Various government consultations point housing policy in different directions, but when it comes to tough decisions, which will win out, asks Jules Birch
From Brexit to just about anything else you care to mention, Boris Johnson is known for wanting to ‘have his cake and eat it’. Why should it be any different for housing?
That was the first thought that sprung to mind reading through a raft of recent government responses to consultations. Much like the social housing green and white papers, they try to face in two different directions at once.
One points towards the more tenure-neutral territory staked out under Theresa May. The other points backwards to the promised land of homeownership staked out by David Cameron, the former prime-minister-turned-PR-man for failed bankers. Both are evident in the outcome of consultations on the new model for shared ownership, changes to the current planning system and First Homes, supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure and use of receipts from Right to Buy sales in the run-up to Easter.
So we get the expansion of permitted development to cover the conversion of most empty commercial buildings, not just offices, into residential. This may mean more ‘units’ but with too few constraints on quality to be regarded as ‘homes’.
Plans for reform of shared ownership include confirmation that landlords will be liable for repairs for the first 10 years on new homes but no acknowledgement that this leaves existing tenant-owners living in devalued assets.
There are plans to give existing as well as new shared owners the statutory right to a lease of 990 rather than 99 years, but no fresh solutions for those left out of government help for fire safety costs or forced to take out £50-a-month loans.
Reductions in the minimum initial stake and staircasing threshold meet commitments previously made by housing secretary Robert Jenrick without any real evidence supporting them.
Changes to the current planning system include a welcome u-turn on a proposal to increase the threshold at which small sites are exempt from affordable housing requirements from 10 homes to up to 50. That could rescue up to 30,000 affordable homes over the next five years.
However, that’s trumped by confirmation of plans to require a minimum of 25% of homes delivered through developer contributions to be First Homes. Mr Jenrick is therefore diverting a sizeable chunk of the funding mechanism that accounts for more than half of affordable homes into his pet project.
On the Right to Buy, local authorities get five years rather than three to use receipts to build new homes and receipts can account for 40 rather than 30% of the total cost. These are improvements to the scarcely credible ‘one-for-one replacement’ pledge made when discounts were increased in 2012.
But that could still leave them forced to sell homes for less than it cost to build them and it does not address the parallel question of ‘like-for-like’ replacements.
Far from responding to concerns raised in the consultation about broadening the definition, the government suggests that ‘affordable’ replacements for social rent homes sold could include not just affordable rent and shared ownership but also (you guessed it) First Homes.
All of which suggests that the loss of social rent homes – 210,000 in England in the past eight years, according to the latest UK Housing Review – will continue even as ministers make rhetorical nods to the tenure.
It’s as though one part of government wants to shift the balance of policy in favour of social and affordable housing, only for another to tilt it back towards homeownership and the free market.
With crucial choices looming as society reopens and the economy moves off life support, which will get the cake and which will be left with the crumbs?
Jules Birch, exclusive columnist, Inside Housing
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