Piecing together the housing policy jigsaw

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 28/12/10]

The Coalition government is seemingly intent upon drowning us in a blizzard of consultation papers, green papers, white papers, and hasty legislation. No doubt there is also a bit of kite flying taking place for good measure. One problem with all this activity is keeping track of overlapping agendas. How do we sum the parts in a way that allows us to get a sense of the likely cumulative impact of change?

One area in which this is particularly acute is housing. Policy which impacts upon housing and the housing market sits with a number of government departments. Housing policy and planning policy are formally the responsibility of Communities and Local Government, while responsibility for housing benefit and the local housing allowance rests with the Department for Work and Pensions. At the same time, responsibility for aspects of housing finance that fundamentally affect access to and affordability of housing – such as mortgage market regulation – lie elsewhere. Housing also crops up in the Department of Health’s (DoH) bailiwick: it gets frequent, though vague, mention among the determinants of well-being in the recent public health white paper. Interestingly, one of the more specific housing initiatives the DoH white paper mentions approvingly is the ‘warm front’ fund, which the Department for Energy and Climate Change has just announced it is freezing (if you’ll pardon the pun).

The early Blair governments adopted a rhetoric of “joined up” policy that acknowledged – in policy discourse, if not always in practice – the need to overcome departmentalism to understand problems in the round. Problems with complex causes and wide ramifications need holistic approaches. Delivering sufficient, affordable and liveable homes is a vital issue that requires such a joined up approach.

The Coalition has not made many public attempts to piece together the policy jigsaw across departments to reveal the picture of the overall thrust of policy towards housing. Whether that is because there is no grand design or because the grand design is not one they are keen to share too publicly is uncertain.

We do, however, have several pieces we can start to put together if we are to understand how the housing market is going to evolve over the coming years under the influence of Coalition policy. We have the social housing reforms set out in the Local Decisions consultation paper, which were subsequently embodied in the Localism Bill. The Localism Bill also carries significant implications for planning policy. The reforms of the Local Housing Allowance in the private rented sector have generated considerable media attention, but arguably much of the debate about maximum levels of support has been a distraction from more serious concerns. There have also been restrictions on the assistance available to distressed owner occupiers, which is causing concern for industry bodies such as the Council of Mortgage Lenders, and significant threats to Supporting People budgets which assist independent living.

Each of these developments raises important questions in its own right. But what happens if we explore more fully the way in which they interconnect with, complement or contradict each other?

We all know that the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution starts by stating that the party seeks “to balance the fundamental values of freedom, equality and community”. This is at the heart of what the party stands for. The challenges in reconciling the tensions inherent in this triad can be formidable. It is fundamentally about the individual and the collective. Housing policy – or, perhaps more accurately, policy that impacts upon housing and housing markets – is an area which throws these issues into sharp relief. And piecing together the jigsaw in order to reflect on the picture that emerges is valuable.

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