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.

Paint, power, priority and priorities

It’s amazing what a lick of paint will do in the right place. I say this partly because our kitchen could do with a refresh and partly because of the launch of the King Street pilot in Toronto.

In the pilot King Street is seeing a huge priority shift in favour of public transport, with cars only able to use it for short (ie. one block) periods before having to move off. This leaves the rest of road free for public transport. The early results show large drops in commute times for public transport users, although there is much more time to see if this continues.

So there you have it, new roads or rail aren’t necessarily required to improve public transport travel times. Just change the roads around to favour whatever public transport is already using the streets. So why aren’t we seeing similar approaches tried everywhere? Well, to get into that we have to look at what it would mean and what the political risks are.

But let’s first have a think about why this is important. Many of our city centres are clogged with poisonous fumes, many are difficult to cross with any form of transport. Large, often multi-storey sections of city are used for the storage of wheeled lumps of metal and plastic that lie unused for much of the day, whilst often buses are half empty outside of peak hours.

I don’t think changing prioritisation is something unknown to policy makers or politicians. They know it is possible, in the right circumstances. They probably also know that in the long run it is likely to do some good and convince some people to change from car to public transport (the elusive prize of “modal shift”).

The first part of answering the riddle is that giving priority to one group of commuters (in this case public transport users) takes it away from another. All the economic theories about whether one group can “compensate” another through a change in policy won’t apply when you have a swarm of angry motorists (and their well organised lobby groups) making a path to your door.

Yes, the changes would hopefully convince some of them out of their cars, but in the meantime they are going to be unhappy and quite likely vocal about it. In Britain it has been a couple of years since the tabloids have unilaterally declared that there was a war on motorists, but I am sure with the right cajoling they could reopen hostilities. It would be a fearless politician who tries to unleash major prioritisation changes on an unsuspecting populace, but even with years of warming up quite a few people are still going to be upset about it.

The second issue is that while there are many people who feel they cannot live without their car, there really are some who actually can’t. People with certain disabilities, those whose work involves deliveries, those transporting raw materials and tools, people with caring responsibilities who may need to leave work in an emergency. Taxi drivers (of every description) might feel that they are a form of public transport. All these groups will be caught up in any de-prioritisation of the car. There may be a way to try and work with these groups to provide them with exemptions, but each time you do that you put more traffic on the restricted roads and lessen the overall impact of the policy.

Thirdly, especially from a European perspective, many of our roads weren’t designed for multiple lanes of cars. They weren’t even designed for cars, but for carts or pedestrians. Especially in city centres, it is hard to imagine road widening taking place if it will destroy buildings.

Add into this that almost all of our cities are built straddling rivers (because: history) then you have a real problem.

I grew up in Worcester, with one four lane road bridge in the city. If you don’t cross that bridge you can travel 2 miles south or five miles north, on essentially local roads, just to get to the other side of the river. The road layout means it’s pretty hard to see how some people travelling across the river won’t have to pass by the Cathedral in all its splendour. This means whatever happens with priority and prioritisation, cars are still likely to be getting close to the city centre when traversing the city, even if they are not travelling into the centre. They will still have to cross the bottleneck that is the road bridge and that is effectively that.

Just as the rivers present an obstacle, so do the actions of previous decision makers. I live in Leeds, where someone a long time ago decided to build a motorway into the heart of the city centre. We also have the shortest numbered motorway in the country right in the city centre. Indeed, if you are travelling from east to west, north to south or vise versa, you are most likely to get pretty close to the city centre. No lick of paint is going to take the roads away and even with lane priority for the buses that use the motorways people are still going to want to travel in large numbers close to the city centre. Better public transport that doesn’t travel to the city centre may be part of the solution to that, but that would require us to be able to direct public transport where to go.

Which leads me onto the next point and the need for public transport priority improvements to be matched with decently directed and quality services. People won’t be nudged into moving out of their cars if the public transport is slow, liable to break down, doesn’t go where you want or is not very pleasant to sit on. For much of the UK that just isn’t happening and the growing consensus is that local democratic control (and perhaps higher subsidies alongside this) is the only thing that could improve this.

Finally, there’s nothing truly exciting about changing priorities for most people. No-one apart from us policy geeks are going to remember the politician who decided to repaint the roads, no matter what impact it makes.

There’s even a school of thought, connected with my previous point, that says you have to wow the middle class, middle income commuters out of their cars with something exciting. Trains excite people more than buses, trams even more than that and don’t even start people on undergrounds or monorail (monorail monorail!). But all of that comes at a cost (exorbitant in some cases) that is not only financial. Roads have to be dug up, viaducts built, stations expanded, tunnel diggers bought, buildings knocked down, land purchased.

Hopefully what I’ve described isn’t enough to turn anyone off road reorganisation, but has laid out why it isn’t as easy as it might appear.

Let’s take a second to look at a case where it most definitely did not pan out. York is one of those historical cities with a medieval street layout, a large river and a set number of bridges in the city centre. It has issues with pollution and slow travel times for private and public transport travellers alike. The council, much like Toronto are currently doing, decided to pilot a scheme where one of the bridges -the one with the highest level of bus use- would effectively become a bus only bridge. It wasn’t just paint, they paid out for some number plate recognition cameras and signs, which meant people received notifications and (eventually) fines for driving through in their cars.

What happened next is most likely seared into the collective memory of every transport planner in the country. It became the single most important issue in the city, dominating press coverage for months. Many people received fines, some without knowing they had broken the rules, some out because they found themselves funnelled into a route that they couldn’t get out of, some out of intransigence. The council lost legal battles to enforce the fines and it eventually became such a millstone around their neck that they ended the pilot. It weakened the ruling administration in the council and strongly contributed to it’s eventual loss of power.

So, upsetting motorists is a difficult sell. It needs careful management and early and clear engagement with the public. You need to be able to show that the majority of the public want better public transport and you have to try and deliver the results early and aid a quick modal shift so that full public transport is passing three quarter empty cars.

Crucially, to my mind at least, you have to be able to present any changes as part of a package that looks wider than a single street or improvement. If X or Y road is effectively closing to cars what will happen elsewhere? What public transport improvements can you lever in at the same time?  Who gains from increased use, a private company or local services? Can investment be made in out of centre parking? And also crucially, how will the needs of people who genuinely need to use their cars be met?

This is an issue many councils in the UK are going to be looking at. Hopefully all eyes are on Toronto, but it will be important to learn not only what they did on the road, but how people reacted to the changes and how the public can be convinced to accept re-prioritisation of the roads for what is clearly in the interest of everyone.