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Out of area placement incentives need to stop

England’s housing system is broken, and the out of area placement process could not make it more obvious. Out of area placements are used by local authorities across the country in order to address the ever growing demands for housing. Council’s often failing to find a local solution, will offer individuals the opportunity of accommodation outside of their hometowns.

Generally, authorities will use this option to source temporary accommodation opportunities, which are meant to provide short –term housing, but in some cases can last for over three years. Residents can also be offered permanent relocations out of an authority’s jurisdiction, if suitable housing is not available locally, through the private rented sector.

On the face of it that sounds like it should make sense, but in practice where real lives are involved, it is often a tragedy bordering on farce. Struggling London boroughs, not able to meet housing demands in already heated markets, eye up housing in the comparatively cheaper Home Counties to relocate their residents. Likewise, the now saturated out-of-London housing markets in turn force those local authorities to seek housing solutions elsewhere, some sending residents as far as 250 miles away to northern cities, in order to secure affordable accommodation, having made deals with private sector landlords.

These are capacity and cost based decisions that reflect the state of our housing market. In fact, some councils are paying hefty incentives to private sector landlords outside of their borough, in order to secure accommodation. Such incentives can be for thousands of pounds and can undermine an authority’s ability to procure housing in the local market, creating a vicious cycle of need.

In theory people can only be placed out of area for housing with their consent. In reality there are increasing questions about the legitimacy of this claim. A recent documentary, Forced out Families*, featured families from Medway who were moved as far as Bradford. One resident interviewed, claimed that he had been threatened with having his children placed in care, if he did not take the accommodation offer, while another was told he would not be able to keep his dog if he decided to stay local. The pressures placed on the housing system makes it incapable of addressing the needs of residents, forcing them to make decisions with little ‘real’ choice.

It is often the most vulnerable in our communities who find themselves in such challenging circumstances with the potential to have significant long-term impacts. Residents in need could potentially be moved hundreds of miles away from their families and local networks to completely different towns and cities without the support they need. Most at risk are children who in their formative years could be faced with unstable circumstances, with the potential to have a detrimental impact on educational achievement and mental health.

The impact on local resources is also significant. The law governing out of area placements requires that the receiving authority is made aware when residents are placed in temporary accommodation within their borough, but this does not always apply when the transfer is on a permanent basis. This means that local authorities will often have no real grasp of the numbers moving into their jurisdiction. In places like Medway, the increasing number of families relocating under this system is placing additional pressures, on already creaking local services, including schools and health care.

Most local authorities will express their frustrations at the current system, and stress that out of area placements are often a last resort. So what can really be done to fix this growing trend? Understanding the origins of the problem is the first step in finding solutions. A housing crisis, which sees house building failing to keep up with demand and chronic lack of social housing is central to the challenge.

It has been exacerbated in recent years by an increasingly unaffordable private rented sector and changes to the welfare system, driven by a Conservative government, which has placed an increasing number of households at risk of homelessness and left local councils struggling to meet housing demands. Regional economic inequalities are also highlighted, confirming that house prices in London and the South East are no longer sustainable.

The causes are complex, which means that the solutions are also not simple. Local authorities do not necessarily have the answer and in the long term it requires a complete overhaul of our housing system, addressing the inherent problems which have led to the current crisis. In the short term, local councils need to come together to look at how we can work better together to manage housing demands, share information and alleviate the burden on local resources.

* ITV Documentary: Ross Kemp: Living With ‘Forced Out’ Families

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Naushabah Khan</span></strong>
Naushabah Khan

Naushabah Khan has been a Medway Councillor since 2015, and is currently Medway Labour’s Spokesperson for Housing. Naushabah is passionate about securing sustainable development in Medway which includes sufficient affordable housing and proper infrastructure.

Naushabah was a Parliamentary Candidate for the Rochester and Strood in both the by election in 2014, and the general election in 2015. She is the Local Government Representative for the South East and works as a Director in Public Affairs.

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We cannot borrow our way out of the housing crisis: mortgage credit is part of the problem

We cannot borrow our way out of the housing crisis: mortgage credit is part of the problem

One of the key issues highlighted in my new book about ‘Generation Rent’ is how mortgage lending drives the UK housing crisis. I am far from the first person to point this out: my understanding of the problem is drawn from the research of the think tank Positive Money, IIPP economist Josh Ryan-Collins, property cycles expert Philip J Anderson, and many others.

But no-one in government seems to be taking it seriously. As a result, a dangerous policy proposal in the 2019 Conservative manifesto has gone largely unchallenged: the promise to support the mortgage industry in delivering long-term low fixed-rate mortgages for first-time buyers, which will ‘slash the cost of deposits’. This may sound like an enticing idea, but in practice it will only pour more petrol on the fire.

The truth about where mortgages come from

When you take out a mortgage, the lender conjures new money into existence. The money doesn’t come from other customers’ savings accounts, nor does it come from bank ‘reserves’: it is created from nothing.

The main constraint on mortgage eligibility is the borrower’s ability to repay the debt. Effectively, a mortgage is a large withdrawal from The Bank of Future You. And while you can typically only borrow 90%-95% of the property value, this does little to keep mortgage borrowing in check, as property prices can rise in response to expanding mortgage credit and vice versa.

When property and mortgages collide

When cheap and readily-available mortgage credit meets residential property, house prices shoot up. This is because the supply of land, which accounts for about 70% of the value of a home, is fixed. No market can produce new land in response to the demand for housing created by expanding mortgage credit. And you cannot take out a mortgage against a home that hasn’t been built yet.

So, what you get is an ever-expanding supply of money chasing after a finite amount of property. Maybe we should think of it this way: rather than house prices going up, the value of money itself has been systematically trashed relative to the value of property.

What if we pour new money into new homes instead?

This was the rationale behind the government’s Help to Buy Equity Loan scheme, which was reserved for new-builds only. The idea was that, because the new loans would be used to increase the housing supply, the scheme wouldn’t lead to house price inflation.

But since the scheme was rolled out via huge private housebuilders, these companies were able to control the supply of housing by hoovering up as much land as possible and drip-feeding their (often shoddy) new-builds onto the property market at a slow enough rate to keep sale prices artificially high. In consequence, housebuilders’ profits have swelled, and Which? recently reported a trend of Help to Buy homes falling in value, despite rising local house prices. Most worryingly of all, Help to Buy mortgage arrears are running at six times the ordinary rate.

A culture of land speculation entrenches the issue

Maybe the land-credit feedback cycle would be dampened if it were possible to take out a mortgage to fund a self-build property. But to acquire land, you normally have to satisfy a landowner’s price expectations (claiming vacant or unregistered land in this country is almost impossible). These expectations are likely to have been warped by the speculative nature of the land market.

Most landowners know that, under current rules, a piece of agricultural land can become around 92 times more valuable with a grant of planning permission for residential buildings. If the seller doesn’t like the price on offer, they can withhold their land indefinitely with no consequences.

A whole ‘land promotion’ side-industry has sprung up to enable speculators to share in the planning uplift, using legal mechanisms like ‘option agreements’ and ‘promotion agreements’ to reduce risk and increase profits. As a result, land is scarce and acquiring it is both costly and difficult, despite the fact that only around 6% of UK land mass is actually built on.

Why planning reform won’t solve the problem

Perhaps because land speculation is so rampant in Britain, the planning system is currently painted as the big bad wolf of the housing crisis amongst conservative thinkers. There is a belief that the land market will magically start behaving like any other free market if we scrap the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. But for all its flaws, the planning system is not the fundamental issue here, even if there is a genuine case for planning reform.

In Victorian Britain, slum housing, rising rents and overcrowding plagued the Capital and other areas of rapid economic growth. This had nothing to do with rules and regulations (which were next to non-existent), and everything to do with the power that comes with land monopoly. The poor got poorer and the landed got richer: ‘twas ever thus.

We need to keep talking about land and credit

The only way to permanently stop the price of property ballooning out of all proportion is to tax the land beneath it. A land value tax could replace council tax (a ‘highly regressive’ policy that falls hardest on the least well-off), business rates and Stamp Duty Land Tax, and would disincentivise land speculation. It could raise much-needed revenue for public services hit by austerity cutbacks. Or it could even be redistributed in the form of a ‘citizen’s dividend’ or Universal Basic Income.

This idea has garnered support from across the political spectrum, but has traditionally been opposed by governments beholden to wealthy landowners and a predominantly homeowning public. So, since it may take some time to get the electorate to come round to the idea of a land value tax, a more urgent and politically possible course of action would be to reform the land acquisition process, so that local authorities can afford to build genuinely affordable social housing at scale.

In addition, the Right to Buy policy must be scrapped immediately to stem the loss of social housing – especially given that nearly half of the homes sold are ending up in the private rented sector and contributing to the soaring cost of housing benefit. The shortage of genuinely low-cost homes is acute; the number of people stuck on social housing waiting lists stands at well over 1 million.

For too long, spiralling house prices have been dismissed as an inevitable force of nature, or the product of too little housebuilding, or too much immigration – even though research from the Bank of England has concluded that the quadrupling of house prices over the last 40 years is ‘more than accounted for’ by falling interest rates. It may be dry, knotty and difficult to fit into a soundbite. But until we increase public understanding of the land and credit feedback cycle, the housing debate will only keep going around in circles.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Chloe Timperley</span></strong>
Chloe Timperley

Author of “Generation Rent: Why You Can’t Buy a Home (Or Even Rent a Good One)”. ORDER: http://bit.ly/2AX2LhE

Chloe’s professional background is in financial planning, which involves analysing pensions and investments. This led her to delve into how the financial sector sits at the heart of Britain’s housing crisis. During her research, Chloe went undercover at landlord events, spoke to MPs and activists, and joined a tenants’ union.

She also listened to the stories of scores of tenants who — like her — remain stuck against their wishes in the private rented sector.

Now, she wants to shift the housing debate away from simple narratives of supply vs. demand, and towards the underlying mechanisms that drive our dysfunctional land and housing markets.

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Post-Covid crisis how should the Private Rented Sector change?

The Covid crisis exposes weaknesses at the heart of our housing system. The emergency ‘all in’ policy for rough sleepers, temporary eviction ban, lifting of Local Housing Allowance rates are all life-saving measures.  But we should all be ashamed that our housing system is so broken that such interventions were needed.  

Access to a safe, secure and affordable home is no longer available to hundreds of thousands of children and their families.  Our whole housing system has to change and alongside national investment in genuinely affordable homes, major reforms to the private rented sector must be a core part of that change. 

Labour Housing Group Patron Karen Buck MP, has done outstanding work on improving rights for renters, including bringing forward the Homes for Human Habitation Act in 2019.  Labour needs to campaign for a private rented sector where renters pay a fair rent, are treated decently by their landlord, get their repairs done on time and can put down roots in a community. 

There is hope that this is a moment to reflect on the powerful impact that our housing situation has on our health and inequalities in our housing system but this Tory Government is not bringing forward the legislation needed. For a decent and fair recovery, where no-one is left behind, we need urgent measures to keep renters safe and a programme of long-term reforms.

Renters need secure homes – this is better for them and for economic recovery.  It is a huge relief for renters that the eviction ban has been extended to the end of August but there is so much more to do.  Following years of collective action, the Government has scheduled the Renters Reform Bill, but we must continue to press them and our representatives in Parliament to make sure that it is debated and enacted as soon as possible.  The sooner that Section 21 ends, the sooner that tenants can feel secure in putting down roots in their community.

Private renters have very few rights to information about their landlord or new home.  It is not right that renters cannot check whether landlords have met certain standards.  Mayor Sadiq Khan’s blue print for renters in London sets out how we can improve access to information for renters and we should campaign for devolution to local and regional authorities to establish accountability locally for landlords.  For Labour activists, preparing for local elections in May 2021 will be a key moment to speak to private renters, listen to their experiences and work on local policies to support private renters.

As a local Councillor, I know just how hard it is to use the legislation available so that repairs are done on time, homes are properly maintained and renters are treated decently.  The powers to take action on these issues rest mostly with local authorities who have endured a decade now of funding cuts.  For a fully functioning private rented sector, which works for renters, landlords and the economy, we need a transparent and standardised funding settlement for local authority enforcement services.

The connection between housing and health was cemented in public policy nearly 150 years ago in 1885 in the Royal Commission on the Housing of Working Classes.  This relationship was maintained when Nye Bevan became the Minister for Health and Housing in 1945.  The Covid crisis reminds us just how linked our health is to our housing. We cannot afford to wait another 75 years before this connection is renewed in policy. 

Many renters report not just a detrimental impact of insecure housing on their physical health but also a strain on their mental health.  Not only are some of our most vulnerable households living in insecure homes but many of the key-workers who care for us, feed us and nurse us are spending their already low wages on private rented homes with very few rights.  We urgently need transformation of the private rented sector, for a recovery that leaves no-one behind.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Rachel Blake</span></strong>
Rachel Blake

Rachel is the Deputy Mayor for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. She was elected to represent the Labour Party for Bow East Ward in May 2014 and appointed to Cabinet in July 2015.

Rachel has held Cabinet Member roles for Regeneration, Planning, and Air Quality. Rachel is now the Cabinet Member for Adults, Health and Well-being.

She has previously been called in as an expert witness to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on its inquiry into the long-term delivery of social and affordable rented housing.

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UK’s private rental sector – growing but not grown up

What can we learn from Germany?

One of the biggest changes in housing over the last 20 years has been the huge, unplanned growth of the private renting sector (PRS). But its unfettered growth has come at a price – which is paid for by some of our newly lauded key workers in the NHS and care sectors and the vulnerable – who are sacrificing their life chances, trapped in insecure, unstable, expensive accommodation.

Can Germany, which has the largest PRS in the EU, offer some lessons on a better way of doing things?

This is what I set out to explore last year when I got a Churchill Fellowship to carry out research on lessons we can learn from housing in Germany. The report Private Rented Housing: a broken system in Britain? Lessons to help fix it from 3 cities in Germany has just been published.

Can Germany, which has the largest PRS in the EU, offer some lessons on a better way of doing things? #redbrickblog

The PRS has grown enormously in the UK. It has doubled to 4.7million – i.e. 1 in 5 households – over the last 20 years, and in England it now houses more tenants than the social housing sector. It is a diverse sector with accommodation ranging from high end to housing of last resort. It is no longer a rite of passage for the young and transient – it is a sector that millions will live in for life.

It houses those who are unable to afford to buy, including many key workers and those in ‘Generation Rent’, and many families who in previous years would have qualified for social housing. The difference is they can be charged four times as much for a private rent as a social rent in areas like London. Sometimes for a neighbouring flat on the same council estate! And unlike their neighbours who rent from a social landlord, private tenants in England have to live with the threat of losing their home on the whim of a landlord as they have Assured Shorthold Tenancies.

The PRS was never designed to fulfil such a major role in UK housing and it needs to change to meet the real needs of our communities.  

The picture is very different in Germany. Germany has the largest PRS in Europe – 40% of households rent and this rises to 70% in major cities. Renting is affordable and mainstreamed – not stigmatised.

Overall Germany has a better PRS. ‘Better’ in the sense that it gives tenants greater security of tenure, more affordable rents, higher standards and a stronger voice to advocate for their rights and represent their interests.  And it is ‘better’ as a sector that supports and incentivises good landlords for the long term, thus improving local housing provision and sense of community. Crucially, Germany’s local government is stronger and better resourced and this helps Germany to build twice as many homes, including affordable ones, as the UK.

Obviously we cannot transplant another country’s housing system onto our own. Not least because each country’s housing market has grown in different cultural, historical and political environments. However, I found 5 factors that offer some important and transferable lessons for the UK. These are:

  • Stable and secure tenancies – We all value a stable and secure home – never more so than in the current lockdown. Yet, notwithstanding the current temporary ban, most private tenants in England can be evicted with 2 months notice for no reason, and this will apply after the ban. In contrast Germany, and most of the developed world, have secure, open ended tenancies where the grounds for eviction are based on breaking the rules eg rent arrears etc. Scotland introduced open ended tenancies in 2017 with no reported adverse effects on landlords or supply – so why not England?
  • Tools for regulating the PRS – Rent levels are more affordable and stable largely because they are regulated. There is data transparency – everybody knows the average rent in their area as they are published in a comprehensive local Rent Index (Mietspiegel). This information is used to help regulate rents effectively. It means rents in Berlin are typically 50% of equivalent lets in London.
  • A stronger voice for tenants –Tenants have greater access to advice and advocacy through a national network of self-funded tenants associations (Mieterverein). This also gives tenants a strong political voice and more power.
  • Better support for landlords– One of the surprises in my research was that landlords were as supportive of the German rent regulation system as tenants. They find it provides transparency, encourages good tenants and a more stable long-term rental stream. The system also provides more incentives to good landlords through tax breaks and subsidies.
  • Growing the supply of affordable housing – a strong local vision translated into building affordable homes and communities – To ensure the PRS works well it needs to be underpinned by an adequate supply of affordable housing. Local Government in Germany is better placed to drive this as it has more powers and is better resourced than councils in the UK. I looked at 3 cities in Germany and found that each had developed its own different, but effective, housing strategies to provide affordable housing and support mixed, vibrant communities in their local areas. The result – stronger neighbourhoods and overall more housing built. Since the end of the 2nd World War Germany (West and East) has built twice as many homes – 30 million compared to 16 million in the UK.

These are all things we can learn from and implement in the UK.

Most economic and social changes occur after times of war and crisis. After 1945 Britain introduced massive changes, such as the NHS and welfare system. After the 1st World War the Government introduced the Wheatley Act, which led to extensive council house building programmes. Changes we have reason to be grateful for today.

When we come out of this national Coronavirus crisis we will need to rebuild a better Britain – a new normal.

The current crisis has exposed the unfairness and fragility of our current broken housing system. We clap for the NHS, care and other key workers every week. But the average wage for a nurse is £25k pa. So with London rents averaging £1450 per month this would eat up 84% of their take home pay. They can get a handclap but they struggle to afford a decent home.

It’s good to see the G15 group of large housing associations joining together on the ‘Homes fit for Heroes’ initiative to tackle this. And good to see London’s Deputy Mayor Tom Copley convening a housing taskforce to tackle the challenges Covid-19 poses.

Let’s make fixing Britain’s broken housing system and building homes fit for our new heroes and heroines a priority.  So that it serves everybody fairly and establishes the building blocks to a healthier, happier and better-housed society.

To find out more and read the report – Private Rented Housing: a broken system in Britain? Lessons to help fix it from 3 cities in Germany click on https://www.morehousing.co.uk/

The report is also published by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and is available on https://www.wcmt.org.uk/fellows/reports/lessons-germany-prs

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Maureen Corcoran</span></strong>
Maureen Corcoran

Mo Corcoran started in housing as a tenant and community activist in the area where she was born – Waterloo in London – including being a chair of a local housing co operative and a member of the successful Coin Street campaign in London’s South Bank. 

She went on to work professionally in housing, rising up the ranks from being a front line housing officer to become Head of Housing in the Audit Commission where she ran the housing inspection regime.

She has also taught on the housing and community studies degree at Birkbeck College and served on several housing association boards. She currently continues to serve as a board member and works as a London Blue Badge Tourist Guide, specialising in tours on social history, housing and the suffragettes.

Mo is a Churchill Fellow.

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Lurking danger in red tape review

Once upon a time Governments cared about the neutrality and independence of people that were appointed to undertake public tasks.  But the announcement that the Cabinet Office’sRed Tape Challenge’ review of housing regulation is to be championed by Simon Randall and Stephen Greenhalgh puts two of the country’s most dedicated Conservatives in charge of a dangerous exercise that could have major ramifications for the social, private rented and construction sectors.
Simon Randall CBE has a string of Tory appointments and Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh – described by Conservative Home as ‘a successful entrepreneur and landlord’ (no conflict there then) is of course the Tory Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham.  Greenhalgh notoriously co-wrote the Localis pamphlet on social housing which, despite denials by Grant Shapps and others at the time, became the template for the destruction of the social rented sector which the Government is now pursuing.  He is also behind the policy of redeveloping social housing estates in his borough against the wishes of the residents.
We have previously warned on Red Brick that the Red Tape Challenge holds serious dangers for the sector and the standards it operates to, and is mainly a device to bring in deregulation whilst no-one is looking.
As an example of the lurking danger in this exercise, most people in the sector believe that there is a need for stronger regulation of standards in private renting and in particular in houses in multiple occupation.  Yet a series of regulations to do with private renting and HMOs are on the Red Tape list for review and possibly for abolition.  Indeed, the Cabinet Office trumpets as beacons what has already been done by the Government to deregulate short-term holiday lets and HMOs.
The need for greater not less vigilance in housing is amply demonstrated by the publication of a shocking report by a group of housing associations in Staffordshire warning that the housing benefit cuts could see private landlords ‘subdivide’ properties to provide homes for those displaced from social housing.  The report shows the extreme danger posed by de-regulation when it is driven by the supposed need to provide ‘choice’ for tenants and reduce the ‘burden’ on landlords.  Unlike the Red Tape Challenge, the report concludes that councils should increase regulation of the private rented sector and give higher priority to the ‘enforcement of minimum standards’ as the number of low quality but more affordable houses in mutliple occupation increase.
The Staffordshire case is the reality of what is happening in the sector, with benefits increasingly cut well below even reasonable social rents and many more desperate people seeking solutions on the private market.
Messrs Randall and Greenhalgh claim they wish to hear the sector’s views and, always willing to help, here is the reply email: redtapechallenge@cabinet-office.gsi.gov.uk  I hope points like those contained in the Staffordshire report are made loud and clear.  But I fear that the Red Tape champions will hear only that which fits their world view.  Deregulation is set to become the next in a long line of battlegrounds.

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Cameron makes it up

If Ed Miliband had said anything as ludicrous as David Cameron’s claim that private rented sector rents are going down he would have been all over the news facing demands that he apologise with detailed analysis by pundits of the figures that show he is wrong.
In response to a question by Joan Ruddock MP, Cameron had the nerve to claim that the housing benefit reforms were bringing rent levels down: “what we’ve seen so far, as housing benefit has been reformed and reduced, is that actually we have seen rent levels come down. So we’ve stopped ripping off the taxpayer.”
Cameron’s statement was contradicted by everyone who has ever done any work on private sector rents.  Chartered Institute of Housing quoted National Valuation Office Agency data showing that LHA baseline rates, which are based on market rents, have increased or stayed the same in 853 out of 960 local authority areas since March 2011.
However the apparent misleading of Parliament never made it big in the mainstream news.  The fact is that Cameron gets away with saying things that aren’t true and gets an easy ride from the media.  No 10 set out the case for the defence.  They told Inside Housing “We are hearing of cases where in return for direct payments to landlords our reforms are beginning to work” but, as IH notes, the spokesperson “was not able to provide numbers to back up the claim, saying that the Government will publish data on the impact of LHA reforms later in the year”.
If Miliband had tried such a pathetic explanation as that deployed by No 10  – “we’ll let you know in a few months” – he would have been ripped to shreds.  “Hearing of cases”?  What cases, where, how many, publish the data!
It is interesting, though, that commentary on private sector rents now often includes reference to Ken Livingstone’s idea of the London Living Rent, even if it is often misunderstood.  Ken is seeking to open up the debate about rents by setting a benchmark – after due research – for the proportion of income that should reasonably be taken by rent if households are to retain sufficient income to meet their other needs.  As the idea develops it should put pressure on social landlords who are beginning to charge excessive rents under this Government’s policies, but also kick off a debate about how to exert an element of control over the private sector as well.
The countries with the most successful private rented sectors have a stronger measure of rent control than we do, and better security of tenure as well – but it is difficult to work out how we get from where we are to where they are.
Apart from saving cash, which they look increasingly unlikely to do, the argument deployed most frequently by Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud, and repeated by Grant Shapps, was that the HB changes would bring down rents.  It’s how markets work, they explained.  We argued at the time that this was nonsense economics: the policies would do nothing to bring rents generally down as there was excess demand in the system, but would put upward pressure on rents in the lower end of the market as more people chased fewer affordable homes.
Labour Housing spokesperson Jack Dromey MP has been chasing Cameron over his mis-claim, but it would be good to see it feature in a future PMQs so that Labour nationally can show, as Ken Livingstone is doing in London, that someone will stand up for private tenants on low incomes.

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Housing horrors

A new campaign launched by Ken Livingstone
Rip-off agency fees. Deposits lost unfairly. Rogue landlords evicting tenants with little notice and hiking rent with no warning.  Smashed windows, faulty locks and broken fridges not being fixed for weeks or months. Rodent infestations. Damp and mouldy bathrooms being left to rot.
These are just some of the housing horror stories Londoners renting in the capital have told me about in recent months. But I am under no illusions that there are many more out there.
Hundreds of thousands of people live in the private rented sector across London and I am determined to stand up for ordinary Londoners and improve housing for all.
In the coming months I will be setting out ambitious plans to improve the private rented sector which will be shaped by the experiences of Londoners.
I’m urging people to  tell me about their housing experiences so that if elected I can take action to improve housing for all.
You can leave your story on my website (click on the link at the top of the page), or get in touch on my facebook page, or on twitter using the hashtag #housinghorrors
Ken Livingstone

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For a change, more light than heat on the PRS

Tony has pointed out that amongst the soggy canapés there are loads of meetings and discussions about housing at this year’s Labour conference.  Tomorrow we will find out
what if anything about housing makes the Leader’s speech, but today two of Ed Balls’ key initiatives involved housing: a specific commitment to use a repeat Banker’s bonus tax to fund affordable housing and a new commitment to reduce VAT on maintenance to encourage owners to repair homes.
One meeting Tony didn’t highlight attracted my attention and I went along to a meeting sponsored by New Statesman and the National Landlords Association on the future of the private rented sector.  Although I don’t always agree with what Caroline Flint has to say about social housing, I thought she was spot on in her analysis of the PRS, the need for regulation and how it might work.  I had forgotten that she was Minister when the Rugg Review was commissioned, so she has some background in this issue.  She also rather shamelessly plugged her chapter in the so-called purple book just published by Progress, in which she evidently sets out her views on PRS reform.
Although the NLA seems to favour accreditation rather than registration as the basis of a regulatory system, there was a surprising degree of consensus in the room about what a regulatory system should seek to achieve: an expanding and increasingly professionalised PRS, support and help for good landlords who want to meet good standards, and strong enforcement against bad landlords who exploit tenants and refuse to bring their properties up to scratch.  Despite the presence of several landlords and landlords’ representatives, there was no support from anyone for the current government’s laissez-faire (or is it couldn’t care less?) approach.
I was particularly impressed by a letting agent present in the audience who spoke strongly in favour of registration as the way forward, and there were good contributions on how to achieve longer tenancy terms, especially for families needing security and stability, how to control subsidy flowing to bad landlords through housing benefit, and enforcement by environmental health officers.
Sometimes a discussion hits the right tone of seriousness without ladles of rhetoric and generates more light than heat.  Here was one and I hope there will be more, especially during the housing debate scheduled for Thursday morning – housing was one of the four issues chosen through a ballot of delegates for debate on the floor of the Conference.

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What goes up won’t come down

The changes to Local Housing Allowance and the rest of the Housing Benefit system have been covered frequently on Red Brick.  We don’t think much of them.
But one argument that the government deployed seemed logical to a lot of people.  That was the common Ministerial assertion that, because LHA claimants make up as much as 40% of the private rented market, the level of LHA  payments must be a big factor in the rise in private rents over recent years.  And the corollary was that cuts to benefit, and hence to tenants’ ability to pay, would inevitably lead to a fall in rents, which would be a good outcome.
In my old economics textbook I find some support for this in theory: if supply is constant and effective demand falls, then the price should fall as well.  Cue much Tory-speak about the good old market mechanism.
However in the real housing market demand is in such excess over supply that the neat little supply and demand chart really doesn’t work.  If you reduce benefits so that tenants in high demand relatively expensive areas have to move out, there are many people willing to replace them at the same price.  The price will not fall.  Yet in the cheaper areas where the tenants are expected to move to, there will be more people chasing the small proportion of homes that become available at or below the 30% percentile (the new cap) at
any one time: the price is likely to rise.
A new report ‘Leading the Market’ from the Chartered Institute of Housing and the British Property Federation pours more cold water on the ‘LHA causes high rents’ argument.
They conclude that

“The increase in average rent levels during this period (2008-2010) is entirely due to a shift in the relative distribution of the caseload from the North and the Midlands towards London and Southern England. After adjusting for this ‘caseload effect’ average housing benefit rent levels fell by 1% (instead of the reported 3% rise).”
“We found no evidence for a relationship between the LHA inflation rates and the proportion of the market that is let to housing benefit tenants.”
“There is no evidence to support the contention that the LHA is inflationary or produces a feedback loop.”
“Our findings call into question the Government’s strategy that it can use its power as a bulk purchaser to force landlords to reduce their rents.  If LHA rates do not contribute towards rent inflation then conversely they cannot be used as a tool to force rents down.”

In short the policy is not just wrong in principle: it is wrong in theory and it is wrong in practice.

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When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

George Osborne would do well to read more of John Maynard Keynes, and in particular his General Theory of Employment Interest and Money published in 1935.  Unlike Osborne and Cameron, Keynes (a capitalist economist and a Liberal) learned lessons from the Great Depression and was determined never to see it repeated.
One of JMK’s well-known sayings – ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’ – was uttered after he was criticised for changing his position on monetary policy during the Great Depression.  It applies well now to Osborne’s repetition of the Great Depression mistake (and indeed Japan’s more recently) of cutting demand in a recession.
But it might equally be applied to private rented sector rents and the policy of slashing the Local Housing Allowance for private tenants.  Minister after minister, from Cameron down, trotted out the line that cutting benefits would reduce rents, that the HB sector was holding rents up high, and that the free market would respond to HB cuts, effectively lowering demand, by lowering price.  Iain Duncan Smith frequently said that the fact that his department was responsible for 40 per cent of the private rental market was ‘staggering’ and that the aim of the reforms was ‘to drive down market rents’.
Logical thinkers came to different conclusions.  With current levels of excessive demand, tenants forced to move by cuts in their HB payments would be easily replaced by new tenants able to pay market rents.  There would be no price reduction in more costly areas.  However, the displaced tenants would be looking for homes in lower rent areas, boosting demand and competition for the cheaper homes that come on the market.  Rents in those areas would be likely to rise.  The problem would be compounded by a proportion of landlords taking family homes off the market to make them available instead to the growing number of single people who would only receive the shared accommodation HB rate in future.  Letting to 4 or 5 singles was likely to be more lucrative than letting to a single family.
The anecdotal evidence is that sharing and overcrowding are increasing as people, and especially larger families, try to find cheaper – which often means smaller – accommodation.  Harder evidence, from agents and landlords, shows that rents continue to rise above inflation.
Nor are there any signs of rents turning down in the future.  The head of research at Savills recently concluded  “High rent rises are not confined to the prime market and, as more aspiring buyers are frozen out of home ownership, demand for private rented stock in the country as a whole can only grow. Our prognosis for the private rented sector as a whole remains extremely bullish.”
Even if the government believed its little bit of idiot economics when it started the policy, surely the evidence is accumulating that they are just wrong, rents will not fall and people will be put through endless misery because of it.
The facts have changed.  But does Iain Duncan Smith have the bottle to change his mind as JMK suggests he should?