National March for Homes, London, Sunday 13th March 2016

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National March for Homes
London, Sunday 13th March 2016
Organised by Kill the Housing Bill: https://killthehousingbill.wordpress.com.
Route: Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Holborn, via Waterloo Bridge and York Road to Westminster Bridge to the Houses of Parliament

Introducing The Housing Insecurity & Land-Grab Bill – aka The Housing & Planning Bill 2015-16

The government are in the process of passing a legislative bill through Parliament called the “Housing and Planning Bill”. At the heart of this legislation are ‘Starter Homes’ – targeted to boost the grossly-inflated housing market designed to transform ‘Generation Rent into Generation Buy’ by providing discounts of 20% to first-time buyers which at 4/5ths the market price will still be unaffordable to many (calculations for London demand an ‘ income of £77,000 and a deposit of £98,000). For council housing tenants, the bill requires councils to change how they charge tenants with a combined income of more than £30,000 outside of London and £40,000 in the capital. Under the so-called “pay to stay” measures, tenants will be charged the same level as the private rent sector, which could force thousands of people from their homes.

The ‘Planning’ component of this bill sets in motion a complete overhaul of the planning system primarily to give housebuilders more freedom to build more houses whilst at the same time diluting the definition of “affordable housing”, combining with the ‘Housing’ aspect of the bill to boost the housing market with measures such as expanding right-to-buy to housing association tenants and ‘Starter Homes’. However, the ‘Housing’ component of this bill also makes fundamental changes to social housing, including making tenancies less secure, and together with extending “Right-to-Buy” to housing association tenants in a massive sweeping way, forces the sale of high-value council homes – changes which will further shrink social housing and further expand the “Buy-to-Let” housing sector and private rental sector.

The Housing and Planning Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 13 October 2015. It had its second reading on 2 November 2015. The Bill passed Third Reading on 12 January 2016 and goes through the House of Lords before it can get final assent in Parliament. As many as 65 amendments were tabled and added onto the bill at 3rd Reading in the House of Commons, including replacing secure tenancies with fixed-term tenancies and allowing councils to “contract out” the processing of planning applications.

The Housing Crisis and the Government’s Solution: Subsidies to housebuilders, social housing tenants (and banks), debt entrapment fait-accomplie to new mortgagees and “Hasta la vista, baby” to council-housing
That there is a shortage of affordable housing is obvious. The campaign group Defend Council Housing point to the reason for this as having been the “chronic under-supply of new homes, particularly affordable homes for rent”, citing the steady decline in the rate of new house-build over time since the early 1970s including particularly the decline of new council housing which is now next to nothing after being 50% of total new housing stock in 1970. A rise in the “Buy-to-Let” market, an explosion in bank credit in the 1990s and a gradual long-term shrinking of the social housing base because of the long-term dwindling of council housing stock have been the main factors which have combined to create this affordability crisis in England – especially southern England – of high house prices and high rents.

With property increasingly attracting foreign investors, especially in London, and the “Buy-to-Let” market continuing to expand, the house-price spiral has further accelerated. As a result, as well as a rental affordability crisis, the proportion of the population in home ownership is starting to dip as new entrants struggle to afford to get on the property ladder.

The Tory government’s solution to the crisis has developed over the last year. Their plan is to spark demand in the mortgage market in this sea of unaffordability through subsidising new entrants for owner-occupation to get their first step on the housing ladder through a new “Starter Homes initiative”, to encourage right-to buy by housing association tenants, and on the supply side, to free up the planning system to housebuilders, small and large.

Social Housing undermined and Council-Housing under threat
Public sector assets (council homes) will be sold off, with councils forced to sell-off high-value council homes when they become empty, with proceeds from sales unlikely to be ploughed back into more social housing as the bill will formally require councils to subsidise Housing Associations’ Right to Buy discounts up to £100,000, with no guarantee of replacement homes at similar rents in the same area.

In their plans, council housing is considered only at the margins, reconceived as a resource to be utilised only as a safety net for the very poorest in society, whilst remaining poor and low-income working population are consigned to being accommodated through social housing within housing associations, where rent is marginally discounted, or in the private-rental sector, where rents are high. The existing and future Social Housing stock will shrink under these plans because there will be no statutory obligation on housing associations to provide like-for-like quantitative replacement social housing in regard to right-to buy purchases of social housing by housing association tenants, so reducing the total stock of social housing.

The long term trend of the shrinking social housing base and transfer of rentiers into the private sector rental market has increased the housing benefit bill, which has risen by £650 million a year since 2009-10 (for 2013/14 it was £24.6 billion and is expected to reach £27 billion by 2018/19).

Creating Insecurity
The bill will remove secure tenancies and replace them with 2-5 year fixed-term tenancies, after which tenants would have to “reapply”, with means testing and ‘Pay to Stay’ deals if household income reaches above £30,000 (£40,000 in London), radically undermining the stability of mixed communities. Relatives living with a tenant would lose their right to remain and take on the tenancy if the tenant dies or moves away.

Planning System overhauled – planning balance sacrificed for the short-term whims of housing market
The Housing & Planning Bill will amend planning legislation to give priority to its new Starter Homes initiative. This is a programme of funding for developers to provide “starter homes” at 80% market price. The value thresholds for starter homes in London will be £450,000 and in the rest of England £250,000 – prices which are not affordable by many middle-income households and certainly not by lower-income households.

In effect, what the government is doing in promoting a specific developer product – starter homes at 80% of average market price – over and above other more affordable housing products, is both unprecedented and contrary to the basic principle of evidence-based planning. The government is geared to imposing starter homes targets on individual local authorities so that it delivers its national 200,000 starter homes target by 2020.

A new clause introduced into the bill contains a new definition of affordable housing. It defines it as “new dwellings in England that are to be made available for people whose needs are not adequately served by the commercial housing market”, bringing Starter Homes within the definition. The National Planning Policy Framework consultation proposal is to “amend the national planning policy definition of affordable housing so that it encompasses a fuller range of products that can support people to access home ownership …This would include products that are analogous to low cost market housing”. So ‘affordable housing’ is being redefined within the confines of the market, a market which even at 80% of market price particularly in London is financially out-of-reach to large sections of the population, especially younger generations.

The central measures in the Housing and Planning Bill propose key changes to the definition of planning permission, creating a new definition of “Planning Permission in Principle” with “technical details” (such as built form, density, bedroom size, access, social infrastructure and flood mitigation measures) ironed out after initial consent is agreed in principle, a new planning framework which seems to earmark a more robust, flexible and efficient planning system that better responds to the economic environment. However, the difficulty here is that policy compliance on “technical details” are critical matters within any consideration of a planning application and they cannot be checked at the “in principle” stage, and once “in principle” consent is given it is unclear to what extent planning authorities can impose their key policy requirements.

The government is also introducing a mechanism by which the government minister can issue a local development order for a site or group of sites which in effect determines planning policy and grants planning consent for developments, irrespective of the policies set out in adopted local plans. While ministers have stated that the use of these powers will be limited to small sites or to sites on the council’s brownfield register (another new requirement), the bill itself contains no such limitations.

Duncan Bowie – senior lecturer in spatial planning at Westminster University, member of the RTPI/CiH affordable housing network and convenor of the Highbury Group policy forum – says: “Overall the bill represents a significant reduction in local authorities’ planning powers. Taken together with the recent permitted development rights and their recent extension, I would argue that the basic principles of the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act – that local authorities should adopt plans for their areas based on an assessment of the development requirements in their area and that planning decisions in relation to specific development proposals should be based on these plans – has been fatally compromised by these proposals.

In Summary
This Housing and Planning Bill undermines social housing provision across England and Wales whilst acting as a charter for developers and the big housing corporations to expand their growth, allowing them to reap structural changes to planning law that facilitate new housing development underpinned by structural changes to local government that guarantee financial subsidies to discount new house build paid for through the sale of high-value council homes. This bill will also create centralised government control and developer-led privatisation of parts of the planning system. It is not only fatally flawed, but fundamentally disastrous, will increase the displacement of vulnerable communities and elevate eviction rates. This bill is not a solution to a housing crisis; it will intensify the housing crisis. It must be opposed!

Solutions

We point to the solutions already signposted by Defend Council Housing. They are:
Alternatives to create the homes we need, including:
– Regulation of private renting with standards for repairs and controlled
rents; end retaliatory and no-fault evictions
– Stop demolition of structurally sound council and housing association housing stock
– More moorings and sites for bargees, gypsies and travellers
– Lift the bedroom tax and welfare caps
– Housing Associations to be more transparent, open and accountable
– Write off unjustified housing debt to allow building of new council housing
– 50% ‘social rent’ homes on all housing developments and 100% on all publicly-owned land
– A national housing strategy and emergency building programme targeted to meet identified need