Housing stole the Westminster headlines this week, as Prime Minister Theresa and Communities Secretary Sajid Javid took to the road on Thursday with promises to tackle the housing crisis. In Barnet, Mrs May said it was her ‘mission to build the homes the country needs and take personal charge of the Government’s response’. n Bristol Mr Javid highlighted the need for ‘affordable, secure, safe housing’ for younger people, and announced plans to remove housing association debt from the public accounts, allowing greater scope to invest in new homes.
Both interventions come ahead of next week’s Budget, where it remains to be seen whether Mr Javid’s desire to borrow more to fund housebuilding, or the Chancellor, Philip Hammond’s more fiscally conservative views win the day.
It has certainly raised expectation that housing will feature heavily in the Budget. There has been speculation that stamp duty will be tweaked to support first time buyers and downsizers, as well as making good on conference promises to boost help to buy and incentivise longer term tenancies in the private rented sector.
Another fly in the ointment of government efforts to tackle the housing crisis could be Brexit. Scrutiny of the Brexit process is ongoing across parliament, with several industries expressing concern about the loss of labour and skills. In a survey of the housebuilding sector, RICS this week warned that an already problematic shortage of labour will be exacerbated by Brexit, hampering the prospects of meeting even modest growth in new homes.
In Parliament, the government again came under pressure in welfare reform, with Work and Pensions question time, debates in both the Commons and Lords, and Prime Minister’s Questions. Opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, told Teresa May that the roll-out of Universal Credit was leading to evictions, using the example of a Lincolnshire lettings agency sending tenants pre-emptive letters with eviction notices.
At DWP questions, increasing rent arrears amongst tenants receiving Universal Credit featured heavily. Minister of State, David Gauke swatted away MPs’ concerns, with claims that most were already in arrears before being switched to UC.
Both the Commons debate, initiated by Work and Pensions Committee chair Frank Field MP, and the Lords debate, from former Labour minister Baroness Hollis, highlighted hardship resulting from problems in the way Universal Credit works. From the seven day waiting period before a claim can be made, to the six week wait for payment, MPs and Peers rained criticism on the system. Conservative and opposition members alike called for tenants to be able to choose to have rent paid direct to the landlord. Statistics and key concerns from the briefing the RLA provided ahead of the debates were referenced by both MPs and Peers.
To cap it all, both the former Secretary of State responsible for its introduction, Ian Duncan-Smith, and the man dubbed the ‘architect’ of Universal Credit, Dr Stephen Brien, both backed reform of the way it operates. There is so much pressure, from all sides, it seems inconceivable that change of some form is not on the cards.
Earlier in the week, East Ham MP, Stephen Timms, used a Westminster Hall debate to urge the Government to back the renewal of Newham Council’s borough-wide licensing schemes. Introduced 5 years ago, Newham was the first borough-wide scheme, covering all private rented property. Such schemes now require the permission of the Secretary of State, who is still considering Newham’s application. It is regularly hailed as an example for others to follow, with statistics showing increased landlord prosecutions, recovery of additional council tax, and illegal immigration.
However, the RLA questions the both the cost of the scheme, and whether many of the outcomes could be delivered through interrogation of data such as council tax records, better joint working between agencies such as councils, police and fire services. Our co-regulation proposals would allow compliant landlords to self-regulate, freeing up scarce council resources to tackle the criminal operators.
Importantly, when responding, the Housing Minister, Alok Sharma, confirmed that the government is about to embark on a review of selective licensing. The decision on whether or not to renew the Newham scheme in full will give a clear indication of the direction of government thought.
Finally, the week saw a slew of housing statistics, as the English Housing Survey celebrated 50 years. The annual survey is vital, providing the only reliable independent figures on housing and homes. The RLA’s senior researcher, Tom Simcock, tracks key statistics through PEARL – the RLA’s Private renting Evidence and Research Lab, providing a one-stop shop for anyone looking for trends and data.