Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Category: Housing

Starting Again

This week, I have begun a new job. I am still at the University but the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) opens its doors for business. We are still recruiting and setting up systems, policies and procedures but it is finally underway.

CaCHE has been the best part of two years in the making and reflects a long gestation period as ESRC wrestled with how to deliver on its decision to prioritise housing alongside the increased focus on evidence and what works in policy terms more broadly. Eventually, the decision was taken to go for a broad-based multidisciplinary approach, one that should encompass a consortium of universities and non HEI partners. It was also clear (to us) that it needed to encompass the whole housing system and all that features within it, and that the new centre should be genuinely-UK wide and embrace the devolved UK and the different types of markets and housing contexts found across the UK.

Our consortium building process was premised on early sign–up of partners, seeking to do justice to the scope of what we thought would emerge. We embraced the housing system approach and also a pluralist basis by which to assess and review evidence about housing. Importantly, we also decided to fully commit to a co-produced mode of priority-setting. We will set our evidencing and research priorities according to what representative knowledge exchange groups up and down the country tell us are the key priorities.  More so than ever I am convinced this is the right way to go, not just to get buy-in from the wider housing policy and practice world but because it confers legitimacy and a sense of genuine collaboration. It also shapes the way we have to write, report and communicate.

Last May, the ESRC and other funding partners, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the AHRC, published their call specification incorporating six research themes (housing and the economy; understanding the housing market; choice and aspirations; housing and health education, employment, etc.; place, design and neighbourhoods; and, multi-level governance). Each theme had a lengthy shopping list of possible research projects. We decided to ‘announce’ a dozen exemplar/learning projects either evidence reviews or secondary data analyses which would help us refine our approach to evidence reviews, alongside up to ten PhDs co-funded by the partner Universities. Beyond that our collaborative knowledge exchange model would generate our priorities.

We constructed a large team based around contributions from the universities of Glasgow, Sheffield, Reading, Heriot-Watt, Cardiff, Sheffield Hallam, Ulster, Bristol and St Andrews, plus non-HEIs: the Chartered Institute of Housing, the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research also made a major input into our bid. Subsequently, the University of Adelaide has also come on board. More than 200 individual collaborators supported out bid with an interest in working with us, as did more than 20 other partners. The submission date was in October, interviews in January 2017 and we were publically announced as the successful consortium in April and due to start at the beginning of August 2017.

And it is a large team – 30 co-investigators spread across 6 themes and 5 sub-national geographies, plus a data navigator hub, secondment programmes, early career researchers, as well  as research, knowledge exchange and administrative staff. The centre is a distributed across the UK but administered form Glasgow. Even our leadership team is spread far and wide based in Glasgow, Sheffield, London and Cardiff. As many have said, directing and leading this new initiative will be challenging but I am sure also very rewarding. I am very fortunate to have been able to work closely with Craig Watkins from the very beginning of this project and we are doubly fortunate to have so many other excellent positive colleagues to work with and to that end I would include the international advisory board we have assembled, chaired by Lord Kerslake. As is often the way with new collaborative ventures, it is great to work with new people and to see them and our practices in a different and new light.

I decided that the new centre should be a break with the past in a different way too. We are locating off the Gilmorehill campus and shifting eastward to the social sciences research hub in the east end of Glasgow at the Olympia building in Bridgeton. We will share our space with the Glasgow Centre for Population Health and other Glasgow University social scientists. I think this will bring both focus to our work and allow us to contribute to the city civically and in partnership with those we share the research hub with, as the University intends.

I will be nearly full-time in the new role so I am giving up directing Policy Scotland, something I have done since 2013. I am also standing back from What Works Scotland which I helped develop and then co-directed for three years. Both roles have been tremendously rewarding and have re-energised me. Lessons from these two entities made important contributions to what became the CaCHE model. Policy Scotland allowed me to work with policymakers, Parliament and practice and to hopefully learn a little about how to do so more effectively.  What Works Scotland has taken me into new academic areas, forced me to think much harder about collaboration, co-production and evidence. Ideas about pluralism, dialogical approaches, multi-disciplinarity and a much more open attitude to evidence has been a great tonic for someone hitherto steeped in economics methodologies (admittedly a bit more plural and heterodox than some). I am therefore very grateful to colleagues in both institutes and wish them both well in the future. Both will be working with the new housing evidence centre.

It will be a few months before we are fully operational; indeed, we are not formally launching till October. But from August 1, it will be live and I for one cannot wait to get started.  It is a new start (and feels like one) but it is also great to be forging ahead with an ESRC funded housing research centre – exactly the same type of organisation where I started my career in Glasgow in the 1980s.

Housing New Zealand

I have just finished a short trip to New Zealand and on the way through the airport I picked up a book on housing by Philippa Howden-Chapman, a professor of public health at the University of Otago, called Home truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis. Written in 2015, it is a cry to roll back perceived inequality, improve housing conditions and build a more joined up and evidenced policy framework based on housing rights, affordability, fairness, sustainability and a focus on the system as a whole.

I have read a wee bit about the Auckland housing market which is particularly unaffordable and speculative;  and many years ago in Glasgow we entertained civil servants working on housing policy in New Zealand – but this was my first opportunity to read and digest a proper overview of the housing system as a whole.

The author focuses on a number of large issues, at the heart of which lie the commodification of housing, the run down and selling-off of state housing, the leaky homes scandal that saw 80,000 new homes built with faulty cladding, the lack of regulation in rented housing, the privileged tax status of owners and investors and a mess of housing subsidies.

The result is a poisonous mix of unaffordable housing, speculation, government and media opposition to social housing, exclusionary zoning and land supply that fuels sprawl and the car economy.

What is to be done? Howden-Chapman calls for four key policy reforms plus a number of follow up ancillary ideas. These involve:

  • subsidising mortgages for first time buyers but in ways that will not push up prices.
  • the promotion of corporate and institutional private renting investment to transform the sector in New Zealand
  • increased supply of inner city social housing including not for profits
  • tying rental subsidies to independent assessments of rental housing quality.

Additional policies proposed include regular assessments of housing condition through surveys and in turn comprehensive needs assessment. The author also calls for statutory responses over emergency homelessness and for the return of mandatory inclusionary zoning of affordable housing within new developments, wider support of brownfield higher density and compact city style urban management. Overall and consistent with these ideas, there should be a comprehensive national strategy for housing embracing the health and wider economic consequences of better housing.

Drawing on recent writing by Kate Barker, the author bemoans the short termism of New Zealand – something exacerbated by a three year electoral cycle. This fundamental lack of fit with long term housing problems is a universal problem and one of course I bang on about a lot of the time in these posts.

It reminded me of the point recently made by Anthony King in his 2015 Pelican book on Who Governs Britain? He was also deeply concerned with short termism and the inability to do enough systematically about difficult long term problems. He argued that, while they have plenty of inter-party rivalry, Nordic countries’ political parties often demonstrate a capacity to do a good job of coming together to build consensus and undertake policy proposals through national commissions that all, government and opposition alike, can sign up to and stick with over a period of time (i.e. over a succession on governments) to make headway with questions that the Anglo-Saxon countries just find insurmountable.

Perhaps this is how both New Zealand and the UK might overcome such wicked problems? Britain has a long and inglorious record  of using royal commissions to put things in the long grass. Could a formal and properly resourced cross party commission on topics like housing be made to work? Surely worth further thought and consideration?

A small addendum. Our flight this evening from Wellington to Sydney included one Boris Johnson and his FCO entourage fresh from his maiden visit to New Zealand. As probably the only Glaswegian on the flight I was tempted to engage with the great man concerning his widely reported comments the other day on arrival to NZ that the traditional Maori greeting of rubbing noses might lead to a head butt in a Glasgow bar. But he was in business class and I was in economy….

Sydney, Incidentally

I am working in Australia for a week. It is mid-winter (allegedly) and people are wearing coats (as are many pets). Yet it is the same temperature here as it is in Scotland and really quite nice, all in all. I am at the University of Sydney working with colleagues on research about mechanisms to boost affordable housing supply in Australia, part of an AHURI project led by Nicole Gurran. I have spoken at three events and participated in three other more informal meetings. Next, we head on to Wellington to see family for a few days before returning to Glasgow and the actual start date of the UK collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE) on August 1.

Several of the meetings have been directly relevant to the new housing evidence centre. I met Ian Winter, the director of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (AHURI) and discussed the ‘space’ between housing research and housing policymaking and policy influencing. In recognising the common interests between us (CaCHE is loosely based on the AHURI model), we explored how we might work together. For me, it is clear that AHURI delivers some of the best housing research anywhere – there is much to learn from them.

I also participated in an interesting knowledge exchange event about social housing regulation chaired by Michael Lennon, formerly of Glasgow Housing Association. My job was to provide an overview of regulation in the UK and its key role in supporting both capacity and the wider evolution of the sector. Hal Pawson (University of New South Wales) contrasted the UK position with that in Australia and the need for a working, national, comprehensive system across Australia. While the UK regulatory system has changed several times over the last 25 years or so, and faces the considerable challenges of reclassification now, it has undoubtedly been an essential element in the growth, stability and progress of the sector.

The AHURI project on affordable housing supply involved a public lecture event (again, I was to identify and draw lessons from the UK) before we had an ‘inquiry panel’ day where the three projects that constitute our inquiry were discussed with policy and practice experts along with the research team and AHURI. The inquiry seeks to build an evidence base about affordable supply mechanisms across Australia, drawing on international evidence, and operating at different levels – from federal government and state down to specific sites and case studies. The material has all been categorised around recognition of local context, assessment of specific mechanisms and evaluation of outcomes on the ground

The inquiry panel day was a bit like a Joseph Rowntree Foundation advisory group meeting for a programme of research. It was an excellent discussion and it was great to hear the presentations from Nicole, Steven Rowley (Curtin) and Bill Randolph (UNSW) as well as the great contributions made throughout the day by Vivienne Milligan (UNSW). It is clear that there is considerable variety in practice across the country and that good things are going on in Western Australia, in particular. I was really impressed by the quality of the policy instruments discussion regarding the interplay between market, finance and planning. Bill and his colleagues presented a very helpful (and intuitive) stripped-down spreadsheet model of specific affordable/market developments which allow the user to vary policy and market assumptions and with which one can see the impact on key financial outcomes.

It has been a very enjoyable week with much to reflect on for CaCHE. Thanks to Nicole and her colleague Catherine Gilbert for all their help and hospitality while I have been in Sydney.

 

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I have been in Toronto as part of a second workshop for the Shaping Housing Futures programme. This is a tri-country knowledge exchange activity thinking about how housing challenges in the UK, Australia and Canada can be analysed and understood with a view to developing feasible and credible new housing policies in each housing system. […]

Private Renting Redux

This post follows three different rental market developments in the last few weeks. First of all, I chaired Professor Peter Kemp speaking in a seminar reflecting on Scottish market renting and PRS policy from the remove of England (though he is a former colleague of mine in Glasgow). Peter was joined by an excellent panel of  Rosemary Brotchie, Nick Bailey, Susan Aktemel and Anna Evans. Second, the Scottish Government published online their instructions for landlords and tenants regarding the new private rental tenancy that will come into effect for new tenancies in December 2017. This will assume tenancies are ongoing unless specific mandated conditions for termination are met (and are verifiable). It also creates the right for councils to seek local pressured rent zone status which would allow them to seek caps on annual rent increases (though not on initial contract rents. Third, my new colleague in the Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence, Tom Moore, has recently published an (currently) open access paper in the International Journal of Housing Policy contrasting regulation and rental policy for the PRS in each of the UK’s four nations.

Tom’s policy review paper does the interested reader a great service by laying out the background context and policy divergence across the UK in terms of tenure security, regulation and affordability. While all four nations have experienced considerable growth in private renting since devolution, there are both common and distinct trends across the home nations. While traditionally a sector of transition, more people are living longer in the sector and more families and other longer term household structures are opting for the rental market. A key question is the contribution of either lack of choice forcing people into the sector or whether the sector is a destination of choice (perhaps this also suggests the weakness of the use of the word ‘choice’). Tom stresses that not only are tenure rights and regulation very different across the UK (with England as the default most deregulated n most regards), none of the UK nations approach the levels of protection and regulation found across much of the continental Europe.

Moore stresses that to the extent that more low income households are now in the sector, their vulnerability may exacerbate inequalities and disadvantage. Second, he rightly emphasises the importance of greater tenure security in policy discussions as the sector grows in importance. Third, management practices by some landlords remain a cause for concern.

There is much to like in this paper especially the comparative analysis of divergence across the four nations. If I was being picky I would challenge a few points: Scotland does have limited policy control over housing-related aspects of the housing elements of universal credit and discretionary housing payments. They can also top up and create new benefits – but they have to pay for them out of their budget. Second, I think the paper downplays important UK level ‘reforms’ of the sector, particularly via HM Treasury (the Scottish Government chose to follow the 3% uplift in stamp duty via the devolved Land Building Transactions tax).  I am also one of those people sceptical about rent regulation and in particular the ability of people like the rent officer to find a balance between tenant and landlord interests. Scotland’s reforms will be an important natural experiment for Scotland and the rest of the UK.

The Glasgow seminar with Peter Kemp was both stimulating and challenging. Peter made many important points. First of all, he noted that there is a definite asymmetry in terms of the new Scottish tenancy in that it is considerably easier for a tenant to leave under the new settlement than it is for a landlord to end a tenancy. Second, he stressed that the likely cap on rent increases is likely to be CPI plus 1% – which, compared to the Scottish average rents as described as ONS is actually quite high (unaffordable areas excepting).

While there was some concern in the seminar about policing the landlord grounds for repossession of property, there is clearly much anticipation about the impact the new tenancies will have for Scottish housing.  There was also a focus on other concerns of the moment like short term tenancies and Air BnB.

For me, Peter’s most insightful comments concern the changes to the tax regime for private landlords. Until listening to Peter I had generally considered these to be a tax grab that was rather unthinking about its housing system consequences (ie reducing the supply of lets just when the rest of the market is difficult to access, possibly pushing rents up). That may be true but I interpreted what Peter said as a sort of blindside attack on individual ‘mum and dad’ landlords in favour of the corporates – not by subsidising them (although there is some of that going on  via guarantees, etc.) but by using the tax system to penalise small landlords. (who make up 90% of the supply side)

How so? First, they do this by charging an 8% surcharge on capital gains tax compared to other assets. Second, there is the 3% surcharge on the tax on buying properties if you are a landlord (which may help potential first time buyers but might just push rents up or broadly discourage investment). Third, mortgage tax relief has been cut to the basic rate (unlike for other forms of investment business loans) and this is also has been turned into a tax credit which essentially means that rather being applied to corporation tax, it is now really a turnover tax and this has the unintended (?) consequence of pushing many small-scale landlords into higher tax bracket. There is concern in the sector that will lead to a large scale departure of small scale landlords. Will this gap be closed by other providers? Will first time buyers fill the gap as properties come onto the market – perhaps to an extent but they still face high deposits even if prices weaken.

This highly dynamic sector is the fulcrum of the housing system and its segments and interdependencies remain comparatively poorly understood and recorded. This has to change. And now social landlords are increasing their interest in and provision of mid-market rent – slightly sub market rents on short tenancies aimed at key workers (though this will also have to change for new tenancies after December in Scotland). How will this new sector niche perform and will it impact on the quality of the traditional private offer (and indeed how will it impact on social tenancies also provided by the same landlord)? Peter made much of the growth of the sector but did point out that it started from an incredibly low base in the 1980s – perhaps is the real international comparison to note-  just how did the UK end up with such an infeasibly small sector, something which of itself creates much deeper inflexibilities in the wider housing system?

 

Good for the Gander? Reflections on the 2017 Housing Studies Association Conference

goose 1 is a goose that for three days strongly defended its space on the main way into the conference on the York Campus at Heslington. It appeared to be protecting its partner and made the odd aggressive shift in direction if any delegate came too near its mate in the undergrowth. I am no David Attenborough but it reminded me of years jogging round Strathclyde Park and carefully avoiding the personal space of gangs of Canadian geese or the attention of fairly abrasive Lanarkshire swans.

The conference this year was themed around precariousness and financialisation and how the housing sector is becoming more unequal, insecure and unstable. Plenary speakers included Oliver Wainwright from the Guardian, Shelagh Grant, CEO of the Housing Forum, Dinah Roake ex of HCA , Paul Quinn from Clarion Housing Group and Bob Colenutt from Oxford Brookes. The final plenary involved David Madden from the LSE and Blase Lambert, CEO of the Confederation of Co-operative housing. The conference dinner also included a memorable talk by the ineffable Ian Cole.

Financialisation and the precariat are well-met topics and they worked well with many of the workshop papers and for once a conference theme seemed to retain purchase across the full event. Not that everyone agreed of course with very different views circulating and also some concern that perspectives were a little too metropolitan and London-focused (something conceded by David Madden co-author of In Defense of Housing). There were also debates about the proactive role of the state in facilitating speculative mega real estate projects and a degree of vagueness about the transmission mechanism that might export people out of unaffordable, overcrowded cities. A key theme throughout was what can be done about these processes – do we despair or are there ways to fight back? There was talk (Madden again) about housing movements but I quite liked Glen Bramley’s discussion point that in fact an important (albeit atomised) housing movement are those older equity-rich often suburban home owners (and sometimes BTL investors) who are such a break on progress with respect to increasing housing supply.

I heard some interesting conceptual papers by David Clapham, Keith Jacobs and Tony Manzi, as well as a good paper using Australian evidence on private landlords from Hal Pawson. Duncan Bowie reprised debates about housing tax reform. I did a paper (co-authored with Duncan Maclennan) on Brexit and housing, the fundamental premise of which can be summarised by we don’t know the rules of the game regarding the rapidly approaching negotiations so we cannot really scale or estimate the impacts. Many economists feel they will be negative depending on the scenarios for how Brexit plays out, but we cannot in turn say much specific about housing impacts other than some likely directions of broad consequences via lost trade and growth, out-migration, risks re European funds and EIB, but much more fundamentally, risks to housing policy arising from possible break-up of the UK itself as a consequence of leaving the EU. More to follow on this I am sure.

The conference has a nice informal and friendly feel to it. This was complemented unexpectedly in a city centre bar by a very impressive four piece jazz band playing standards via an excellent trumpeter. Well done to the organising committee. Roll on 2018.

I missed a fair bit of the conference, in part because unexpectedly, the ESRC decided bring forward  the announcement of the UK housing evidence centre which made Thursday a bit of a social media blur but it is great to finally have it in the public domain.  More on that subject in a later blog.

‘The geese are flying westward’ is a fine song by Bill Fay (check it out) – but I am now heading north on the east coast line, eventually back to base for what I hope will be a quiet weekend.

 

 

 

 

Returning to the Start: Housing and Public Health

 

Housing intervention by the state started with public health challenges. Public health approaches today have much to say about the structural determinants of health inequality, spatial inequities and connections to key sites and drivers of these inequalities. Housing is of course centrally implicated both in terms of physical and mental health, but also in relation to the broader wellbeing of individuals, families and communities. Housing conditions, fuel poverty, unaffordability, all manners of indicators of unmet need are relevant.

The Scottish Public Health Network have just published a new report: Foundations for Well-being: reconnecting public health and housing. A Practical guide to Improving health and reducing inequalities (lead author Emily Tweed). It sets out to be a ‘best practice resource’ to guide the Scottish housing and public health sectors to improve health and reduce inequalities through good housing. It is well worth a look.

The report is a primer that sets out the context facing the different professional communities, provides useful links to data and policy resources and provides recommendations for good practice and development for both. The big health themes touched on by housing include well-being, ageing, inequality and poverty, health and care integration, community empowerment and climate change. What is helpful as an educational and professional resource is that the report provides a basic grounding or primer for either group, sets out a long list of statistics and other policy and practice connections as well as key practice pointers.  There are also useful diagrams and boxed case studies.

The report (section 2 and appendices) has a nice discussion of the complex multi-dimensional relationship between housing and health (also see a recent review of housing and health inequalities by NHS Health Scotland ). These dimensions include:

  • Bi-directional – while housing may influence health the opposite is also true with health issues constraining locational choices and housing design as well as impacting on financial constraints and employability.
  • Context-specific – impacts and strength of these connections will vary across different populations (and sub-groups), eras and places.
  • Direct and indirect dimensions – where indirect effects can include for instance burdensome housing costs reducing access to other health-benefitting activities.

As the authors say (p.15): “acknowledging these complexities helps add nuance to our understanding, but does not undermine the central fact that housing can be a powerful determinant of health and wellbeing, and of inequalities in their distribution across the population”.

Section 5 is an excellent compendium of resources for housing and public health. Just one example worth following up – a very useful public health oriented report from Wales on the prevention case for housing investment . The final section looks at opportunities for joint working, initiatives that might be taken to link data in housing and health (potentially very powerful) and specific priorities like the private rented sector and strategic joint planning around for instance health and care integration.

I would not pretend to have any background in public health other than reading about it in a housing context and occasionally debating these causality questions with colleagues. More recently through What Works Scotland and through public health colleagues in the University and beyond I have become more engaged with these important inequalities questions. A report like this one is a great practical way into these questions for researchers, students, practitioners and policy facing professionals alike. Well done.

 

Rent Reform and the Too difficult Box

 

Over the last 20 years, I have worked on at least five discrete projects about rents and rent-setting. This has included studies funded by governments and by individual providers in Scotland and Northern Ireland. A feature of this experience has been on the one hand that precious little reform of how rents are set followed on from this work (score zero for ‘impact’), but at the same time, it has been a learning curve. In this post, I want to reflect on these lessons.

First,  we are primarily interested in the pricing of social housing. By that we mean the level of the average rent, the way that rents are distributed around that average reflecting variations in, or differentiating the, quality of the stock, and, how we uprate rents each year. A fourth theme is whether these principles can be established not just for one provider but across a housing system (e.g. all social landlords), be that a local authority, a region or even a country. A fifth theme is whether rents should be consistent across the entire stock or whether pooling would not extend to separate well-defined schemes and new developments? Most of the following discussion assumes complete pooling (e.g. with a premium applied to new build should it be required).

Second, this desire to look at rents may arise because of policy seeking to remove anomalies and put rents on a more coherent basis than current perception or evidence would suggest. It may also arise because of the actions of a single landlord (e.g. taking over another landlord’s stock), it may be due to external policy challenge such as welfare reform or the sense that competitive threat makes its necessary to review the rents. It may also reflect asset management strategies and the use to which rental income is put. There could conceivably also be internal pressures from board members or tenant groups, or indeed staff groups, to address perceived shortcomings. However, we should not underestimate the ability of these groups alongside other stakeholders like lenders or the regulator – to resist or dilute rent reform proposals.

Third, what are the key principles involved? One would be consistency – that rents are differentiated on a rational and credible basis e.g. bigger properties, more space and more amenity command higher rents and do so in a coherent way. A second would be affordability (a thorny issue in its own right) but typically about securing low cost housing for low income households, especially those just above HB ceilings, often in low wage work. A third point would concern viability – does the rent allow development to take place and does it support the ongoing operational delivery of housing services thereafter?

Many readers will recognise longstanding problems of archaic rent structures lost in the mists of time, of anomalies in rent levels comparing similar properties from different landlords and inconsistencies within a given landlord’s portfolio when looking at different areas, vintages of stock and other similar problems. There is also often the sense that rent systems may be past their prime and are slipping into entropic disorder accelerating over time.  These discrepancies can be brought to light particularly during periods of new development, when stock transfers or mergers take place and when the external policy environment sheds perhaps too much light on the way rents are done.

So how to reform? I worked with one landlord who initially wanted to bring the full weight of evidence and analysis through a sophisticated formula rent. The stakeholders I mentioned earlier thought not and subsequently a much simpler model based really only on size and property type became the favoured option. Others lose their zeal for reform when they see that, as in England in the 2000s. shifting to a national formula rent (complete with local average rent convergence across landlords) requires long term adjustment over 10-15 years and also implementing protection measures for those losing out in the form of damping to lessen year-on-year effects. While the English model was relatively complex – such a process of transition and convergence could be devised for much simpler internally consistent models. But a big lesson from the English experience for me has been the unwillingness of Governments to see these sorts of policies through. The simplicity of a national formula rent, for all its problems (e.g. the financial pressure it put on landlords who had to slow down planned rent increase), fell apart after a change of Government and their desire to set off on different paths for non-market housing and required rents for new models. This was then followed up by statutory rent cuts to save on housing benefit – massively expensive for social landlords who in good faith planned reinvestment (as well as  just trying to retain the resource levels of  their landlord operations).

Geography is interesting concerning policy trajectories over rents. Alongside the English experience since 2000, Northern Ireland’s social sector appears to have had quite a lot of discretion though in fact almost all social landlords base their rents on some version of sorts of the dominant (Housing Executive) landlord’s rent points policy from the 1980s.  Again, this has gradually become less recognizable over time (and average rents remain lower for Housing Executive properties). In Scotland, on the other hand, despite earlier research studies examining the merits of a more national system of rent-setting, there has been absolutely no interest from those who would champion rent reform. And as a result, Scotland probably has the least coherent and comparable rents in the social sector across the UK. Yet no-one gets that excited about it, other than in terms of the starting rents required for new build, and the impact of LHA caps on rents and rental income received.

So, does viable, affordable and consistent pricing of rents matter? At one level, of course it does. But more broadly, surely it still makes sense for tenants to be able to make rational, informed judgements about price and quality both within a landlord’s stock and between different landlords? Arguably the growth and encroachment of private renting into the non-market housing sphere is another reason for more not less transparency. But if the regulator is tolerably happy with the situation, if tenants are not too despondent about annual rent increase (outside of England), and if providers are up to their necks in operations and crises, unless the policy environment forces it on them – rent reform is not going to be coming anytime soon. Like so many public policy reform questions, the rationality and benefits of rent restructuring are outweighed by their time, resource and political costs (and it is of course a nontrivial process) – but like council tax reform, not making the necessary change will only in due course make things worse.

 

 

Lessons from German Housing?

 

IPPR has recently been producing a series of reports on housing in Germany asking why can’t the UK follow in its stead and take on some of the apparently desirable features of their housing system. As with other examples of policy transfer, diffusion or mobility, I don’t think it is always as straightforward, though IPPR are demonstrably aware of either the barriers to transfer or that we do need to look closely and critically at the German system as well as positively regarding certain undeniably positive outcomes.

What do IPPR say in their reports? The first one says why is it that Germany builds more homes, has a less volatile housing market and a bigger private rented sector? The second report, out last week, describes renting (i.e. the PRS) as the dominant tenure, more stable and with greater rights than for those in England. Since 1995,  and with much lower levels of volatility, German house prices have risen by 50%; in the UK they have gone up 400%.

IPPR argue that greater levels of housing construction are associated in Germany with a wider range of builders, both SMEs and larger firms. Ostensibly similar (a plan led system like in the UK), Germany seems to do better at converting planning permissions into new supply (i.e. the housing delivery system) but they have also seen a significant reduction in the volume of affordable housing being constructed. Perhaps more significantly, German public authorities are more proactive in the land market assembling sites and delivering infrastructure. Unlike the English, they continue to use planning gain to support the development of affordable housing. The lending environment is  more conservative than the UK and mortgage debt to GDP is considerably lower. While the housing tax regimes are not dissimilar, the German system of capital gains tax encourages long term property holding rather than speculation.

Interestingly, the IPPR conclusions include what they call mis-steps that should be avoided in the UK: first, they argue that a model of long term covenants (20-30 years) has failed to deliver more affordable units and second, they argue that there are higher transactions costs and inflexibilities that may impact negatively on the labour market.

Turning to the second report on private renting, IPPR stress that alongside security of tenure, private rents in Germany are much less likely to be associated with housing stress or very high housing cost to income ratios. Germany has a large supply of rental properties (which helps reduce the impact of longer tenancies on the supply of vacancies and this is supported by rent controls and a further control or brake on rents when properties are re-let. Not surprisingly, in such a different tenure distribution, tenants are also organised politically and have voice in a way that does not exist in the UK. This leads IPPR to recommend for the UK that: government should let LAs construct build-to-let schemes as part of the PRS and also recommends longer tenancies if public subsidy is involved.

The reports are worth reading and make excellent points. However, one must recognise the universal challenges of lesson-learning, transfer and diffusion of policy across national boundaries where market contexts, institutional settings and the evolution of housing systems move differently. Germany has more than half of its households in private renting but the institutional features of the PRS in Germany are quite different, as we have seen, from the deregulated UK. The benefits of the system stability and much more moderate volatility have taken decades to achieve and have had to overcome the challenges of reunification and surplus low demand social housing in the East. They have also enjoyed a comparatively stable policy framework without the catalogue of initiatives and innovations that we suffer from.

Yes, it is true that they do not meet their housing need targets and affordable housing completions are moving in the wrong direction. It may also be the case that the German mortgage market is more conservative and it is undoubtedly true that their rental market (by definition) is less flexible than that of the UK. But this may be an acceptable trade-off in terms of overall housing policy outcomes?

The point about the mortgage market is interesting for other reasons. Recently, in the House of Lords Economics Affairs Committee inquiry into housing, Dame Kate Barker made the point that there is a massive tension between housing-related government departments trying to boost housing supply and home ownership while, at the same time, HM Treasury, the Bank and the financial regulators are re-regulating and constraining mortgage lending.  Acknowledging this difficult trade-off and trying to develop the right balance is a critical requirement for housing policy and the forthcoming White Paper on housing.

I think these reports are a fundamentally good idea because it is by looking at other places in some depth that we shed light on some of the things wrong with our housing system. However, apart from one references to legislating over letting agency fees, I was a little surprised that IPPR did not make more reference to Scotland, given that we have just undergone fundamental reform to our tenancy laws (creating open-ended tenancies and limited specific routes only for eviction) and also proposed rent uplift limitations in pressured market areas. It is Ironic that there appears to be less interest with intra UK policy diffusion. After all while housing policy is diverging rapidly across the UK, it is nonetheless much more similar than comparisons made with Germany. Although it is early days and the law is not yet in force,  considering reform along Scottish lines might be preferable to the IPPR proposals suggested above which are premised on retaining the present tenancy laws and hence privileging, it seems to me, labour market flexibility over housing security.

 

 

Scottish Welfare Benefit: Using the New Powers

The Scottish Government last week announced the first use of its new devolved powers over welfare benefits. The 2016 constitutional legislation gave Scotland power over specific benefits amounting to around 15% of all benefit spend in Scotland as well as powers to top up and create new benefits in most areas (though not pensions) which would be funded from within Scotland, as well as discretion to amend specific benefit rules in certain ways as they apply to the application of Universal Credit. 

While not underestimating in any way the importance of the devolved benefits to their recipients, it is in truth the medium term development of top-up, new benefits and the use of these discretionary rules that will mark out Scotland’s own path on welfare benefits mostly distinctively. And of course this will also be where the political debate will be most intense.
A strand of the party political discourse in recent months has been the Government’s reluctance to take on the new financial powers and use spending, tax and benefit powers to pursue a range of home-grown policies. In truth, there are plenty of reasons not to alter radically income tax rates, contemplate fundamental reform of council tax or spend block grant at the margin on extra benefit spending. The overall budget is undoubtedly under pressure which makes extra spending more difficult. Equally there is caution over raising taxes or being seen to threaten property owners via local tax reform. Third, Scotland has a minority government where tight votes over budget issues and their implications have to be carefully thought through. Fourth, the new benefit powers require new local policy and service delivery infrastructure that cannot be rushed – delay to the full devolution of benefits is inevitable and should not be surprising.
It was in this somewhat risk-averse context that it was encouraging to see the Scottish Government last week announce that it would (a) look at moving the frequency of Universal Credit payments to be shortened to fortnightly rather than monthly (with scope to consider who receives the payment too) and (b) that the rental element of Universal Credit could be paid direct to landlords, both social and private rental providers. These are low hanging fruit in the sense that they are relatively simple and low cost but they are important to the people affected, symbolic of what is possible and in the current circumstances, offer sensible policy development.
The direct payment issue is an interesting topic. Private landlords have longer experience of tenant responsibility for making rent payments but both social and private will undoubtedly welcome the security of payment offered by rent paid direct. It was always apparent that vulnerable households and people already in arrears should be exempt but that begs further questions about definitions of such categories and the opportunity cost of setting up systems to manage them and to prepare social tenants for payment responsibility. One might in principle want to shift over time cautiously  to a system of tenant payment responsibility but this is simply not realistic at present or in the foreseeable future. The benefits of direct payments to landlords far outweigh the cost.
The big challenges remain – in particular, for housing costs, removing the ‘bedroom tax’ and contemplating increasing the levels of housing costs covered by Universal Credit. These will have direct spending implications (though will be offset in the case of the bedroom tax by reducing the need for discretionary housing payments to go to help tenants meet the spare room charge as well as other contributions from the Scottish Government). But we do have a start in the announcements made last week. And, as Frank Herbert once said ‘a beginning is a difficult thing’.