Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Welfare Reform and Devolution

 

I was part of a panel at the Social Security Committee of the Scottish Parliament today talking about their work programme priorities for the next five years. It was particularly attractive as a session because Steve Fothergill from Sheffield Hallam was first presenting new evidence  on the impacts of the post Coalition Government welfare reforms on Scotland. However, train problems on the way to Edinburgh meant I only heard his discussion session with the MSPs. In this  post I am going to go over his and Christina Beatty’s findings and then move on to the discussion we had about the committee future priorities.

Beatty and Fothergill’s analysis is a model of clarity, it builds on an established body of work, it makes clear where the data and evidence shortcomings are and it implies where new research is needed. Fothergill was refreshingly straightforward and more than willing to point to the political dimensions of welfare reform. The main findings suggest that, first, there will be big financial losses to households as a result of the additional post-2015 election welfare cuts in Scotland. These will be of the order of £1 billion a year as a result primarily of – the four year freeze on many working-age benefits and reductions in the work allowances within Universal credit (i.e. the point where benefit withdrawal tapers kick in). Cuts arising from the move to PIPs from DLA will also be important, as will planned reductions in tax credits.

Second, there are significant variations across Scotland with older ex-industrial and more deprived areas tending to fare more badly on a per capita basis (although the Scottish average is close to the GB average as a whole). Third, the expected figure of an annual additional financial loss of a £1b per annum for the post 2015 period needs to be added to the 2010-15 welfare changes which themselves imposed a financial loss of £1.1b (admittedly a lower figure than was anticipated because of the challenge in bringing down spending on ESA).

The report is thought-provoking stuff and it is great to see this analysis done at a Scottish level. I was struck by some of the housing-related evidence implied by their research.  Some of the housing information included:

  • The lower benefit cap (£20,000 p.a.) will impact on 11,000 Scottish households and cost £25m a year compared to just 900 under the previous regime.
  • Mortgage interest support, converted into a repayable loan (on entering work or on sale), affects 17,000 Scottish households and costs £25m a year.
  • 1,500 people are set to lose out because of the exemption of Housing Benefit for those aged 18-21 (and not deemed vulnerable – existing an estimated £4m a year.
  • The LHA cap extension to the social sector is estimated to affect 55,000 Scottish households and to cost £40m a year (not clear how this disaggregates between general needs and supported housing, the latter of which is expected to be particularly problematic though it will not be initially affected). Also it was not clear from the report whether this 55,000 sum explicitly includes the under 35 single person households who are treated as if they are sharing housing (ie receive benefit up to the shared accommodation rate).

While the report is about welfare cuts post 2015 in Scotland, it does allude to possible offsetting effects – higher personal tax allowance, enhanced child care, and the minimum wage. But more could have been done to bottom these figures out and and quantify the balance between winners and losers in net terms. In the discussion with the MSPs Fothergill argued strongly that there was no evidence that employment growth follows from sharper benefit incentives as experience din recent economic cycles. He also argued that the long term growth, for instance, in levels of ESA are about lack of jobs. The demand-side explanation is strengthened by the evidence that in high demand labour markets in southern regions people with disability or illness are more likely to get work and can find jobs – but this is more difficult in low demand areas. Supply does not create its own demand.

Turning to the priorities for the committee in the coming Parliament, I recognise that the housing end of social security does not always come top of the bill and today we focused much more on disability, employment support allowance, work assessments and broader system level questions associated with the devolution of social security powers. Consequently, my contributions were modest.

It was not long when despite the conclusion from Beatty and Fothergill that we should not overstate the Importance of devolution of social security powers to the Scottish Parliament, we nonetheless agreed that this was in fact the priority, but also a huge challenge and an opportunity wrapped up in one.  Despite the fact that the Scottish Government does not intend to fully take on the powers till 2020 as one MSP said, the time is now to start planning, and also to ensure the infrastructure and systems are established, and to build the necessary policy and delivery capacity.

My view was that the 15% figure (the proportion of social security spending to be devolved) is a bit of a red herring (though Kirstein Rummery made the good point that it us like being given a block of cash that, now devolved, the Scottish Parliament can design it and use it as it thinks best – there are therefore many opportunities). This is because it is the additional powers to top up, create new benefits and change the rules applying to things like Universal Credit and its housing cost elements that create open-ended flexibilities and choices for Government. However, they all have to be paid for out of the Block and this means Scotland has to consider both its revenue-raising capacity and economic growth (including its new tax powers) to fund expansion and also whether there are choices between spending headings that could change to meet the social objectives of new and better social security benefits. There are opportunity costs from constrained political choice but there are also genuine opportunities.

Much of the discussion was about work assessment, disability benefits and also of course conditionality and sanctions. I was struck by the fact my colleagues around the table had so much relevant evidence to bring especially on their own direct projects and in relation to reviews of international studies. There does seem to be, as was true also in the last parliament, that committees do genuinely want to work from a proper evidence base. This has to be a positive sign in these otherwise concerning times.

True Grit – Ken Loach and the reality of welfare conditionality

 It has been quite a week. I saw ‘I, Daniel Blake’ in the cinema, there has been considerable media scrutiny of the new lower benefit caps and their impact, the DWP has produced a controversial green paper on the future of Employment Support Allowance and the Scottish Parliament debated the effects of sanctions and welfare conditionality, in part as a result of the ongoing ESRC programme which includes the excellent work of my colleague Sharon Wright.

The new lower benefit cap moves the likely burden from very large working age households or people often only in high cost housing reliant on benefits to many more households and often with children right across the UK. From 7th November 2016, the lower benefit cap begins to be rolled out. For couples and single parents, it will fall from £500 per week to £384.62 outside of London and for single people it falls from £350 to £257.69 outside of London (higher costs in the capital mean the reduction in the cap is less there). The benefits primarily affected are housing benefit, universal credit (and its components) and other working age benefits but also things like child tax credits and child benefit. The Guardian reported that 116,000 households would be materially affected.

The Green Paper (Improving Lives) is focused on increasing economic activity among the sick and vulnerable.  It is critically summarised by Paul Spicker in a blog this week who said: “It proposes to extend to those for whom working is least viable the kind of regime that has so signally failed for people in the ‘work related activity group’. If people who are sick cannot find ways to engage with the labour market, why should we imagine that people who are  sick and vulnerable should fare any better?”

The conditionality debate in Parliament highlighted the strength of feeling among our politicians about the impacts of sanctions and the problems they pose for welfare policy and people affected. In a piece for the Daily Record Sharon Wright summarised the key difficulties evidenced in her research:

  • Sanctions led to short term crises and long term debt repayment problems.
  • They were associated with rent arrears, the threat of eviction and possibly homelessness.
  • Sanctions often come without warning – and if people don’t know about the sanction how can it effect the DWP’s desired behavioural change?
  • Sanctions had profound negative wellbeing effects on those directly affected and in the end it was support to help people into work that mattered not sanctions – carrots not sticks.

And what about the film? ‘I, Daniel Blake’ was highly-charged and emotional. I will long remember the complete silence in the cinema when the credits abruptly come up. People looked stunned and many were upset. The film uses highly plausible scenarios to document the descent into poverty of normal people who are dealing with  common human circumstances like sudden ill health or family break-up. Engaging with benefits and systems like Employment Support Allowance and ultimately conditionality, is overwhelming for those less skilled in the world of digital by default and coping with the abrupt shifts into conditionality, as also reported by Sharon in her research. Vulnerable people can be forced to turn to food banks for resources and the black market and illegality for income. There is a strong Kafka-like feeling in the film as Job Centre Plus officers repeatedly use the ‘decision maker’ as the disembodied arbiter of whether or not one gets the benefit they are applying for.

It is a great piece of fiction but one that has a real sense of authenticity. It is well acted and brilliantly made. I did however think the Job Centre Plus staff were with one or two exceptions a little two dimensional, especially the nurse ratchet character and the general demeanour of the staff who were ‘just following orders’.

Thinking on the big themes of the film, I think a complete overhaul of the employment support allowance is needed and the DWP has to end the byzantine and often impossible choices created by the system facing the lead character who was turned down for ESA and can only apply for JSA when he is patently not fit for work. Paul Spicker’s views about these matters as suggested in the new Green Paper seem to be a good place to start. Second, there can be no basis or situation where individuals and especially children in families face destitution as a result of sanctions. This has to end. Third,  the film stressed the confusion and lack of help available to vulnerable people so that they have some chance to navigate (consistently) the arcane complexities of this obtuse and often dehumanising system. There must be a clearly stated rapid assistance system 24/7 on the end of a phone or for working hours  in a town centre office that offers clear and independent advice across all of the UK. Or if it already exists, people must be clearly directed towards such support and this should be done at the earliest possible point in the journey.

Land, Tax & Housing Supply in Scotland

 

The Scottish Government has its five-year target of 50,000 new social and affordable homes and is exploring ways that the sector might overcome bottlenecks and impediments to the required levels of new build. Not surprisingly, there has been a focus on the supply delivery system, planning, the development industry and the land market. Scotland has recently had an independent review of the planning system chaired by Crawford Beveridge and earlier inquiries by RICS Scotland  and by the Shelter Commission on Housing and Wellbeing. Now, as a sidebar to the recent proposed reforms of the council tax, it has been suggested that the Scottish Government would consult on the efficacy of a tax on vacant and derelict land, so as to incentivise the supply of housing land from those relatively untapped sources. This follows on the recent introduction of a similar levy on such land in Ireland.

This was the context for a roundtable discussion I attended Tuesday morning about the pros and cons of such a tax chaired by the minister and populated by stakeholders across the housing supply delivery system, professionals, policy, academics and practice. It followed the Chatham House Rule so I will simply reflect on themes expressed around the table.

The meeting was structured around three key questions: why can’t we deliver more housing supply; would a tax on vacant & derelict land help; what other policy instruments might help? There was a wide range of views on show both in terms of diagnosis and what needs to be done.

Regarding what prevents housing land supply coming forward more speedily, there was (unresolved) disagreement over whether or not speculative land banking played a part. Other culprits were identified as high levels of risk, infrastructure constraints, construction capacity questions, the reduction in SME builders since the crisis, the cost of decontamination many derelict sites relative to the funds available, and lack of access to sufficient affordable land – amongst several other issues. Underlying much of what was said was the continuing large discrepancy between the volume of housing land with consents in the housing land supply figures and the much lower number of what actually gets completed. How do we rectify this and what quantitative significance does vacant and derelict land play as part of this story?

Contemplating a tax on vacant and derelict land means having clear definitions of what it means to be derelict or vacant and targeting the tax appropriately. That is not easy. Assuming that it can be done the tax would have to overcome a series of standard hurdles: the tax should be cheap to set up and run, it should be simple, transparent and be credible as a fair burden. It should also minimise wider distortions or unintended consequences.  I argued that if these criteria could be met through careful design, the tax should also possess local discretion so that the nuances of locally heterogeneous markets could to an extent be addressed. Overall, a wide range of views were expressed about the feasibility and desirability of such a tax.

In the course of the discussion a number of important wider points were made. First, there is of course a major issue about dereliction in our town centres and working on creating residential demand and solutions for these properties could play an important role in the future of many urban areas across Scotland. Second, there was a sense in some quarters that derelict and vacant land was a part of the problem of land supply for housing but it should not be over-cooked against the wider questions of how we best deliver on new housing targets. One view was that there was essentially nothing that far wrong with the planning systems aims and goals but there was a too common failure to actually deliver the housing delivery public policy outcomes we desire – and we need a range of mechanisms to make that happen.

How might this be done? First, there was discussion of the prospect that planning permission might be taken away on a site if it is not used. This is often discussed but of course there are dangers here – the site may nonetheless be a viable site and its development will be delayed and, moreover, by taking consent away, the effective housing land supply is actually being reduced. Second, there was discussion of national and regional land development agencies that could overcome market failures by delivering serviced affordable land for housing. To that end I would also support local revolving land funds that could do the same once they are pump-primed with initial funding. Third, it was suggested that the state can borrow over much longer periods than the private sector and should do more to exploit this by playing a larger role as an investor in infrastructure versus the relatively short run requirements of market sector developers and that, furthermore, there was an appetite for this long term state investment debt from pension funds.

Finally, there was debate about whether the local state has the capacity and even the confidence to use its existing powers, notably CPO as a way of braking log jams, assembling land and moving sites forward. Several speakers stressed the opportunity to use compulsory sales of land which has the added advantage that it is far cheaper to do in terms of transaction costs than CPOs from the point of view of local government.

Plenty of those present brought specific experienced examples to the table to make their arguments. Only one academic brought detailed research evidence (it was not me). One takeaway point for me from the debate in public policymaking terms, therefore, was that the Scottish Government still has an exercise ahead of it to collect different forms of rigorous evidence as well as this distillation of key stakeholder views – before decisions are taken about the direction of, and specific instruments for, a policy aimed at successfully expanding housing land supply and completions.

 

 

 

Gimme (a ‘standard’) Shelter

Showing their undoubted media abilities, Shelter today launched a new study describing a model of a living home standard (LHS). The standard is based on 39 attributes of essential and more ‘tradable’ attributes of five dimensions of ‘home’ drawn from intensive research with the public carried out by Ipsos MORI. The hook was to show many homes in Britain fell below this new standard, an approach characterised as in the same spirit as the national living wage. The social, tv, radio and print media took to it hugely. So well done Shelter for getting the housing crisis and housing deficit to the top of the news agendas.

In this short post I want to review how they arrived at this new standard and reflect a bit on the national results that they hung their story around.

Ipsos MORI carried out nine months of investigative qualitative research with the public to uncover the five themes and 39 attributes deemed to make up the living home standard (regardless of tenure age or size). This was reminiscent of the approach taken by the Oxfam Humankind Wellbeing Index.The themes were based on: affordability, decent conditions, space, stability (i.e. security) and neighbourhood. Passing the standard required that it meet all of the essential conditions for each theme and a minimum number of the tradable ones for each theme.To take affordability as an example: the essential requirements were 1. Can meet the rent or mortgage payments on the home without regularly having to cut spending on household essentials like food or heating; and, 2. Not worried that rent or mortgage payments could rise to a level that would be difficult to pay. Tradable requirements for the affordability dimensions involved: 1. Can meet rent or mortgage payments on the home without regularly preventing participation in social activities; and 2. Can meet rent or mortgage payments on the home without regularly being prevented from putting enough money aside for unexpected events.

This sort of approach to affordability is refreshing in that it gets us away from the tyranny of specific ratios (cost to income ratios) and minimum values (residual incomes) but clearly does require household survey data. However, it would be incorrect to say that this type of approach is unassailably objective – it is not. Its attractiveness is that it has been robustly built up from the views of real people but of course even that has to some extent been conditioned by the design of the approach in the first place. More significantly, the quest for definitive objective measures is illusory and must require judgements about what is included and excluded, how threshold values are set and why, weighting (and how such weighting is approached) and the fundamental realisation that housing need, affordability and an overall LHS is and must be subjective and to an extent derived from judgment. However, that is not to say that this is anything but a comprehensive and well thought through approach. It is. We just need to recognise that while some forms of housing deficit are apparently objective and straightforward; others quickly become harder to pin down. We should welcome multi-dimensionality to thinking about housing problems but it bring challenges too.

A survey of just under 2000 adults, with results weighted to reflect the national (GB) population, was then undertaken to measure the extent to which the LHS was met and where it was not met. The analysis found that 43% of people live in homes that fail to meet at least one of these dimensions of LHS. Affordability was valued as one of the most important aspects of whether a home was acceptable but was the area that most failed on (followed by decent conditions). However, of all that failed only 1% failed in all five dimensions; the vast majority failed on one dimension or not more than two. The percentage failing the standard was negatively related to income i.e. lower income households were more likely to be in homes that failed the standard. A similar regressive gradient was found contrasting LHS with social grade. Third, fully 69% of private tenants failed the LHS and across age bands, the highest proportion failing (at 58%) were young aged 25-34.

This is more than a useful start and I particularly liked several things about the model – for instance, its multi-dimensionality and the concept of tradable relative to essential attributes. But it would be good to look at the LHS at different more local spatial scales so that it could articulate directly with complementary measures like official measures of housing need. Shelter have done a great job in getting their message out clearly and simply and doing so with such effectiveness. Housing needs to be up there near the top of the agenda because chronic problems rarely seem to inhabit the upper echelons of the news cycles for long. For all that, it is amazing how quickly fairly straightforward concepts and ideas get mauled and can confuse. Last night one of the BBC reporters struggled with the idea that 43% overall could fail the LHS but at the same time 69% of (private) tenants lived in homes that did not meet the standard.

http://www.shelter.org.uk/livinghomestandard.

 

 

 

 

A Different Class?

 

Just under a year ago many of us sat looking at the ONS website waiting for the news about whether or not they would reclassify English housing associations as public bodies for public accounting statistical purposes. On the basis of a review of the powers of the Regulator created under the previous UK Labour Government, the ONS took the view that these powers of disposal of assets, board and senior staff appointments were sufficient to deem that enough degree of control from a government agency meant that reclassification was indeed appropriate. This shifted more than £60 billion of debt on to the public books and initially raised uncertainties about the freedoms housing associations would retain over borrowing.

This fundamental change was not wanted by Government or the sector or other major stakeholders. In the midst of last year’s controversial housing legislation in England, the Government proposed a series of measures aimed at deregulating the English sector sufficiently, they hoped, to re-re-classify the sector back into the private sector.

Still with me? Yesterday morning the ONS announced its decision regarding the classification status for public accounting statistical purposes for housing associations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, assessing them on a similar basis as was the case in England. They are now described as ‘public non-financial corporations’. The Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) has been reclassified as a ‘central government body’.

Interestingly, the Scottish Government had taken pre-emptive action by preparing and pre-announcing deregulatory legislation on a similar basis to the English proposal in order to reduce uncertainty and get back to the pre-announcement status quo. In 2012 the ONS re-reclassified English further education and sixth form colleges which it has earlier reclassified in the public sector in 2010 because Government relaxed some of its earlier controls. So there is a precedent.

According to Inside Housing, the reasons for reclassification in Scotland were threefold: the SHR has a degree of control over the management of housing associations, the housing associations need consent from the SHR over ‘constitutional change’ such as mergers and take-overs, and, associations also need consent over the disposal of assets like land and housing.

The Scottish Government plans to respond with new legislation which will first remove the need for consent over the disposal of assets, they will ‘limit’ the power of the SHR to appoint board members and officers, and, remove the need for the SHR’s consent regarding restructuring, voluntary winding-up and dissolution of housing associations. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations appear to share the Government’s optimism that this will be enough to put the sector back in the private sector, though they reserve the right to scrutinise the ONS details closely. They do make the point that the Scottish regulatory framework has evolved in recent years to put some distance between the sector and public control [link].

This is a statistical exercise but it has real implications, potentially. Governments around the UK would not seek corrective legislation if it were not of significance. Linked to this is the wider question of the degree of autonomy or level of external control applied to an important part of the voluntary or third sector, The reclassification also creates some uncertainty which may impact on policy delivery i.e. the Scottish Government’s preparedness of response in part reflects their desire to protect their priority to deliver the 50,000 affordable housing supply target over the life of this Parliament.

Deregulation is not without its risks – how will lenders respond to the changing regulatory environment? The English experience will provide a guide. Second, is this the end of the matter – will ONS accept the deregulation as sufficient basis for changing the classification back? The plans set out by the Scottish government may well turn out to be quite appropriate and sufficient for this purpose. ONS reclassification could be the dog that did not bark. We will see.

 

Community-led Approaches to Reducing Poverty

 

What Works Scotland held an event in Clydebank Town Hall this afternoon – a workshop of about 40 people from the public and voluntary sectors, plus a few academics and councillors. The focus was on reviewing the evidence and practice concerning specifically community-led approaches to reducing poverty.

Ostensibly, this was an opportunity to showcase Richard Crisp (Sheffield Hallam University) who led a team of researchers who carried out a formal evidence review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Organised and convened by my colleague, Claire Bynner, this was also a chance to share the work with our What Works Scotland  case study colleagues in West Dunbartonshire and also hear from other speakers including Bruce White from Glasgow Centre for Population Health. I was the rapporteur at the end of the event.

The first speaker was the deputy leader of West Dunbartonshire who set the tone for the day. He emphasised the priority of effective anti-poverty measures and championed the evidence of effective grassroots ‘voice’ and the importance of real life stories found in the JRF research we were discussing. He also, however, stressed that poverty is also (and always) political. For me, that latter point reminds us that even in such straitened times, governments still make choices over what they prioritise and could come to different conclusions about progressive taxes, about the mix of redistributive and more untargeted policies.

Bruce White (GCPH) presented important demographic and other trends relating to different dimensions of poverty comparing Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire. Bruce highlighted the utility of powerful infographics using aggregate and especially disaggregate data. One could not fail to be struck by the significant gradients across neighbourhoods often displaying massive differences from the most to the least affluent areas when looking at child poverty, fuel poverty, proximity to vacant and derelict land, to life expectancy and healthy years’ expectancy. He also illustrated the value of the bespoke community profile created for West Dunbartonshire.

This was followed by Richard Crisp’s evidence review. There were a number of things about this work worth noting:

  • He was clear that community-led approaches do impact on poverty and do so in different helpful ways – but they are modest in comparison to the scale of the problem.
  • He presented a useful typology of community led approaches: voluntary action (e.g. food banks); community organisations (e.g. neighbourhood clean-ups); social action (e.g. living wage campaign); community economic development (e.g. social enterprise); and, community involvement in service delivery (e.g. participatory budgeting).
  • He distinguished between material and non-material forms of poverty. The former concern reducing the costs of housing or energy, providing access to affordable credit or creating employment opportunities. The latter encompasses health and well-being, the quality of housing and the physical environment and wider social participation. The framework used also distinguished three types of positive impact: pockets (immediate respite or support ‘felt in the pocket’), prospects (approaches that help people exit poverty) and prevention (approaches that mean people do not enter poverty). I thought this was a good way of carving up and analysing the evidence. They then moved on to see whether attractive approaches had potential scalability or reach.
  • The research team used this framework and found considerable variety in impacts, their depth and scalability. Little evidence was found of approaches that might be called prevention-based.
  • I was a little concerned initially about the use of the terms scale and spread but Richard, to my mind, correctly, pointed out that specific approaches have to be situated and contextualised and then assessed as to whether they are adaptable to different settings. It is also the case that local or community-level policies have to be set in the wider sub-regional or regional economic context.
  • Finally, there was a powerful point made in the conclusion. Despite the good things evidenced in the report and seen in different parts of the UK every day in local communities, if national politicians thought that the community, the third sector and the big society would step in to fill the gaps created by austerity and deliberate policy change – they were wrong. The scale of the shortfall and its consequences for increased and deepened poverty need a sustained large scale response.

It was not all speakers speaking – there was plenty of active and varied interaction and participation from the delegates. This was a genuinely stimulating event and it was great to see that the JRF’s UK research spoke so clearly to west central Scotland. Tomorrow the caravan heads to Dundee and I am sure it will be similarly relevant there.

Scottish Council Tax Banding Reforms

I was back giving evidence this morning at Holyrood. The Scottish Government has drafted a statutory instrument that seeks to increase the weight and consequent charge applied to properties in Band E, F, G and H. They have also proposed an amendment to the means-tested Council Tax Reduction Scheme (CTRS) such that those households on below median incomes who do not currently receive CTRS will be eligible for all of the increase being met by the CTRS if they are in the higher bands. The extra £100m that this will generate will be hypothecated to support the national priority of closing the educational attainment gap. Finally, it is proposed that the long standing council tax freeze will be replaced by a cap allowing up to 3% increases in annual average council tax bills.

There are wider related issues as well concerning ongoing consultation over localising a share of income tax receipts so as to promote local economic growth.  Second, the Government is also consulting over taxes that encourage the reuse of vacant and derelict land and tax development. Finally, councils will be given the power to charge the full council tax on second homes.

The whole process around the Statutory Instruments and related immediate changes is highly truncated with the rapidly approaching new financial year, changes to CTRS, the new cap – and of course local elections thereafter in 2017.

The proposals are the outcome of the process begun by the Commission on local tax reform. The proposals need to command a majority in Parliament. Not everyone in Holyrood agrees with this current band-tinkering direction of travel (e.g. the Scottish Greens).

There is interesting written evidence on the site, not least from David Bell and form the former minister and co-convenor of the Commission, Marco Biagi.  In the section below, I paraphrase the main reflections in my written evidence.

Reflections on Reform and Beyond

Is the proposal package more progressive (i.e. ‘fairer’)? It makes a regressive tax less regressive and offers significant exemption and hence compensation (albeit through a means-tested route) to all of those on below median incomes. The changes proposed do not appear on reflection to be massively difficult for councils to implement though there will inevitably be opportunity and transaction costs. However, I think there are wider questions and concerns.

While there was not complete consensus on the Commission for the action recommended there was agreement on the need to end the council tax and the freeze. What is being proposed, especially given the absence of a general revaluation, is clearly what the Scottish Government, in carrying through manifesto pledges, feels it can do. But what is maximal for them is less than the minimum in the context of the reasonable expectations generated by the Commission. My worry is that without further commitment to substantive reform we will back in five years saying here is a property-based tax which sets values on market levels from 30 years in the past. The weighting may be more fair but the values that place properties in bands will be in most cases wrong and increasingly illegitimate. It is hard not to see this as a political fudge which does not resolve the underlying problems indicated above.

A second point is that fairness with property taxation is complex. It is not just about tax in relation to current income (important as that is) but it is also about the importance of inequality transmitted and reflected in the housing market and the relative failure to tax housing as an owner-occupier investment. While we repeatedly hear of the importance of social justice and tackling inequality, one of the key sources of that inequality (as well as damage through market volatility to economic productivity) is apparently sacrosanct. Moreover, as John Muellbauer at the University of Oxford pointed out, there are other ways to support low income households pay their local taxes, such as through allowances (like the Greens proposed), deferred payments as well as well-designed benefit systems.

Third, while the CTRS reform is in many ways a neat solution to compensating those in low incomes in higher value properties, it does add a further layer of means-tested complexity, and it is not clear at this point what will be done to ensure the highest levels of take-up. This is all the more germane given that the exemption would go much further up the income scale to immediately below median net incomes. There is a tension here with government policy elsewhere which will likely lead to councils setting full council tax on second properties on the basis to bring properties into more efficient use, yet at the same time CTRS is being used to help households stay in properties that are often only marginally affordable, if that.

Fourth, I was surprised that it was deemed unnecessary to carry out an equality impact assessment for the CTRS and that no wider assessments were required for either the tax change or the CTRS. The £7m figure for the additional cost of the CTRS must have assumptions about take up rates – it would be interesting to know more about these – as I think there would be grounds to think that rates might be relatively low. Additionally, aren’t the lessons from the land building transactions tax introduction that these sorts of tax changes do have market effects at the upper end of the housing market and that this is likely to have some degree of impact on when people decide to move how and could conceivably affect the labour market decisions of higher net worth households. I would have thought that was something working looking into.

Fifth, while ending the freeze and giving councils back the power to charge full council tax on second homes provides more discretion locally, this is offset by the implementation of hypothecation the extra £100 million to a national government priority.

Following the evidence session this morning, a few final thoughts struck me.

First, the truncated nature of the process has left a few uncertainties. There was a lengthy discussion this morning about the mechanism by which the £100 million for education will be managed and allocated locally. Second, we are unclear about the timeline and practical proposals for the localising of income tax receipts. Third, there is clearly no appetite for revaluation within the Scottish Government but the underlying problem and entropy of increasingly non-credible valuations will not go away. Fourth, there may be other unintended consequences and transaction costs if many high band property households seek to have their homes revalued down to lower bands – though I do not know the scope in practice for people to do this.

All in all, to paraphrase Marco Biagi, concerning the council tax, few people would have started from where we are now but equally on reflection how many will be happy with where we have ended up?

The Future of the US Mortgage Market

“The trigger for the most recent crisis remains the part of the global financial system that has been least reformed”. The Economist, August 20, 2016.

There is a thorough and thought-provoking diagnosis of contemporary US mortgage markets in the USA in the new edition of the Economist. You may ask why this is a significant issue worth attention. First, the proximity of US mortgage securitisation to the global financial crisis and the extent to which earlier structural and other challenges have been repaired is important for the world financial system not least because the rest of the world owns trillions of dollars of US mortgage debt. Second, the US market has had a lengthy and difficult period which has had all manner of knock-on effects for housing, communities and the economy. Third, there is the key question of the future – how stable, resilient and sustainable is the current system and also proposals for reform. Finally, how relevant is any of this to the UK’s mortgage market?

The article argues that despite the rebalancing of Wall Street banks since 2008, alongside the banks sits the mortgage sector, which creates almost as much credit as the banks but unlike them the housing credit sector is much less capitalised and only just in profit. US mortgage debt is of the order of $11 trillion. The Economist argues that the taxpayer subsidies the system to the tune of $150 billion a year (tax breaks but also the indirect effect on interest rates of the Fed purchasing mortgage bonds). This is in part because of the conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or de facto nationalisation of the great majority of the US mortgage sector (at least 2/3 of new mortgages originate from agencies of government). The economist concludes that it is not the market but ‘administrative fiat’ which determines mortgage volumes, the structure of loans and attitudes to risk.

The collapse after 2008 led to major changes in the regulation, ownership and practice operating in the mortgage lending sector. The Economist stresses the withdrawal of traditional lenders from mainstream new home loans to be replaced by specialist orginators. Second, the Government’s rescue of the system between 2008-2012 left them in control of large parts of that system and in particular of securitization of mortgages. Third, although the old derivatives market has been largely removed, it is still the case that the ownership of mortgage assets is still widely distributed across the banks and internationally.

This is where the Economist’s argument gets a bit schizophrenic – they argue that on the one hand there is too little regulation of the new originators of mortgage loans is too loose but at the same time the rest of the mortgage market is far too regulated – with 10,000 pages of law and rules that tighten up who gets loan, what kinds of property and loan types are eligible. Yet loan to value ratios are weakly controlled and 95% LTV loans are increasing (25% of new loans in 2012) and down payment regulations have been loosened.

The upshot for the authors is that the US mortgage system seems to be playing two roles – providing liquidity in the mortgage bond market but also using implicit and explicit subsidy to boost home ownership. What is to be done –the Economist is not keen on just leaving it alone (which itself is a common response after the shocks of 2008 and thereafter). Instead, they want a market solution but also note that with the status quo remaining because of the dominant role of the state, a future default crisis in the mortgage market will need to be bailed out by the taxpayer and this might be huge.

What is the market alternative? Force mortgage lenders to recapitalise like the banks on Wall Street and at the same time raise fees to create profit signals and incentives to take risks (and bear their costs). Administrative control and subsidy would be reduced and mortgage rates would probably go up a bit too. The Economist reckons this would require about $400 billion of new capital.

There are however difficult political economy barriers to such reform: the Government currently receives income from its conservatorships (but does not have their debts on its books) and of course the twin reduction of subsidy and higher interest rates (plus potentially sounder market criteria and regulation for lending) does not win support from the middle classes.

This all sounds like the policy reform problems we have discussed many times before – important coalitions and stakeholders who thwart reform even when it is in society’s long term interests. Figuring out ways to build consensus or use opportunities to act while sorting out the design and implementation of system wide reform, and indeed to compensate or mitigate the impacts on losers from reform – is a challenging mix. Default to inaction is made all the more likely by the need to get new enacting legislation through a partisan Congress.

While one may not necessarily agree with the precise policy thrust in the article, the problems are real enough. While not accepting the prognosis we still have to confront how to make policy well in a complex and uncertain setting. For those thinking about wishing to tilt the UK mortgage market to or from further regulation, it is worth considering the experience of the different and distinctive US setting.

Freedom

Today was a milestone day in our household. We finally paid off our mortgage. Our journey is probably not too different to many of our vintage and trajectory but certainly it now looks like a housing career much less likely to be possible or typical for many folk starting out now wanting to buy a home.

As many did in the high water mark of mortgage deregulation, we started in the late 1980s with a 100% endowment mortgage. This was for a two bedroom interwar four in a block or cottage flat purchased a couple of months after I started my first full time job as a research fellow. Mortgage rates were 15%. It needed a lot of work, much of which family and friends assisted with and we stayed there, in hindsight, too long. There was a dodgy roof and a comparatively large garden, which were both in their different ways time-consuming and stressful.

I really wanted out of that house by the time we moved- I still occasionally have a recurring dream that we have to move back there (and to be clear I wake thinking I have had a nightmare). We moved about half a mile into a new home and watched it being built, which was an exciting time. This was a semi-detached three bedroom house, our larger mortgage was in two parts (a legacy of that earlier endowment). The new house was an incredible contrast to its predecessor and we had a little more than five years there. We would probably have stayed longer but an attractive, detached house around the corner came on the market and we managed to get it (the vendors also moved to another house in the immediate vicinity).

We have been in the present house more than 11 years now and we were able to use the redemption of the endowment (at nothing like its original supposed value) to pay off one bit of the mortgage and then overpay the other part till we could clear it today. A combination of very low interest rates and two jobs made this possible.

We know we have been fortunate working in comparatively secure jobs while escaping the vicissitudes of economic turmoil both in the early 1990s and late 2000s. We were able to secure a 100% loan in 1989 and make incremental progress thereafter. This is now a much more challenging problem for would-be buyers because of the binds of higher entry level house prices, weaker earnings growth, greater job insecurity and the much more significant down payment constraint.

If people cannot access funds, build savings or inter-vivo transfers or other financial support from family or friends, and do so when it is required or opportune, the average age of first time buyers will remain high except for the lucky few. As an aside I think there would be much merit in detailed and extensive independent research in the binding nature of these down-payment constraints and the effectiveness of policies that try to relax them. While there is much to be said for not returning to 100% mortgage loans the industry may have gone too far in the other direction but it is a complex multidimensional problem and simple pat answers about how to safely increase mortgage lending should be viewed with suspicion.

So, it is no more ‘I owe, I owe, so it is off to work I go’. However, to be honest I never really felt like that about work. Still, it is a rite of passage to close the mortgage account, and, as so many aspects of life increasingly do these days, it does make one feel old. The future will be about maintenance rather than a mortgage. We will just have to plan it ourselves.

 

What do we know about the demand for private renting?

Regular readers will know that I have previously argued that we know surprisingly little about the UK rental market, despite the magnitude of growth in the sector in recent years. Evidence is hard to come by because of the disparate diffuse nature of the sector, which is really a series of well-defined demand segments. But this does not stop many people writing about the sector as if it was homogenous, simple to understand, monitor, evidence and, consequently, intervene in to moderate excesses.

Unfortunately, this over-generalisation has extended to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer who introduced tax changes that will reduce returns and increase borrowing and transactions costs (but without any proper analysis of the impact of these changes). But the sector is not simply an investor question – it is also about who lives in the sector and their aspirations and experiences; and it is all the more important because at the margin it is the sector where the action is because of credit constraints on entering owner occupation and, for others, because of the insufficient level of affordable housing supply of social housing.

It is against this backdrop that a couple of weeks ago the Bank of England’s blog site Bank Underground issued an interesting paper on the drivers of the demand for private renting by Mariana Gimpeliewicz and Tom Stratton. In what follows I will summarise their paper and its findings and then reflect a little on what they say.

Noting the observed growth in the share of total dwellings privately rented since 2002 and the growth since 2008 of buy to let mortgages (BTL) rising at more than 6% per annum (a subset of all private renting), the authors argued that it made sense to try to understand the growth in PRS demand, what its main components are and then divide the analysis between pre-crisis and post-crisis and also make some projections about future demand levels in the sector. The authors note that BTL loans explained about 70% of PRS expansion before the crisis but that tighter underwriting may explain why BTL only supported about a third of the growth after the crisis (most of which came from ‘cash purchasers’).

The main drivers of demand for the PRS are (1) demographic sub-groups i.e. students, in-migrants and younger people, who all have a higher propensity to rent privately; (2) where the provision of social housing falls, households will be funneled to the rental market; and, (3) potential first time buyers who are credit-constrained or face affordability shortcomings will be obliged to either rent or live with parents. In this study, the lack of affordability data means the focus instead under (3) is on credit conditions.

The authors found that pre-crisis, net inward migration was the largest contributor of PRS demand ie about a quarter of all sector growth (2002-07). Additional students helped explain another 12.5% of growth, with slightly less growth due to the reduction in social housing available. Their analysis explained about half of the growth in the sector n this period. Between 2008-13 (the credit crunch period), migration remained an important factor, with a declining role for social housing and student growth. Much more important was tighter credit conditions for first time buyers ie the withdrawal of high LTV loans – they found that this accounted for two thirds of the growth in the private rented sector in this period. Overall, their drivers account for 82% of the growth in the sector and all of the BTL segment’s growth. The authors recognise that affordability may be driving the unexplained growth – in other words that by driving up house prices new BTL supply may be making owning less affordable and hence more are directed towards the rental market (but this is supposition).

Looking ahead, the authors expect demand to grow to 2019 but much less slowly than in recent years. This amounts to as much as a million additional properties in the PRS in this period. The key to how this turns out will turn on the extent to which frustrated home-owners actually manage to purchase their first home. Buy to let growth is forecast to slow.

This paper is on the one hand an interesting thought experiment that allows us to see how the different segments are growing at varying rates and have done in the recent past. It shows also that buy to let is far from all of the story. One just has to look around our University cities, for instance, to see the growth in bespoke purpose-built student accommodation. The split between pre and post crisis is also intrinsically sensible and a useful exercise.

However, despite the value of the disaggregation of the sector, the use of different data and its creative manipulation, it is worth noting that there is not much underlying economics in the construction of these different numbers. So, relative rents and housing costs and income play no direct role in coming up with these numbers. Instead, a series of generally reasonable assumptions, extrapolations and extraneous propensities are adopted. This is reasonable in the absence of the economic data of the right kind but we should be cautious.

We need more work more on these sub-sectors – what are the economic drivers in different segments; how is individual tenure choice governed by things like relative prices, credit availability, income, down-payment constraints and household variables? These models may well fluctuate over the credit and wider business cycle but do they also vary across space in different regional labour markets? What about the industrial economics or theory of the firm of different kinds of landlords – what are their motivations and how responsive are decision makers to changes in financial and economic variables (this latter question is vital to understanding the impact of policy interventions?