remove or reduce systemic risks with a view to protecting and enhancing the resilience of the UK financial system’ and a secondary objective ‘to support the economic policy of the government’.

So the measures the FPC announced today on high loan to income (LTI) mortgages and a slightly strengthened stress test on lending are about preventing future house prices from increasing household debt to a level that poses risks to the financial system rather than tackling current price levels and affordability.

Loans of more than 4.5 times income will be limited to no more than 15 per cent of banks’ total mortgage lending from October. However, given that only about 9 per cent of mortgages (19 per cent in London) are above that level at the moment, that indicates the Bank is reasonably relaxed about increases in high LTI lending and in house prices.

Its central forecast is that house prices will rise by 20 per cent over the next three years but that affordability will be boosted by nominal income growth getting back to an average level of 4 per cent a year. As Capital Economics points out, the new measures seem designed only to kick in if prices rise more than the Bank expects.

As the Carney and the Bank acted, the Treasury announced that no new loans at more than 4.5 times borrowers’ income will be allowed under the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme (HTB2).

Less than 5 per cent of HTB2 mortgages are at more than 4.5 time income so Osborne seems to have gone further than he need have done to satisfy his pledge to apply any proposals made by the Bank to Help to Buy. Was this more of a nod to Help to Buy critics than we might have expected? Or does it beg the question of why this was not the case from the beginning? Until the late 1980s the norm was mortgages at three times a single income or 2.5 times a joint income.  

The immediate reaction on the stock market was a sharp rise in the share price of leading housebuilders so clearly there was relief that the Bank had not taken more robust action.

Shortly after the announcements, Eric Pickles was downplaying concern about house prices at the CIH housing conference in Manchester. ‘I think we’re as far away from a bubble as you could possibly imagine. I think the bubble is in people’s imagination,’ he said. ‘I think that’s one of the reasons why the chancellor gave those powers to the Bank of England.’

Which brings me back to my original point about passing the buck. The Bank’s brief is to remove or reduce systemic risks to the financial system. Mortgages are the biggest asset class for lenders and the biggest element in household debt for borrowers so the risks are clear.

However, house prices are only part of that and arguably only a bubble that popped and led to a recession would be a systemic risk. The Bank seems relaxed about a 20 per cent rise in prices on current levels.

In any case, macro-prudential action on mortgage lending alone would not necessarily control house prices at a time when an increasing proportion of home sales are to cash buyers, overseas buyers and buy to let landlords, none of whom the Bank can influence directly.

According to the Intermediary Mortgage Lenders Association (IMLA) 36 per cent of homes sold in the first quarter of this year were bought entirely with cash, up from 24 per cent in 2007. Total housing demand financed by cash reached an all-time high of 61 per cent.

Meanwhile, 14 per cent of Britain’s outstanding mortgages are buy to let, which is not covered by the FPC’s measures – and in and case 44 per cent of landlord purchases are made without a mortgage.

In summary then, more draconian action by the Bank of England would have little or no effect on perhaps half of house sales but tilt the balance still further in favour of landlords and cash buyers and against first-time buyers.

As for the unaffordability of current house prices – something demonstrated graphically in analysis by Shelter yesterday – that is not the concern of the Bank of England unless it threatens financial stability. This despite the fact that Carney himself could only afford to work in this country because he was given a £250,000 a year housing allowance on top of his basic salary.

Sir John Gieve, the former deputy governor for financial stability at the Bank of England, gave his reaction to today’s announcements on the World at One at lunchtime. His key point was about the need to address the supply and taxation of housing. ‘We’ve under-taxed property and in particular we’ve under-taxed very high value property owned abroad,’ he said.

All of which means that there is only one man who can do something about the housing and affordability crisis: George Osborne. Passing the buck to the Bank of England won’t wash. The buck stops at 11 Downing Street.

Just as I was about to post this blog, I spotted this by Paul Smee, director-general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, that sums things up perfectly:

This is about financial stability, not housing policy. These are Bank actions to safeguard financial stability and promote economic stability. They are not - and should not be seen as - a proxy for Government housing policy. These are not the tools for other policymakers, tasked with crafting a comprehensive, well-honed housing market strategy.’

Passing the buck

Fri, 27 Jun 2014

George Osborne has spent so long outsourcing responsibility for the housing market to Mark Carney that it’s easy to forget the Bank of England’s actual brief.

Far from controlling house prices, or tackling affordability or making the market less dysfunctional, the Bank’s Financial Policy Committee (FPC) ‘is charged with a primary objective of identifying, monitoring and taking action to remove or reduce systemic risks with a view to protecting and enhancing the resilience of the UK financial system’ and a secondary objective ‘to support the economic policy of the government’.

So the measures the FPC announced today on high loan to income (LTI) mortgages and a slightly strengthened stress test on lending are about preventing future house prices from increasing household debt to a level that poses risks to the financial system rather than tackling current price levels and affordability.

Loans of more than 4.5 times income will be limited to no more than 15 per cent of banks’ total mortgage lending from October. However, given that only about 9 per cent of mortgages (19 per cent in London) are above that level at the moment, that indicates the Bank is reasonably relaxed about increases in high LTI lending and in house prices.

Its central forecast is that house prices will rise by 20 per cent over the next three years but that affordability will be boosted by nominal income growth getting back to an average level of 4 per cent a year. As Capital Economics points out, the new measures seem designed only to kick in if prices rise more than the Bank expects.

As the Carney and the Bank acted, the Treasury announced that no new loans at more than 4.5 times borrowers’ income will be allowed under the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme (HTB2).

Less than 5 per cent of HTB2 mortgages are at more than 4.5 time income so Osborne seems to have gone further than he need have done to satisfy his pledge to apply any proposals made by the Bank to Help to Buy. Was this more of a nod to Help to Buy critics than we might have expected? Or does it beg the question of why this was not the case from the beginning? Until the late 1980s the norm was mortgages at three times a single income or 2.5 times a joint income.  

The immediate reaction on the stock market was a sharp rise in the share price of leading housebuilders so clearly there was relief that the Bank had not taken more robust action.

Shortly after the announcements, Eric Pickles was downplaying concern about house prices at the CIH housing conference in Manchester. ‘I think we’re as far away from a bubble as you could possibly imagine. I think the bubble is in people’s imagination,’ he said. ‘I think that’s one of the reasons why the chancellor gave those powers to the Bank of England.’

Which brings me back to my original point about passing the buck. The Bank’s brief is to remove or reduce systemic risks to the financial system. Mortgages are the biggest asset class for lenders and the biggest element in household debt for borrowers so the risks are clear.

However, house prices are only part of that and arguably only a bubble that popped and led to a recession would be a systemic risk. The Bank seems relaxed about a 20 per cent rise in prices on current levels.

In any case, macro-prudential action on mortgage lending alone would not necessarily control house prices at a time when an increasing proportion of home sales are to cash buyers, overseas buyers and buy to let landlords, none of whom the Bank can influence directly.

According to the Intermediary Mortgage Lenders Association (IMLA) 36 per cent of homes sold in the first quarter of this year were bought entirely with cash, up from 24 per cent in 2007. Total housing demand financed by cash reached an all-time high of 61 per cent.

Meanwhile, 14 per cent of Britain’s outstanding mortgages are buy to let, which is not covered by the FPC’s measures – and in and case 44 per cent of landlord purchases are made without a mortgage.

In summary then, more draconian action by the Bank of England would have little or no effect on perhaps half of house sales but tilt the balance still further in favour of landlords and cash buyers and against first-time buyers.

As for the unaffordability of current house prices – something demonstrated graphically in analysis by Shelter yesterday – that is not the concern of the Bank of England unless it threatens financial stability. This despite the fact that Carney himself could only afford to work in this country because he was given a £250,000 a year housing allowance on top of his basic salary.

Sir John Gieve, the former deputy governor for financial stability at the Bank of England, gave his reaction to today’s announcements on the World at One at lunchtime. His key point was about the need to address the supply and taxation of housing. ‘We’ve under-taxed property and in particular we’ve under-taxed very high value property owned abroad,’ he said.

All of which means that there is only one man who can do something about the housing and affordability crisis: George Osborne. Passing the buck to the Bank of England won’t wash. The buck stops at 11 Downing Street.

Just as I was about to post this blog, I spotted this by Paul Smee, director-general of the Council of Mortgage Lenders, that sums things up perfectly:

This is about financial stability, not housing policy. These are Bank actions to safeguard financial stability and promote economic stability. They are not - and should not be seen as - a proxy for Government housing policy. These are not the tools for other policymakers, tasked with crafting a comprehensive, well-honed housing market strategy.’

Paying the bill

Wed, 25 Jun 2014

Blink and you may have missed it but significant housing legislation you may never have heard of passed its final stages in the Commons on Monday night.

Scant discussion in the housing press (including by me) of the Deregulation Bill is perhaps understandable when you consider that it is huge and it covers everything from the right to buy to outer space*. Several of the clauses involving housing were also not in the original Bill and have been added later.

However, here’s what will become law in England this summer as a result of Monday’s votes (there are other minor changes I don’t have room for):

  • The qualifying period for the right to buy will be reduced from five years to three
  • Local authorities will no longer be able to impose standards for new homes that go beyond the building regulations (mainly on energy efficiency)
  • Legislation banning short-term lets of homes in London will be repealed
  • The secretary of state will no longer have the power to require local authorities to produce housing strategies

The last of these may sound more important than it actually is because as I understand it the power has never actually been used but the other three could have major implications and there were last-minute attempts to amend all of them on Monday night.

The right to buy is obviously the big one for social landlords and tenants and the only one that has attracted the most attention. Effectively it restores the qualifying period to what it was before Labour extended it in 2004. Independent analysis for the Bill committee by the University of York found that it could mean extra 700,000 tenants are eligible for the right to buy. However, it found that a maximum of 56,000 of these are in work and earning enough to be able to buy.

Apart from the straightforward implications of those extra numbers – at a time when the right to buy is being abolished in Scotland, remember – the National Housing Federation raised concerns about the impact of the ‘preserved’ right to buy following stock transfer. Receipts are shared with the local authority but it has no obligation to spend them on new homes. It also wanted a reduction in the discount if the sales receipt does not cover debt secured against the property.

The government does seem to have moved on future transfers. The DCLG has published a stock transfer manual and solicitor-general Oliver Heald said on Monday that ‘the intention is that for transfers completing after 30 September 2014, net proceeds from preserved right-to-buy sales are, within three years, to be used to fund new affordable housing at no greater subsidy cost than under the main affordable homes programme’.

However, Green MP Caroline Lucas failed in an attempt to tighten up the rules on replacement homes. Her amendment would have forced ministers to publish a plan to replace homes sold under the right to buy and review the effectiveness of it within a year of the Bill getting Royal Assent. She argued that:

‘Currently, only one in every seven homes sold through right to buy has been replaced, and I find it astonishing that the Government are so complacent that they are not even monitoring the number of homes replaced following the preserved right to buy. Housing associations say that, in fact, the number is likely to be even less than one in seven. It is inexcusable that Ministers have not even consulted housing associations.’

The second produced an unexpected last-minute concession from the government. The Deregulation Bill prevents local authorities from going beyond the building regulations when they set local energy efficiency requirements as part of its more general review of housing standards. As I’ve blogged before, a good case can be made that the government is simply replacing what it sees as ‘red tape’ with blue and yellow tape but this is what it sees as ‘deregulation’.

However, the Bill risked leaving energy efficiency policy in limbo in the run-up to zero carbon homes and in the wake of the abolition of the Code for Sustainable Homes. It would also prevent local authorities that have not already adopted higher energy standards (as in London, for example) from implementing them.

Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds attempted to fix that on Monday with an amendment stipulating that the deregulation ‘shall not come into force until the secretary of state has laid a Zero Carbon Housing Strategy before both Houses of Parliament’. He argued:

‘If the Government are sincere in backing zero-carbon homes, they have nothing to fear from my amendment—it would make no difference to a Government committed to delivering an ambitious zero-carbon homes policy in 2016.’

The amendment was voted down but after the third reading there was an unexpected intervention by Oliver Letwin, the minister for government policy:

‘We are aware that within that framework, the decision on the commencement date for amendments to the Planning and Energy Act 2008, which restrict the ability of local authorities to impose their own special requirements, must be made in such a way that the ending of those abilities to set special requirements knits properly with the start of the operation of standards for zero-carbon homes and allowable solutions. I hope that will make the hon. Gentleman—and, indeed, my hon. Friends who are concerned about the same question of timing—rest easy. ‘

That appears to allow local authorities to continue with their energy efficiency work in the meantime. However, as I’ve blogged before, it remains to be seen how ‘zero carbon’ new homes will really be after 2016 given the influence of developers on the dilution of the standard and an exemption for ‘small’ sites that could amount to a loophole covering a third or more of new homes.

The section of the Bill on short-term lets in London was presented as a classic piece of deregulation by communities secretary Eric Pickles when he announced the change two weeks ago. It would end ‘outdated rules’ from the 1970s preventing London residents from renting out their own homes on a short-term basis without getting planning permission for a change of use. These ‘archaic’ rules caused controversy during the Olympics and are ‘irregularly’ enforced, he said.

However, the measure faced criticism on Monday night from both Labour and Conservative MPs representing Central London constituencies. The worry is that it could lead to a rash of homes being converted into holiday lets.  Conservative Mark Field complained that it was being rushed through before consultation was finished. Labour’s Karen Buck said that Kensington and Chelsea, Camden and Islington had all expressed strong reservations ‘precisely because of the fear that they will lead to a loss of residential stock in what are already highly stressed neighbourhoods’.

Oliver Heald said the government was working with London boroughs to try to achieve the right balance between freedom for Londoners and protecting housing supply: ‘We would not want that to be undermined. We are trying to ensure that speculators are not able to buy homes meant for Londoners and rent them permanently as short-term lets.’

However, Mark Field came back later to point out that the rules were introduced in 1973 at a time of acute housing shortage to protect the housing stock from being converted into visitor accommodation. He said the change would have significant implications for London’s stock of permanent accommodation and ‘may make it impossible for our local authorities to meet their targets for new homes’:

‘Above all, it threatens to make central London homes, already traded by many people as some sort of global currency, into little more than assets to be exploited for maximum profit.’

And Karen Buck argued that it would make it much more difficult for local authorities to enforce if they had to prove a property was in ‘habitual short-term use’. She said:

‘No one wants enforcement action to be taken against someone who lets their home for a few days or a couple of weeks, or who does a home swap, but there will be unintended consequences in a high-value, high-turnover and high- pressured area such as central London.’

I wonder if this little-noticed change in a little-noticed bill may turn out to be the most significant in the longer term because of the impact of new technology. Websites like offering short-term lets in major cities are booming around the world and allowing residents to turn their spare rooms into cash by renting them out to tourists by the night. It looks like a brilliant and irresistable use of the internet to bring people together. However, it’s not just rooms that are being let but complete homes.

A quick search of the best known site, Airbnb, reveals thousands of short-term lets available in London for a week from next Saturday. Most of these will of course contravene the existing law, though the lets seem to be happening anyway.

However, as I type this there are currently also 732 complete flats or houses in London available to rent next week. Some could be owners or tenants going on holiday themselves but how many are empty, available to rent to tourists but not to Londoners? And how many more will there be when the law is changed? How many other websites will there be? How many homes will be sub-divided into the smallest rooms possible for short-term lets? Who will pay the bill for deregulation?

* At first I thought the second bit was a joke made by a minister because the Bill has so many different elements but it turns out that it really does cover outer space too in a bit about satellites and liability insurance.

 

Paying the bill

Wed, 25 Jun 2014

Blink and you may have missed it but significant housing legislation you may never have heard of passed its final stages in the Commons on Monday night.

Scant discussion in the housing press (including by me) of the Deregulation Bill is perhaps understandable when you consider that it is huge and it covers everything from the right to buy to outer space*. Several of the clauses involving housing were also not in the original Bill and have been added later.

However, here’s what will become law in England this summer as a result of Monday’s votes (there are other minor changes I don’t have room for):

  • The qualifying period for the right to buy will be reduced from five years to three
  • Local authorities will no longer be able to impose standards for new homes that go beyond the building regulations (mainly on energy efficiency)
  • Legislation banning short-term lets of homes in London will be repealed
  • The secretary of state will no longer have the power to require local authorities to produce housing strategies

The last of these may sound more important than it actually is because as I understand it the power has never actually been used but the other three could have major implications and there were last-minute attempts to amend all of them on Monday night.

The right to buy is obviously the big one for social landlords and tenants and the only one that has attracted the most attention. Effectively it restores the qualifying period to what it was before Labour extended it in 2004. Independent analysis for the Bill committee by the University of York found that it could mean extra 700,000 tenants are eligible for the right to buy. However, it found that a maximum of 56,000 of these are in work and earning enough to be able to buy.

Apart from the straightforward implications of those extra numbers – at a time when the right to buy is being abolished in Scotland, remember – the National Housing Federation raised concerns about the impact of the ‘preserved’ right to buy following stock transfer. Receipts are shared with the local authority but it has no obligation to spend them on new homes. It also wanted a reduction in the discount if the sales receipt does not cover debt secured against the property.

The government does seem to have moved on future transfers. The DCLG has published a stock transfer manual and solicitor-general Oliver Heald said on Monday that ‘the intention is that for transfers completing after 30 September 2014, net proceeds from preserved right-to-buy sales are, within three years, to be used to fund new affordable housing at no greater subsidy cost than under the main affordable homes programme’.

However, Green MP Caroline Lucas failed in an attempt to tighten up the rules on replacement homes. Her amendment would have forced ministers to publish a plan to replace homes sold under the right to buy and review the effectiveness of it within a year of the Bill getting Royal Assent. She argued that:

‘Currently, only one in every seven homes sold through right to buy has been replaced, and I find it astonishing that the Government are so complacent that they are not even monitoring the number of homes replaced following the preserved right to buy. Housing associations say that, in fact, the number is likely to be even less than one in seven. It is inexcusable that Ministers have not even consulted housing associations.’

The second produced an unexpected last-minute concession from the government. The Deregulation Bill prevents local authorities from going beyond the building regulations when they set local energy efficiency requirements as part of its more general review of housing standards. As I’ve blogged before, a good case can be made that the government is simply replacing what it sees as ‘red tape’ with blue and yellow tape but this is what it sees as ‘deregulation’.

However, the Bill risked leaving energy efficiency policy in limbo in the run-up to zero carbon homes and in the wake of the abolition of the Code for Sustainable Homes. It would also prevent local authorities that have not already adopted higher energy standards (as in London, for example) from implementing them.

Labour’s Jonathan Reynolds attempted to fix that on Monday with an amendment stipulating that the deregulation ‘shall not come into force until the secretary of state has laid a Zero Carbon Housing Strategy before both Houses of Parliament’. He argued:

‘If the Government are sincere in backing zero-carbon homes, they have nothing to fear from my amendment—it would make no difference to a Government committed to delivering an ambitious zero-carbon homes policy in 2016.’

The amendment was voted down but after the third reading there was an unexpected intervention by Oliver Letwin, the minister for government policy:

‘We are aware that within that framework, the decision on the commencement date for amendments to the Planning and Energy Act 2008, which restrict the ability of local authorities to impose their own special requirements, must be made in such a way that the ending of those abilities to set special requirements knits properly with the start of the operation of standards for zero-carbon homes and allowable solutions. I hope that will make the hon. Gentleman—and, indeed, my hon. Friends who are concerned about the same question of timing—rest easy. ‘

That appears to allow local authorities to continue with their energy efficiency work in the meantime. However, as I’ve blogged before, it remains to be seen how ‘zero carbon’ new homes will really be after 2016 given the influence of developers on the dilution of the standard and an exemption for ‘small’ sites that could amount to a loophole covering a third or more of new homes.

The section of the Bill on short-term lets in London was presented as a classic piece of deregulation by communities secretary Eric Pickles when he announced the change two weeks ago. It would end ‘outdated rules’ from the 1970s preventing London residents from renting out their own homes on a short-term basis without getting planning permission for a change of use. These ‘archaic’ rules caused controversy during the Olympics and are ‘irregularly’ enforced, he said.

However, the measure faced criticism on Monday night from both Labour and Conservative MPs representing Central London constituencies. The worry is that it could lead to a rash of homes being converted into holiday lets.  Conservative Mark Field complained that it was being rushed through before consultation was finished. Labour’s Karen Buck said that Kensington and Chelsea, Camden and Islington had all expressed strong reservations ‘precisely because of the fear that they will lead to a loss of residential stock in what are already highly stressed neighbourhoods’.

Oliver Heald said the government was working with London boroughs to try to achieve the right balance between freedom for Londoners and protecting housing supply: ‘We would not want that to be undermined. We are trying to ensure that speculators are not able to buy homes meant for Londoners and rent them permanently as short-term lets.’

However, Mark Field came back later to point out that the rules were introduced in 1973 at a time of acute housing shortage to protect the housing stock from being converted into visitor accommodation. He said the change would have significant implications for London’s stock of permanent accommodation and ‘may make it impossible for our local authorities to meet their targets for new homes’:

‘Above all, it threatens to make central London homes, already traded by many people as some sort of global currency, into little more than assets to be exploited for maximum profit.’

And Karen Buck argued that it would make it much more difficult for local authorities to enforce if they had to prove a property was in ‘habitual short-term use’. She said:

‘No one wants enforcement action to be taken against someone who lets their home for a few days or a couple of weeks, or who does a home swap, but there will be unintended consequences in a high-value, high-turnover and high- pressured area such as central London.’

I wonder if this little-noticed change in a little-noticed bill may turn out to be the most significant in the longer term because of the impact of new technology. Websites like offering short-term lets in major cities are booming around the world and allowing residents to turn their spare rooms into cash by renting them out to tourists by the night. It looks like a brilliant and irresistable use of the internet to bring people together. However, it’s not just rooms that are being let but complete homes.

A quick search of the best known site, Airbnb, reveals thousands of short-term lets available in London for a week from next Saturday. Most of these will of course contravene the existing law, though the lets seem to be happening anyway.

However, as I type this there are currently also 732 complete flats or houses in London available to rent next week. Some could be owners or tenants going on holiday themselves but how many are empty, available to rent to tourists but not to Londoners? And how many more will there be when the law is changed? How many other websites will there be? How many homes will be sub-divided into the smallest rooms possible for short-term lets? Who will pay the bill for deregulation?

* At first I thought the second bit was a joke made by a minister because the Bill has so many different elements but it turns out that it really does cover outer space too in a bit about satellites and liability insurance.

 

'We are not a charity'

Tue, 24 Jun 2014

An eloquent argument for social housing came from an unexpected source on Panorama last night.

The programme covered what it called a new housing crisis: homelessness and the private rented sector. The hook for Britain’s Homeless Families was the fact that the number of people being made homeless by private landlords has trebled in the last five years but it also looked at families stuck in temporary accommodation and facing eviction because of the benefit cap.

It began with the case of Vicky, who was forced to leave her home in Kent because she was on housing benefit despite the fact that she had never been in rent arrears and never had a complaint about her. ‘I’m a bit shocked actually,’ she said. ‘If you treated the property well and you paid your rent I couldn’t see what the problem would be.’

When I tell you that she was one of 200 tenants on housing benefit evicted by the same landlord in Kent you will probably guess that the landlord in question is Fergus Wilson. The man dubbed the king of buy to let justified the decision in the blunt language we’ve come to expect. ‘We are in business to make money, we are not a charity.’

His point was that rents are rising faster than housing benefit and that makes claimants too risky (though he’s been quite happy to allow housing benefit to finance his empire up to now). ‘If we went to the other extreme of having 100 per cent people on benefits we would go pop because of the default rates.’

Presenter Richard Bilton asked him: ‘Do you think you have a moral responsibility to these people or is it only profit that matters?’ Wilson replied: ‘Well we’ve had a moral responsibility for a number of years but it’s just reached such a point that we cannot continue.’

A brief interview followed with housing minister Kris Hopkins:

Bilton: ‘Is it acceptable do you think to evict people because they are on benefits?’  

Hopkins: ‘Um, well, in principle, if they’ve done something wrong…’

Bilton: ‘No, their tenancy ends, they’re on benefits, you’re a landlord and you don’t want benefits in your property.’

Hopkins: ‘Well, first of all an individual private business will make commercial decisions and if they actually decide they don’t want somebody on housing benefit in future that’s a perfectly legitimate thing for them to do.’

We then cut back to the case of Vicky and her daughter in Kent. ‘You move into a place and if you’re not expecting to have to move on every few months you start to put down roots and you start to think about the school that your child will go to,’ she said. ‘It just feels so unfair that in this day and age the rug can be pulled out from your feet like this in terms of where you live.’

If you missed Panorama last night, you can watch again here. The programme covered several other cases involving people in different circumstances. I’ve concentrated on the first one because I think it illustrates the problem most clearly: a tenant is evicted because she is on housing benefit; the landlord justifies the decision on the grounds that rents rising faster than benefit rates will inevitably mean arrears that threaten his business; the minister washes his hands of any responsibility by saying it’s a commercial decision.

The thing that stuck me is that all three of them are strictly speaking correct. Vicky is losing her home through no fault of her own. Wilson knows that local housing allowance rates have been cut and are set for years of below-inflation increases. Hopkins is right that there’s nothing to stop landlords doing what they want at the end of a tenancy.

But if you put the three statements together you wonder who is responsible if it’s not the tenant, the landlord or the government. The short-term answer, shown later in the programme, is the local authority and the taxpayer as we pick up the bill for homelessness and temporary accommodation.

Last week’s homelessness statistics showed that 58,250 households are in temporary accommodation (up 16 per cent since the election) including 81,000 children. Of those, 4,480 are in bed and breakfast (up 86 per cent) including 480 families with children who have been there more than the statutory six weeks (up 200 per cent). And 12,430 of the households in temporary accommodation have been sent to another local authority district (up 36 per cent in the last year and 120 per cent since the election).

Getting back to Panorama, the number of households accepted as homeless as the result of the end of an assured shorthold tenancy has trebled from 4,580 in 2009/10 to 13,650 in 2013/14 and has risen by another 14 per cent in the last year. Although the total number is lower than between 1998 and 2004, that takes no account of the way that homelessness prevention work has halved the number of acceptances. Loss of an assured shorthold now accounts for 27 per cent of homeless acceptances compared to 13 per cent ten years ago.

So the longer-term answer is that successive governments are responsible. First, we stop investing in social housing and sell existing stock under the right to buy. Second, we outsource housing provision to private landlords and create the conditions for the sector to expand. Third, we assure landlords and tenants that housing benefit will ‘take the strain’ of higher rents. Fourth, we fail to build enough homes so that house prices and rents rise. Fifth, we decide that housing benefit is too expensive and it will no longer cover the full rent. Sixth, we discover that the solution to homelessness is actually the main cause of homelessness: an assured shorthold tenancy. And on the seventh day we sit back and admire the revolving door we have created.

The world is of course not as simple as Fergus Wilson suggests (or I do in my neat summary). Many landlords regard his media appearances as an embarrassment and many people are working hard to make the system we have work as best it can (Havering’s long-term leasing featured in the programme, for example).

However, when Wilson says that ‘we are in business to make money, we are not a charity’ he not only speaks the truth about private landlords, harsh though it may be, he also spells out why an alternative is so desperately needed. One that’s not in it to make profits and might even be a charity. 

To read more about the private rented sector click here.

'We are not a charity'

Tue, 24 Jun 2014

An eloquent argument for social housing came from an unexpected source on Panorama last night.

The programme covered what it called a new housing crisis: homelessness and the private rented sector. The hook for Britain’s Homeless Families was the fact that the number of people being made homeless by private landlords has trebled in the last five years but it also looked at families stuck in temporary accommodation and facing eviction because of the benefit cap.

It began with the case of Vicky, who was forced to leave her home in Kent because she was on housing benefit despite the fact that she had never been in rent arrears and never had a complaint about her. ‘I’m a bit shocked actually,’ she said. ‘If you treated the property well and you paid your rent I couldn’t see what the problem would be.’

When I tell you that she was one of 200 tenants on housing benefit evicted by the same landlord in Kent you will probably guess that the landlord in question is Fergus Wilson. The man dubbed the king of buy to let justified the decision in the blunt language we’ve come to expect. ‘We are in business to make money, we are not a charity.’

His point was that rents are rising faster than housing benefit and that makes claimants too risky (though he’s been quite happy to allow housing benefit to finance his empire up to now). ‘If we went to the other extreme of having 100 per cent people on benefits we would go pop because of the default rates.’

Presenter Richard Bilton asked him: ‘Do you think you have a moral responsibility to these people or is it only profit that matters?’ Wilson replied: ‘Well we’ve had a moral responsibility for a number of years but it’s just reached such a point that we cannot continue.’

A brief interview followed with housing minister Kris Hopkins:

Bilton: ‘Is it acceptable do you think to evict people because they are on benefits?’  

Hopkins: ‘Um, well, in principle, if they’ve done something wrong…’

Bilton: ‘No, their tenancy ends, they’re on benefits, you’re a landlord and you don’t want benefits in your property.’

Hopkins: ‘Well, first of all an individual private business will make commercial decisions and if they actually decide they don’t want somebody on housing benefit in future that’s a perfectly legitimate thing for them to do.’

We then cut back to the case of Vicky and her daughter in Kent. ‘You move into a place and if you’re not expecting to have to move on every few months you start to put down roots and you start to think about the school that your child will go to,’ she said. ‘It just feels so unfair that in this day and age the rug can be pulled out from your feet like this in terms of where you live.’

If you missed Panorama last night, you can watch again here. The programme covered several other cases involving people in different circumstances. I’ve concentrated on the first one because I think it illustrates the problem most clearly: a tenant is evicted because she is on housing benefit; the landlord justifies the decision on the grounds that rents rising faster than benefit rates will inevitably mean arrears that threaten his business; the minister washes his hands of any responsibility by saying it’s a commercial decision.

The thing that stuck me is that all three of them are strictly speaking correct. Vicky is losing her home through no fault of her own. Wilson knows that local housing allowance rates have been cut and are set for years of below-inflation increases. Hopkins is right that there’s nothing to stop landlords doing what they want at the end of a tenancy.

But if you put the three statements together you wonder who is responsible if it’s not the tenant, the landlord or the government. The short-term answer, shown later in the programme, is the local authority and the taxpayer as we pick up the bill for homelessness and temporary accommodation.

Last week’s homelessness statistics showed that 58,250 households are in temporary accommodation (up 16 per cent since the election) including 81,000 children. Of those, 4,480 are in bed and breakfast (up 86 per cent) including 480 families with children who have been there more than the statutory six weeks (up 200 per cent). And 12,430 of the households in temporary accommodation have been sent to another local authority district (up 36 per cent in the last year and 120 per cent since the election).

Getting back to Panorama, the number of households accepted as homeless as the result of the end of an assured shorthold tenancy has trebled from 4,580 in 2009/10 to 13,650 in 2013/14 and has risen by another 14 per cent in the last year. Although the total number is lower than between 1998 and 2004, that takes no account of the way that homelessness prevention work has halved the number of acceptances. Loss of an assured shorthold now accounts for 27 per cent of homeless acceptances compared to 13 per cent ten years ago.

So the longer-term answer is that successive governments are responsible. First, we stop investing in social housing and sell existing stock under the right to buy. Second, we outsource housing provision to private landlords and create the conditions for the sector to expand. Third, we assure landlords and tenants that housing benefit will ‘take the strain’ of higher rents. Fourth, we fail to build enough homes so that house prices and rents rise. Fifth, we decide that housing benefit is too expensive and it will no longer cover the full rent. Sixth, we discover that the solution to homelessness is actually the main cause of homelessness: an assured shorthold tenancy. And on the seventh day we sit back and admire the revolving door we have created.

The world is of course not as simple as Fergus Wilson suggests (or I do in my neat summary). Many landlords regard his media appearances as an embarrassment and many people are working hard to make the system we have work as best it can (Havering’s long-term leasing featured in the programme, for example).

However, when Wilson says that ‘we are in business to make money, we are not a charity’ he not only speaks the truth about private landlords, harsh though it may be, he also spells out why an alternative is so desperately needed. One that’s not in it to make profits and might even be a charity. 

To read more about the private rented sector click here.

Something to shout about

Wed, 18 Jun 2014

Here’s hoping today’s launch of the SHOUT manifesto can be the start of a new era for social housing.

Anyone who’s read this blog will know that I support the campaign but the launch got me thinking in a deeper way about exactly what we mean by ‘social housing’ and why it is ‘under threat’.

The starting point is of course the way that the coalition has deliberately blurred the distinction between social and affordable rent. Only last week George Osborne’s Mansion House speech and Kris Hopkins’s press release on the latest affordable housing figures provided two classic examples. The latter even managed to mix up the stats on social, affordable and all homes.

On twitter I called it a ‘triple blur’ but Tom Murtha, one of the people behind SHOUT, came up with the much better metaphor of the ‘three-card trick’. I love the way that conjures up images of Osborne and Hopkins as shady operators inviting credulous punters to ‘find the lady’ while keeping a wary eye out for the police. For a more serious analysis of why the distinctions matter, not just in the construction of new homes but in the conversion of existing social rent homes to affordable, see this blog on Red Brick.

However, the blurring did not start with Osborne and Hopkins. In terms of the letter of the law, it could even be argued that they are correct when they mix up ‘social’ and ‘affordable’. The Localism Act follows Part 2 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 in defining social housing as both ‘low cost rental accommodation’ and ‘low cost home ownership accommodation’ that are ‘made available to people whose needs are not adequately served by the commercial housing market’. Low cost rental means at a rent below the market rate. Low cost home ownership means shared ownership or equity percentage arrangements. Strictly speaking then, ‘social housing’ includes not just affordable rent and shared ownership but even the shared equity element of Help to Buy.

Except of course that virtually everyone in housing believes there is a clear distinction between social rent and affordable rent let alone shared ownership and shared equity. Social rents are affordable in relation to incomes whereas affordable rents are merely rents at below market levels and may therefore be completely unaffordable. Social housing tenancies offer the security that turns a house into a home rather than a short-term let. 

However, there are and always have been more grey areas. On rents, for example, the earliest council housing was generally only affordable to more affluent workers. The target rent regime is far from perfect: the current formula means that rents are rising faster than earnings and have been for years. There is also huge variation around the country: ‘affordable’ rents are not always ‘unaffordable’ and in some areas private rents are actually lower than social rents.

The crucial point for me is that social rents are set by a formula that includes earnings where affordable rents are merely a reflection of ever more unaffordable house prices and rents in the private sector. In whole swathes of the country, and especially in the South East, they will only be ‘affordable’ to working tenants if they can claim housing benefit.

Does that matter if housing benefit is ‘taking the strain’? For all kinds of reasons, yes it does: work incentives will be blunted; the housing benefit bill will rise at a time when it is already under pressure; inevitable cuts will leave tenants with increasing shortfalls; and the evidence seems pretty clear that it offers worse value for money over the long term.

On tenure, social landlords were using introductory and probationary tenancies for years before the Localism Act allowed them to use flexible tenancies. And security of tenure has only existed since 1981 and was enacted not by a Labour government but by Margaret Thatcher (though it was a bi-partisan policy to implement what was already seen as de facto security because council landlords were publicly accountable bodies).

However, starved of investment and denuded by the right to buy, social housing is very different now than it was then. Alongside a major programme of investment and the removal of restrictions on council borrowing, plus an end to affordable rent, SHOUT also argues that:

  • Social rented housing should be viewed as a tenure of equal status to others. It meets needs that other tenures cannot and is a tenure of choice for millions of people. This choice should be acknowledged and supported.
  • National and local politicians should be encouraged to take the lead in affirming the positive value and purpose of social rented housing, and challenging the demonisation and stigmatisation of social housing and social housing residents.

Kate Davies addressed some of these points in a recent Guardian Housing piece that condemned the stereotypes but was also dubious about ‘social housing professionals queuing up to express their love of social housing’.

‘I find the demonisation of social tenants obnoxious,’ she said, ‘but I also shudder at this crude promotion of council housing as an idealised workers’ paradise. Let’s be absolutely honest about the facts.’ Her point I think was that we should present social housing as it is rather than reach back nostalgically to the past: celebrate the achievements of aspirational tenants who want to move on while accepting that ‘it provides a safe haven for vulnerable people, and this is the real value of social housing today’.

I found myself agreeing with some of what she said, challenged by some of it but still troubled by the implications of accepting that social housing should be limited to what circumstances have made it. Go right back to the Localis report that influenced the coalition’s housing reforms and you’ll find it advocating social housing only for the most vulnerable and near-market rents for everyone else; go to where the reforms went furthest, in Hammersmith & Fulham, and you’ll find new criteria for the waiting list that are so restricted that it fell to just 700 and Conservative councillors saying that this proves there is no demand for social housing.

Take a look, for example, at the prospectus for the Estate Regeneration Programme published by the DCLG last week. The aim is to redevelop existing estates at a greater density to provide more homes. It sounds a good idea in principle as does replacing tower blocks with terraced streets. The prospectus does also distinguish between ‘social’ and ‘affordable’ housing. However, there are no stipulations as to the split between them and between homes for rent and for sale. As one of the specific objectives is to maximse the output of homes for the minimum amount of public loans available, it’s not hard to see the danger of Hammersmith & Fulham-style regeneration of existing estates with little or no social housing.  

It seems naïve to imagine that the clock can be turned back to before the Localism Act and still less to 1979 or 1945. With investment in short supply, it may well be that higher rents and flexible tenancies will be an important part of the housing and regeneration mix. However, they will continue to be regarded with suspicion unless government and landlords make a clear commitment to the future of social renting rather than collude in its slow death. With that commitment to genuine affordability in place, intermediate (definitely not ‘affordable’) rents could come to be seen as an important option for tenants who can afford them just like low-cost ownership is for those who can buy. The new ideas put forward by Generation Rent yesterday could come into play too.

With that, plus the all-party support seen at today’s SHOUT launch, could the way then be clear to reclaim the broader meaning of ‘social housing’? As a range of options to rent and buy a home for the millions of people who the market has failed rather than an A&E department for the poorest and most vulnerable? That really would be something to shout about. 

Something to shout about

Wed, 18 Jun 2014

Here’s hoping today’s launch of the SHOUT manifesto can be the start of a new era for social housing.

Anyone who’s read this blog will know that I support the campaign but the launch got me thinking in a deeper way about exactly what we mean by ‘social housing’ and why it is ‘under threat’.

The starting point is of course the way that the coalition has deliberately blurred the distinction between social and affordable rent. Only last week George Osborne’s Mansion House speech and Kris Hopkins’s press release on the latest affordable housing figures provided two classic examples. The latter even managed to mix up the stats on social, affordable and all homes.

On twitter I called it a ‘triple blur’ but Tom Murtha, one of the people behind SHOUT, came up with the much better metaphor of the ‘three-card trick’. I love the way that conjures up images of Osborne and Hopkins as shady operators inviting credulous punters to ‘find the lady’ while keeping a wary eye out for the police. For a more serious analysis of why the distinctions matter, not just in the construction of new homes but in the conversion of existing social rent homes to affordable, see this blog on Red Brick.

However, the blurring did not start with Osborne and Hopkins. In terms of the letter of the law, it could even be argued that they are correct when they mix up ‘social’ and ‘affordable’. The Localism Act follows Part 2 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 in defining social housing as both ‘low cost rental accommodation’ and ‘low cost home ownership accommodation’ that are ‘made available to people whose needs are not adequately served by the commercial housing market’. Low cost rental means at a rent below the market rate. Low cost home ownership means shared ownership or equity percentage arrangements. Strictly speaking then, ‘social housing’ includes not just affordable rent and shared ownership but even the shared equity element of Help to Buy.

Except of course that virtually everyone in housing believes there is a clear distinction between social rent and affordable rent let alone shared ownership and shared equity. Social rents are affordable in relation to incomes whereas affordable rents are merely rents at below market levels and may therefore be completely unaffordable. Social housing tenancies offer the security that turns a house into a home rather than a short-term let. 

However, there are and always have been more grey areas. On rents, for example, the earliest council housing was generally only affordable to more affluent workers. The target rent regime is far from perfect: the current formula means that rents are rising faster than earnings and have been for years. There is also huge variation around the country: ‘affordable’ rents are not always ‘unaffordable’ and in some areas private rents are actually lower than social rents.

The crucial point for me is that social rents are set by a formula that includes earnings where affordable rents are merely a reflection of ever more unaffordable house prices and rents in the private sector. In whole swathes of the country, and especially in the South East, they will only be ‘affordable’ to working tenants if they can claim housing benefit.

Does that matter if housing benefit is ‘taking the strain’? For all kinds of reasons, yes it does: work incentives will be blunted; the housing benefit bill will rise at a time when it is already under pressure; inevitable cuts will leave tenants with increasing shortfalls; and the evidence seems pretty clear that it offers worse value for money over the long term.

On tenure, social landlords were using introductory and probationary tenancies for years before the Localism Act allowed them to use flexible tenancies. And security of tenure has only existed since 1981 and was enacted not by a Labour government but by Margaret Thatcher (though it was a bi-partisan policy to implement what was already seen as de facto security because council landlords were publicly accountable bodies).

However, starved of investment and denuded by the right to buy, social housing is very different now than it was then. Alongside a major programme of investment and the removal of restrictions on council borrowing, plus an end to affordable rent, SHOUT also argues that:

  • Social rented housing should be viewed as a tenure of equal status to others. It meets needs that other tenures cannot and is a tenure of choice for millions of people. This choice should be acknowledged and supported.
  • National and local politicians should be encouraged to take the lead in affirming the positive value and purpose of social rented housing, and challenging the demonisation and stigmatisation of social housing and social housing residents.

Kate Davies addressed some of these points in a recent Guardian Housing piece that condemned the stereotypes but was also dubious about ‘social housing professionals queuing up to express their love of social housing’.

‘I find the demonisation of social tenants obnoxious,’ she said, ‘but I also shudder at this crude promotion of council housing as an idealised workers’ paradise. Let’s be absolutely honest about the facts.’ Her point I think was that we should present social housing as it is rather than reach back nostalgically to the past: celebrate the achievements of aspirational tenants who want to move on while accepting that ‘it provides a safe haven for vulnerable people, and this is the real value of social housing today’.

I found myself agreeing with some of what she said, challenged by some of it but still troubled by the implications of accepting that social housing should be limited to what circumstances have made it. Go right back to the Localis report that influenced the coalition’s housing reforms and you’ll find it advocating social housing only for the most vulnerable and near-market rents for everyone else; go to where the reforms went furthest, in Hammersmith & Fulham, and you’ll find new criteria for the waiting list that are so restricted that it fell to just 700 and Conservative councillors saying that this proves there is no demand for social housing.

Take a look, for example, at the prospectus for the Estate Regeneration Programme published by the DCLG last week. The aim is to redevelop existing estates at a greater density to provide more homes. It sounds a good idea in principle as does replacing tower blocks with terraced streets. The prospectus does also distinguish between ‘social’ and ‘affordable’ housing. However, there are no stipulations as to the split between them and between homes for rent and for sale. As one of the specific objectives is to maximse the output of homes for the minimum amount of public loans available, it’s not hard to see the danger of Hammersmith & Fulham-style regeneration of existing estates with little or no social housing.  

It seems naïve to imagine that the clock can be turned back to before the Localism Act and still less to 1979 or 1945. With investment in short supply, it may well be that higher rents and flexible tenancies will be an important part of the housing and regeneration mix. However, they will continue to be regarded with suspicion unless government and landlords make a clear commitment to the future of social renting rather than collude in its slow death. With that commitment to genuine affordability in place, intermediate (definitely not ‘affordable’) rents could come to be seen as an important option for tenants who can afford them just like low-cost ownership is for those who can buy. The new ideas put forward by Generation Rent yesterday could come into play too.

With that, plus the all-party support seen at today’s SHOUT launch, could the way then be clear to reclaim the broader meaning of ‘social housing’? As a range of options to rent and buy a home for the millions of people who the market has failed rather than an A&E department for the poorest and most vulnerable? That really would be something to shout about. 

Fresh perspective on renting

Tue, 17 Jun 2014

A new manifesto for private renters published today highlights the new thinking on housing emerging ahead of the general election.

This is the first of two manifestos being launched this week by new organisations with different priorities and constituencies to the existing ones. We’ll hear from SHOUT, the campaign for social housing, tomorrow but today it’s the turn of Generation Rent.

And it’s about time. Since the creation of the assured shorthold tenancy and the invention of buy to let, the private rented sector has more than doubled in size. That’s great news for landlords and letting agents but not so great for tenants with minimal security of tenure and consumer rights.

To illustrate my point, here are three recent bits of news. First, take a look at the limp DCLG guide to ‘How to Rent’. Second see the incredible story on Nearly Legal of the ‘the unacceptable face of London landlords’ who turns out to be the Conservative mayor of Barnet. 

Third, have a read of last night’s debate in the Commons on the Consumer Rights Bill, which saw the defeat of a Labour attempt to ban letting agent fees to tenants. Business minister Jenny Willott ignored evidence that just such a ban has worked in Scotland without increasing rents and pressed ahead with the coalition’s plans to ensure that fees are transparent.

That gave Labour’s Stella Creasey the chance to repeat one of the most memorable Commons lines about housing during this parliament. Transparency on fees is, she said, ‘a bit like telling someone who is tied to the train tracks what the timetable is for the trains. However, as Willott pointed out, Labour had 13 years in government but failed to act.

The major political parties have at last woken up to the need for action and to the fact that private renters have votes at the next election. Even the coalition has made cautious moves on transparency and redress, while Labour has proposed not just the fees ban but minimum three-year tenancies with limits on rent increases.

Generation Rent goes further in today’s manifesto that it says will make the private rented sector fit for the 21st century. Proposals include:

  • The right to a five-year tenancy, with flexibility for the tenant
  • A national register of landlords and licensing of letting agents
  • Requiring landlords to prove their properties meet decency standards
  • Rent increases linked to average earnings 
  • A right to buy for private tenants (based on the right of first refusal still available to long leaseholders and regulated tenants when their landlord decides to sell).

The manifesto also includes reforms that could be introduced while the legislation is being implemented or if the government insists on maintaining a voluntary approach. These include tax reform to incentivise landlords to offer longer tenancies and a change for longstanding tenancies to get extra notice at the end of a tenancy on top of the existing two months.

Without going into the proposals in detail, reaction from landlords will no doubt be hostile, although the intention is to promote a professionalised sector based on longer tenancies. However, as with the Labour plan for three-year tenancies, there could be obvious loopholes for landlords to exploit, such as a discretionary ground for possession where the landlord or a member of their family wished to occupy their property.

However, Generation Rent’s manifesto is not just about the current plight of renters, it also looks to the future of the housing system and what it calls ‘a permanently affordable private rented sector’.

This amounts to a scaled-up version of the community land trust model with government backing. ‘A secondary market of new private rented homes, built by government and sold to buyers at close to cost price, is one way to produce affordable homes for renters,’ argues the manifesto. The initial affordability would come from requisitioning public land. Buyers would be able to live in the homes themselves or rent them out, but only at a greatly reduced rent to reflect the cheap purchase price.

More detail is set out in a separate paper on Buying out of the bubble: A bubble-free housing market. This proposes £1 billion of state funding (plus private funding) for a first wave of 10,000 homes, with sales receipts funding future waves and prices capped at 110 per cent of the build cost. All homes would be sold leasehold with price inflation capped.  Subsequent sales could only be at the regulated value and rental incomes would be capped at a fair proportion of the regulated value. Housing associations and councils could buy the homes for social tenancies, with the right to buy limited to the secondary market.

The manifesto offers three mechanisms for achieving reform:

  • A new Landlord and Tenant Act introducing wholesale rather than piecemeal reform
  • A new Department of Housing, with a dedicated secretary of state for housing, bringing together oversight of the private rented sector and social housing, but also taking over housing benefit from the DWP and combining the skills, planning and housebuilding functions spread between different departments.]
  • A review of how the legal system treats housing cases including consideration of a new housing court of tribunal. 

How much of this actually makes it into the policy of the next government does of course remain to be seen. However, the contrast between the debate that Generation Rent is opening up and the one in the House of Commons last night could hardly be starker.

And this is just the start of what will be a big week for housing policy, with SHOUT tomorrow and the IPPR’S Condition of Britain report with new proposals on the welfare state on Thursday. 

Fresh perspective on renting

Tue, 17 Jun 2014

A new manifesto for private renters published today highlights the new thinking on housing emerging ahead of the general election.

This is the first of two manifestos being launched this week by new organisations with different priorities and constituencies to the existing ones. We’ll hear from SHOUT, the campaign for social housing, tomorrow but today it’s the turn of Generation Rent.

And it’s about time. Since the creation of the assured shorthold tenancy and the invention of buy to let, the private rented sector has more than doubled in size. That’s great news for landlords and letting agents but not so great for tenants with minimal security of tenure and consumer rights.

To illustrate my point, here are three recent bits of news. First, take a look at the limp DCLG guide to ‘How to Rent’. Second see the incredible story on Nearly Legal of the ‘the unacceptable face of London landlords’ who turns out to be the Conservative mayor of Barnet. 

Third, have a read of last night’s debate in the Commons on the Consumer Rights Bill, which saw the defeat of a Labour attempt to ban letting agent fees to tenants. Business minister Jenny Willott ignored evidence that just such a ban has worked in Scotland without increasing rents and pressed ahead with the coalition’s plans to ensure that fees are transparent.

That gave Labour’s Stella Creasey the chance to repeat one of the most memorable Commons lines about housing during this parliament. Transparency on fees is, she said, ‘a bit like telling someone who is tied to the train tracks what the timetable is for the trains. However, as Willott pointed out, Labour had 13 years in government but failed to act.

The major political parties have at last woken up to the need for action and to the fact that private renters have votes at the next election. Even the coalition has made cautious moves on transparency and redress, while Labour has proposed not just the fees ban but minimum three-year tenancies with limits on rent increases.

Generation Rent goes further in today’s manifesto that it says will make the private rented sector fit for the 21st century. Proposals include:

  • The right to a five-year tenancy, with flexibility for the tenant
  • A national register of landlords and licensing of letting agents
  • Requiring landlords to prove their properties meet decency standards
  • Rent increases linked to average earnings 
  • A right to buy for private tenants (based on the right of first refusal still available to long leaseholders and regulated tenants when their landlord decides to sell).

The manifesto also includes reforms that could be introduced while the legislation is being implemented or if the government insists on maintaining a voluntary approach. These include tax reform to incentivise landlords to offer longer tenancies and a change for longstanding tenancies to get extra notice at the end of a tenancy on top of the existing two months.

Without going into the proposals in detail, reaction from landlords will no doubt be hostile, although the intention is to promote a professionalised sector based on longer tenancies. However, as with the Labour plan for three-year tenancies, there could be obvious loopholes for landlords to exploit, such as a discretionary ground for possession where the landlord or a member of their family wished to occupy their property.

However, Generation Rent’s manifesto is not just about the current plight of renters, it also looks to the future of the housing system and what it calls ‘a permanently affordable private rented sector’.

This amounts to a scaled-up version of the community land trust model with government backing. ‘A secondary market of new private rented homes, built by government and sold to buyers at close to cost price, is one way to produce affordable homes for renters,’ argues the manifesto. The initial affordability would come from requisitioning public land. Buyers would be able to live in the homes themselves or rent them out, but only at a greatly reduced rent to reflect the cheap purchase price.

More detail is set out in a separate paper on Buying out of the bubble: A bubble-free housing market. This proposes £1 billion of state funding (plus private funding) for a first wave of 10,000 homes, with sales receipts funding future waves and prices capped at 110 per cent of the build cost. All homes would be sold leasehold with price inflation capped.  Subsequent sales could only be at the regulated value and rental incomes would be capped at a fair proportion of the regulated value. Housing associations and councils could buy the homes for social tenancies, with the right to buy limited to the secondary market.

The manifesto offers three mechanisms for achieving reform:

  • A new Landlord and Tenant Act introducing wholesale rather than piecemeal reform
  • A new Department of Housing, with a dedicated secretary of state for housing, bringing together oversight of the private rented sector and social housing, but also taking over housing benefit from the DWP and combining the skills, planning and housebuilding functions spread between different departments.]
  • A review of how the legal system treats housing cases including consideration of a new housing court of tribunal. 

How much of this actually makes it into the policy of the next government does of course remain to be seen. However, the contrast between the debate that Generation Rent is opening up and the one in the House of Commons last night could hardly be starker.

And this is just the start of what will be a big week for housing policy, with SHOUT tomorrow and the IPPR’S Condition of Britain report with new proposals on the welfare state on Thursday. 

Dead air

Thu, 12 Jun 2014

There was a telling moment at the end of last night’s Radio 4 debate on housing: the sound of complete silence from the audience.

The dead air came in response to a question from presenter Mark Easton asking people at the debate at the London School of Economics (LSE) how many of them think our political leaders are doing their best to solve the housing crisis.

But I am not sure if what sounded like mostly a young audience was tremendously impressed by the answers from the panel either and that may have been down to the way the question was framed in Housing: Where Will We All Live?

The premise was: It’s been identified as the single biggest threat to the British economy: we are simply not building enough homes.’ The debate about ‘why the problem has developed and how best to fix it’ featured deputy London mayor Richard Blakeway, John Stewart of the Home Builders Federation, Rachel Fisher of the National Housing Federation, Paul Cheshire of the LSE and designer Wayne Hemingway.

But the programme began with two members of the audience describing their housing problems. Holly Baxter had moved from a place condemned as uninhabitable to a friend’s airing cupboard to renting a shared house with four other people, all while working full-time. ‘I can’t imagine that ever ending,’ she said. ‘I can’t even imagine renting a two-bed flat.’

Laura McGuiness is a management consultant with a partner also working in the City who have been saving for a deposit for five years. She described being continually outbid by buy to let investors and overseas cash buyers. ‘The homes we bid on all went for £70,000 over the asking price,’ she said. ‘Prices are going up at £10,000 a month.’

The panel were then asked to name their solutions:

  • Employer support for rental deposits and more shared ownership (Richard Blakeway)
  • Reform planning so housebuilders can deliver 75 per cent of the homes we need (John Stewart)
  • Link economic development, job creation and housebuilding with a national plan and think about shared ownership and other models rather than treat ownership as the only model (Rachel Fisher)
  • Tackle the ‘manufactured problem’ that the planning system forces us to live on 10 per cent of the land area of England and inflates the prices of homes and land (Paul Cheshire)
  • Tackle the way we provide houses and the politics that means ‘all we’re doing is making the 65 per cent [who own] richer and the 35 per cent poorer’ (Wayne Hemingway).

Some of these answers have more going for them than others. All of them addressed the question posed in the debate. However, none of them came close to tackling the issues raised by the two people from the audience.

Even before the programme (recorded on Monday) was broadcast last night, Holly Baxter had expressed her bitter disappointment with the answers on The Guardian’s website:

‘The fact that such a distinguished panel were hopelessly out of touch with the reality of housing left me deflated. I was expecting to hear practical solutions to the housing crisis, and a drive to burst the bubble. Instead, excessive pandering to landlords and an insistence that my experience was anomalous seemed to dominate. But the fact remains that my experience is the norm for people my age.

‘The only person who did speak passionately and sensibly about the issue was the designer Wayne Hemingway. He mentioned the psychological benefits of being able to decorate your home, of being able to choose your own furnishings, of choosing the other people you live with. It was the only acknowledgement I heard all night that the statistics about my generation had human faces behind them.’

The problem lay, I think, less with the panel than the premise of the programme: the assumption that increasing housing supply is the only solution to the crisis. The crisis certainly won’t be solved without increasing supply - and that requires urgent action now - but it will only have an effect over the long term. It will take at least until the end of the decade to get to 250,000 additional homes per year and it could take at least another decade of building at that rate to have an impact on prices.

Even if we can achieve that – a big if given the politics involved - remember that this was only the level that the Barker report said would bring house price increases down to the European average, not actually reduce them and that after 10 years of under-provision we need even more homes now.

The panel had some good ideas, especially from Rachel Fisher and Wayne Hemingway, and a real challenge to the current consensus from Paul Cheshire, but they had little to offer people already experiencing the worst of the housing crisis right now.

And given the narrow framing of the question there was little sense that there might just be other causes of the crisis – the affordability question, the distribution of the homes we already have, housing as an investment market, for example – that require other solutions. The failure of our political class on housing is much more profound than the question made out. No wonder it was met with silence. 

Dead air

Thu, 12 Jun 2014

There was a telling moment at the end of last night’s Radio 4 debate on housing: the sound of complete silence from the audience.

The dead air came in response to a question from presenter Mark Easton asking people at the debate at the London School of Economics (LSE) how many of them think our political leaders are doing their best to solve the housing crisis.

But I am not sure if what sounded like mostly a young audience was tremendously impressed by the answers from the panel either and that may have been down to the way the question was framed in Housing: Where Will We All Live?

The premise was: It’s been identified as the single biggest threat to the British economy: we are simply not building enough homes.’ The debate about ‘why the problem has developed and how best to fix it’ featured deputy London mayor Richard Blakeway, John Stewart of the Home Builders Federation, Rachel Fisher of the National Housing Federation, Paul Cheshire of the LSE and designer Wayne Hemingway.

But the programme began with two members of the audience describing their housing problems. Holly Baxter had moved from a place condemned as uninhabitable to a friend’s airing cupboard to renting a shared house with four other people, all while working full-time. ‘I can’t imagine that ever ending,’ she said. ‘I can’t even imagine renting a two-bed flat.’

Laura McGuiness is a management consultant with a partner also working in the City who have been saving for a deposit for five years. She described being continually outbid by buy to let investors and overseas cash buyers. ‘The homes we bid on all went for £70,000 over the asking price,’ she said. ‘Prices are going up at £10,000 a month.’

The panel were then asked to name their solutions:

  • Employer support for rental deposits and more shared ownership (Richard Blakeway)
  • Reform planning so housebuilders can deliver 75 per cent of the homes we need (John Stewart)
  • Link economic development, job creation and housebuilding with a national plan and think about shared ownership and other models rather than treat ownership as the only model (Rachel Fisher)
  • Tackle the ‘manufactured problem’ that the planning system forces us to live on 10 per cent of the land area of England and inflates the prices of homes and land (Paul Cheshire)
  • Tackle the way we provide houses and the politics that means ‘all we’re doing is making the 65 per cent [who own] richer and the 35 per cent poorer’ (Wayne Hemingway).

Some of these answers have more going for them than others. All of them addressed the question posed in the debate. However, none of them came close to tackling the issues raised by the two people from the audience.

Even before the programme (recorded on Monday) was broadcast last night, Holly Baxter had expressed her bitter disappointment with the answers on The Guardian’s website:

‘The fact that such a distinguished panel were hopelessly out of touch with the reality of housing left me deflated. I was expecting to hear practical solutions to the housing crisis, and a drive to burst the bubble. Instead, excessive pandering to landlords and an insistence that my experience was anomalous seemed to dominate. But the fact remains that my experience is the norm for people my age.

‘The only person who did speak passionately and sensibly about the issue was the designer Wayne Hemingway. He mentioned the psychological benefits of being able to decorate your home, of being able to choose your own furnishings, of choosing the other people you live with. It was the only acknowledgement I heard all night that the statistics about my generation had human faces behind them.’

The problem lay, I think, less with the panel than the premise of the programme: the assumption that increasing housing supply is the only solution to the crisis. The crisis certainly won’t be solved without increasing supply - and that requires urgent action now - but it will only have an effect over the long term. It will take at least until the end of the decade to get to 250,000 additional homes per year and it could take at least another decade of building at that rate to have an impact on prices.

Even if we can achieve that – a big if given the politics involved - remember that this was only the level that the Barker report said would bring house price increases down to the European average, not actually reduce them and that after 10 years of under-provision we need even more homes now.

The panel had some good ideas, especially from Rachel Fisher and Wayne Hemingway, and a real challenge to the current consensus from Paul Cheshire, but they had little to offer people already experiencing the worst of the housing crisis right now.

And given the narrow framing of the question there was little sense that there might just be other causes of the crisis – the affordability question, the distribution of the homes we already have, housing as an investment market, for example – that require other solutions. The failure of our political class on housing is much more profound than the question made out. No wonder it was met with silence. 

Gardeners’ question time

Tue, 10 Jun 2014

Just about everyone agrees that we need to build new garden cities – but that’s the easy bit. What comes next?

I’ve just been looking at the five entries shortlisted last week for the Wolfson Economics Prize. There were 274 other entries, which may be a product of the £250,000 on offer to the winner but also reflects an idea whose time has come (again). There now seems to be a remarkable acceptance right across the political spectrum that garden cities are an important part of the solution to the housing crisis (even though the prize itself is put up by a Conservative peer and administered by Policy Exchange).

eh

But what is a garden city? Should we build new Letchworths or Welwyns in a 21st century fulfilment of Ebenezer Howard’s vision pictured above? Is it a vaguer commitment to sustainable development? Or it is more of a marketing term and a signal of what it is not for Conservatives (a new town or, even worse, an eco-town)?

For the moment at least the third meaning seems prominent. An opinion poll commissioned by the Wolfson Economics Prize found that a remarkable 74 per cent of people think garden cities are a good idea. Even more remarkably 79 per cent of over-65s and 80 per cent of Conservative voters agreed. Lord Wolfson himself has urged his party to ignore opposition to new homes from ‘a very vocal majority’. Chris Walker of Policy Exchange argues that garden cities could be a ‘game changer’ in winning local support. On the Today programme this morning though Nick Clegg lamented the time it had taken him to get Tory support.

Looking through the entries, I was struck by the quality and breadth of ideas on offer (an entry from authors including planning gurus Peter Hall and David Lock and the former chief planner of innovative Freiburg did not even make the shortlist). However, while there was agreement on some issues there was complete disagreement on others. Here are some themes I spotted:

Garden cities can mean very different things. As Barton Willmore points out in its entry, Ebenezer Howard’s original utopian vision was attacked by Jane Jacobs as ‘towns planned by the few for the imagined lifestyles of the many’. It argues that:

‘Looking to the existing Garden Cities, the likes of the TCPA continue to promote large-scale, comprehensive masterplanning. But the places we love and cherish as part of our heritage almost all developed organically, built by a host of players over generations with a masterplan rarely in sight.’

And do they need to be standalone communities at all? Urbed’s entry calls for the creation of a ‘garden city’ of almost 400,000 people by doubling the size of an existing city. It argues:

‘Through this debate we have come to the fundamental conclusion that it is probably impossible to create a Garden City of any scale from scratch in the current economic climate.’

It’s all about the land. Almost all of the entries rely on land value capture and long-term investment and some form of development corporation model. As the entry from Wei Yang & Partners puts it:

‘What distinguishes a garden city from other forms of development is its approach to land value capture for the benefit of the community, community ownership of land and long term stewardship of assets.’

The uplift in the land value from development can therefore be used to fund the infrastructure rather than to line the pockets of landowners. But how much should existing landowners get? Many of the entries talk of ‘patient investors’, landowners willing to forgo a short-term cash receipt for a long-term equity share in the new community. Where the land is bought, all seem to agree on existing use vale plus a premium, but this ranges from ‘slightly enhanced values’ to 20 per cent to 20 times the agricultural value in the different entries.

Urbed’s entry argues that existing use value plus compensation is ‘not seen as politically acceptable’ to the coalition and proposes instead a model based on the great estates that developed London in the 18th and 19th century. ‘The key to their success was the retention of the freehold and the incremental development of the estate to benefit from the increase in value over time rather than taking a capital sum at the outset.’

And the planning. New communities also have to make it through planning and that is much easier said than done. Derwenthorpe took ten years and permission for Owenstown, the co-operative new town proposed in Scotland, was refused in April. The eco towns programme stalled in a series of local rows and David Lock fears garden cities could go the same way unless we use the New Towns Act.

Learning from history. The lessons offered by the new towns seemed to be forgotten under the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments. In times of austerity, realisation has dawned again that Letchworth received no public subsidy and that the new towns repaid their initial public loans many times over.

However, is some of our politics still lagging behind? In its entry, Wei Yang & Partners surveys the history of garden cities, new towns, new settlements and eco towns and concludes:

‘The logical response would be to propose a national plan, the reinstatement of regional bodies charged with plan-making and the return of the new town development corporations to ensure delivery. We believe that this is politically unacceptable: the localism agenda, now embraced by all political parties, has raised expectations on the part of local communities for engagement and a return to central control would be politically unacceptable. Any new initiative must engender the support, or tacit acceptance, of local communities.’

Garden cities are a very long-term solution to the housing crisis. New home completions in Milton Keynes averaged 5,000 a year from 1967 and 1991, then fell to about half that number. Urbed envisages a build rate of 2,800 homes a year for its imaginary city of Uxcester but it also points out that we need to build the equivalent of a Milton Keynes every year in England.

Don’t reply on big housebuilders. Support from small builders and self-builders is a key element of many of the entries. Urbed calls for balanced incremental development with opportunities for them, pointing out that 60 per cent of new homes in France and Italy are built like this and highlighting the way that custom build was pioneered at Almere in Holland. Shelter argues for ‘a town that built itself’ with self-builders making up a significant proportion of the early movers.

Who will live in the new communities? Kathleen Kelly of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation makes the crucial points that the homes need to be both affordable and available to people of all ages.

One entry that did not make the shortlist (by Martin Hewes) argues that older/retired people should form the core pioneer population for the new garden city. Could it therefore also be a mechanism for encouraging under-occupying empty nesters to downsize and free up larger homes in existing communities.

In a report last week, the Town and Country Planning Association argued that 30 per cent of homes should be for social rent and another 30 per cent for shared equity and discounted ownership.

Most of the entries talk about tenure diversity but from what I can see Shelter’s is the only shortlisted entry that breaks it down. Its garden city would have 30 per cent social rent and 7.5 per cent shared ownership as well as market homes sold at a discount.

Follow the train lines. Investment in HS2, Crossrail and East-West Rail (between Oxford and Cambridge) all create opportunities for new communities with good transport links that don’t rely on cars. Wei Yang & Partners identifies an arc from Southampton to Felixstowe and argues that the single location with the greatest potential is at the intersection of HS2 and East-West Rail around Bicester. The idea of a building a new town around an HS2 station midway between London and Birmingham seems so obvious that I once tweeted it myself. I was told that the big problem is that trains need around 100 miles between stations to be high speed rather than spend all their time accelerating and breaking.

Will public support evaporate when a specific location is suggested? Shelter’s entry is the only one to name a specific location: the Hoo Peninsula in north Kent. The location has much going for it, not least the lack of neighbours on three sides and the fact that 90 per cent of the land has a single owner (the Church of England). However, it also means that Shelter has to grapple with issues like flooding and transport in a much more detailed way than the other entries. And that’s before you get to the nightingales issue.

The 74 per cent public approval in the Wolfson poll seems remarkable, even though nimbyism is slowly losing its grip over public opinion. But how much of that 74 per is made up of people who think garden cities mean new homes will be built somewhere other than in their back yard?

To read more about garden cities click here.

Gardeners’ question time

Tue, 10 Jun 2014

Just about everyone agrees that we need to build new garden cities – but that’s the easy bit. What comes next?

I’ve just been looking at the five entries shortlisted last week for the Wolfson Economics Prize. There were 274 other entries, which may be a product of the £250,000 on offer to the winner but also reflects an idea whose time has come (again). There now seems to be a remarkable acceptance right across the political spectrum that garden cities are an important part of the solution to the housing crisis (even though the prize itself is put up by a Conservative peer and administered by Policy Exchange).

eh

But what is a garden city? Should we build new Letchworths or Welwyns in a 21st century fulfilment of Ebenezer Howard’s vision pictured above? Is it a vaguer commitment to sustainable development? Or it is more of a marketing term and a signal of what it is not for Conservatives (a new town or, even worse, an eco-town)?

For the moment at least the third meaning seems prominent. An opinion poll commissioned by the Wolfson Economics Prize found that a remarkable 74 per cent of people think garden cities are a good idea. Even more remarkably 79 per cent of over-65s and 80 per cent of Conservative voters agreed. Lord Wolfson himself has urged his party to ignore opposition to new homes from ‘a very vocal majority’. Chris Walker of Policy Exchange argues that garden cities could be a ‘game changer’ in winning local support. On the Today programme this morning though Nick Clegg lamented the time it had taken him to get Tory support.

Looking through the entries, I was struck by the quality and breadth of ideas on offer (an entry from authors including planning gurus Peter Hall and David Lock and the former chief planner of innovative Freiburg did not even make the shortlist). However, while there was agreement on some issues there was complete disagreement on others. Here are some themes I spotted:

Garden cities can mean very different things. As Barton Willmore points out in its entry, Ebenezer Howard’s original utopian vision was attacked by Jane Jacobs as ‘towns planned by the few for the imagined lifestyles of the many’. It argues that:

‘Looking to the existing Garden Cities, the likes of the TCPA continue to promote large-scale, comprehensive masterplanning. But the places we love and cherish as part of our heritage almost all developed organically, built by a host of players over generations with a masterplan rarely in sight.’

And do they need to be standalone communities at all? Urbed’s entry calls for the creation of a ‘garden city’ of almost 400,000 people by doubling the size of an existing city. It argues:

‘Through this debate we have come to the fundamental conclusion that it is probably impossible to create a Garden City of any scale from scratch in the current economic climate.’

It’s all about the land. Almost all of the entries rely on land value capture and long-term investment and some form of development corporation model. As the entry from Wei Yang & Partners puts it:

‘What distinguishes a garden city from other forms of development is its approach to land value capture for the benefit of the community, community ownership of land and long term stewardship of assets.’

The uplift in the land value from development can therefore be used to fund the infrastructure rather than to line the pockets of landowners. But how much should existing landowners get? Many of the entries talk of ‘patient investors’, landowners willing to forgo a short-term cash receipt for a long-term equity share in the new community. Where the land is bought, all seem to agree on existing use vale plus a premium, but this ranges from ‘slightly enhanced values’ to 20 per cent to 20 times the agricultural value in the different entries.

Urbed’s entry argues that existing use value plus compensation is ‘not seen as politically acceptable’ to the coalition and proposes instead a model based on the great estates that developed London in the 18th and 19th century. ‘The key to their success was the retention of the freehold and the incremental development of the estate to benefit from the increase in value over time rather than taking a capital sum at the outset.’

And the planning. New communities also have to make it through planning and that is much easier said than done. Derwenthorpe took ten years and permission for Owenstown, the co-operative new town proposed in Scotland, was refused in April. The eco towns programme stalled in a series of local rows and David Lock fears garden cities could go the same way unless we use the New Towns Act.

Learning from history. The lessons offered by the new towns seemed to be forgotten under the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments. In times of austerity, realisation has dawned again that Letchworth received no public subsidy and that the new towns repaid their initial public loans many times over.

However, is some of our politics still lagging behind? In its entry, Wei Yang & Partners surveys the history of garden cities, new towns, new settlements and eco towns and concludes:

‘The logical response would be to propose a national plan, the reinstatement of regional bodies charged with plan-making and the return of the new town development corporations to ensure delivery. We believe that this is politically unacceptable: the localism agenda, now embraced by all political parties, has raised expectations on the part of local communities for engagement and a return to central control would be politically unacceptable. Any new initiative must engender the support, or tacit acceptance, of local communities.’

Garden cities are a very long-term solution to the housing crisis. New home completions in Milton Keynes averaged 5,000 a year from 1967 and 1991, then fell to about half that number. Urbed envisages a build rate of 2,800 homes a year for its imaginary city of Uxcester but it also points out that we need to build the equivalent of a Milton Keynes every year in England.

Don’t reply on big housebuilders. Support from small builders and self-builders is a key element of many of the entries. Urbed calls for balanced incremental development with opportunities for them, pointing out that 60 per cent of new homes in France and Italy are built like this and highlighting the way that custom build was pioneered at Almere in Holland. Shelter argues for ‘a town that built itself’ with self-builders making up a significant proportion of the early movers.

Who will live in the new communities? Kathleen Kelly of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation makes the crucial points that the homes need to be both affordable and available to people of all ages.

One entry that did not make the shortlist (by Martin Hewes) argues that older/retired people should form the core pioneer population for the new garden city. Could it therefore also be a mechanism for encouraging under-occupying empty nesters to downsize and free up larger homes in existing communities.

In a report last week, the Town and Country Planning Association argued that 30 per cent of homes should be for social rent and another 30 per cent for shared equity and discounted ownership.

Most of the entries talk about tenure diversity but from what I can see Shelter’s is the only shortlisted entry that breaks it down. Its garden city would have 30 per cent social rent and 7.5 per cent shared ownership as well as market homes sold at a discount.

Follow the train lines. Investment in HS2, Crossrail and East-West Rail (between Oxford and Cambridge) all create opportunities for new communities with good transport links that don’t rely on cars. Wei Yang & Partners identifies an arc from Southampton to Felixstowe and argues that the single location with the greatest potential is at the intersection of HS2 and East-West Rail around Bicester. The idea of a building a new town around an HS2 station midway between London and Birmingham seems so obvious that I once tweeted it myself. I was told that the big problem is that trains need around 100 miles between stations to be high speed rather than spend all their time accelerating and breaking.

Will public support evaporate when a specific location is suggested? Shelter’s entry is the only one to name a specific location: the Hoo Peninsula in north Kent. The location has much going for it, not least the lack of neighbours on three sides and the fact that 90 per cent of the land has a single owner (the Church of England). However, it also means that Shelter has to grapple with issues like flooding and transport in a much more detailed way than the other entries. And that’s before you get to the nightingales issue.

The 74 per cent public approval in the Wolfson poll seems remarkable, even though nimbyism is slowly losing its grip over public opinion. But how much of that 74 per is made up of people who think garden cities mean new homes will be built somewhere other than in their back yard?

To read more about garden cities click here.

Rough justice

Mon, 9 Jun 2014

Why did that picture of anti-homeless spikes get such prominence on Twitter and in the media over the weekend?

Here is the tweet from Anglican priest Sally Hitchiner that sparked an angry wave of Twitter reaction and follow-up stories in the national press.

Sally

 

What she called studs, but look to many other people like spikes, do indeed send a very negative message. Many people have noted the resemblance to anti-pigeon measures on London buildings. And Katharine Sacks-Jones of Crisis points out that there are just one part of a rough tale for rough sleepers. ‘We will never end homelessness with studs in the pavement - only by tackling the root causes,’ she says.

Yet for all those powerful arguments, anti-homeless urban design is sadly not new or unusual. There have been previous furores in Britain, notably involving Tesco, and there are much worse examples in other cities around the world.

Take a quick look at these anti-homeless barriers beneath an overpass in Chicago or these benches and sculptures in parks and shopping malls in Tokyo (the penguins and dolphins are not as innocent as they seem) and you’ll see what I mean.

Above all, take a few minutes to watch this amazing short video about anti-homeless design in Paris to see the lengths to which companies and the authorities will go to stop anyone sleeping on their benches or window sills or doorways:





The title of the film, The Fakir’s Rest, is a reference to exactly the same sort of spikes that feature at 118 Southwark Bridge Road.

So there must be more going on here than just the appearance of the spikes, the ubiquity of social media and Twitter’s tendency to magnify outrage.

Perhaps it’s because the very word reaches back to a deeper history of homelessness, when spikes were not sharp metal objects concreted into a doorway but the nickname for the vast dormitories for homeless men provided by local authorities. ‘The Spike’ was the title of George Orwell’s first published work in the 1930s and later became a key part of Down and Out in Paris and London. Spikes became the huge DHSS resettlement units that did not close down until more than 50 years later.

However, those spikes in a residential doorway have slightly different connotations in the contemporary world of homelessness in London and of No Second Night Out. The issues are highlighted in the nuanced reaction from Howard Sinclair of St Mungos Broadway to the furore:

‘Each year our teams, in Southwark and elsewhere, help thousands of people off the streets. Part of their role is to prevent people adopting a street lifestyle which, on occasions, means adapting the physical environment to prevent people sleeping rough in a particular location on a regular basis. These “studs” appear a rather brutal way of doing just that. However to undertake such measures without providing the necessary assistance to people who sleep rough is wrong - the aim is to help people move in, not just move on.’

The complex issues are also eloquently explained in this blog by a former outreach worker.

Yet for all that, the anti-homeless spikes still seem to be a symbol of something more, which I think is why they took off on Twitter and in the media.

Could it be that their presence in a residential doorway plays into wider narratives about the housing crisis in London and the proliferation of luxury flats? Or that they tap into our long history of vagrancy and the law and the Vagrancy Act?

Or could it be what the spikes say about our values as a society: the suspicion that what we care about is not so much homelessness itself as the public appearance of homelessness? 

Rough justice

Mon, 9 Jun 2014

Why did that picture of anti-homeless spikes get such prominence on Twitter and in the media over the weekend?

Here is the tweet from Anglican priest Sally Hitchiner that sparked an angry wave of Twitter reaction and follow-up stories in the national press.

Sally

 

What she called studs, but look to many other people like spikes, do indeed send a very negative message. Many people have noted the resemblance to anti-pigeon measures on London buildings. And Katharine Sacks-Jones of Crisis points out that there are just one part of a rough tale for rough sleepers. ‘We will never end homelessness with studs in the pavement - only by tackling the root causes,’ she says.

Yet for all those powerful arguments, anti-homeless urban design is sadly not new or unusual. There have been previous furores in Britain, notably involving Tesco, and there are much worse examples in other cities around the world.

Take a quick look at these anti-homeless barriers beneath an overpass in Chicago or these benches and sculptures in parks and shopping malls in Tokyo (the penguins and dolphins are not as innocent as they seem) and you’ll see what I mean.

Above all, take a few minutes to watch this amazing short video about anti-homeless design in Paris to see the lengths to which companies and the authorities will go to stop anyone sleeping on their benches or window sills or doorways:





The title of the film, The Fakir’s Rest, is a reference to exactly the same sort of spikes that feature at 118 Southwark Bridge Road.

So there must be more going on here than just the appearance of the spikes, the ubiquity of social media and Twitter’s tendency to magnify outrage.

Perhaps it’s because the very word reaches back to a deeper history of homelessness, when spikes were not sharp metal objects concreted into a doorway but the nickname for the vast dormitories for homeless men provided by local authorities. ‘The Spike’ was the title of George Orwell’s first published work in the 1930s and later became a key part of Down and Out in Paris and London. Spikes became the huge DHSS resettlement units that did not close down until more than 50 years later.

However, those spikes in a residential doorway have slightly different connotations in the contemporary world of homelessness in London and of No Second Night Out. The issues are highlighted in the nuanced reaction from Howard Sinclair of St Mungos Broadway to the furore:

‘Each year our teams, in Southwark and elsewhere, help thousands of people off the streets. Part of their role is to prevent people adopting a street lifestyle which, on occasions, means adapting the physical environment to prevent people sleeping rough in a particular location on a regular basis. These “studs” appear a rather brutal way of doing just that. However to undertake such measures without providing the necessary assistance to people who sleep rough is wrong - the aim is to help people move in, not just move on.’

The complex issues are also eloquently explained in this blog by a former outreach worker.

Yet for all that, the anti-homeless spikes still seem to be a symbol of something more, which I think is why they took off on Twitter and in the media.

Could it be that their presence in a residential doorway plays into wider narratives about the housing crisis in London and the proliferation of luxury flats? Or that they tap into our long history of vagrancy and the law and the Vagrancy Act?

Or could it be what the spikes say about our values as a society: the suspicion that what we care about is not so much homelessness itself as the public appearance of homelessness? 

Zero sums

Wed, 4 Jun 2014

Ministers once promised that Britain would lead the world on zero carbon homes. Do we now just lead the world in hot air?

The 2016 target for all new homes to be zero carbon seemed genuinely revolutionary when Gordon Brown and housing minister Yvette Cooper first announced it in 2006. Questions about practicalities and costs were brushed aside as they argued that the target would spark the mass adoption of new technologies, drive down costs and even open up vast new export markets for British firms. As Cooper put it at the time:

‘In 10 years, all new homes should be built at a zero carbon rating. No other country has set that sort of timetable or ambition but I believe that we need to do it to drive the environmental technologies of the future and ensure that we are building the homes of the future.’

Eight years, and six housing ministers, later and today’s Queen’s Speech promises that ‘legislation will allow for the creation of an allowable solutions scheme to enable all new homes to be built to a zero carbon standard’.  So far, so good. The Liberal Democrats even reached back to the days of Brown and Cooper with their claim on Monday of ‘Britain to lead world on zero carbon homes’.

In truth of course, the homes will about as ‘zero carbon’ as the speech is the Queen’s own work. Back in 2006, zero meant zero: 100 per cent of all carbon emissions right down to the electricity used to boil the kettle would be reduced on site.

Over time though the definition has been watered down. The nature of the emissions included has been steadily relaxed and more and more of the emissions reduction has been left to ‘allowable solutions’ rather than improvements in the energy performance of the building and on-site renewable energy generation. See Keith Cooper’s feature in Inside Housing last year for some of the detail.

The government will complete this process. The Queen’s Speech itself says that: ‘Legislation will allow for the creation of an allowable solutions scheme to enable all new homes to be built to a zero carbon standard.’

A more detailed briefing says that with the Infrastructure Bill the government remains committed to the zero carbon standard for new homes from 2016 ‘but it is not always technically feasible or cost-effective for house builders to mitigate all emissions on-site’.

The government will set a ‘minimum energy performance standard’ and the document goes on:

‘The remainder of the zero carbon target can be met through cost effective off-site carbon abatement measures – known as “allowable solutions”. These provide an optional, cost-effective and flexible means for house builders to meet the zero carbon homes standard, as an alternative to increased on-site energy efficiency measures or renewable energy (such as solar panels).’

The zero carbon home standard will be set at level 5 of the Code for Sustainable Homes but legislation will allow for developers to build to level 4 as long as they offset through allowable solutions to achieve level 5.

I’ll leave the technical details of this off-site offset to others with more expertise while noting that the Code itself is being scrapped as ‘red tape’. It’s possible to see the changes as yet another concession to the big housebuilders, again without any quid pro quo from them, or as the pragmatic implementation of the original bold aim – or perhaps as both. Even the boldest original version of zero carbon did nothing about the far greater quantity of emissions from existing homes but it’s clear that ‘zero carbon’ new homes means something very different now.

For a measured reaction, see this from Paul King of the UK Green Building Council, a prominent supporter of zero carbon homes:

‘The policy of allowing developers to pay into a fund to offset emissions they cannot reduce is a sound idea in principle, despite its lukewarm reception this week. If implemented properly, this could lead to investment in local, community energy schemes and drive innovation in clean technology. On the other hand, a weak scheme, that generates little investment that has no connection to the housebuilding which is taking place, would be a deeply disappointing outcome.’

However, that is not all the briefing document has to say on zero carbon. It goes on:

‘Small sites, which are most commonly developed by small scale house builders, will be exempt. The definition of a small site will be consulted on shortlfy, and set out in regulation.’

This is a crucial issue, with some reports suggesting that the definition of a ‘small site’ will be fewer than 50 homes. Paul King warns that the Lib Dem side of the coalition is ‘at risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by letting small developments – a large chunk of the housebuilding market - off the hook’.

A much more hostile reaction came from the Sustainable Energy Association, which says today’s announcement ‘leaves zero carbon homes policy in tatters’ and will lock in higher energy bills for decades. It claims the new rules mean that ‘zero carbon’ will only apply to 30 per cent of new homes (70 per cent are in small developments, it says) and will require only a 44 per cent reduction in carbon emissions on 2006 standards.

And before anyone comes away with the idea that the Infrastructure Bill is a green bill, other elements will ‘guarantee long-term investment in the road network’ and ‘support the development of gas and oil from shale and geothermal energy by clarifying and streamlining the underground access regime’. We may be building ‘zero’ carbon new homes but we seem equally intent on fracking maximum carbon underneath them.

There are clearly a range of different environmental, economic and practical considerations that have to be balanced against each other here alongside the politics of eye-catching pledges and maneuvering to meet them and the question of whether the original aim was ever achievable.

However, I wonder what the late and much-missed Mel Starrs would have made of the latest changes.  Here’s a blog she wrote in 2011 on ‘the Zero Carbon Homes debacle’ pleading for the phrase to be ditched:

‘If we need to, we can still call 2016 targets “net zero” or more accurately “carbon neutral”, but please can we have the phrase “zero carbon” back so we can use it again for exemplar buildings?’

As it stands, ‘zero carbon’ homes remind me of nothing so much as that other triumph of political sleight of hand: ‘affordable’ homes. 

Zero sums

Wed, 4 Jun 2014

Ministers once promised that Britain would lead the world on zero carbon homes. Do we now just lead the world in hot air?

The 2016 target for all new homes to be zero carbon seemed genuinely revolutionary when Gordon Brown and housing minister Yvette Cooper first announced it in 2006. Questions about practicalities and costs were brushed aside as they argued that the target would spark the mass adoption of new technologies, drive down costs and even open up vast new export markets for British firms. As Cooper put it at the time:

‘In 10 years, all new homes should be built at a zero carbon rating. No other country has set that sort of timetable or ambition but I believe that we need to do it to drive the environmental technologies of the future and ensure that we are building the homes of the future.’

Eight years, and six housing ministers, later and today’s Queen’s Speech promises that ‘legislation will allow for the creation of an allowable solutions scheme to enable all new homes to be built to a zero carbon standard’.  So far, so good. The Liberal Democrats even reached back to the days of Brown and Cooper with their claim on Monday of ‘Britain to lead world on zero carbon homes’.

In truth of course, the homes will about as ‘zero carbon’ as the speech is the Queen’s own work. Back in 2006, zero meant zero: 100 per cent of all carbon emissions right down to the electricity used to boil the kettle would be reduced on site.

Over time though the definition has been watered down. The nature of the emissions included has been steadily relaxed and more and more of the emissions reduction has been left to ‘allowable solutions’ rather than improvements in the energy performance of the building and on-site renewable energy generation. See Keith Cooper’s feature in Inside Housing last year for some of the detail.

The government will complete this process. The Queen’s Speech itself says that: ‘Legislation will allow for the creation of an allowable solutions scheme to enable all new homes to be built to a zero carbon standard.’

A more detailed briefing says that with the Infrastructure Bill the government remains committed to the zero carbon standard for new homes from 2016 ‘but it is not always technically feasible or cost-effective for house builders to mitigate all emissions on-site’.

The government will set a ‘minimum energy performance standard’ and the document goes on:

‘The remainder of the zero carbon target can be met through cost effective off-site carbon abatement measures – known as “allowable solutions”. These provide an optional, cost-effective and flexible means for house builders to meet the zero carbon homes standard, as an alternative to increased on-site energy efficiency measures or renewable energy (such as solar panels).’

The zero carbon home standard will be set at level 5 of the Code for Sustainable Homes but legislation will allow for developers to build to level 4 as long as they offset through allowable solutions to achieve level 5.

I’ll leave the technical details of this off-site offset to others with more expertise while noting that the Code itself is being scrapped as ‘red tape’. It’s possible to see the changes as yet another concession to the big housebuilders, again without any quid pro quo from them, or as the pragmatic implementation of the original bold aim – or perhaps as both. Even the boldest original version of zero carbon did nothing about the far greater quantity of emissions from existing homes but it’s clear that ‘zero carbon’ new homes means something very different now.

For a measured reaction, see this from Paul King of the UK Green Building Council, a prominent supporter of zero carbon homes:

‘The policy of allowing developers to pay into a fund to offset emissions they cannot reduce is a sound idea in principle, despite its lukewarm reception this week. If implemented properly, this could lead to investment in local, community energy schemes and drive innovation in clean technology. On the other hand, a weak scheme, that generates little investment that has no connection to the housebuilding which is taking place, would be a deeply disappointing outcome.’

However, that is not all the briefing document has to say on zero carbon. It goes on:

‘Small sites, which are most commonly developed by small scale house builders, will be exempt. The definition of a small site will be consulted on shortlfy, and set out in regulation.’

This is a crucial issue, with some reports suggesting that the definition of a ‘small site’ will be fewer than 50 homes. Paul King warns that the Lib Dem side of the coalition is ‘at risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory by letting small developments – a large chunk of the housebuilding market - off the hook’.

A much more hostile reaction came from the Sustainable Energy Association, which says today’s announcement ‘leaves zero carbon homes policy in tatters’ and will lock in higher energy bills for decades. It claims the new rules mean that ‘zero carbon’ will only apply to 30 per cent of new homes (70 per cent are in small developments, it says) and will require only a 44 per cent reduction in carbon emissions on 2006 standards.

And before anyone comes away with the idea that the Infrastructure Bill is a green bill, other elements will ‘guarantee long-term investment in the road network’ and ‘support the development of gas and oil from shale and geothermal energy by clarifying and streamlining the underground access regime’. We may be building ‘zero’ carbon new homes but we seem equally intent on fracking maximum carbon underneath them.

There are clearly a range of different environmental, economic and practical considerations that have to be balanced against each other here alongside the politics of eye-catching pledges and maneuvering to meet them and the question of whether the original aim was ever achievable.

However, I wonder what the late and much-missed Mel Starrs would have made of the latest changes.  Here’s a blog she wrote in 2011 on ‘the Zero Carbon Homes debacle’ pleading for the phrase to be ditched:

‘If we need to, we can still call 2016 targets “net zero” or more accurately “carbon neutral”, but please can we have the phrase “zero carbon” back so we can use it again for exemplar buildings?’

As it stands, ‘zero carbon’ homes remind me of nothing so much as that other triumph of political sleight of hand: ‘affordable’ homes. 

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