Doing something about housing

Modern HousingWhat to do about the housing crisis? It’s a question that, should you have been so inclined, you could have focused on throughout much of yesterday’s proceedings at Liberal Democrat Spring Conference.

A motion on the reform of planning policy was passed, unamended, during the morning’s official business. The motion was particularly critical of the role of the Planning Inspectorate and the Communities Secretary in overriding local democracy and aspirations.

The programme for the conference fringe offered you a near overdose of housing. The lunchtime fringe included a session on social housing jointly organised by CentreForum, The Fabian Society and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. On the – metaphorical – platform were Sir Michael Lyons, Tim Farron, and Kathleen Kelly of JRF. The session was packed.

The early evening fringe offered a session asking where new housing should be built, organised by the Green Liberal Democrats. Mid-evening allowed you to move on to consider private renting, in a session organised by ALDC, before finishing up with a reappearance of Tim Farron among those at a late evening session on Liberal Democrats in Housing – the future of the priced out.

I have to admit I didn’t manage to stay the course. I was feeling a bit too rough and had to have a very early night – not at all appropriate behaviour at conference, I realise, but I couldn’t do much about it.

What points would I draw from the sessions that I attended? [Read more...]

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Rehabilitating social housing

8182240298_f9770a9cbeA substantial essay by James Meek on the housing crisis, entitled Where will we live?, has appeared online today at the London Review of Books. It will appear in the print edition in the New Year. The essay roams widely across the terrain of housing policy. It focuses on past and current policy failures and contradictions, but en route touches on the problematic nature of the housebuilding industry, modernist architecture, underinvestment in social housing, and the land market. It is well worth reading in its entirety.

Meek does an excellent job of laying out why we find ourselves with our current dysfunctional housing market. The premise of the essay is that we need to rewind to the Right to Buy to start to make sense of the mess we’re in. Whether by grand design or simply through a series of unfortunate incremental steps, subsequent policy has compounded problems that have their roots in Thatcher’s most populist policy. [Read more...]

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Reframing housing policy

frameYesterday I spent the morning at a meeting of housing policy types. Around the table were policy-makers, practitioners, voluntary sector representatives, and a sprinkling of academics. Everyone there was, as far as I could tell, signed up to the idea that good quality, secure and affordable housing is not only desirable in its own right but also has positive impacts on a whole range of other policy areas – health and social care, education, economic performance, combating poverty and social exclusion.

The discussion ranged widely. Part of the morning was spent considering how to get the message out. While the housing policy community might all subscribe to the powerful benefits of good housing, that isn’t a position embraced within all the relevant policy circles. Or, rather, it is a position that many politicians and policy-makers will acknowledge, but not acknowledge the issue as sufficiently high up the agenda to devote a sizable share of scarce resources to it, in the face of competing claims.*

Our discussion yesterday didn’t come to any very definite conclusions. That wasn’t the aim. But it made me think about Baumgartner and Jones’s punctuated equilibrium theory (see Paul’s excellent brief summary). [Read more...]

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Bedroom tax … and beyond?

Boarded Up Council HouseWe are now beginning to get some insight into the fallout from the Government’s changes to the housing benefit underoccupation rules: the policy that Grant Shapps would like you to call the “spare room subsidy” but most people call the “bedroom tax”. It is a topic I’ve blogged about previously, including on the challenge of interpreting the evidence regarding what’s going on.

It is worth briefly reviewing the possible consequences of taking a group of people whose household incomes, after assistance from social security, are already at poverty levels and increasing the amount they are expected to pay for their housing from their own pocket. [Read more...]

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New housing ideas from One Nation Labour?

street scene (2099)Under the heading A One Nation programme with new ideas to begin turning Britain’s economy around yesterday Ed Miliband outlined six bills that would appear in Labour’s alternative Queen’s speech. It is good to see him offering some policy detail, at last, but to what extent are we being offered new ideas?

The focus of the housing component of his statement was the private rented sector, which in one sense is new. The idea that the political battle to be fought over housing was going to be fought over private renting is one that would have made no sense a few years ago. And whether it is the biggest problem facing the housing system at the moment, given the broader context of poor affordability for a nation of frustrated aspirant home owners, could be debated.

Leaving that to one side, what did he offer? [Read more...]

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Who is social housing for, and who should it be for?

Yesterday I participated in a consultation event organised by Bristol City Council. it was designed to start a debate locally about the revision of social housing allocations policy. My talk, which ranged rather more broadly than simply allocations policy, is a bit too long to include in a blog post, so I have bunged it on to Scribd. It can be accessed below. [Read more...]

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Next steps for housing policy

[On 6th February I participated in the NHF South West Regional Conference “Building neighbourhoods”, held in Exeter. This is the text to accompany my presentation.]

Choices of a businessmanFor half a century the aspiration behind housing policy in England has been captured by the statement “A decent home for all at a price within their means”, or some variation on that theme.

Embedded in this statement are three key terms:

  • a decent home
  • for all
  • a price within their means.

The way in which this aspiration has been articulated may have remained broadly constant, but the vigour with which governments have pursued it has varied. The rhetoric may be the same, but the realities of the substance of policy and implementation may have differed substantially.

And the understanding of the three key terms is mutable. Over time thinking has shifted. For example, when we talk of a “price within their means” do we mean that housing costs need to be lowered so that they can be sustained on the basis of available earned income? This might suggest the need to reduce housing costs. Or should it be interpreted as meaning that we need to enhance households’ incomes so that prevailing housing costs come within their reach?

We could rehearse the history of housing policy over this period and trace out the ways in which the aspirations of housing policy have subtly, and not so subtly, been reinterpreted. But we won’t. For now the important point is that the Coalition government is, broadly speaking, holding to the standard rhetoric. But at the same time it is reframing the debate. [Read more...]

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Nothing to see here …

Big ideasI’m not quite sure what the point of today’s Coalition Mid-Term Review was. Apart from reasserting that the Coalition intends to go the distance – and beyond? – the main thing that was clear was that they’d really rather like the media to change the metaphor and stop talking about a loveless marriage.

The document itself is largely a list of what the Government has done. It is not an evaluation of that programme. It does not, for example, compare what it has done with what it was planning to do. Nor does it reflect upon why the latter has, in many areas, fallen considerably short of the former.

And it is not – perhaps understandably – a critical document. All the actions the Government has taken thus far are presented unselfconsciously as positive in themselves, commensurate with the scale of the challenge they seek to address, and contributing positively to the achievement of the Coalition’s overall, shared agenda.

It is, therefore, largely a PR puff. As befits a government led by a former PR man.

Much of the document is taken up with what has happened since May 2010. But some of it is given over to listing future plans. I have been through the whole document and my sense is that a substantial slice of these future plans will not come as news. Lots of the individual initiatives have already been announced. That isn’t to say that there is nothing new in the document. Just that you have to hunt quite hard for it.

My first instinct was to search the document to see what it has to say about housing. This is, after all, as Nick Cohen reminded us earlier today in the Spectator, one of the biggest problems we currently face. [Read more...]

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Housing at half-time

There isn’t a great deal of disagreement about the key problems facing the British housing market.

The main issues are high housing costs in both the owner occupied and private rented sectors, with correspondingly high bills for housing allowances. Many households have difficulties in accessing appropriate accommodation, particularly given the limited flow of lettings in the social rented sector. And the market is subject to high volatility by international standards, which has negative ramifications for the macroeconomy. The root cause of this is the failure of housing supply – over a period measured in decades rather than years – to keep pace with the increase in the number of households.

The disagreements start to emerge when we move on to discuss what we should do about it. And, more specifically, to consider whether the Government is currently doing enough to address the problems identified. The Government has provided a perfectly sensible diagnosis of the problem. There has been quite a bit of policy pronouncement and promise. Much of the early bustle was brought together in last year’s strategy, Laying the foundations.

But does all this add up to a policy response that is appropriately targeted and on sufficient scale to make a dent in the problem? [Read more...]

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Restructuring to reduce market volatility

Last May the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Housing Market Taskforce produced a major report which touched on a wide range of housing market issues, with the main concern being how to reduce the substantial and dysfunctional volatility that plagues the market. Four issues were identified: increasing housing supply in the long run, implementing policy instruments to deal with short run price volatility, developing innovative and effective mechanisms for protecting consumers from the consequences of market volatility, and fostering alternatives to home ownership that will provide households with long term secure accommodation.

Two of the academics involved in the work of the Taskforce – Mark Stephens and Peter Williams – have returned to provide an update, published today, on policy developments under the Coalition. Has the Government taken the sort of steps that will move the housing market on to a more stable footing? [Read more...]

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