1. Sajid Javid walks the rents tightrope
The Tuesday morning speech by the Communities Secretary at the National Housing Federation Annual Conference was the talk of the ICC for the rest of the two days in Birmingham. The launch of a Housing Green Paper was Sajid Javid’s key message and, although some delegates pointed out that a Housing White Paper had only been unveiled in February, Javid’s move was generally well-received as a sensible step in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire in June. By far the bigger topic of conversation was the decision on rent levels post-2020 – or rather the lack of it. Javid’s speech built momentum to an announcement…and then failed to make one. Former Treasury civil servant Martin Wheatley probably hit closest to the mark when he said on Twitter that the Chancellor would have slapped down any rent announcement ahead of the Autumn Budget on 22 November 2017.
2. More social rented housing?
The NHF itself set the tone for another debate (closely linked to the rents question) in its report on the eve of the conference on social rented housing. It called for more public funding to allow housing providers to build more homes for social rent. This call is interesting for two main reasons.
First, the NHF has been far more careful and selective in its lobbying approach since the early days of the Cameron administration when its more strident positioning resulted in strained relations with minsters and civil servants. Its success in rebuilding these relations in more recent years (not least with the controversial housing association Right to Buy deal with then Communities Secretary Greg Clark) means it now feels able to return to its core lobbying message around social housing.
Second, housing associations do have a choice in what they build. This is the debate that has been repeatedly played out in the past few years among tenants and housing leadership teams across the land. In 2010 David Cameron’s government decided to stop funding the construction of new social homes (that’s when as editor of IH I ran this somewhat controversial cover…!). Grant was slashed in half and housing associations were instead pushed towards building ‘affordable rented’ homes that were let at much more expensive rents of up to 80 per cent of market rent. Most housing associations accepted they had to follow the remaining grant money and so (as the NHF charts show) the numbers of affordable rented homes surged. Meanwhile the construction of new social rented properties fell off a cliff. Yet, as Inside Housing’s most recent Top 50 Builders survey in June shows, many housing associations do still choose to build social rented homes (four of the top 10 biggest housing association builders last year built more social rented homes than affordable rent). The point is in doing so they build fewer overall as there is no capital funding support from the government. If the government heeds the sector’s call for rent certainty post-2020 and goes for the CPI+1% formula that has been widely mooted, will it attach a caveat saying social landlords must commit to building more social rented homes?
3. Attitude to compliance post-Grenfell Tower fire
‘Compliance’ was a word that cropped up in many conversations I had in Birmingham this week. Most social landlords have upped their game here and have commissioned new Fire Risk Assessments, re-checked gas safety registers, etc. Yet is the sector pushing itself as hard as it can? Are all landlords being as rigorous as they might on FRAs? To what extent are housing associations and local authorities conducting more invasive property inspections in high-rises and tower blocks? Also, in light of the upcoming Housing Green Paper and its clear focus on safety issues in social housing, what beefed-up role will there be for the social housing regulator to ensure standards are higher, that they are enforced rigorously and that there can be no repeat of the fatal fires at Grenfell Tower or indeed Lakanal House? These are not easy questions, but they are ones that social landlords and the wider sector must answer.
Stuart Macdonald is Managing Director of See Media