Treasury rent control threatens house building

Yet another way for this government to milk the local government cash cow.

Copied from LGC online
22 August 2013 | By Keith Cooper

Some of the most ambitious council housing building programmes for decades have been put into jeopardy by the surprise Treasury plan to seize control of local authority rent levels.

Officials have been warned by the Chartered Institute of Housing that the shake-up of ‘social rent’ policy unveiled during the spending period announcement will pull £1.2bn out of council housing budgets over the next decade.

The policy will cut short an arrangement that allowed councils to align rents with those charged by housing associations and undermines key assumptions in their 30-year housing budget plans.

LGC understands ministers are preparing to take a hard line on enforcing the rent policy as the Treasury is concerned that councils will refuse to comply. This includes the option of central regulation of council rents for the refuseniks.

CIH analysis predicts that the authority hardest hit by the policy will see £300m stripped out of its housing revenue account, a budget councils have only controlled since April last year. Until then the HRA had been in the Treasury’s hands.

Croydon LBC, which is hoping to build almost 2,000 homes a year, has calculated that the changes could suck £254.8m out of its HRA. Such a loss would force it to “fundamentally review” its business plan, according to Richard Simpson, its director of finance and assets.

Camden LBC has warned that the new policy could substantially heighten the risk of its 1,100 house building programme. Its £400m plan to refurbish existing stock might also have to be put back, a spokeswoman said. Investment decisions would become “more difficult and risky”, she added. “The potential loss of revenue has been estimated at £75m over a 10 year period.”

The threat of centrally imposed rent controls comes at time when councils have just begun gearing up for large-scale house building schemes.

Camden and Croydon’s house building plans would dwarf the tiny numbers of new local authority homes built during the past two decades.

Reliable evidence of the new rent policy’s impact has only just emerged, following detailed analysis of the proposals by the Chartered Institute of Housing and consultancy Sector.

Abigail Davies, assistant director of policy and practice at the institute, said the changes would over 10 years cost around 125 authorities £1.2bn in ‘net present value’.

This takes into account economic projections and is understood to be the most accurate representation of the impact to date.

The hardest hit authorities are in London and the southeast, with around 24 authorities losing more than £10m each, according to the CIH. “There are some councils which will be very severely affected,” Ms Davies said.

Sector’s analysis of the government’s new ‘rent guarantee’ suggests that it could see £250m pulled out of many councils’ housing budgets.

The guarantee expects all social landlords to increase rents by the consumer price index +1% for 10 years from 2015-16. Until now, councils assumed rents would rise by the retail price index +0.5% for three decades, as government policy papers had indicated.

Ian Green, a manager at Sector, said it was acting for several concerned councils.

“The worry for local authorities is that at the end of 10 years, the government will change it to CPI only,” he added. “If they do that, it will have a substantial impact.”

Ms Davies urged ministers not to undermine council housing investment so soon after local authorities had regained control of their budgets.

A spokeswoman for the DCLG described the new rent policy as a “fair deal for tenants and landlords”.

Explainer
The Treasury’s new social rent policy has two key elements. The first cuts short ‘rent convergence policy’ one year early. Introduced by the previous Labour administration, this had allowed councils to bring their rent levels into line with those of highercost housing associations. Without the extra year, most authorities will be left out of pocket.

The second change is a new ‘rent formula’ which states that social rents should increase by CPI +1% for 10 years from 2015-16. Both policies could save the exchequer £1bn between 2015-16 and 2017-18, a sum which depends on whether councils will toe the policy line.

“The main uncertainty [about the savings] is the behavioural response from local authority landlords,” Treasury documents say. The DCLG is therefore considering rent regulation.

Rioters to be evicted – a reality check

To quote from the Local Government Chronicle on-line:

“Tough talk from ministers and councils on evicting those found to be involved in rioting from social homes is unlikely to be realised in practice, legal experts have said.
Councils across the country have threatened to evict tenants found guilty of involvement in the rioting over the past week. However legal experts have said there remain a number of obstacles to evictions and that the tough talk from councils and ministers was unlikely to lead to a slew of evictions due to legal barriers and the cost of pursuing evictions, which can be over £20,000 per case.
Emma Salvatore, a legal executive at Trowers & Hamlin, said government proposals to allow rioters to be evicted regardless of where they committed anti-social behaviour would require statutory legislation, which will take time, and that the offence would still need to be indictable, so heard in a crown rather than magistrates court.”

The politicians need to stop sound biting and headline grabbing, figure out what they can actually do to sort things out and stop telling others – the police, the courts – how to do their job.