RAGging the Coalition on housing policy

So far this week we’ve seen plenty of activity around housing policy. Yesterday we had the launch of the Intergenerational Foundation report on private sector underoccupation. This was revealingly juxtaposed with the debate in the House of Lords on the restrictions to housing benefit for underoccupying tenants in the social rented sector. That is a debate worthy of a separate post. Perhaps the most significant development this week is the launch of edition 1 of The Housing Report, jointly compiled by CIH, NHF and Shelter. This isn’t just any old housing report. Oh no, this is The Housing Report. It is an impressive work of collaboration by organisations spanning diverse perspectives within the housing policy community.

The idea is a good one. Government makes all sorts of statements about its policy aspirations and achievements. Scrutiny of those claims is facilitated by piecing together the available evidence in order to assess progress. The Housing Report does that by applying a traffic light rating to ten areas of housing policy. The aim is to return to the issues during the life of the Parliament to review the assessment.

Such a document is about holding Government to account. But, of course, if you want Government to keep talking to you, you can’t be too strident in your criticism. If you step too far over the line you’ll be banished to the outer darkness – Government will feel under no obligation to listen. So documents of this type have to tread an interesting diplomatic line.

Given that it is framed diplomatically, it is all the more striking that  the report’s overall assessment of the Coalition’s record on housing is hardly overwhelming.

Of the ten areas assessed the Government is awarded two green lights (things are progressing), three amber lights (things are pretty much stationary), and four red lights (things are getting worse). On one policy issue – overcrowding – the Government has made noises about what it wants to do but there are no data to say what’s happening. The report observes that “it is too early to judge whether Government policies on tenure, allocations and homelessness will have the desired effect”. A sterner critic might add that even if they have the desired effect they may still do little to reduce overcrowding.

By contextualising contemporary developments the report does a good job of allowing the reader to evaluate some high profile policy claims. Perhaps this is most evident on housing supply. One of the oft-repeated claims over the summer has been that the government’s Affordable Rent scheme was a roaring success because Registered Providers submitted bids for 170,000 units rather than the plan of 150,000 units to 2015. The report notes not only that 67,000 of those units were committed under the previous administration but also that this programme of activity falls a long way short of the 97,000 units of affordable housing per year (hence 388,000 to 2015) that, back in 2009, Shelter estimated were required. Layer on top of that the fact that overall housing starts have barely recovered from the low point of 2008Q3 and it is not surprising that housing supply attracts a red light overall.

The Coalition is also awarded red lights on help with housing costs, homelessness and affordability in the private rented sector. These are all areas indicating high levels of housing stress – of central importance in understanding what’s happening in the housing market. These assessments should not, perhaps, come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to what is happening in the housing market. The indicators in all these areas are deteriorating, and some of the deterioration is policy-induced.

The Coalition picks up an amber light on evictions, repossessions and arrears; homeownership; and planning. The first two seem fair enough. In the first area the indicators are moving in slightly different directions (repossessions up but arrears down) and the situation in homeownership doesn’t really appear to be going anywhere fast. The amber for planning could be argued to be quite charitable. We know that the abolition of Regional Spatial Strategies has reduced the volume of planned new development. The New Homes Bonus, while maybe not a bad idea in principle, is hardly going to counteract this effect on its own. The Government is betting the farm on its new National Planning Policy Framework delivering more new homes. Clearly this is being hotly contested. Is it a NIMBY charter? Or is it a license for developers to concrete over vast swathes of greenfield land? One thing seems reasonably clear, purely as a matter of timing, in terms of delivering homes on the ground the NPPF isn’t going to make much difference to housing supply until 2013 or 2014 at the earliest. The dwelling shortfall will have worsened in the interim.

The two areas in which the Coalition is awarded a green light are empty homes and mobility. A green light for empty homes seems absolutely appropriate. The Government is taking the problem seriously in a way that many commentators have been advocating for years. A green light on mobility in the social sector is also probably fair enough.

But that last green light does raise a question. Are all the issues being traffic lighted of equal significance? Enhancing mobility in the social rented sector will allow adjustment moves and individual households to align their housing consumption with their own requirements and aspirations – and in the process it may improve the overall utilization of the housing stock. This is a good thing. But it isn’t an issue on a scale commensurate with the problems facing housing supply or the crippling and increasing affordability problems in the private rented sector.

Thinking about the report from another angle, do the indicators selected capture all the dimensions across which we might wish to evaluate housing policy? There is nothing about the quality of the housing stock. We’re moving out of Labour’s era of an emphasis upon Decent Homes. We know that quality in the PRS is relatively poor. This is important when the Government is talking about increasing the use of private rented accommodation to discharge homelessness duties. There is nothing about environmental sustainability (or social sustainability for that matter). There is nothing very specific about housing rights and security. The report mentioned these in passing during discussions of mobility and overcrowding. But to frame the issue in this way is to endorse the Coalition’s arguments that, first, a key problem facing the housing system is overgenerous security of tenure in the social rented sector and, second, the solution to problems in the private rented sector does not lie in increasing security of tenure in a way that allows tenants to assert their rights more effectively. It is to downplay the argument that current reforms mean that something important is being lost. This is a position with its fair share of critics.

The issue of security is one that we need to keep hold of. Housing is not like other goods or services. It provides the platform upon which the rest of life is built. The housing system faces challenges to which no one has yet proposed any very effective solutions. At the end of last week ARLA reported that the private rented sector is nearly at capacity. It isn’t entirely clear precisely what that means in economic terms. But there seems little doubt the sector faces excess demand. And in situations of slow market adjustment and persistent excess demand people will be exploited and will face grave insecurity. A recent post at Diary of a benefit scrounger provides a vivid illustration of the negative everyday experiences of a tight housing market.

The Housing Report is a welcome initiative. The weakness of the RAG approach is that it runs the risk of providing an overly simplistic reading of a complex situation. I think the report manages to avoid that. The strength of the RAG approach is that it makes the overall message easier to communicate. And if this assessment of underwhelming progress – which to me feels pretty fair – gets more people engaged with the housing debate then that’s got to be a good thing.

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