Feeding the housebuilders

It seems to me that Homes England maintains a fairly low profile – but they are one of the biggest beasts in the housing world, with assets of around £17bn.

They published their annual report on 5 November. It is a mammoth 173 pages and makes for heavy reading, with 85 pages devoted to the annual accounts.

To begin with, they funded 40,452 housing completions in 2019/20 (slightly ahead of their target), of which 16,863 were affordable rent and a pitiful 1,478 social rent. Funding affordable housing is obviously one of their primary roles.

But I was mainly interested in looking at the details of Help to Buy. As you will know, the equity loans that support house purchases under Help to Buy sit on the Homes England balance sheet. In fact, a staggering £14bn in equity loans is now sitting on Homes England’s balance sheet – around 80% of its net assets.

To pursue Help to Buy you need a 5% deposit, and the government will give you a 20% equity loan (40% in London). The remaining 75% has to come from a mortgage or your own savings. Because the loan is set as a percentage of the value of the property, it can go up or down in value dependent upon house prices.

In 2013 there were 19,700 loans provided to house buyers in England. Last year this had risen to 51,500. In total, 272,811 households have bought homes with a Help to Buy equity loan and so far 49,000 of them (18%) have repaid the money, paying back almost £2.5bn on £2.25bn of loans, so an effective profit of around £2.25m for the government due to rising house prices. But the latest accounts state that the loan book of £14bn could drop in value by up to £4.3bn next year if the housing market falls off a cliff. So, the government has taken a giant punt on the housing market, effectively with our money!

Readers of this blog will know that there has been a great deal of criticism of Help to Buy, not least from the National Audit Office and the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee. Between them they accepted that there had been some boost to supply, but found that the scheme inflated house prices, that most buyers (63%) could have bought without the equity loan, and that people earning more than £80,000 a year had seen the most benefit. The NAO concluded that the price of new built homes rose 41% between 2013 and the end of 2018, above the prices of existing properties. This is the so-called “new-build premium”, which has been artificially created despite the often shoddy quality of new homes.

When Help to Buy started in 2013 it was seen as a short-term fix to prop up the housing market, yet, despite all the criticism, it is being extended to 2023, albeit restricted to first-time buyers and with lower regional price caps. But these range from £186,000 in the North East to £600,000 in London. Should the state (aka you and I as taxpayers) really be subsidising someone to buy a £600,000 property? In my view, no.

But the problem is that many of the largest housebuilders are now completely dependent upon Help to Buy – in recent times, 50% of Persimmon’s sales were with Help to Buy. Pre- Covid, many of the largest housebuilders were posting huge profits (£1.04bn at Persimmon, £901m at Barratts, and £821m at Taylor Wimpey, for example.) Many were paying out dividends to shareholders and also paying lip-smacking levels of remuneration to senior staff. A quick look at Taylor Wimpey’s results for 2019, for instance, shows that the chief executive had a package of £3.03m in total, and two of its directors received well over £1m. All this was funded with the support of the taxpayer. It puts our annual hand-wringing over CEO pay into perspective.

It is true that profits have fallen back as a result of the pandemic, but they are bound to pick up again once construction starts in earnest and the various vaccines take effect. As HQN CEO Alistair McIntosh has pointed out in one of his excellent recent podcasts, we have effectively nationalised some of the largest housebuilders. They are well and truly glued to the teats of the nanny state and show no desire to let go.

Yet, at the other end of the scale and unable to compete with the big boys, record numbers of smaller housebuilders are going bust: 368 in 2019 according to this report, compared with 312 in 2018, and 207 in 2016. This is despite the hollow pledge in the Planning White Paper to encourage and support smaller housebuilders.

Imagine, for a moment, if that £14bn of equity loan sitting on the Homes England balance sheet had been used to fund social rented housing. If you assumed £50,000 investment for each newbuild, that would have produced 280,000 new, high-quality homes – hugely outstripping the paltry 1,478 that were funded last year. The housebuilders would argue that the equity loans are paid back and are not the same as social housing grant for new rented homes. But, as the SHOUT campaign has consistently argued, this form of investment makes sense in the long run and would produce more benefit than the money wasted on Help to Buy. We all know that social housing pays for itself many times over; that it creates jobs, boosts the economy, and eases pressure on the private market, so allowing house prices and rents to become more affordable over time. It repays the taxpayer handsomely and, above all, it benefits the people who need it most, rather than those earning the most.

Artificial interventions in the housing market rarely turn out well: they usually lead to unfairness and inflate house prices. MIRAS springs to mind. It is time that Help to Buy was scrapped.

Is it a Charter?

So, the Housing White Paper, aka The Charter for Social Housing residents, was finally published on Tuesday, a mere 41 months after the Grenfell fire and 27 months after the Green Paper. Was it worth the wait?

I spent most of last Tuesday writing a briefing and my cautious answer is ‘yes’. If our lawmakers implement it in full then it could be a real boost for residents in social housing, enabling them to seek redress for bad service, to hold bad landlords to account, and to have a greater say in how their landlord operates.

In his introduction, the Prime Minister says he wants to level up the country and “that includes making sure social housing tenants are treated with the respect they deserve”. The key themes of the paper seem to be safety, fairness and respect.

First, the good parts. The standout proposal, for me, is putting the consumer standards on a level playing field with the economic standards. That has to be right. The Regulator of Social Housing has around 250 staff dealing with the economic standards and only two on the consumer side. Only around 1% of referrals lead to a judgement of serious detriment – actual or potential harm.

This will mean a big increase in staff at the regulator and there will be more inspections and potential penalties for providers. The consumer standards will also be beefed up to include more on safety and a requirement that providers have policies on domestic violence, something my colleague Alison Inman has been campaigning on for years.

The paper proposes that providers have nominated staff to be responsible for safety and for compliance with the consumer standards. This mirrors the proposals in the Building Safety Bill for accountable persons to be identified for higher-risk buildings, and perhaps reflects the awful buck-passing that we have seen at the Grenfell Inquiry. 

In future, we will know exactly where the buck stops, but it will put a huge level of responsibility on the shoulders of some staff and they will need to be trained and supported in their roles. Plans to update the Decent Homes Standard, now nearly 20 years old, to reflect climate change and new innovations are sensible.

The proposed tenant satisfaction measures also seem sensible, with new measures of landlords’ respectful and helpful engagement being required. That will be a tricky one to measure.

Another stand-out is the requirement to publish details of executive salaries and management costs relative to the size of the landlord. That is already a requirement in annual reports but I am assuming that this will have to be issued in a more digestible and meaningful way, perhaps by showing how much each tenant pays a week towards the CEO salary.

This reflects growing unease about the perception of excessive salaries in the sector, with inflation-busting pay rises often the norm. I once did some work at a small association with around 300-odd properties where the chief executive had a package of around £100,000, so each tenant was paying around £5 a week towards their remuneration. That cannot be fair or right, and it is certainly not respectful of tenants!

The access to information scheme proposal is interesting. It is Freedom of Information in all but name and the government will need to tread carefully to make sure that it does not tip housing associations back into the “public body” category. (If you recall, the government had to introduce emergency legislation back in 2017 when the Office for National Statistics decided that English housing associations were no longer public bodies, due to the level of government regulation and control.)

But it is certainly fair that housing association tenants should have the right to obtain information from their landlord on a par with local authority tenants.

Other proposals to beef up the Ombudsman, to improve co-operation with the regulator, and to end the democratic filter are all good stuff.

The paper also recognises the importance of green and open spaces, as well as pets, for mental health and wellbeing, particularly during the pandemic when home and neighbourhood has been so important. I would imagine the consumer standards will be beefed up to reflect this.

Now, the not so good bits. First, the time it has taken to get to this point. It suggests a lack of serious regard for the issues arising from the Grenfell catastrophe.

Second, this is not a charter, despite what it says on the tin. My understanding of a charter is a statement of rights and this document is a mishmash of proposals and ideas for future consultation. Perhaps a more formal document will be issued in due course?

Third, there is not much here about leadership by boards and councillors, even though their roles will be critical in taking this forward. Finally, Chapter 7. Why on earth is it in there? Having spent 63 pages telling us that social housing is important, that social housing residents need to be treated with respect and fairness, this final chapter effectively says, “Oh, but ownership is better”. It seems the government cannot resist plugging homeownership at every opportunity. Stop it!

But overall, this is a positive step forward. Good landlords will have nothing to fear from it – the information should all be available and the changes should be capable of swift implementation. But for bad landlords there will be fewer hiding places if and when these changes take shape.

My twofold advice would be: make sure that your governing body reads every word of this document and that they provide the necessary leadership to take it forward, and, second, immediately start drawing up an action plan.

HQN’s CEO Alistair Mcintosh has produced a useful checklist of all the items you should be working on.

In summary, two and a bit cheers for the government.

(This blog was first published by HQN on 21.11.2020)

The Land of the Flee

It is time to revive Royal Commissions

A disclaimer: the title of this blog is not mine. Its latest usage is from the New York Post to describe the flight of New Yorkers from Gotham City to the suburbs and beyond as Coronavirus hollows out the metropolis. When I wrote my first blog for HQN in June 2019, I promised to cover a wide and eclectic range of topics, sometimes looking beyond the UK, so I was interested in this story as it seems to reflect what is happening here, where there has been a surge of interest in suburban, rural, and coastal properties. The solicitor I used for my recent house purchase is dealing with loads of London buyers seeking a place along the Kent coast. In local parlance they are known as ‘DFLs’ (Down from London).

Whether this change in the property market will be a long-term trend remains to be seen but one thing that seems certain is that homeworking is here to stay. For the housing sector, at least, this was confirmed by HQN’s recent survey of members which found that 80 % of staff have been working from home during the pandemic, and that around 60% would work from home in the future. The post-pandemic world will be a very different place. If I had any spare cash I would invest in companies doing loft extensions and garden offices. Their business will boom as people seek more space at home to work and self-isolate.

All of this will have profound implications for the property market with millions of square feet of office space becoming available. It will decimate public transport systems and have profound impacts on city centre services – pubs, sandwich bars, gyms, and others.

One of the key lessons of the pandemic is the deep housing inequalities that have been exposed, with bad housing and high density neighbourhoods being linked to much higher death rates, something I wrote about here. The second wave appears to be repeating the pattern. This recent report about how people in newer homes have been less happy during lockdown is also revealing. Access to a garden or terrace was found to be the most critical factor in feeling comfortable at home, and people living in newer homes were also more unhappy with their neighbourhoods. The truth is that we have been building a lot of rubbish in recent years – something that needs to be investigated in depth once this is all over.

Another key lesson, for me at least, is that our centralised system of government has failed. Over the past 40 years Whitehall has taken on more and more power to itself, while local government has been defunded and marginalised. In my first blog I also mentioned that I would write about Germany, a country I have visited several times in recent times. There, Covid-19 testing is devolved to GP practices. If you feel unwell you have to seek a test, at risk of a hefty fine. If you are positive, the GP will refer you to the locally-run tracing team who follow up contacts and ensure people self-isolate. Local mayors issue daily bulletins on cases and local rules. By contrast, my town and district council have been found missing in action during the pandemic, as has the local GP practice. A neighbour of mine had Covid-19 very badly back in March. He called 111 and his local GP. Neither was interested, and so he does not appear as a ‘case’. It is therefore hardly surprising that the number of cases is now going up as testing increases. By contrast, the decentralised German system works well. The £12bn spent on the UK’s failing test and trace scheme would have been better spent in funding local GPs and supporting town halls to set up local tracing services.

I saw David Dimbleby being interviewed this week and he had one word to sum up the national mood: “introspection”. We must, he said, reflect on how we live; what we eat and where it comes from; what is important in life; the value of friends and community; and reject the chimera of wasteful foreign travel and useless consumption. I agree, but we need to take forward this mood for introspection in a serious and exhaustive way.

Going back to the future, I would do this by setting up two Royal Commissions to inquire into both of the key issues I have mentioned: the failure of housing policy and the failure of centralised government. Royal Commissions have fallen out of favour in recent years – the last one was over 20 years ago – but in the past governments would often set them up to deal with issues of major national concern. The unprecedented crisis of 2020 would surely justify their revival? There needs to be a bi-partisan recognition that the past 40 years of housing policy have been a terrible failure at every level. The last Royal Commission on housing was in 1884 when the Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes was set up. It held 51 meetings, asked 18,000 questions, toured the country extensively to look at the slums and to speak to witnesses, and produced a comprehensive report that fed into the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1885. This allowed district councils to obtain Treasury loans, empowered the Local Government Board to shut down unhealthy houses, and made it illegal for landlords to let houses that fell below a basic sanitary standard.

Can you imagine a similar inquiry being set up now, to inquire into the failures of housing policy and the excess deaths caused by bad housing? It could tour the country, talk to hundreds of expert witnesses and provide an in-depth analysis of what went wrong. Bring it on, I say.

Planning for a better future?

The Planning White Paper, published last week, promises radical reform “unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War” to create “a whole new planning system for England”, a system that will encourage “sustainable, beautiful, safe and useful development”. It is perhaps unfortunate, then, that the front cover of “Planning for the Future” shows an aerial view of Tregunnel Hill in Newquay – a new estate plonked down in the middle of the town without any reference to its surroundings, with box-like houses, pitched roofs with no eaves, tiny fenced-in gardens and not a scrap of greenery to be seen. If this is a vision of the future, heaven help us.

But to begin with, there are some positive aspects to the White Paper. For me, any government that wants to “build, build, build” has some merit, although this obviously depends on what is built and where, and whether it is affordable and of a high quality. The government is promising 300,000 homes a year but the danger is that the proposals will churn out Barratt boxes for first time buyers and executive homes, with few affordable homes in the mix.

The government also recognises that small builders have been in terminal decline in recent decades with the proportion of new homebuilding by SMEs dropping from 40% 30 years ago to just 12% today. If the proposals do unleash a new generation of smaller housebuilders, so much the better. But whether this decline is due to “planning red tape”, as claimed, or wider issues such as land prices, skills shortages or finance is debatable.

The proposals to digitise the planning system to make it smarter and more accessible and comprehensible to the layperson (no more notices on lamp posts), with visual plans rather than abstract policies also have some merit. As a member of my local town planning committee I have scrolled through loads of applications and the system is clunky without doubt.

Finally, the proposals to speed up the local plan process (down to 30 months and published plans shortened by two thirds) and to require local authorities both to have a local plan (only 50% do at present) and to enforce housebuilding numbers are to be commended.

But what exactly is the problem with the current system? Boris Johnson’s introduction makes the bold claim that “Thanks to our planning system, we have nowhere near enough homes in the right places”. Really? Nothing to do with right to buy or a failure to invest in affordable homes or our dysfunctional land market? A key theme of the paper is that planning takes too long. But an investigation by the BBC fact check unit found that 89% of major applications were decided within 13 weeks, or an agreed time (planning departments and developers may agree an extension to the 13-week time limit). It is true that larger developments take longer, but it seems that planning has become the scapegoat for wider failures (just as the scientists are likely to be blamed for wider Covid-19 failings).

 The two key proposals in the plan are a new zoning system and replacing the Community Infrastructure Levy and section 106 with a new Infrastructure Levy.

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