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Buy a House on Benefits? Why not!

Right to Buy (RTB) – argued to be the most successful transfers of wealth since its introduction in April 1980. Yet despite successfully giving aspirational working-class families the ability to participate in the property-owning democracy it once again is under scrutiny.

Incredibly over 1.9 million homes have been sold through RTB since its inception, a take-up that demonstrates its sheer popularity. Once commonplace under Local Authorities the offer has now been made to tenants of Housing Association (HA). But for many this is a step too far.

Labour, Guido Fawkes and Shelter condemn the proposal

On the right, we have seen Guido Fawkes condemn the “buy a house on benefits” scheme as a “stupid idea”. Shelter has claimed extending RTB “couldn’t come at a worse time”. While also suggesting “the government should be building more social homes, not selling them off”. Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Lisa Nandy, recently called into question Boris Johnson’s announcement.

She challenged Johnson over the feasibility of allowing people to use housing benefit towards a mortgage. Tweeting recently whether lenders are “on board” with the Prime Minister’s first proposal after his disastrous vote of no confidence. Nandy also claims the new proposal would “make the housing crisis worse”.

Questions over feasibility and acceptance by the market

The scheme could help 17,000 families a year according to the report on the pilot published in February 2021. However, it found half of the homes under the scheme weren’t replaced despite promises of “one-for-one” replacement. Those “replaced” were often found to be as a more expensive form of tenure. This in large part driven by a Tory grant programme favouring such forms of tenure. Arguably fair kop to call into question.

Notwithstanding the above, we have seen the rise of the for-profit registered provider backed by private equity and institutions. Who have been piling into the sector lured in by government backed income in a supply constrained market. Whether social or affordable rent, or controversial shared ownership, the private sector has been licking its lips.

If these capital providers can accommodate such government-backed income streams, why cannot lenders?

But the proposals actually spur on new supply

Secondly, the argument around the need for one-for-one replacement seems one based on a lack of understanding of basic arithmetic. For those on the left, many feel a tenancy for life forms part of housing as a human right.  On that basis, whether an aspirational working-class family lives in a social rented home, or one where they have exercised the Right to Buy, morally this principle holds true. Under RTB total housing stock does not deplete and new build from recycled capital ultimately still contributes to new supply.

The family who can now use their in-work benefits towards a mortgage become the beneficiaries directly of the subsidy. Not the HAs who fail to do repairs and pay their executives investment banker wages. At a time where the National Housing Federation announces an independent panel to review the poor-quality homes endemic under its watch, why would we want to prevent aspirational working-class families from the opportunity to fix and maintain their own home, if they have the means to do so. Ultimately giving them an opportunity to escape the ever-lasting trap of poor housing management they currently endure under HAs.

But how, after all, in a supply constrained housing system does adding new housing stock make the housing crisis “worse”?

Global market headwinds make opportune timing to support demand

All sides have now sought to strawman the Right to Buy, blaming it for the loss of much needed social housing stock. The debate has not become one of supply. Instead some argue these recent measures merely add to demand-side pressures, which an already distorted market does not need. Yet in a time of globally increasing interest rates and a recession, when else is there a better time to broaden access to those on low incomes and counter market forces.

Furthermore, HAs often have low levels of debt against them with the homes valued on the books at Existing Use Value (EUV). Such a low level of debt allows the Government to provide meaningful discounts and unlock wealth for working class families. Of course, the HA lobby and HM Treasury will have kittens if they have to sell their silver, but ultimately who benefits?

Boris Johnson is playing to the aspirational working class

Whatever your politics, broadening access to an affordable home or home ownership should be the end goal. Yes, the Labour Housing Group has taken a stance to abolish Right to Buy. But I argue this policy is targeted at those Labour must seek to win back from the Tories. Boris Johnson is sending a key message to the millions of tenants living under often dreadful Housing Association conditions, that he cares about them.

Meanwhile, Labour and much of the left-leaning housing industry, condemns what has previously been a hugely successful policy for those who have benefitted from it. Right to Buy and the need to provide more social rented homes are not mutually exclusive.

Without means-testing tenancies how else can we recycle capital from those in social housing who can afford to buy?

Many of those who will exercise their right will be those who can afford to, who are still living under the benefits of a social tenancy. These include the members of Parliament who remain in their social rented flat, while earning a top 10% salary in the Commons, as well as the 117,000 households (16%) in London living in social rented accommodation  resided in by the top 40% of earners in the capital.

But if we are not to bring in means testing of social rented accommodation throughout a tenancy, is not recycling capital from sales into the provision of new homes an admirable end goal?

I certainly think so if the sellers can keep the receipts. We can argue about whether we “replace” less than half with social or affordable rent. Or we can recognise the use of the benefit systems ability to increase the overall level of stock in a housing market beholden to NIMByism. After all an election message to aspirational working-class families that they have a chance at closing their own personal wealth inequality gap is compelling.

<strong>Christopher Worrall</strong>
Christopher Worrall

Chris is the Editor of Red Brick blog and sits on the Labour Housing Group Executive Committee.

He currently is Chair of Poplar and Limehouse CLP, co-hosts the Priced Out podcast and is the Local Government and Housing Member Policy group lead for the Fabian Society.

He writes in a personal capacity.

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56. The magic number that should condemn Boris Johnson to a huge defeat.

If policies alone decided Elections, Ken Livingstone would be romping home as the next London Mayor.
Instead he faces a photo finish with Tory Boris Johnson. ‘Look at Boris, isn’t he a laugh’ is no way to run one of the world’s five greatest cities. But his celebrity status only tells half the story: Johnson is a cunning and ambitious right wing Tory who is running an unremittingly negative campaign with such hugely powerful media support that even people on own Ken’s side start to believe some of the things that are said.
Ken has always had an extraordinary ability to define the policy needs of the moment. On fares, he saw that the need in the 1980s was to use spare capacity and get people back on the tube again; by 2000 the need was for massive investment in new services; and now in 2012 the need is to put money back into the pockets of struggling Londoners.

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Boris Johnson’s silence on ‘Affordable Rent’. Why the secrecy?

Once again Boris Johnson has refused to answer important questions about the ‘Affordable Rent’ programme in London.  Written questions by Nicky Gavron AM have failed to elicit informative or even intelligible answers to key questions such as the rents to be charged.

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London Housing Budget in a Pickle

By Nicky Gavron AM, Labour’s Housing and Planning Spokesperson on the London Assembly.
The coalition government has slashed London’s housing budget by 60 per cent, although you wouldn’t know it from the press release. Under the cover of giving new powers to City Hall, a budget of £3 billion has been spun to mask the huge cutsLondon faces.
Boris Johnson described Eric Pickles’ £3 billion settlement as “excellent”. But it is nothing of the sort.
Not a penny of Pickles’ money is new. It was all previously within existing London budgets, including:

  • Money the government pledged to the Olympic Park Legacy Company (which soon becomes the new Mayoral Development Corporation); and
  • £1.4 million of the now axed London Development Agency’s staffing budget.

The budget trumpeted most by the Mayor – £1.9 billion for housing – is a 60 per cent cut on the amount given to London in 2008 by the previous Labour government.
The Labour settlement gave London more money over three years than the Tories are now giving the whole country over four.
Could anyone take this spin as anything other than an attempt to mask the huge cuts to housing and regeneration inLondon?
With this reduced budget settlement for London come a host of new powers and responsibilities. The Mayor accurately describes the new powers as a “landmark” for the city. We agree. Labour has always supported more housing and regeneration powers for City Hall, especially when we are in the grip of a housing crisis.
Rents are rocketing and supply is plummeting across all sectors. But, faced with these challenges, what is the Mayor doing with his new powers?
He does not have a single policy to deal with extortionate private sector rents – believing it should be left completely to the market. And on the supply of affordable homes even he admits his policy is completely unsustainable. Housing associations will be forced to make up the shortfall left by government cuts by borrowing excessively – a policy that threatens their long-term viability.
When seeking election the Mayor said there was capacity to build 40,000 homes on land under City Hall’s control. In typical Johnson style he promised to “put his land where his mouth is”.
But this pledge has gone unmet. Housing completions on land he controls have plummeted to less than half the number Ken Livingstone delivered.
Under Boris Johnson London has more powers but things are going backwards. We urgently need a Mayor with a real plan who can use all the levers now at City Hall’s disposal to tackleLondon’s housing crisis.
Nicky Gavron can be followed on twitter @nickygavron and at
London Labour Housing Group can be followed on twitter @fairdealldnhsg and on the Fair Deal for London Housing Facebook page!/groups/FairDealforLondonHousing/ 

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Housing helps Ken pull ahead

The latest Yougov poll for London shows that Ken Livingstone has caught up and overtaken Tory Boris Johnson in the race for Mayor.
It has always seemed to me the case that the polls would turn in Ken’s favour as the campaign got under way.  Johnson has had 3 years of photo-opportunities, uncritical media coverage (witness Paxman’s pathetic so-called ‘interviews’) and orchestrated rows to distance himself from Cameron, and has developed an unparalleled degree of recognition amongst the public.  But his ability to avoid real debate on policy has left him largely unchallenged.
The latest poll only gives Johnson a lead over Ken on the grounds of charisma, where the Tory mayor’s figures have only ever been matched by Basil Brush, another mischievous character with a posh accent and manner.  Indeed you could almost imagine Boris adopting ‘Ha Ha Ha, Boom! Boom!’ as his catchphrase.  As someone remarked to me recently, Dame Edna Everage is so popular in her (?) home town of Melbourne that they named a street after her, but the people of the city would never contemplate voting her in as mayor, because charisma alone is not enough.  Ken is well ahead on ‘who has achieved more as Mayor’, being in touch with ordinary Londoners, being decisive, strong and good in a crisis, which seem to matter more.
The outcome of this election will depend on the differential turnout of the Parties’ supporters.  Affordable housing is one of the top five issues identified by Londoners, alongside crime, transport, jobs and the cost of living, and will have a great bearing on the outcome.  Many more of Ken’s supporters name affordable housing as a key issue than Johnson’s and housing seems to be a key factor in achieving the turnout that is required.
The strong headway that Ken has made comes after two big campaign policy pronouncements, on fares and on housing.  London being a city of commuters, fares is likely to have had a much bigger impact.  But Ken’s housing policies – calling for more regulation of the private rented sector, campaigning for a London Living Rent, and floating the idea of a new not-for-profit agency to link landlords and tenants – have attracted a lot of attention and have provoked debate.  As we get nearer the election, and the Tory Mayor’s housing failures become ever more apparent, it is reasonable to expect that housing will have more influence over Londoners’ voting intentions and boost Labour turnout.
As the most high profile election this year, the race to be London Mayor will have a crucial bearing on the fortunes of Ed Miliband and David Cameron.  Miliband, Ed Balls and Livingstone show every sign of working well together, and progressives in London should be hugely motivated by the possibility of dumping Johnson.  Just close your eyes and think it’s Basil Brush.

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Housing will define the London Mayoral election

Housing was one of Ken Livingstone’s success stories. Despite starting with very few housing powers and responsibilities, Livingstone skilfully used his planning powers and his leadership to promote housebuilding, especially on the major sites in the east of the capital, and to raise the proportion of homes built that are affordable.
Policies such as the target that 50 per cent of all homes built should be affordable; development should wherever possible be mixed tenure; there should be a larger share of family-sized homes – were allied to growing influence over central government’s housing capital expenditure leading to London’s biggest ever affordable housing budget.
Although the recession had a serious impact on private sector output, by 2008, when Boris Johnson took over, the prospects for housing in London were better than they had been for a generation.
Johnson’s policies, like those of the government, are highly ideological and damaging. There will be virtually no new social rented housing and the existing social rented stock will be reduced.
What little money is left after 60% cuts will be channelled into the so-called ‘Affordable Rent’ programme at rents of up to 80% of market rents. Johnson’s revised London Plan removes many of the policies that were most effective.
There has been no mitigation of the “Kosovo-style social cleansing” – to use Johnson’s own words – that will result from their housing benefit policies and the total benefit cap.
The prospect is that, were he to win, a new Livingstone mayoralty will spend three of its four years under the coalition, so the approach will have to be a mix of pragmatic policy and campaigning.
There are things the new Mayor can do to relieve the situation and champion London’s interests. A detailed report from the newly-formed London Labour Housing Group sets out what they might be.
For example:
• Limited funds can be identified to start a programme of social rented housing again, especially using public land;
• The 50% affordable rule – supported by the inspectors who assessed Johnson’s new plan – could be re-introduced;
• More pro-active planning with an emphasis on mixed communities and not
ghettoisation would challenge developers;

• A London-wide empty homes strategy could bring thousands of homes back into use;
• A new charter for private renting could engage tenants and landlords in a serious attempt to professionalise the sector and improve standards;
• The Mayor can push financial institutions into better mortgage policies for first time buyers and mortgage deposit guarantee schemes that could make a big difference for a lot of people;
• A new monitoring unit could track households being forced by the housing benefit changes to move across London, using the information to make sure poor and vulnerable people do not lose contact with essential services, social services support, schooling, and so on;
• A much bigger emphasis on co-operative and mutual solutions to housing needs, including Community Land Trusts.
Another vital role for a new Labour Mayor, were he to win, will be to prepare for a new Labour government in 2015, were Ed Miliband to be elected prime minister.
Livingstone has good relationships with Miliband and Ed Balls and a lot of preparatory work could go in to a new housing programme which should be at the centre of Labour’s economic, health and community re-building agendas as well as housing.
He should champion London’s interests through high-profile campaigning for a better housing deal – more genuinely affordable homes, less draconian benefit policies, mixed communities throughout London, the idea of a London Living Rent to match the London Living Wage.
There are a lot of ideas around at present for Livingstone to build on for the campaign to beat Johnson – from the Green party’s Jenny Jones AM, the Pro-Housing Alliance, the London Assembly Housing and Planning Committee, and now London Labour Housing Group have all produced serious proposals that deserve to be taken up.
Livingstone’s housing record was a good one; Johnson’s is dreadful. The task for progressives is to convince Londoners they can vote for a better way next May.
This post has also been published on Left Foot Forward.
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Housing disbenefit

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

I can’t recall a time when housing issues have dominated the headlines in the national press like they have in the last week.  Having spent the best part of 40 years, off and on, trying to get newspapers to take housing stories seriously, all my Christmases have come at once.  Only Lady Porter and mortgage repossessions broke through onto the front pages like this.  It’s been hard to keep up.  The increasingly ridiculous Mayor of London managed to stir the pot beautifully.  Cameron’s pomposity and arrogance became ever more obvious at PMQs, further exposing his absolute lack of understanding of what it is to be poor. 

Nick Clegg’s synthetic anger about Chris Bryant and Boris Johnson comparing the housing benefit policies to social cleansing was clearly an attempted diversion that only succeeded in demonstrating how threadbare the government’s position is.  I am sure he has never engaged in hyperbole before.  Of course there are no armies and no machine guns just as many workplaces are not really run by ‘a little Hitler’ despite the protestations of the staff.  It is undoubtedly the case that many extremely poor people will be forced, by economic compulsion rather than armies, to move against their will, often out of areas where they were born and bred and where all their community connections and family support services are.  It will ruin many of the country’s most vibrant and genuinely mixed neighbourhoods, where rich and poor and all ethnicities live cheek by jowl and have done so for generations.  The imagery is therefore relevant: in truth it’s the power these images have to communicate the story that rattles Clegg.    

 Apart from attack being the best form of defence, the government’s strategy has been to keep the story focused on the few extreme central London examples rather than the many inner London, outer London, Home Counties, and the rest of the country cases where the HB reforms will hit people hard.  There are several reforms not just the cap; they will hit poor private tenants, they will hit poor social tenants, they will hit poor homeless people living in private leased accommodation, they will hit tenants everywhere not just in London, crucially they will hit people in work as much as they will hit jobseekers and other people who do not work, and the numbers affected will be in the many hundreds of thousands.

 The coverage has also revealed a basic ignorance in much of the media about the core story.  The Guardian started its front page story by referring to ‘council home associations’, whatever they are, and a presenter on News 24 asked a guest about social tenants living in rich areas of London despite the story being about Local Housing Allowance caps.  HB as an in-work benefit could be a feature in Stephen Fry’s General Ignorance round in QI.

 They say that no-one understands the entirety of how the housing revenue account subsidy system works.  In truth it’s a doddle compared to HB and the relationship between rents, HB and other benefits.  That’s why this story is about an emotional response and a feeling as to whether the government is right or wrong, and that’s why the imagery is so powerful and important.  So far, I’m delighted to say, it’s Government 0 Humanity 1.