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Pete Jefferys
 
I’m a Policy Officer at Shelter and interested in how we can get housing up the political agenda, secure a better deal for private renters and get affordable homes built. Outside of policy, I love exploring new parts of London, sport and going back home to Devon.

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By Pete Jefferys

What the budget should have said

Another budget, another missed opportunity to build the homes we need.

Housing was once again prominent – just as it was when Help to Buy was launched in 2013 or Stamp Duty cut in 2014 – but the main policy announced was yet another gimmicky scheme not even close to facing up to what’s needed. Instead of bold plans to build affordable homes, we had more government cash to prop up high house prices.

What really frustrated me yesterday was the fact that the government are clearly willing to spend significant money on housing, just not on building homes. It simply won’t wash in the future that ‘there’s no money’ for housing. There is, so spend it in a useful way.

The Help to Buy ISA will cost at least £2.1bn according to the government, which could rise to well over £3bn if the scheme has high take up (and with free cash, why wouldn’t it?). That money could instead build north of 65,000 new homes, with a priority for low Social Rents.

If the take up of Help to Buy ISA is high, then by 2020 we’ll spend the same amount on Help to Buy ISAs as is needed to plug the affordable housing gap. What a wasted opportunity.

I’m not even that convinced it will help those it’s intended to help. It will take nearly 5 years to save enough through the scheme to claim the full £3,000 subsidy from the government, by which point house prices are expected to be £40,000 higher. For those truly priced out without a deposit then, this won’t take them any closer to their own home. Unless we deal with the reason it’s so hard to save a whopping deposit – high house prices – there’s no light at the end of the tunnel for struggling renters who can barely save anyway.

In reality then, Help to Buy ISAs are more likely to provide a bit more cash to those who are already fortunate to have help from the Bank of Mum and Dad. Should that be a priority for public investment? As John McDermott at the FT argues, the Treasury knows this weakness and that’s why this sort of scheme has been rejected in the past. Most of the people it helps would have been able to buy anyway.

So what should the budget have done for housing?

  • The money spent on Help to Buy ISAs should have been spent on building homes instead. The government should increase the Affordable Homes Programme by £1.2bn per year and the extra cash should prioritise funding for desperately needed Social Rented homes. Combined with other measures, this would double affordable home building over the next parliament.
  • A better savings scheme would be Help to Build ISAs. Capital Economics have shown how using ISA accounts to provide value loans to Housing Associations could help build thousands of affordable homes. This is how the majority of affordable housing is funded in France.
  • We should create a Housing Investment Bank, within the Homes and Communities Agency. As well as running the Help to Build ISA scheme, this bank would provide long-term finance to England’s growing cities and new Garden City Corporations to buy land and build the sustainable new communities we need.
  • We should allow councils to borrow prudentially against their assets, in order to build new local affordable housing. Raising the artificial caps on their borrowing to a fair level could help build nearly 10,000 extra affordable homes per year.

A package like this, combined with far greater devolution of powers and budgets to city-regions to tackle their own housing problems, would have been a far more credible plan.

There were a few glimmers however. Buried in the detail is a bold plan for the government to take the lead in a major housing scheme near Cambridge – a move that’s desperately needed after years of stalling. The government shouldn’t be afraid of targeted intervention on the supply side, when it seems so enthralled with intervention to prop up demand.

There was also more cash and priority for Housing Zones, a concept that’s going down the right lines (local leadership, public/private joint working) but needs rocket boosters. We would argue city-regions and developers should be able to negotiate lower land prices and plough the savings into affordable homes and infrastructure. That’s a way to build affordable homes without upfront public investment.

Overall, this budget was not what we needed to solve the housing shortage and that’s a disappointment. But if it has proved one thing, it’s that politicians can’t ignore housing any longer: they just need to pick the right solutions.

Martha Mackenzie
 
I’m a Public Affairs Officer at Shelter, I joined the Public Affairs team in July 2012. I have been working on a wide range of projects, most notably engaging with local authorities through our rogue landlords campaign and leading our work to end revenge eviction. In my spare time I mentor for the Prince's Trust. When not chained to a desk I can usually be found running or cycling around London.

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By Martha Mackenzie

A year to change the law

Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister gave a speech about housing. You may have noticed that Shelter had a lot of opinions about that speech…

But amidst the detail on Starter Homes, David Cameron proudly announced that his government are putting an end to revenge eviction:

“What’s more, we are outlawing ‘retaliatory evictions’, so tenants don’t face the prospect of losing their home simply for asking that repairs be made.”

And today, they did just that. The Deregulation Bill passed its final hurdle in the Houses of Parliament. Revenge eviction will soon be against the law.

Those of you who have been with us on this journey, will know it has been lengthy and complicated.

On 12th March 2014 we launched the ‘9 million renters’ campaign – almost a year ago to the day. This campaign had one simple ask: to stamp out revenge eviction in the private rented sector.

Working with our front-line advisers; our legal team; and our friends at Citizens Advice and the Chartered Institute for Environmental Health (CIEH) we devised a legislative solution.

Since then, we’ve seen:

  • A private members bill (July 2014): a political opportunity – thanks to Sarah Teather MP – that the government could not ignore.
  • Heartbreak (November 2014): a bump in the road – courtesy of Mr Chope and Mr Davies.
  • A lifeline (December 2014): another political opportunity – thanks to the Liberal Democrat front bench in the House of Lords.
  • A government bill (February 2015): a further government commitment to securing legislative change.
  • A brand new law, outlawing revenge eviction (March 2015).

In the space of a year, we’ve changed the law.

This has been the product of a lot of hard work, by a lot of people: Shelter and our wonderful supporters; Sarah Teather MP; the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG); parliamentarians from all the major political parties; and a broad coalition of organisations.

By working together to seize opportunities and overcome barriers, this appalling practice has finally received the political attention it deserves.

It is not the panacea to fix private renting, but make no mistake – it is a significant step change.

But not only that, we’ve witnessed a seismic shift in political attitudes too.

To get an idea of how much has changed in a year: when this campaign started, it was called ’9 million renters’. According to the latest English Housing Survey, there are now 11 million renters in England. Over 1.5 million families with children rent their home from a private landlord.

Politicians can no longer afford to ignore the daily struggle that many renting families face.

Labour have put reform of the private rented sector at the heart of their offer to voters, pledging to introduce longer-tenancies in their first Queen’s Speech. David Cameron used a major campaign speech to solicit the votes of renters. And the Liberal Democrats have been quick to capitalise on their efforts to end revenge eviction.

What next?

  • The Deregulation Bill will receive formal Royal Assent at the end of March, just before Parliament dissolves for the General Election.
  • It will then need a commencement order to bring it into force – this will happen after the General Election, probably in October 2015.
  • Before this happens, we’ll do everything we can to educate tenants of their new rights – and landlords of their new responsibilities.
  • But most importantly, we need to keep campaigning. Renters are now a political force to be reckoned with – and there is a lot more for us to do. A lot of promises have been made ahead of the General Election. Let’s use the next Parliament to hold politicians to account and make sure everyone who rents privately has a safe, stable home.
 
Janey is in the Campaigns team at Shelter

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By Roberta Johnson

What can I do to help homeless people?

What can I do to help homeless people?

It’s heart-warming to see the offers of help that 20-year-old Jimmy Thoronka, the Sierra Leone athlete who became homeless in the UK, has received. Since his story became public, he’s had generous offers from kind members of the public, ranging from clothes and money to a home next to a running track that he can train on.

We already know the public really want to help homeless people. Homelessness is a terrible experience for anyone to go through, and on the whole people are sympathetic and ready to lend a hand.

However, when most people think of homelessness, they only think of people sleeping on the streets. Though rough sleeping is the most visible form of homelessness, it’s not the only one.

In fact, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Due to our housing crisis, there are thousands of hidden homeless individuals, families and children, many of whom have been forced to ‘sofa surf’ or live in temporary accommodation – they’re stuck in cramped hostels and B&Bs, without any idea of when they might find a real, permanent home.

There is plenty you can do to help the homeless people you do see on the street, and we have lots of advice on this. But your power to help homeless people extends far beyond individual actions and encounters. If you want to end homelessness for good, for all homeless people, then campaign with Shelter.

Homelessness, like poverty, is not an accidental phenomenon. There are huge, structural problems behind it; for example, the shortage of affordable homes in the UK. With our campaigns, we demand big-picture changes and an end to homelessness for good, and we won’t stop until there’s a home for everyone.

Shelter tackles all aspects of the housing crisis, from getting more affordable homes built to fixing private renting, and making sure there is a strong housing safety net ready to help us back on our feet when we need it.

So if you want to do something to help homeless people, support Shelter’s campaigns. The bigger our supporter community, the more powerful we are – and the closer we’ll all be to ending homelessness together.

 You can start right now by getting involved with our general election campaign.

Anne Baxendale
 
I am Public Affairs Manager so it’s my job to persuade politicians and other influential people to care about housing and take up the great ideas from my policy colleagues. Though I live in London I still occasionally yearn for Sheffield. I’m partial to HBO boxed sets and reading the New Yorker.

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By Anne Baxendale

Healthy homes

It’s rare that there’s a clear and simple remedy for the problems we deal with on the front line at Shelter so when we find one we grasp it with both hands. Take carbon monoxide and smoke alarms -it’s a no brainer that they should be installed in every home. We see people being made sick, hospitalised or even dying as a result of monoxide poisoning, especially private renters. According to the Gas Safety Trust, renters are at least four times more at risk than those living in other tenures. Only half of renters report having a working smoke alarm fitted. The time to sort this out is long overdue.

That’s why we’re delighted that the government has announced that they will make it compulsory for private sector landlords to install carbon monoxide alarms and smoke alarms in rental properties, with funding for fire authorities to hand out alarms to people. Shelter and British Gas have been jointly calling for action on this issue including in Safe and Decent Homes, our flagship report on conditions in the private rented sector.

A couple of notes of caution. I do wonder if it would be more straightforward all round to introduce a blanket requirement rather than limiting the requirement for carbon monoxide alarms to ‘high risk rooms’. And as with any new regulation it’s only meaningful if it’s enforceable. But with an end to revenge evictions in sight, it should soon get easier for tenants to speak up and get landlords to fix faulty boilers and other dangerous glitches before it’s too late.

Martha Mackenzie
 
I’m a Public Affairs Officer at Shelter, I joined the Public Affairs team in July 2012. I have been working on a wide range of projects, most notably engaging with local authorities through our rogue landlords campaign and leading our work to end revenge eviction. In my spare time I mentor for the Prince's Trust. When not chained to a desk I can usually be found running or cycling around London.

View all posts by Martha Mackenzie

By Martha Mackenzie

Are the government about to make it even harder to introduce selective licensing?

An article in last night’s Evening Standard and a draft Statutory Instrument (SI) published last week detail major changes to selective licensing. Licensing is a key tool that councils can use to improve their local private rented sector.

This has happened very suddenly. And with just three weeks left until the end of the Parliament, it will progress at lightning speed.

With this in mind, I have done my best to unpick what we know.

The good

The government are extending the criteria for selective licensing – this is something Shelter and local authorities across England have called for.

In order to improve the management of privately rented homes, councils have the power to introduce selective licensing. Before exercising this power, they must demonstrate that a given area is suffering from a significant problem with low demand or antisocial behaviour.

These terms are restrictive and they do not reflect how much private renting has changed.

As a result, the government are now introducing several additional criteria. Local authorities will also be able to introduce selective licensing if a given area has a high proportion of privately rented homes and exhibits one or more of the following: poor property conditions; an influx of migration; a high level of deprivation; and high levels of crime.

In theory, this will allow local authorities to use selective licensing to deal with a much wider range of issues.

The bad

However, at the same time, the government appear to be making it harder to introduce licensing in the first place.

From 1st April 2015, councils will have to seek permission from the Secretary of State for ‘any selective licensing scheme which would cover more than 20% of their geographical area or would affect more than 20% of privately rented homes in the local authority area’.

Although not explicitly ruling out borough-wide selective licensing, this new measure is designed to put a stop to this practice.

The London Borough of Newham introduced borough-wide selective licensing in January 2013. Despite legal challenges at the time, this scheme appears to have been very successful; it has even won the praise of landlords. In response to this success, a number of other authorities are considering this path – something the government are not happy about.

However, there is a strange contradiction at the heart of government. Last year, the Department for Communities and Local Government awarded Newham over £1million pounds to support their scheme. Clearly they want to drive up the standard of privately rented homes, but disagree about the best way to go about it.

This new measure interferes with councils’ autonomy: local authorities are well placed to decide whether borough-wide licensing is appropriate for them. It also creates another costly hoop for cash-strapped authorities to jump through.

The ugly

What is particularly unwelcome, is the way the government have chosen to present this. The Evening Standard article talks of licensing as a ‘tenant’s tax’. The implication being that borough-wide licensing pushes up rents – and should therefore be opposed by renters. In reality there is little evidence of this.

Licensing is an important tool to ensure renters get the best deal from their private landlord. Positioning renters in opposition to licensing is not only disingenuous, it is out of touch when tenants are crying out for reform.

Where do we go from here?

While Shelter are not opposed to a more targeted use of selective licensing, it has to be coupled with other, major policy interventions:

  • A national register of landlords – this would equip local authorities with data to proactively manage their private rented sector.
  • Increased funding for local authority enforcement – this would help local authorities target rogue landlords.

Rushing through a major change in this way is highly unorthodox, as a result there is every chance it will not happen. The House of Lords will debate the Statutory Instrument on 23rd March. In the meantime, we’ll keep you posted.

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