Blimey- build, councils, build!

I went to a soft play this morning, fresh with the idea that whatever anyone else has been saying at the party conferences, one person I probably didn’t need to listen to very hard was the current Prime Minister. Well, that’s me schooled.

Details are still light on the PM’s pledge to scrap the housing revenue account borrowing cap, but for those of us who have been pushing for this change it is certainly welcome. Certainly a major sea change was that councils (both individually and through the LGA) started talking in unison. It shows what can be achieved when councils are united instead of being divided and ruled. Could a similar thing happen with social care or fiscal devolution, I wonder?

The SHOUT campaign should also get some of the credit for making the intellectual case so clearly and I suspect that the presence of Toby Lloyd in number 10 has managed to make a positive difference in entrenched thinking.

In my post before last year’s budget I went through why it is a difficult sell to the Treasury. Essentially, in letting councils (and financial markets) choose when they can borrow to build new homes they are spreading macroeconomic power around. The Treasury is not always good at trusting other people with economic levers. Councils may choose to borrow at the wrong time, both for the real economy or for the government’s accounting. Councils are also unlikely to spread around the kudos when they are allowed do something off their own bat. So it looks like the Treasury has been overruled, which can only really happen by very senior ministers (PM or Chancellor) making the decision above permanent civil servant advice.

There is also the issue that past this first flurry, central government won’t get the plaudits for allowing councils to build. I doubt the housing minister will be invited to cut the ribbon on housing that councils have built with debts they have taken on against their own assets.

The important thing now for stock owning councils is to prepare their plans quickly. It is not yet clear when this change will actually be made (it wouldn’t take much time, but I wonder if there is some small print about the start of the next financial year or even the next spending review to come). Given what certain other leadership wannabes said about social housing, it will be interesting to see if the timescale means the change could get lost in conservative internecine warfare. Labour have already stated that they will raise the cap to the prudential limit, so there is, for now, cross party support for this change.

But it is worth remembering that many councils have transferred their housing stock, so if they wish to build again they may have to either consider borrowing off other assets (maybe not quite remortgaging the town hall!) which might be tricky in accounting terms or seeing whether the government can provide some starter funding or borrowing to set the ball rolling. Let’s make no mistake, this is a policy that pays for itself relatively quickly, but a nudge might be required to help some on the way.

Another issue is the vexing role of land. Many local authorities have land, but are being pushed into selling land thought of as ‘surplus’. Indeed, the planning changes proposed earlier in the week (from the same lectern) include further speeding up of that process. If councils are going to be able to utilise the extra borrowing capacity well then building on their own land would be the cheapest way to do it. Otherwise, they will be competing with private builders and housing associations with strategic partnership funds and who knows who else for the same bits of land. Escalation of the bidding war is the last thing our land market needs- councils with land suitable for housing should be encouraged to use this first, not sell it quickly under duress and use the cash to buy part of a smaller site elsewhere.

Then of course there is right to buy. If councils are building a new load of affordable homes -let’s hope truly affordable homes– then they need to be able to do so in the confidence that they will still own them when the loan is paid off. Indeed, this is something funders or economic sense might insist upon. Building homes for a low rent works because the home lasts longer than repaying the borrowing costs- eventually they provide a surplus to fund housing management, repairs and, you guessed it, more building. Right to buy cuts that off at the knees, especially as new homes are more likely to be attractive to borrowers (especially with a higher eventual sales price) to lend to council tenants than older properties. Flogging them off with a discount makes no sense for society and it needs to be stopped. Yes, right to buy is a conservative shibboleth, but times change and if they are interested in seeing more council homes then right to buy needs to end.

Many councils haven’t really been in the building game for a generation. A few homes here and there have been the preserve of even some of the larger local authorities. So if everything happens according to plan they will need to build up their capacity in planning and construction, whether this is through directly managing projects (my preference) or outsourcing and contract management. There is an opportunity here for councils to really get back into a key part of building a more mixed and egalitarian society. Those who are slow off the ground risk either missing their chance or lagging behind whilst others benefit.

I say ‘missing their chance’ because a change on paper can be changed back very easily. Whatever else, Theresa May is still desperately weak and if this is something that has her name alone on it then it could fall when she does. I do not doubt that the true believers in the Treasury would like to change this back as soon as possible. As I’ve said, this is not just for the accounting reasons but because giving macroeconomic power to a bunch of town halls is simply not the change they want to see.

I think we have to be clear that if councils are not seen to take this opportunity they could face losing it. The case, to so many so obvious for so long, has been won for the present but there are dangers that it could be either undermined or lost in the future. The best way to prevent this is to show what can be done to create genuinely high quality homes for a sensible rent that pays for themselves. It has been done before. Councils just need to be ready, dust off those plans, make some more and get going.

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Promotion from the conference?

Nearly one year ago I wrote about the upcoming 2017 budget, stating that it was hard to get excited about proposed policy changes when Brexit was going to get in the way of everything. I don’t think I was wrong in this (perhaps I was a little too focused on elections) but the key thing was not much has happened in the last year. Even supposedly headline policies like housing have, pretty much, fallen by the wayside in the last 12 months. Just look at the empty state of the social housing green paper or the lack of an official social care green paper.

Well, now that Brexit is truly rearing its ugly head you might think I’d offer the same advice. Oddly, I’m going to do something near the opposite. I actually believe conference season, if we listen hard enough, might offer some policy nuggets that whilst they may still struggle to get off the ground, may become the focus of discussion in the next year.

Put it like this- a number of ministers, shadow ministers or spokespeople are, as ever, going to be giving speeches, attending panels, speaking at fringe meetings, that sort of thing. So far, so normal. But unlike normal times, the uncertainty in the political system is about to come to a head.

Brexit, one way or another, is going to be decided in the next 12 months. I don’t mean to say it will be done and dusted, but that we’ll be on a course that will be ultimately impossible to reverse, past the point of no return and quite possibly staring into an abyss. Perhaps there will still be discussions to be had, but we won’t be at the point where it will be the be all and end all. There will be a policy space, which is likely to get filled, one way or another, with some other discussion.  We need to hope it is meaningful discussion.

I also think it is also fair to assume that, whoever it is, we will have a new Prime Minister in the next 12 months. Put it in your calendar and laugh at me if I’m wrong. I do try hard not to be party political in this blog. I’m interested first and foremost in policies. But what makes the political carnival of the next few weeks important is that those speaking at speeches, panel discussions and so on could be the next Prime Minister, Minister of State and so on. Sometimes these competitions can surprise you- who would have thought Theresa May would have been elected unopposed last time?

I don’t usually tell politicians things they don’t already know, so it is quite likely a number of ambitious souls are already planning what they are going to say. Perhaps they are trying to keep their policy powder dry. Perhaps they don’t really have any policies. But they will have to say something. In an eventual leadership battle (or election, if that’s the way it goes) they will have to come up with some policies- what they’ve just been talking about is likely to make it into the list. You’d expect that anyone who actually believes in a policy will also push for it.

Ministers obviously receive policy support in their roles, so you’d expect that the most worked through and therefore bullet proof policies they may suggest will come from there. But of course it is also worth watching out for people venturing over the lines into someone else’s turf. That not only indicates an ambition wider than their current role, but that they will engage on some policy detail and make an attempt to suggest their preferred way forward. It is a long way off a policy actually being delivered into law, but it is certainly the first step on the way towards that.

Perhaps now is the right time to declare an interest- I wrote my master’s dissertation on policy development through an election, so I’m on record with this being a topic that fascinates me. It is the interaction of the business of policy mixed with the cacophony of an election (whether a leader selection or a general election) that burnishes, alters and ultimately makes or breaks policies. Leaders feel somewhat committed to them. We can all names policies that have fallen by the wayside after an election, but they are often less likely to than other policies floated outside of one.

None of this means we will be able to select the policy that will pop out and become the focus. My hand and my heart yearn for it to be a sustainable answer to social care, but I can’t see how that will happen given the furore last time. But policy space is about to become available. Time in parliament may soon start appearing again after being confined almost wholly to Brexit for so long. A political vacuum will be filled and whoever fills it will need to say and do something. We should just hope it is something worthwhile.

If last year I was saying “don’t listen, none of it will happen” this year I think it is more “listen very carefully, anything could happen!”. That’s equally a warning and an opportunity, depending on what eventually come forward. But I’ll be listening to see what’s there- I hope you’ll join me.

Balance, imbalance and the politics of planning

I’m back at home but it is still August. Unless you take an unhealthy interest in Brexit (and, let’s face it, nothing about Brexit is healthy) there isn’t much else going on in domestic politics. But don’t worry, because here come Lichfields to brighten our week!

In their new report Refused for good reason? the planning consultants look at where planning committees have overruled planning officer advice to refuse an application and this has subsequently been appealed to the Secretary of State. To do this they’ve looked at every instance where this happened for middle to large size housing sites (>50 dwellings) in 2017.

This approach, it has to be said, leads to some major caveats. To their credit, each of these is covered in the text of the report. There are only 78 results, meaning all the subsets are also small-ish numbers and meaning we shouldn’t get too hung up on differences between outcomes in case it is just a statistical blip. It excludes appeals where councils haven’t made a decision in a set time and developers (as is their right) have chosen to go above their heads. Canny councils can do this to avoid such censure -although there is a financial penalty- and it can just happen as time and a developer’s patience runs out. The focus on 2017 is a snapshot, most of the original decisions will be from around the same time (2015/16) so there may be some underlying issues or similar conditions that come from that particular moment in planning- most notably this is before the government started talking seriously about forcing councils to have local plans at all.

There are some headlines they pull out from the numbers- firstly that where councillors have overruled planning officer’s recommendations they are more likely to be overturned at appeal. 65% of the 78 cases where councillors did their own thing against officer advice lost on appeal, compared to 40% when the advice was to refuse and councillors dutifully refused. In 71% of the cases at least part of the appeal was about a 5 year housing land supply, either because there was disagreement about whether the council had it or agreement that they didn’t. Decisions concentrating on technical matters like landscaping were more likely (although still less than even odds) to be successfully defended than highways (74% overturned). Councils without a post-NPPF local plan did just about as well as those with one- what seems to matter more is the 5 year housing land supply position- a requirement of the NPPF which means local plans can be seen as ‘out of date’.

All of that is helpful to know, but for me the report gets a little bit harder to understand when it starts trying to bring in an idea that this relates necessarily to the quality of decision making. Maybe it is worth taking a step back or two here and thinking about planning applications and the process they currently go through.

Let’s say a developer puts in a planning application for a large site. It might be on land designated for housing in the local plan or they might be chancing their arm and trying to get permission for the site outside of the plan. Or there might not even be a plan, certainly not one made since the NPPF came out in 2012 (do we call it NPPF1 now?) . A planning officer will sit down with the developer most likely a number of times, to bash out the scheme and see if it will fit with the local and national policies, including the infrastructure requirements that they think should be in place to facilitate it. Things like roads, medical services, school places or indeed a school. And if we’re really lucky, affordable housing.

The officer bundles all this up in a report and takes it to the planning committee composed of councillors. There are delegated decisions as well but we’re thinking a big scheme here, so let’s assume it is made by the committee. The committee is meant to look at all the issues, balance them against each other and come to a decision on the merits of the application. Key factors will include whether the council is seen to have a 5 year housing land supply and whether other policies in the local plan have been met. Inevitably design and infrastructure matters will be part of that discussion. The committee will then vote on the application.

If the application is refused the applicant has the chance to appeal. At it stands, no similar right exists in reverse- granting planning permission cannot be appealed (although it can go through judicial review). A planning inspector (eventually) swoops in and hears all the evidence again, takes all the factors and balances them on their own merits. They make a decision and then the secretary of state ambles by and decides whether to change that decision or leave it alone. Past this point only judicial review can change a decision.

So, first things first, there aren’t three distinct layers of public decision making. There are four. The secretary of state can and does overrule their own planning experts in much the same way planning committees do. This somehow gets shuffled out of the report, which makes it sound like the answer given on appeal is not only the final answer (which is true) but is also the right answer (which is debatable).

If planning committees are occasionally subject to whims, odd (but not necessarily unreasonable) balancing of factors, deciding an answer first and then writing a report to justify the conclusion and bringing electoral factors into something that should be free of them, then secretaries of state are also right there alongside them. This not only means we should be careful about giving reverence to appeal decisions, it also means we have to try and consider what planning committees were doing when they refused a decision against officer advice. Perhaps they thought the Secretary of State might somehow come to their aid? Perhaps they thought they had a good decision, even against officer advice- perhaps even the planning inspector agreed with them, but the Secretary of State used their power to make the very final decision.

It is also true that planning officers are likely to be more in tune with the financial costs of losing an appeal and less aware or interested in the political costs. I’ll reverse that- politicians (especially backbench politicians from non-majority parties) may not be overly interested in how much an appeal costs but hugely, massively interested in how voting for or against an application makes them look. That’s politics, it is the nature of the beast that members have constituencies that they need to either placate or impress in order to stay in their job. Spending money on a hopeless appeal is money well spent if it means that they don’t look like the bad guy.

There’s also an issue when it comes to the interaction of the local plan and individual planning decisions. The local plan is adopted by all the council members on a majority vote, but in reality it is put in front of them by the executive (whether this is a cabinet or committee system). So the local plan, through all of the consultations and discussions around it, up to an including the examination in public, is a document that the executive has signed up to and, in the final analysis, is the one that they can rally enough support to see it through the full council. Let’s be clear, majorities have waned, council leaders have fallen and all heck has broken loose trying to get local plans through to adoption. But when they achieve that it doesn’t mean that hell is back in its box. Members of a planning committee who didn’t like something in the plan, the housing targets (and therefore 5 year supply) most obviously, but anything else in reality, might choose to ignore the officer advice which is predicated on the plan. Again, this may be a way of making a specific development ‘someone else’s fault’- in this case the executive, the planning inspectorate and possibly the secretary of state.

I suppose the last two paragraphs come to the same conclusion. Perhaps appeal overturns of this kind are more about politicians being politicians than politicians being ignorant or untrained? Politicians manage risk and responsibility, they reflect, moderate (sometimes) and amplify community views. If planning is a political system, and our current system is deeply political, then this is one outcome.

Another point mentioned, but slightly glossed over in the report is that the types of applications may be very different in different areas. I’ve talked before about the principle of development and how in essence once this is confirmed it is very hard to lose it. You can achieve this for an individual site by getting it included in the local plan or by getting planning permission for it. You are more likely to get planning permission for an unpopular site when areas don’t have a 5 year housing supply. Take a developer or land speculator who has options on a number of sites in an area, some included in a local plan, some not. Which do they make an application for? They can bring the local plan site forward whenever they want and make a profit on it. But the site not in the local plan gives them an opportunity. This goes before the planning committee and the officer making a recommendation ruefully says it is probably acceptable given the 5 year housing supply position. The committee may refuse this and off it goes on appeal- where it will more than likely be overturned given the local housing supply position.

In an area with a 5 year housing land supply this is unlikely to happen, so the developer will bring forward a more acceptable site. Those going to appeal are likely to be where the developer is, in one sense or another, extracting the Michael so it is more than possible the appeal will support the committee’s view.

Nothing about these two outcomes can be solved by members undergoing additional training or by publishing outcomes. A more structural change is required, either to step back from the “5 year housing supply is the only important matter” ethos (which now combines with the housing delivery test) or to double down on it and make clear that when a 5 year housing supply isn’t shown there is simply no point refusing applications on anything but the most obvious grounds.

Maybe there’s a better way to put that- planning committee members feel that they can make individual decisions on individual applications, even when they don;t have a 5 year housing land supply. That is, at least theoretically, a lynchpin of our planning system. But the focus on 5 year housing land supply and now the housing delivery test effectively overrides almost all of the individual decision making. If that’s honestly the case then is it worth saying this outright in the NPPF or is there some merit in still being able to take out the worst applications? If it is the latter then we are going to keep seeing this outcome- planning committees not following officer recommendations and this being overturned at appeal.

Almost all the changes outlined by the report: better reasoning by committees, cooling off periods, better statistics and training are all fine, but don’t change the key issues I’ve outlined. Politicians and officers are in different roles and have different incentives, they will come to different views. The 5 year housing land supply and housing delivery test are tools of the government’s making specifically to increase housing supply. Some comeback on that is required and, if so, might be an unfortunate but necessary part of the system as it stands.

Two proposals are a little bit fractious. Firstly, Lichfields the independent planning consultant suggest that councils should use independent planning consultants to help them in hard cases. Well, they’ve got to pay for the report somehow! I’m not convinced, given what I have said above, that another view is going to make a huge difference in a large number of these cases. It could in some, but if an officer is already advising approval then another person coming along to check their working isn’t necessarily going to sway a committee.

Secondly, they suggest changing when a council can be in a form of special measures. That means the secretary of state can make decisions directly themselves without worrying about the whole rest of the planning system, local democracy or so forth. There’s a reason this is barely used in practice, it is cumbersome, undemocratic and time consuming and (coming back to politicians managing responsibility) means that they are the bad guy rather than the local planning authority. 7 years after the NPPF first came out and we are only just getting to the point where the secretary of state is intervening for a few authorities that don’t have a local plan. Changing the definition of what is an isn’t failure won’t change that political calculus.

Having a system reliant on individual applications, seeking to decide each case on its own merits against local and national policies sounds positive. But what Lichfields have done is tease out one of the messier bits of it. Local politicians, national politicians and officers at both national and local level are going to disagree. Once you lose the pretense that there is a “right” answer it gets even messier. My view is we need to either embrace the mess (knocking off sharp corners where possible) or change the system fundamentally.

A fundamental change will either mean shifting the balance towards democratic decision making (with all its foibles) or towards technical, policy based decision making. The former has the potential for exacerbating the housing crisis, the latter removing democratic controls. It is our choice.

Khan we fix it everywhere?

Yesterday was a busy day for housing all round, but the happiest news was in the capital; where Mayor Sadiq Khan has announced a huge investment in new council housing. This can only be a good thing, but it is worth looking through what is actually being proposed and, perhaps crucially for anyone interested in housing outside of London, see if this can be replicated elsewhere.

The document, Building Council Homes for Londoners is actually quite readable, for a technical briefing, so if you are interested it is worth having a look through. I will do my best to summarise, but it is rare I can suggest a general reader looking at a document like that, so feel free to.

There are two main legs to the funding side, a not-insignificant block of money (£1.67 billion) given to the capital from the Chancellor in the Spring Statement and an interesting wheeze about right to buy receipts.

Coming to the £1.67 billion first- I know I have mentioned seemingly big bits of money before and pleaded for people to understand them in context. But we can do that a little bit with this- compare this amount to the £2 billion added for all of England earlier this year. I was critical of the size of latter because per area because it didn’t actually amount to all that much. Spread thinly across the country (or even in centered on particular areas) it wasn’t going to amount to a huge amount of extra housebuilding. Plus as it was for both Council and Housing Association house building and it is the government at the end of the day who will be deciding who gets funds and who does not.

The Mayor has been given much more freedom with his (per head) much larger allocation of cash and the announcement yesterday shows how he is going to use it. He is choosing to spend this money unequivocally on Council housing. This isn’t just traditional social rent, but could also be London affordable rent, London living rent or shared ownership. What it clearly isn’t is affordable rent. Housing Associations aren’t completely out of the picture as there is another funding mechanism similar to the affordable housing programme for them to bid for.

In terms of what the Mayor will consider funding with this cash, for rents below the London affordable rent levels he will pay £100k per property. This looks positive compared to the “average” £80k paid under the affordable housing programme (although you’d expect London properties to be above average in that programme). For the other rental or shared ownership schemes he will pay £38k per unit for quick wins (started before April 2020) or £28k per unit for later starts. There is an emphasis on a programme approach, so we are talking about each borough putting in a sizable application and, if the worked example is anything to go by, a mixture of rent types.

So this looks like a more generous scheme than central government’s direct scheme focused on delivering only Council homes. It exists because:

  1. the government has decided to give a large block of capital funding to London
  2. the Mayor has the power to decide what to do with the money
  3. being directly elected he has a strong personal mandate and
  4. he has decided to do something linked wholly to council homes with it.

Without any of these rungs the scheme would not look like this. Other authorities, for example the metro mayor areas, may have the personal mandate but usually any funds they get from government are limited and very prescriptive. Just look at the housing deals announced for the West Midlands and Greater Manchester. They are both having to up their overall housing supply numbers just to get significantly smaller agreements from government and would be unlikely to be allowed to do anything like spend all of the extra cash on council housing.

Non metro-mayor areas (which we do have to remember is the vast majority of the country) will just have to take their share of the affordable housing programme, use up any housing revenue account headroom they have (and any extra they can grub from the government) and try to use up right to buy receipts as best they can.

Which brings me on to the second part of the Mayor’s announcement- the use of right to buy returns. This is a very clever little bit of circulating cash -I won’t go so far as to say laundering it- but certainly relies heavily on London having a different arrangement to the rest of the country.

You’ll probably know the issues relating to right to buy receipts- homes are sold at a discount, the Treasury takes some costs back straight away and, after all this, the money can only be used to fund 30% of a new housing association home. All this and councils have to use the money within 3 years or it disappears off to the Treasury.

But what happens then? For everywhere except London the money goes to the Homes and Communities Agency, who plough it back somewhere across the country- who knows where? In London the money goes to the GLA, who until now have been giving it out as part of their affordable housing programme.

What the Mayor is now proposing is London councils that wish to opt-in can give right to buy money back to the Treasury, who pass it on the GLA. So far, so the same. But then, the GLA will ring-fence the money to be spent in the council’s area and will allow the council to make the funding decisions. There will still be rules with this- the 30% rule and the housing association rules look like they will be the same. But it looks like the Mayor’s office will be much more flexible and open-minded about how this money can be shared out, particularly with regard to mixed sites (ie. where one house is funded through right to buy and another through a grant). It will also give councils more freedom to (within limits) move money about whilst construction is ongoing in order to deliver more homes.

The total amount of funding for this is much smaller than the £1.67 billion- London councils have so far given back to the Treasury £50 million. But the key issue is that instead of losing money because of a strict set of rules, councils in London will be able to in effect keep money to replace (to an extent) right to buy homes. With the government-enforced rules still in place it remains to be seen if 1:1 replacements can be achieved (I suspect not quite) but this is still much likely to be a better, friendlier scheme than the one overseen by the Treasury.

Again, this clever little circulation of cash can only works because of the powers held by the London Mayor and GLA. Nowhere else in the country has this arrangement and I doubt the HCA are going to suggest something similar for every other council.

So what the Mayor is doing is using his significant and unique powers (and personal mandate) to mitigate against what he (and I) see as central government’s failures. But it isn’t replicable elsewhere without those powers being devolved, something that was unlikely the day before yesterday and is perhaps incredibly unlikely now. I’m sure central government are smarting slightly at his actions, but the point is he alone is able to do this.

One of the challenges of devolution, particularly the uneven and deal-led devolution preferred by the government since 2010, is that different areas will have different agreements. London is always likely to do well out of this, especially if they have an activist Mayor who is unconcerned about his popularity with the Westminster government of the day. London has a huge number of challenges, especially in the provision of affordable housing, but it is also in a position of power. It is doing far better that other areas on insisting on affordable housing proportions through section 106 (again, due to the powers of the Mayor) and has the ability to gain investment from around the world.

So this is great news for London, but without rule changes it doesn’t mean much for anywhere else. That isn’t a criticism, it’s just a point to be made when celebrating the scheme. As discussed enough times here already, what would make the difference everywhere is a lifting of the HRA borrowing cap and further investment in council housing as a genuine alternative to the other tenure types available in the country. Labour’s green paper goes some way to moving ahead with that- if they were in power. We continue to wait for the government’s social housing green paper.

The first green paper of spring

Labour got there first. Their social housing green paper is out, with a not at all connected to the local elections launch at the LGA’s offices.

Anyone reading my blog over the last few months will not be surprised that much of what is in the paper is very welcome. But as a serious and relatively complete policy document there is always going to be some critique (rather than criticism, I hasten to add) to undertake in order to understand it fully. This is especially true as the paper reads like a set of policies that are, in a sense, shovel ready. So this critique is meant as a compliment- this is exactly what I would do if it was a green paper from a government.

I suspect that much of this has been due to the forensic and policy-focused approach of John Healey, who has both always been impressive in housing and has had the brief (on and off, slightly) for long enough time to really get to grips with it. There is an argument for giving ministers (and their shadow counterparts) long periods in posts in order to understand the deeper issues and John Healey is the proof that it can work. Perhaps the government should take note.

There is a huge amount of detail in the paper, so I want to pick out a few bits. Firstly I’ll look at some of the major positives (of which there are a few!) and then look at where there are gaps or opportunities to do things a little bit differently than suggested.

So, the positives. Labour have set a clear (if amazingly round) target for the delivery of new social housing. The government’s social housing green paper has mostly been framed around improving matters for existing tenants, not creating new tenants. That’s why the JRF have been so clear in trying to push for new homes alongside other changes- a battle I’m not sure they are winning with the current government.

Delivering 100,000 new affordable homes a year will be a challenge for any government and it will take a significant effort from local authorities, housing associations and other providers of social housing to achieve. I believe the will is there, even in areas not wholly committed to large scale housebuilding, but a target like this will require a herculean effort from the social and building sector to see through.

Moving on to the definition of “affordable housing”, the green paper suggests getting rid of the 80% of market rent test. Good. What replaces it is slightly more interesting. Whilst trumpeting a new average income based living rent the “core” of the affordable homes programme will be the good old formula rent. That’s not a bad starting place, but the formula only has loose ties with affordability, so it is worth considering if there are other options available.

The paper is positive about the role of housing associations, both as a not for profit service for their tenants and as one of the ways to create new social housing. There have been previously been concerns about Jeremy Corbyn’s support for housing associations, so it is good to see real inclusion of them in these plans. Yes, that comes with some additional requirements, inclusion in freedom of information legislation for one thing, but that seems to be a small price worth paying so that they can play a part in large scale social house building.

No-one will be surprised that suspending right to buy (preferably off a cliff) and scrapping the bedroom tax are welcome. Both create significant issues and cannot sensibly be justified- as the paper suggests- social housebuilding is likely to reduce the overall benefit bill.

Moving onto something the paper doesn’t do- I’m certainly relieved that it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to funding new social homes. The key issue is not that new homes are too expensive to be built by local authorities; they usually make a surplus over their lifespan. It is that there is an arbitrary limit on the amount councils can borrow, even though they are sat on huge assets (the very homes they currently let out!).

The current government has repeatedly, maddenly, tried to put forward different ways to fund selective council house building, usually through one off loans or grants, whilst keeping the purse strings themselves. This allows them to appear to be the ones making the decisions whilst touting a very big number (usually £X million, so not actually that big in housing terms!) and simultaneously refusing to allow local authorities to borrow off their existing assets. So it is great that the paper suggests the main way for new council homes to come about is through borrowing up to the prudential limit. That is, in a way, all that is required for stock owning local authorities with a desire to build.

Helping councils that have transferred their stock to a housing association to build a new generation of council housing is positive. Government loans will allow them to build up (literally) assets which they can then borrow against. What might be needed is provisions or guarantees that this new stock won’t itself be transferred at some point in the future, negating the whole process.

In terms of wider financing, the paper is sensible (but brief) in suggesting other sources of funding, including institutional schemes like pension funds, could be harnessed for housing associations. There is nothing wrong in any of that, but it is worth remembering that pension funds will put money where they can make money- if there is another, better opportunity for them then they will go elsewhere. Certainly funding affordable housebuilding is likely to be low risk, but will it have the returns of other investment opportunities?

Which brings us to things with (in my view) slight alternatives to the policies laid out. Firstly, the paper is looking to set targets for local authorities building social housing, almost as a subset of the objectively assessed need I’ve spoken about before. They’ve not outlined how that would take place and I worry that trying to force councils who don’t want to build affordable housing will take focus, time and money away from providing for councils who do. If they try and split the 100,000 a year based on some affordability calculation (as with the government’s proposed OAN measure) then areas who may be less able to find sites, have less recent experience of building to date and overall willing to build quickly may have a higher target.

It is unclear what the sanction would be for authorities that don’t meet their targets. The paper (rightly) talks more about incentives than threats, but if they are serious about every area delivering social housing then threats may eventually have to be issued, much as they are currently over local plan adoption. What the mechanism for this will be remains to be seen.

The best alternative for me, at least to begin with, is to work with those who want to build. Get up to scale with social house building in those areas who will relish the opportunity and hope that those remaining will be converted either by showing it can be done or by political pressure from their own residents who see it happening elsewhere.

The green paper is also a touch vague on how a Labour government would actually close the viability loophole. There’s talk about boosting support for councils to prove schemes are viable with affordable housing with independent viability experts to sweep in. I’d worry how liable those independent experts will be to regulatory capture, especially as you would expect that they will be drawn from and potentially looking for work from, existing builders.

It is worth remembering that the government has threatened (however idly) that it could go further and set affordable proportions or payments centrally. There is an opportunity for Labour to outmanoeuvre them and promise to shut the viability door once and for all. Perhaps there were concerns about appearing to knock big builders (something it is counterintuitively easier for the conservatives to do) but the outcome looks less like closing the loophole and more like bolstering one side against the other whilst keeping the rules by and large the same.

The clawback clause does do a bit of work to cover this, but balance sheets are often malleable to what the company creating them wishes to show. It would take either extremely well written rules or forensic auditing to check whether companies have made additional profits on individual sites or not.

Another way the paper is vaguer than I would like is on supported housing reform. Yes, the government’s current plans don’t have the support of the sector and yes, a period of talking to them again might be required. But we have been in this limbo for years and the can does keep being kicked down the road. I think any government has enough options laid out infront of them, it needs to make a decision and see it through. That’s going to annoy some people- potentially older people who may have to pay more either in life or in death. That’s politics.

Finally for this (short!) section on alternatives, the paper is clear that it wishes to see different households knitted together into a mixed community, but is short on a mechanism for how this is achieved. For private sites there are plenty of opportunities to achieve this, mostly around the rules governing how the affordable homes do not differ from the other homes and are not located in one cluster away from prying eyes. For new social housing sites, which will clearly be a growth industry if the society seen in the paper comes to pass, it is a little bit less clear.

Yes, having a range of the affordable tenure types mentioned in the paper will do a bit as will a supply of new council homes being available not just to those who desperately need a home, but without a mechanism to achieve mixed communities I think it is potentially over-optimistic to think they will appear organically. How this will be achieved, how large scale council or joint built sites can be attractive enough to want potential owner occupiers to move into will be a challenge and one that needs to be considered deeply before the concrete is mixed.

So, overall, lashings of positives and much for a future government to get their teeth stuck into. You can only hope the government are looking over their own draft social housing green paper and wondering if it matches this one in terms of its ambition and clarity (prediction: it won’t). Whilst deliverability is key I think there is enough substance in the paper to make many of the proposals possible and, frankly, aiming high is better than not aiming at all.

Inviolable viability

Right, are we all enthused and ready to go? Viability is dead: long live, um, something that looks a lot like it.

Before I am accused (again) of cynicism approaching apocalyptic levels, let me first say, the fact that the government are trying to do something about viability is positive. I’ll try and get into what I think it means in a bit, but given the amount of bluster about the policies I think it is worth actually trying to get down on paper what the government are proposing.

Under the current system, many local plans include a brief sketch on what requirements a site might have for affordable housing, education facilities, green space and other bits of infrastructure. Nowadays this is split between in section 106 agreement (which is negotiable) and in many areas Community Infrastructure Levy (which isn’t). But the real tooth and nail side of what is required for a site comes during the planning application, where the need for infrastructure, followed closely by the developer’s ability to pay for it out of the eventual sale of homes is bashed out.

The developer gets to use the price they paid for the land (however inflated that is by the prospect of planning permission) and lots of other bits and bobs go into their very detailed spreadsheet to prove their point. The local authority then makes a decision based on the agreement. If agreement can’t be reached within a set timescale, or if the application is refused because the developer’s won’t budge then it can go to an appeal where an inspector and, eventually, the secretary of state can decide upon the merits of the application. Parties who feel (legally) hard done by can apply for judicial review, which can and does quash decisions and demand a rehearing.

In the new system, first proposed last year and now laid out in slightly more detail, the major discussions about the viability of sites will take place during the plan making process. I’ve written before about this process; one of the positive things about centrally suggested targets is that the massively long-winded process of establishing housing need can be removed, which would have made the local plan process quicker. But reaching an assessment of infrastructure need and viability for every site included during the process and coming to an agreement of this with developers, is going to be a huge and time consuming ask. Developers will no doubt (and quite understandably, from a business point of view) use the local plan process to try and extract the best deal for themselves at this point, rather than further down the track.

Yes, in the end it is the local authority that draws up the local plan, but developers will go into the local plan examination (where a planning inspector in effect decides whether it is “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”) with all of their legal arguments, expensive lawyers and fabby dabby spreadsheets ready to prove their point. Those spreadsheets will now be public and use something approaching a set methodology, which is a huge victory for transparency campaigners. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that a small band of local campaigners doing this in their spare time will be able to outwit a company whose profit levels are at least partly based on extracting just this kind of victory. Many council planning departments, often stung by large costs if they lose judicial reviews or appeal cases, will be very cautious of pushing hard if they know they may not win.

Another good(ish) thing is that the land value being proposed for viability assessments is not the price paid for the land, but some inbetween figure. As Shelter have commented, given recent land sales have possibly been inflated by the current market, the new assessments might be higher than you might hope. It is a step in the right direction, but the wording- particularly that the land value should be set at “the minimum price at which it is considered a rational landowner would be willing to sell their land” means this could all fall down rather quickly. If that’s the case there is nothing to stop landowners working collectively to ensure prices remain high.

This all means that the local plan process becomes longer than it would have been and there is no guarantee this will lead to additional affordable accommodation. The government may be hoping land prices will fall as a result of this change, which seems hopeful and best and naive at worst.

The government are stating that once the local plan process is complete (however long that takes) that will be that. But of course, they have to (and to their credit, have) considered the other situations, for example when a site outside of the local plan comes forward. Or, indeed, the economic world changes significantly and developers are suddenly significantly more or less able to pay. In that situation local authorities will have to work with developers to assess or reassess these agreements.

There will be disagreements, claims will be lodged and eventually a set of precedents will be made about what counts as a change and what doesn’t. Unless there has been a big change in developer’s business plans this will then become the new normal. They will use the precedent to turn the drip into a flood. That’s not a criticism of developers- they are acting rationally. It is a criticism of the proposed system. It gives them an inch of wiggle room and expects they won’t take a mile. As with my previous post, I confidently predict we’ll be back in the same situation with viability and affordable housing within a few years.

BUT! The government have added a backstop- with a not very discreet threat for a system where “contributions to affordable housing and infrastructure to be set nationally, and to be non-negotiable”. Given my previous comments you’ll not be surprised that I like the second part of that. I would much prefer a system where the connection between overall viability, developer’s expectations of tidy profits and affordable housing is broken. I don’t see why it would make sense for this to be set nationally, when practically everything else in local plan making is, um, local. Neither Theresa May or Sajid Javid mentioned it in detail in their speeches, so I think this was only planned for certain eyes only. It’s a threat to developers of what could happen if the system doesn’t work and in my opinion a pretty idle one, much like the threat to end help to buy.

The proposals I sketched out in my previous post would be stronger than those being threatened by government and they should feel free to use them if they would like. But given I don’t think they have much intention to actually do this I won’t hold my breath.

So we have been promised another revolution only to see some generally positive but not exactly world-shattering reforms. Before too long we have to ask ourselves why this is? Do ministers over-sell proposals that they know are milquetoast? Are they convinced that one more set of changes will push the housebuilders over the edge to become the sort of civil minded operators the government want them to be? Are they making comments based on what they hope newspapers will report rather than what will actually make a difference?

The key issue, in a way, is that government is stuck. Changes since the late 1970s mean that the major housebuilders are the only people who can deliver at scale. The government seems willing to pay lip service to other forms of building, but know that these can only take off with either significant government investment, underwriting loans and subsidy (for small builders, community housing, housing associations, etc) or local government debt (for council housing).

Another option would be development corporations, often used for new towns but theoretically usable anywhere. This would involve local authorities, builders, landowners and trades coming together to create new homes. The corporation could be structured to prevent perverse incentives (including a risk of chummy contract-giving between the partners) and provide incentives for actual building. The builders wouldn’t like this as it threatens their ownership of large parts of the process, but it is something more akin to a revolution than some (admittedly positive) tinkering with viability.

The government are right that there is no silver bullet to ending the housing affordability crisis, but I do wish they would put away the rubber ones.

As a final note, is it worth remembering that the government has consistently said that the first report from the Letwin review will be coming with the Spring Statement next week. This wasn’t mentioned in either speech (Sajid Javid referred to the publication of the full report at the (Autumn) Budget), so I will be very interested to know whether something will be released and what it says.

Rough sleeping and smooth sailing

I wish I could move on from talking about housing on this blog. But stuff keeps on being proposed that piques my interest. The latest such thing is the Labour announcement on housing for rough sleepers.

This was announced on Sunday, perfectly to fit in with the Sunday newspapers and interview circuit, but I wanted to have a couple of days to have a think about it and what it really means. You see, I cannot imagine anyone would have any issue with more homes for those with recent experience of sleeping rough, in particular as much of the evidence from housing first suggests that this can make a difference in people’s lives.

But it is worth having a look at the policy, because there is something interesting going on. In brief, the wording around the policy announcement looks like it is about housing supply, but in actual fact it is about housing allocations.

So let’s quickly run through what’s been said. Labour is proposing that it will seek to provide 8,000 houses for people with experiencing of sleeping rough, both as part of their existing commitments and as an immediate implementation of the housing first policy.

The government currently have pilots of housing first, which is essence is about providing people with long term accommodation before seeking to overcome any other issues that may be causing homelessness. It has many fans (the author included) but crucially it is about not only providing accommodation but also a significant level of support in order to access services in order to prevent a return to the streets. As Jeremy Swain has recently reiterated, there are factors in returning to homelessness that have to be overcome and experience states that includes intensive work from professional agencies seeking to keep people in the home.

But where are the homes to come from? The Labour press release states quite clearly that instead of building new accommodation, which will take time, they will be seeking agreements with housing associations to provide homes as they become available and replace them with newly built homes from their aspirational social housebuilding programme.

So the homes are existing affordable accommodation (whatever that means!) from registered providers that you would expect to have gone to someone else in need if they were not used as part of this scheme.

Let’s put that a different way. You run the allocations for a housing association. You have a 1 bedroom home become vacant and have to choose between:

  • A rough sleeper.
  • A disabled single person living in an unaffordable privately rented home.
  • A disabled couple living in a privately rented home in severe disrepair.
  • A vulnerable young person living in temporary accommodation who has not slept rough.

Now, each of these households is likely to meet the legal definition of homelessness and indeed for priority need. Exactly who gets the property will depend on the allocations policy of the association or, if the work with a local authority, the council’s own allocations policy.

What Labour are saying is that they will prioritise the rough sleeper over the other households and apply this nationally so that allocation policies will only apply after the need is met for rough sleepers. That’s a policy decision and it isn’t a bad one per se, but it needs to be understood as a decision on allocations. Using that home for a rough sleeper will take it away from someone else who also needs it- someone is going to get it and someone is going to not.

Of course Labour have also made a commitment for a huge increase in the number of affordable homes, but as the press release says, this will take time. So those households will have to wait longer than they might otherwise have done. Again, that’s a policy choice and not an unreasonable one, but moving other households further down the queue has to be understood as a consequence.

What would be a worry is if these policies aren’t tied up together. Any government is used to getting some of its policies through and not others, so I can easily see a situation where the rough sleeper policy comes forward (it is, after all using existing properties) but the policy of building affordable homes stumbles along the way or is delayed. Even governments that are very quick off the blocks (1945 and 1997, I’m looking at you here!) have some things that go on the back-burner or hit unexpected consequences. If you have taken on homes on the guarantee that you will replace them then there is a need to complete both sides of the bargain.

Another comment to make is why this is only housing association homes? The present government almost came unstuck when it tried to introduce right to buy for housing associations. It is unclear why policy makers from different parties see housing association properties -homes built by non-governmental bodies overwhelmingly for the public benefit although often funded by public subsidy- as theirs to dip into when they feel like it. I’m not sure if the sector will be up for another round of tough negotiation, especially to provide a service many of them feel that they do anyway.

As I mentioned above, the key issue will be the level of support that come with rough sleepers into the new homes. There’s no mention of that in the release, or how it will be funded, although it is fair to say that many rough sleepers already receive a significant level of personal support, so this may be that the organisations who currently work with them will continue to do so, hopefully with some level of financial backing from government. The alternative is a replication of what has happened many times previously, where the settled accommodation breaks down and people return to living on the streets.

Another way to provide homes for rough sleepers would be to buy up homes from landlords with buy to let mortgages looking to sell vacant properties (or, even better, empty homes), perhaps on the “we buy any car” approach of a quick sale for a below-market price. The homes could then be improved and made tenant-ready quickly (providing opportunities for local tradespeople or for skills training). This removes the “robbing Peter to pay Paul” aspect of the policy whilst still ensuring a quick turnaround for those who need homes. It’s not a new idea either, it is something quite a few councils, charities and other organisations do, but government backing could make it much larger and more effective.

In his interviews on Sunday Jeremy Corbyn also returned to the idea of compulsory purchase of high value homes “deliberately kept vacant”. Now, he hasn’t provided a number for how many properties he thinks would be involved and I would think it would be very hard to for local authorities to prove mens rea in cases of empty homes. That word “deliberate” sticks out like a sore thumb to me. With a requirement to prove why a home is being kept empty I don’t think it will lead to many compulsory purchases, so it may be an attempt to put the wind up financial speculators rather than a policy that will make a huge difference on the ground. Of course we’d have to see the final policy, it could exclude that difficult word “deliberate” and have some impact on some homes.

So the housing first announcement is another piece in the jigsaw. There are other ways to achieve a quick expansion of homes for housing first, most notably working directly with local authorities or housing associations rather than trying to buy up housing from the latter. If Labour are serious about their affordable housebuilding plans and are willing to put in the resources to pay for it then this may be one small but important cog in the machine. What we must not forget is that providing a home is not sufficient to keep someone off the streets- it is just the first step and the ongoing support that person receives is just as significant as the roof over their head.

The long tail of affordable housing and how it can wag again

How fast do you have to run to stand still? And do you really have to run twice as fast as that to get somewhere else?

It’s a question we’ve been grappling with ever since the Red Queen posed it and none more so than with affordable housing.

Well, that was a question I was going to try and look at in this post. But then I found out that not only are they susceptible to a bit of genial name-calling, Shelter also have access to a time machine and have gone back to 2014 to write essentially the same post.

What’s a naptime blogger to do then? Well, it would be helpful to see what has changed since then and maybe have a think about the current trends in net affordable house building.

But first we have to draw a pretty big distinction between affordable housing and “affordable housing”. You see, in most areas when you think about affordable you consider whether someone’s income can cover the cost of the item. Not so in housing, where the government’s definition of “affordable” relates to the market price- the definition of affordable rent is 80% of the market rent in the same area.

This might not seem like a terrible thing and in some areas it just so happens that 80% of the market price is within an affordable range for a relatively low income family. But in reality that’s more of a happy accident than an outcome of wise policy making.

It didn’t used to be wholly this way. Most social housing rents were traditionally set based on the actual costs of paying for the property and its upkeep, with landlords (local authorities and housing associations, in the main) given very broad parameters to set rents. Whilst in power Labour argued that this led to wildly different rents for what was in effect the same house and, through controlled increases in rent, tried to get all social providers to roughly the same rent for the same property- called a “formula rent”. This equation looked at the price of the house and also the median earnings in the area. But it was only a proxy to allow for equalisation in the medium-run.

And it didn’t get there, because Labour slowed down the process and then the Conservatives came in and chose to increase and then reduce social rents at the same rate for everybody. Only now are they looking to allow authorities to increase rents again. This means rents are still quite divergent between providers and between areas.

So, and I can’t be clear enough about this, neither social rent on older stock nor affordable rent really have any direct connection with affordability built in. Social rents are by and large lower (in many areas far lower) than affordable rents and are therefore more affordable. But there is no real mechanism to ensure that stays the case. New social rented homes (those few that are built) often have rent set at the formula rate, but then affordability is only one consideration among others.

When the new “80% of market” definition came along most providers didn’t immediately switch all of their properties to it when a new tenant moved in. What many did was make newly built homes (usually by developers as part of s106 agreements) available for affordable rent as a way to cross subsidise other, more affordable housing. Indeed, until recently building for affordable rent was required through the government’s affordable homes programme, meaning councils who couldn’t borrow (because of central government limits) had no other choice than to build homes for “affordable rent”. Collectively, although mostly for the legacy reasons, this means that the vast majority of affordable homes available today are at a social rent. That’s the good news.

The bad news is the number of new build social rented homes has fallen year on year, from nearly 40,000 in 2010/11 to 6,800 in 2015/16 (with even fewer provisionally accounted for in 2016/17). The number of right to buy completions has been edging up since 2011/12, both when the financial crisis was bottoming out (and when low income households were more able to get mortgages) and when the government significantly increased the amount of discount a household could receive to buy their home. What’s more, as most new affordable homes won’t yet have a right to buy discount, we can safely assume these were almost all social rent homes sold.

Screenshot 2018-01-23 at 3.28.16 PM

So in 2015/16 more than 3 homes at sold under right to buy for every social rent home that was built. Even if you add affordable rent into the mix there are only 1,358 more homes being built than lost. And what’s more, whilst there should be 1 for 1 replacement of homes sold under right to buy, that has never been the case, looks like it will be a very long time until it is the case and if it does happen it will by and large affordable homes replacing social homes, thus adding little to the mix of truly affordable homes.

Put that another way, since 1991/92 there have been 215,000 more homes sold under right to buy than new social rented homes built.  That’s more homes than there are in Bradford.

This is also the case with affordable housing in parts of new developments. Where “affordable homes” are agreed as part of s106 agreements, they often either become “affordable rent” or an intermediate option that is most likely shared ownership. More councils are starting to accept payments in cash for off site provision in lieu of affordable accommodation, which at least means councils can build what they want but does lead to worries about the ghettoisation of “rich areas” and “poor areas”.

Of course developers are hit and miss when it comes to actually providing affordable homes as part of their developments. As part of the planning process they are able to argue that they cannot make their scheme viable with the level of affordable accommodation set by the local authority. This means they are able to negotiate, often significantly or to zero, the amount of affordable housing on the site. Of course every single site can be just about viable at the same time as the heads of the developments earn £100 million bonuses.

In fact it is fair to say that there is something more than a cottage industry set-up to help developers argue their case for lowering affordable housing requirements through the viability process. Perhaps we could call it a 6 bedroom, triple garage industry?

The recent government consultation on viability (amongst other things) goes some way to address this, effectively saying that the local plan is the place to be clear about viability of individual sites and once agreed there is little reason to change it. There are however a couple of issues with this. This first is that councils will take time to update their local plans (remember it is a process that is measured in years) so the current system will remain in each area until they have (or are at least approaching) a replacement plan. The second is that there will still be flexibility in the system (for example by judicial review on the reasonableness of individual decisions) for developers to tease open a loophole or two that they can then drive a bus through. Followed inevitably by bus lane markings and an open highway. Perhaps this is the world-weary cynic in me, but I fear the approach laid out there will lead us back to the same situation in 3-5 years.

Given that developers see having lawyers on a retainer as part and parcel of the industry, I would rather something that looks more like a hard to avoid tax than an easy to evade agreement. Yes, that might mess with their business case and yes, that will meant hey might have to change their modus operandi to suit the new circumstances. Given that might have as many positives and negatives it is a risk I’m willing to pay.

So councils are at the limits of what they can build, when they and housing associations do build they often choose (when they have a choice) to go for affordable rent. When developers build they often try to limit their affordable accommodation and when they do build it what is made is usually “affordable rent” or another type of intermediate accommodation. So where does that leave those who genuinely need truly affordable accommodation?

I fear trying to create a new type of rent level will just lead to another competing layer in the market. Removing “affordable rent” from what counts as affordable rented accommodation, especially under s106, would help restore some sense. Whilst councils are free to set terms in their local plan I think it would make sense for discussion on affordable accommodation to be based on what proportion of people in the local area could afford to live in the agreed accommodation. So if “affordable rent” stays, it could be renamed “rent that X% of people locally could afford to pay”.

Local authorities and most housing associations truly do want to build genuinely affordable homes, so giving them the powers to do borrow and build will make a huge difference in building of new affordable homes. Central government continuing the move away from “affordable rent” will allow councils and housing associations to build homes at a rent they think is appropriate and needed in their local area.

Finally, without wanting to sound like a scratched record, the bath will only fill if you put the plug in. Right to buy is leeching away truly affordable housing, giving some households a cash injection (when they sell the homes) and giving a number of private landlords an unearned field day as they swoop in, buy a former council home on the cheap and move in tenants paying market price. In a way, it would be better to give the tenants the discount to buy another house, at least then the landlord wouldn’t have to go through the cost of building a new property, although it wouldn’t help take the steam out of the wider housing market.

It would take many years for the total supply of social housing to dry up, but if we don’t look to do something more about it now then it could still happen. Given the need that clearly exists for affordable accommodation, that would be a huge mistake.

Empty homes, vacant stats and a bugbear

Happy new year! And don’t the Liberal Democrats know how to celebrate, with a widely reported press release calling the number of empty homes in the UK a “scandal”.

Now, I’m not party political in this blog. Yes, I spend a fair amount of time critiquing the government, but that is because they are the government. They are the ones able to see their policies come to fruition on a national scale, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I want to look at that. But something caught my eye in the Lib Dem release, something that gets my goat every time I see it, no matter which organisation it comes from.

Let’s get on the same page first- using some simple language. Empty homes aren’t great and bringing them back into use is a good thing. I don’t disagree with the main conclusion of the release, that Councils need further powers to bring empty homes -the vast majority of which are privately held- back into use. However, when you actually dig into the data, there is some richness that has been missed and indeed some uncomfortable truths about where empty homes are that means policy directed only at solving this may not be completely successful.

Others have quite rightly pointed out that the numbers seem large, until you compare them with the total national housing stock, or indeed the numbers of new net homes the country actually requires. I’m not going to repeat those unnecessarily, but they are important points to make. Every single long term empty home could be brought back into use without making a really significant dent in the ongoing housing need for the country.

What I really want to talk about is the relative size of local authorities and why it makes comparing overall numbers particularly pointless. The press release goes into detail of the areas with the highest number of empty homes, citing Durham, Leeds, Bradford and Cornwall as the areas with the most empty homes. That may be true, of the places that replied. But what that doesn’t understand is that local authorities have huge differences in population and numbers of dwellings. So comparing absolutes for these areas is bound to lead to larger areas having more of a wide variety of variables.

I’ll put it another way. Let’s say I run a cat charity. I want to put out a press release saying which area is the “most cat loving”. So I write to the cat department of every local authority asking them how many homes have cats in the area. I dutifully get the answers back, put them in a spreadsheet and what do you know, the “most cat loving areas” are Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Liverpool. Why is that? Because they are the local authority areas with the biggest populations and number of households.

So one area has a higher number of empty homes than another, but what does that mean? Are we to expect to see more empty homes if we take a walk around the streets? Of course not, if there are 3 times the number of empty homes, but the authority is 10 times as large, then it looks to me like public policy is better focused on the smaller area.

So, in my opinion, what the authors of the press release should have done is work out the proportion of empty homes compared to the number of dwellings in the area. I don’t know why they didn’t; the figures are freely available for England, Scotland and Wales. I do know it takes about 2 hours to manually copy and paste them across into the spreadsheet, because that’s exactly what I did.

Here’s my version of the press release statistics, with sheets reordering the list of local authorities based on the proportion of vacant homes and the proportions of 5 year and 10 year vacant homes. This makes for some much more interesting and frankly depressing reading.

The 10 areas with the highest proportion of empty homes are:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.12.52 PM

And here is the proportion at 5 years:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.13.30 PM

And here it is at 10 years:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.14.10 PM

I’m not quite sure what is happening in Wycombe and Chiltern (this might be related to the law of small numbers), but the rest of the list looks somewhat familiar. All the original “big four” have dropped out apart from Durham and that looks in keeping with what could be an actual issue. Scottish, Northern, Welsh, Midlands, former strong working communities now de-industrialised, towns not cities, with relatively low house prices dominate the lists.

It is almost like the proportion of empty homes is a symptom of another problem rather than something that can be solved in isolation. So going on about empty homes in isolation might not be the best thing to do, when the issue might well be depopulation and corresponding low house prices.

The other thing to repeat is look at how small those figures are. Outside of Shetland (which will be an outlier due to its tiny overall size and living conditions) the areas with the highest proportion of empty homes after 10 years is less than one in 300. Yes, people get very upset if that one in 300 (or less) happens to be next door to them, but we do need a bit of perspective when thinking about policy.

This puts the over-simplified conclusion of the Lib Dem release under some doubt. If empty homes are a blight and a waste (and they are!) then the areas with the highest proportion of them must be the areas with the biggest proportions of blight and waste. But perhaps what is required is not just Councils taking over empty homes, but wider and more thoughtful approaches to improve the economy of those areas and give empty homeowners a reason to want to bring them back into use.

There’s a couple of other flaws with the release, the most major being that a large number of Councils aren’t included. Both Manchester and Birmingham (Councils, not the whole conurbations) manage to not be included in the release, most likely as a result of not getting the FOI response back before the Lib Dems wanted to issue it. Sure, that can only increase the overall number of empty homes, but it can change the overall proportion of homes and looking at the government’s figures suggests that Manchester especially has an interesting (and positive) story to tell about bringing empty homes back into use.

Which brings me onto the final point of concern about the release, which is the over-reliance on looking at Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) on bringing empty homes back into use. The Lib Dems have actually asked Councils how many homes have been brought back and how many EDMOs they have used. The only thing that they have reported is the proportion of Councils using EDMOs. When you actually look at their own figures, what you see is that areas like Leeds (although be careful about proportions rather than overall numbers!) and Newcastle are bringing the most empty homes back into use and they are doing it without significant use of EDMOs!

Clearly, if the press release authors wanted to look at bringing empty homes back into use, if they really wanted to understand what worked and what didn’t then they might have asked the areas doing best what was happening. I’m sure (in fact, I know) both of the Councils in these cities have been trying very hard to bring down the numbers. But at least part of the answer might lie in the fact that both these cities have inward investment, public and private and improving economies.

Which takes us back to the earlier point- perhaps what this data is showing us is the solution to empty homes is found in improving the wider economy of de-industrialised areas, particularly towns, as well as individual measures on housing.

Please please please Letwin get what I want

It would be the first time. So, are we all enjoying the post-budget lull? It is quite possible that Philip Hammond will be off our TV screens for a little while (at least on things relating to his brief) as the world returns to worrying about Brexit.

In my previous post about the budget I tried to outline why I would be concerned about any policies announced that would have a long lead in time. Frankly, I’m worried the government, in its current iteration, won’t last long enough to bring in the longer term policies it announces.

So the news that a major part of the “housing budget” will be another review into turning planning permissions into homes, this time chaired by Sir Oliver Letwin, is a particular worry. It has been given a short period to assemble and write up its conclusions, with the demand that it should have published the results by the Spring Statement (March 2018).

Even then, it looks like a tall order for the government to stay in its current guise. Who knows what might happen in the next few months and, as experience has taught me, I won’t be celebrating any positive policy changes until they are enacted or implemented.

Of course Sir Oliver won’t have to necessarily commission new bits of research, he could just look into what has already been proposed and choose some options. He could look at the Barker Review, the Calcutt Review, the Lyons Review, the most recent Parliamentary briefings on housing supply, their own white paper and the Farmer Review, looking into skills shortages and demographic change. Plus plenty of others (feel free to tell me your favourite!).

Indeed, Sir Oliver has a veritable smorgasboard of options available to him. What needs to happen is for the government to actually take some of them and implement them. Which is where the problem lies.

For the government seems very keen to offer further demand measures whilst not really combatting the need for supply. Put simply the government’s approach since at least Eric Pickles’s days has been to force councils to release more sites whilst posturing and taking tough to housebuilders whilst doing very little to change the market to strongly incentivise or directly create steel toe capped boots on the ground. This has led to the situation where developers have lots of options on which site to choose, but no time or incentive to actually build much faster than they are already.

This approach was evident once again in the budget, with limited support for council building (£1bn seems like a lot of money but it spreads very thinly over the country) and lots of loan underwriting and guarantees. As if all housebuilders need is the final push to get them over the line on individual sites. If only they had share issues or assets they could borrow against.
It’s actually been a common point of my last few posts- political will is required to move beyond this and that means deciding to directly impact some negatively in order to help others. It’s as true with unrepentant city centre drivers as it is with housebuilders.

Trying to capture and reinvest land value uplifts (which is rather popular at the moment) would stop those who have land to sell from receiving the full market price. Robust compulsory purchase order powers (or use it or lose it), joint partnerships or new homes corporations will take business and/or profits away from existing housebuilders. Reducing house prices (however that is achieved) or reducing the rate of growth of house prices would impact people who already own homes.

Indeed, what the government seems incredibly shy of is actually using an arm of the state to directly build homes at scale. Yes, local authorities have been very adept at setting up joint ventures and yes, the government has some small scale schemes like the accelerated construction scheme. But at present these don’t add up enough to a significant market intervention. More funding, especially to cover start-up costs (you’d hope building would be self-funding quite quickly) are required in order to allow one bit or another to build at scale in a way that competes with existing developers.

There’s a word for this kind of decision making. That word is politics. Politicians are accountable to us as voters, but that isn’t the same thing as them needing to please each individual person by each individual decision.

So Sir Oliver, and by extension the government, don’t have to venture very far to solve the particular puzzle of increasing housing supply. Indeed, they have everything they need.

What they want to do, and what they are struggling to find is a way is to achieve, is creating supply without upsetting anyone else, particularly existing homeowners, landowners, landlords or those whose supposed purpose is to build houses on land. But in the real world that is very often simply necessary. It’s a puzzle of their own making, in their own heads and if they could see beyond it they would be able to deliver positive changes.

We’ve come full circle in a way. The government need to make a decision; they have the policy options laid out infront of them. But choosing not to choose is about the worst thing they can do. More delays and half measures make building the right homes in the right places at the right prices significantly more difficult.