The overall headlines from George Osborne's Autumn Spending Review seem to be positive. The removal of tax credits has been welcomed by lower-earners and the unexpected nature of this announcement has certainly distracted attention away from other announcements which could have a greater impact on society in the years to come.
Life is getting increasingly difficult within the housing sector - for both landlord and tenant alike. Over recent years, the Government's policies have been squeezing the budgets of both local authorities and wider Registered Providers, making the provision of social housing an increasingly difficult task - at a time when demand is increasing.
On first impressions, housing has done well in the Spending Review. There is to be a doubling of the housing budget so more homes can be delivered. However, the 400,000 new homes this sum will deliver (including 200,000 starter homes, 135,000 Rent to Buy and 10,000 Rent to Buy homes) will be homes ultimately destined for home ownership, not long term rent. Given it is seemingly the Government's plan to scrap lifetime tenancies, the focus on helping people onto the housing ladder is not surprising.
Other aspects will also hit social housing providers. The continuation (for the time being at least) of tax credits should help to stave off any immediate increase in rent arrears. But the proposals to cap levels of housing benefit for new applicants and the reduction from 13 weeks to 4 weeks of housing benefit payments being made when tenants are out of the country could well have some impact on finances in the long term. At a time when finances are stretched, any proposal which could cause rent arrears to increase cannot be viewed in a good light from the point of view of housing providers (even if these proposals may be viewed favourably in the wider world).
Private rented sector
The Government has been keen to grow the private rented sector, in order to take up the slack of the demand for rental properties in the face of the shrinking availability of social housing. However, it is fair to say that the Government is doing little to incentivise individuals with a little spare cash to invest in the lettings market.
Landlords are already getting to grips with recent legislative changes that are increasing the administrative burden of letting a property. There is then the spectre of the 'right to rent' provisions coming into force in February 2016. The days of the 'casual' landlord are gone.
The Spending Review will have done little to cheer the spirits. The plan to increase stamp duty by an additional 3% for individuals purchasing buy-to-let properties has not been well received. The National Landlords' Association has seen this as a 'crystal clear' attempt to 'choke off' investment in the private rented sector and conclude by saying "If it’s the Chancellor’s intention to completely eradicate buy to let in the UK then it’s a mystery to us why he doesn’t just come out and say so." The Government's gloss is to say that the extra revenue raised will contribute to housing more generally - but at a time when the private rented sector has seemingly never been more needed, this does appear to be an odd decision to take.
It will be interesting to see in the years to come what the housing sector will look like once these proposals really begin to take effect. Will there be an increase in home ownership in reality, given ever increasing house prices? If not, what kind of rented housing sector will remain? Time will tell.