Scratch beneath the surface of the reforms planned for the next parliamentary session and you see a story of delays and battles yet to be fought, writes Jules Birch
Building back better? Safer? Fairer? How about slower?
At first glance this is a Queen’s Speech that looks full of welcome reforms to planning and the delivery of new homes, conditions for renters and leaseholders, and building safety. Scratch beneath the surface in the background briefing notes, though, and big questions remain and there are big battles to come.
Ahead of the speech, the Planning Bill was spun as “crucial” to levelling up, a way to cement Conservative advances in the Midlands and the North by boosting homeownership.
But that ignores the battle to come with Tory backbenchers over housebuilding in the South East.
A cynical outcome from the white paper would be to emphasise local growth as you allow councils in expensive areas to designate large parts of them for protection.
This would do next to nothing to tackle affordability – or address the very real questions about the future of Section 106 – but the politics will be very tempting.
In the wake of Grenfell, the government will “continue to deliver on the Social Housing White Paper proposals” and “legislate as soon as practicable”.
But Grenfell was almost four years ago and the Social Housing White Paper that was published in November took more than three years. Practicable? Grenfell United has already called it a “betrayal”.
Improvements will come in the proposed Building Safety Bill, which is at last delivering on the improved regime promised after the fire.
However, that in itself is a delayed opportunity to address the plight of hundreds of thousands of leaseholders after ministers steadfastly resisted all amendments to the Fire Safety Bill to make it clear they should not have to pay for problems that are not their fault. The stage is set for another huge Commons battle.
In the private rented sector, “the government is committed to building back fairer and having a Better Deal for Renters in England”.
That translates into publishing a response to a consultation on abolishing Section 21, outlining proposals for a new lifetime deposit and improving standards by driving out bad landlords, including “exploring the merits of a landlord register”.
A white paper will be published in the autumn and legislation will follow “in due course”.
All of which sounds great until you realise two things. First, a Renters’ Reform Bill was promised 17 months ago in the Queen’s Speech in December 2019 with no mention of a white paper first. Extra scrutiny in a white paper may reduce the chances of bad legislation but reform is receding into the distance.
Second, while that reference to landlord registration is welcome, this was recommended 13 years ago in the Rugg Review for the last Labour government. What took this one so long?
The only question seems to be which will take longer: “as soon as practicable”, or “in due course”, or “exploring”?
It’s a similar story on leasehold. It’s great news that the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill will “tackle the inconsistency and ambiguity of ground rents for future leaseholders” but the scandal of new homes with doubling ground rents goes back more than a decade.
And it looks like the bill will do the easy bit of leasehold reform, leaving the more difficult issue of how to help existing leaseholders and implement recommendations by the Law Commission for another occasion.
As always, the devil will be in the detail of all this legislation – if and when it eventually arrives – and there are major parliamentary battles to come on key aspects of it.
If changes for the better in housing are arriving slowly, at least they are quicker than reform of social care (delayed yet again) and workers’ rights after Brexit (a promised Employment Bill does not appear at all).
Jules Birch, columnist, Inside Housing