System Failure

For all the pain, the anguish and upset so visible in No Place to Call a Home the end result is crushingly predictable. Not just because we haven’t been building enough of the right type of housing in the right areas for years, but because it highlights how much central Government has pulled back the safety net that is meant to help those who need it.

I feel like writing to every paper and saying do something!

The Twitter outrage will die out shortly, Mrs May’s Government may ride some tough questioning in the short-term. But for someone who has studied and worked in social policy and social housing for the best part of 10 years the stories being told in No Place to Call a Home are all too familiar. They are a reminder that ordinary people are having to ever more rely on friends and family as the state is unable, and at national level, unwilling to help. That for many simply having a job is not enough to keep a roof over one’s head, and that being at crisis point isn’t enough to get the help you need.

What I found most striking was the thoughts of those covered by No Place to Call a Home. The shock at their predicament, the re-assessing of how they view others in the same place.  They’re probably mirroring the thoughts of most of us watching. And as someone who has been through in work poverty (albeit only temporary) it is a reminder that in another life that could have been me. It still can be.

I used to judge people…but now I’m in that situation I’m more understanding…it’s probably going to get harder.

These are Fucking People, Not just Figures

Another thing successfully highlighted by the show is the detrimental impact of having no secure shelter. That regardless of whether you are young, old, black or white, you can have your sense of safeness yanked away at any time. You don’t need to be unemployed, you don’t need to be a drug addict, you don’t need to be a delinquent.

We’ve become so good at dehumanising the effects of policy and/or policy failure that you forget the people behind the numbers. We’ve been so quick to blame individual pathology, to blame the other, to blame immigrants, to blame anyone and anything but the monumental failure of housing and welfare policy in this country. That we’re failing to do what any civilised country should. Help those in need. It’s as if we have cultivated this collective blind-spot. Because nearly all of us are a couple of missed pay-cheques from being homeless, it’s about time we remembered that.

We’re Almost Back Where we Started

50 years ago the release of Cathy Come Home caused such an uproar that two major charities (Crisis and Shelter) were formed, Government policy altered significantly and many of the Housing Associations in operation today were formed. However, thanks to 30 years of hostile policy, of bad policy and of neglect we are almost back where we started. Right to Buy has stripped back social housing stock, as has more recent under-funding of new construction of social stock. Years of hostile press has seen the reputation of social housing and those unfortunate enough to need state help is in tatters.

We don’t need to keep failing, we choose to.

In 21st Century Britain it is a fucking travesty that we still have issues of homelessness and housing insecurity. I’m writing this on a laptop that has more processing power in its little finger than the Apollo Space shuttles had. Mobile phones are now so juiced up you can practically run a whole business from them. We have Hoovers that don’t need you to control them to clean your house (mind = blown). We can fund a massive white elephant in Hinckley, we can fund nuclear weapons. Yet we still can’t ensure everyone has a roof over their head and that we have a properly funded capital investment programme to build social housing for those in dire need. That’s not unfortunate, it’s utter incompetence.

Opportunity Knocks

For the first time in what seems like an eternity (OK, 6 years or so) we have a pragmatic (on paper at least) Chancellor willing to invest instead of simply prioritising deficit reduction and bullshit dogma. We also have a housing minister, who whilst unable to mention the s-word (social) rent, has indicated more of a willingness to fund sub-market rent. I wholeheartedly agree with a number of chaps and chapesses in the sector who have been calling to work with the current incumbents in power. It is time to make the most of the hand that has been dealt, because the status quo is not an option.

Leaving on a Positive Note

One of my all time favourite quotes is from Mr Kennedy (not him, the other one, who could more often than not keep his dick in his trousers). It’s a reminder that each of us can change history, that together we can be greater than the sum of our parts. After spending most of this blog bitching it’s probably best to have some positive messages. Enjoy.

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance

Fetch me a shovel. Let’s do this.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Moses I amn’t

I agree Gavin Barwell, relying on a rich, dead, relative should not be the way to buy a home. The housing market should be able to facilitate affordable home ownership without someone being 6 Feet under or living in a hamster cage. So let’s build more social housing.

It is seldom that I write directly about home ownership, this blog is typically a mish-mash of things related to social housing, internal processes thereof or me being annoyed at Central Government that negatively affects social housing. But, as is now, I occasionally will stray. In this particularly instance it is some recent comments from our new Housing Minister that have piqued my interest.

Fetch the shovel

The first comment of note is Mr Barwell’s quite honest (and accurate) response to a question around home ownership and how first time buyers can get on that mythical housing ladder. By stating that Grandparents should by-pass their children for the sake of their Grandchildren’s ability to buy a home he has presented a quite reasonable approach tackling diminishing home ownership. This is fairly appropriate and reasonable, the issue is two-fold.

1) The most obvious – It’s bollocks. I, as a qualified, reasonably well paid, worker should not have to rely on a rich relative dropping dead to buy a bloody house. The fact that people are having to do so in order to afford the deposit for a mortgage is a sure-fire sign that years of crap housing policy (from all political parties) is coming home to roost. I agree with Mr Barwell that this shouldn’t be the case.  The problem is his party have been making the situation a lot worse for the past 6 years. Going, yeah it’s a bit shit, right now isn’t helpful. Though it is a start.

2) Housing supply is the key concern in terms of driving up the cost of housing, not necessarily the ability to buy (in many instances credit has never been cheaper to access). Social mobility will stagnate until housing supply increases because it is this (and not scrapping right to buy in social housing) that is causing stock blocking and wealth inequality to sky-rocket. Renewed Government interest in funding housing projects might help, but much more is needed. Especially in terms of more social housing. Which pays for itself and even works post Brexit. Just saying.

I am not a Hamster

Sadly Mr Barwell’s other interjection has actually annoyed me (the other is a bit of a misquote). Call me picky, but I don’t want to live in a house that doesn’t meet current building regulations, because they’re actually pretty shit. Britain already has the smallest sized houses in Europe (the continent, not the EU, shut up Brexiters). Making them smaller isn’t going to help. Whilst it’s happened to a number of day-to-day products like Cadbury Chocolate bars. Yes you cheeky sods, I’ve noticed they’re smaller, and you’ve put your prices up. Bastards. Doing the same for properties just builds up issues down the line.

Whilst some might think that my age cohort splash out cash on overly pricey crap and skiing holidays, we’re mostly just getting by. You’ve had your cake, and eaten it, kindly don’t lecture me. I don’t want to live in a tiny house. I don’t want to live in a converted shipping container. What I want is for my reasonable pay to be able to afford a reasonably sized house, preferably within a 1 hour commute from my job. That is not an outlandish wish, but as prices (both rental and ownership) continue to outstrip wage growth, it might as well be.

Wrapping it up

I am willing to give Mr Barwell some leeway. His predecessors have said/done much dumber things. As Housing Minister Grant Shapps championed a policy that increased social rents (i.e. Affordable Rents) to those likely to receive housing benefit (i.e. those living in housing provided by Social Landlords) whilst the Government he worked for was trying to reduce that very same bill. Barwell’s statement on inheritance is quite sensible, but for many it is simply not an option. And at least with his idea for smaller homes he’s trying to think outside the box. But with a Government that is at least wanting to sound like it will make Britain work for all (as long as you’re British…) something other than ‘hope you have rich relatives’ is needed.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

*Updated to emphasise misquote of Barwell in the Independent.

How to Make Friends and Influence People

It is a broken record on repeat but the sector needs to do more to get heard outside of the bubble that is housing.

About 18months ago I moved to deepest, darkest Warwickshire, Bidford on Avon to be precise. It’s the kind of place where time hasn’t so much stood still but lost all interest and buggered off elsewhere. For me and the lady-friend, who like busy cities the same way the Body Coach likes a greasy kebab after an all day session down the Winchester, it suits quite well. However, one of the things we hadn’t expected was the reaction of some of the locals.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Bidford, like most of Warwickshire, is as about as Blue as you can get without seeing portraits of Margaret Thatcher in every living-room. It is conservative with small, medium and large C’s. Whilst I had clocked this early on in the move I hadn’t quite clocked what impact it might have. As a keen gym enthusiast (the heavy weight, not treadmill running kind) I’m pretty much as broad as I am tall (being 5ft 8inch helps). I’m reasonably tattooed with a full sleeve supplemented by a half sleeve and a chest piece. Finally, I own a Staffie. In short, I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, and frankly neither are they mine.

Exhibit A – World’s Least Dangerous Dog

The first time I saw a middle age woman clock me and my dog, stop, then walk across the road it made me laugh. After the 3rd or 4th time it really began to piss me off, I swear I could hear the anuses clenching as I went past. After a while, and through general interaction with people in the village such instances became rarer. More so after many people actually stopped to chat to the dog (yes, people do that). These days the local teenagers refer to her as “Well cute” whilst my general presence appears to be accepted.

What happened? Well, me and the lady-friend made a conscious effort to show that both of us, and our dog were perfectly normal everyday people and posed no threat/ill to anyone. Essentially we went outside our own bubble. In many ways social housing is still yet to do this. Neil Jackson (all the cool people are called Neil…) provided what I thought was the best blog of Housing Day by highlighting this point. For all the effort (hats off to Ade Capon, the lad has worked tirelessly to grow the event) given on the day how many outside the bubble came across it/engaged with it? A snap poll with the Lady-friend concluded, not many. I won’t bore you with her precise words but they were akin to, “Oh, that thing OK…”.

All is not lost

Scientifically valid checks against impact aside (see here for the actually rather impressive figures). The sector is still capable of influence Central Government policy. One of the greatest examples can be seen with Shared Ownership. Consistent targeted lobbying alongside co-ordinated work has seen something that frankly has been a backwater bolt on to social housing gain significant traction.  To the point where there may genuinely be a ‘fourth tenure’ of mainstream housing in this country.

Such an achievement didn’t come through the back slapping, circle-jerk that the sector is occasionally prone to. And whilst warmer noises have been coming from the new-look Government, they frankly couldn’t have been much colder. Nick ‘Kind of Stating the Obvious’ Clegg’s serialised memoirs in the Guardian (let’s face it, no-one else would bloody do it) have highlighted what many thought. That a significant part of the Conservative Party is hostile to social housing and see it as a Labour Voter breeding machine. Let’s hope Mr Barwell’s warm noises come to something. Historically the NHF Conference has led to conciliatory noises from Government followed by business as usual. Real change occurs outside our housing bubble.

The above does raise the old ‘what does it all mean/what should we build question’. But I loathe the term used to describe the intersection of two roads. And quite frankly the mid-life crisis that is the sector’s inability to decide what it wants to be is starting to bore. So I shall ignore it here.

Regardless, continuing to speak to, and build bridges with, those who have not been traditional bed-fellows is a must. Pushing how good the sector is, and what it can bring to the table is also essential. Alongside Health and Education, housing is one of the 3 pillars a person builds their life on. It is something that everyone needs and can understand the importance of. Even if how someone conceptualises what a safe and secure home looks like is different, we all need one. The trick is to tap into that and tie it to how we can help this Government achieve its aims of more housing for all.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Far from the Maddening Crowd

It’s time to stop with the Excel Spreadsheet fetish, it’s pretty bad for you, but it’s worse for your business. Step away from the grid-lines, now!

Time to go Cold-Turkey

One of things that has always surprised, and frankly occasionally unnerved me, is the lack of basic digital skills in the sector. Now I’m not talking about being a Black Belt in Python (until 6 months ago I thought that was just a type of snake) or a Pokemon master at Q-Basic here. I’m simply talking about a broader depth of knowledge beyond the Housing Management system people use (or more’s the point, the narrow part of it related to their role) and Microsoft Word. But it is not just at an individual level that the sector has a bit of an issue. If you were to take a look around your business I guarantee your mortgage (I can’t afford one so I rent #millennialproblems) that a significant proportion of your staff are using off-system solutions to carry out day-to-day work. Why? Because your current software solutions doesn’t meet their need.

Square Pegs, Round Holes: Failure to Develop = Failure

People fall back onto Excel and Access-based solutions when there is no obviously better way to interrogate data. Their over-use is symptomatic of a business crying out for a more suitable solution but without the foggiest idea of what it needs or where it can be acquired from. It is also a result of failure to update and refresh the software solutions the business has as its disposal.  It’s no good thinking your billy big balls with your Morris Minor when everyone else is cruising around in their Audi R8. Also, considering the sector seems fine to throw a dollar or two around when it comes to Chief Executive pay maybe they can cough up and pump some money into the machinery that keeps the organisation ticking over. Just a thought.

FYI good reads come from Jules Birch and Kevin Williams on Chief Executive pay and the wider debate/ramifications related to them. Funnily enough Kevin’s Blog is from last year’s nicker twisting championships on the same subject. But it’s worth re-reading if only for the fact the name comes from my favourite Biggy Smalls song.

Sorry, got side-tracked 

The problem is for a lot of staff Excel is actually pretty crap when trying to communicate performance and data trends. Surprise, surprise, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed the near meltdowns I’ve seen when merely mentioning the name Excel is highly amusing. It’s like dropping the Voldemort-bomb at a Harry Potter LARPing event. Additionally spreadsheets are not always easily understood and it’s too easy to miss important information in them. And I can guarantee you unless you lock that baby down someone is going to delete an essential bit of formula quicker than Liam Fox can insult the entire country’s business community.

More worryingly for the sector they’re actually not great when being used for managing essential business processes (good heavens, no!). So if you’re using them to monitor performance for say Planned Works or Estates Services, or god forbid Repairs. Please stop. Now. Because the amount of things that could go tits up relying on spreadsheets for such business critical processes frankly gives me nightmares.

What to do

Go back to basics. Look at what you want to report, who you want to report it, why you need to report it and then how. Because believe me there are a million and one better pieces of kit out there to monitor, report on and interrogate data than Excel. 

Excel is fine for basic bits and pieces, but it should be a useful extra, not the go to for essential business processes. It’s like using an abacus when you have calculator available. Cute for none users to admire your handiwork, but you’ll be buggered if you believe everyone else can use it. Worse over-reliance on it will leave you over-exposed to one muppet and the delete button. Be brave, make the change.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

*Updated 13/09/16


Why Spend More?

Government cuts merely shift the burden, and associated costs, from one department budget to another. Often providing poorer value to the taxpayer as a result. If there is to be a change in policy direction highlighting the absurdities of arbitrary cost cutting in the Welfare State, and capital funding in infrastructure more generally, is needed.

Working in housing you can get caught up in a couple of broken records, repeating time and time again that social housing is needed; and that please, won’t someone think of the poor people. It can all sound a bit noblesse oblige but often you’re one a very few voices pushing those messages. Changing tack, if only for the sake of your sanity, is therefore occasionally necessary.

Show Me the Money

What is often left out in arguing the need for a more progressive approach to policy making in this country is that being a tight arse as a Government often ends up costing the taxpayer (directly and indirectly) more than is saved.  If you have time to read his works, the University of Cambridge based economist Ha-Joon Chang is worth a visit. Whilst the forever left (behind) Owen Jones interviewed him the other week, he has been vocally critical of trickle down economics and Austerity for some time. Notably because the former is bollocks as a theory and the latter more costly for economic growth than expected.

Post-Brexit is seems ‘experts’ (i.e. people who’ve spent years learning about a particular subject) are old hat, who needs them when you’ve got a former Investment Banker (but not part of the establishment) and a former journalist with a penchant for Shakespearean-esk melodrama to tell you the truth+. But it is perhaps worth listening to the various research pieces/staff notes coming out of the world-renowned hotbed of Marxist thinking, the IMF. It has released a number of critical pieces on more recent macro-economic policy approaches and how they’ve failed to solve inequality and provide sustained growth.

It should be noted that the contents of such works represent the views of the authors and not necessarily the IMF itself. Bloody economists, they’re always particularly anal about caveats and detail. Almost as bad as accountants. To ram home the point reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine highlights how the IMF, amongst others, has been fundamental in pushing many of the policies that have actually caused greater economic damage than progression.

What Does this Mean for Housing?

Well, being selfish, it means that it is probably worth setting aside more capital funding for infrastructure projects (like building social and affordable housing). It would also be worth re-visiting plans to strip back the welfare state to the point where all that’s available is a couple of turnips* and stale corn flakes. Both of these pipe-dreams are unlikely to happen any time soon. But redirecting the narrative is desperately needed where Central Government and the Welfare State is concerned (a bit like Own Our Future, but without the OOF acronym). Thanks to excellent research from the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the negative impact of inequality on households is well-known. However, the more recent admission from the IMF that inequality negatively impacts growth should provide the ammunition to make the case for investment over cuts. Or as Olivier Blanchard put it:

what is needed in many advanced economies is a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation, not a fiscal noose today

So change-up the language and change the focus of dialogue. The old adage of needing to spend money to make money (or in this case, save money) is useful here. By highlighting that through investing in secure, good quality, affordable housing the state, and by extension the taxpayer, gets far more bang for its buck (though I would say that, wouldn’t I?). When you can show the cost effectiveness of preventing individuals and households from hitting crisis point (and therefore requiring acute, high cost interventions) you’ve won half the battle.

Not Convinced?

Just count the cost of housing those accepted as being statutory homeless, count the cost of those sleep rough on the streets. Count the cost of those relying on friends and family for a sofa to sleep on. Count the cost of the severe damage to job prospects, education and even health that is caused by insecure, poor quality housing. Add that up and investing in social housing and a Welfare Sate is frankly a snip at the price.

Because, why spend more?

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

+Is this a dagger I see before me? No Michael Gove, it’s your political ambitions going up in smoke.

*In fairness, in Worcester (my home town) this would probably make you King…

It’s Always the Quiet Ones

Organisational change will always have its challenges, some of which can be anticipated, others not so much. Whilst a lot of focus is spent on those near the top of the pay scale in terms of undermining change, it’s actually those closer to the ground floor that can put a real dampener on proceedings. Managing messages, engagement and understanding staff motivation(s) is therefore key.

A Little Anecdote

On my way to work there is a Shell Petrol Station (other destroyers of the Earth are available). Recently they’ve deemed fit to stop people parking on a bit of green adjacent to them. To try to do this in a not-so-dickish way they put in big concrete plant pots. What they hadn’t counted on was the tenacity of locals in wanting to park their cars for free. In short, people just parked between the aforementioned plants. A week later work men are back on the scene and by the end of the day even more plant pots have arrived and now no-one can park there. Moral of the story? People don’t like being forced to change the way they’ve always done things. You may have to leave them no option.

Things to Consider

A bit like Leadsom referring to herself as a mother to validate her view of macro-economic policy, yet taken as trashing a rival, what a person says and what other people hear are two different things. People looking to get other staff to ‘buy in’ to change tend to ignore that what the phrase means in practice i.e:

‘I want to change the way you work, hopefully for the better, but I’m not 100% sure on that. You agreeing with me makes this process a lot easier, so JFDI*.’

Not nearly as succinct, or cushty is it? But it is a more honest statement around organisational change. For many change is not an opportunity, it is more work on top of what is an already challenging workload. Often because someone at mid-to-senior level saw something at an un-conference and thought it would work rather neatly in their part of the business. Perception is key here. People who have been in a role for a while will carry on doing what they’ve always done until utterly forced otherwise. Because people are naturally cautious, careful beasts that mitigate change to the best of their abilities. Well, for the most part they are. You’ll always have a couple of nutters who want to go try something new like extreme ironing.

*Just Fucking Do It

So What to Do?

Like it or lump it, winning hearts and minds is fundamental to instigating embedded change. Because despite what a number of consultancy hawks post on twitter “Innovator Destroyers in Chief” aren’t always the heads of needless bureaucracies. Often it’s actually front line staff who are pissed off with moving goal posts and have no desire to retrain that are the most efficient change blockers.

Fundamentally what people want is to be able to do their job easier, without any risk to their livelihood. But what they hear when the change word, or its pumped up cousin transformation, is mentioned is re-structure. A phrase which is, rightly or wrongly, intrinsically associated with job cuts. Given the fact that Housing Associations go through a restructure every 2-3 years people can get battle weary. Your Top-Down Approach To Transformation (TDATT for short, the D is silent), is just another set of jobs cuts and unwelcome upheaval unless explicitly, and painstakingly, proven otherwise.

I should probably state that having been through restructures and mergers in my few years in Housing this is one of the areas I am actually a bit of an optimist. Organisations need to develop, to evolve, to grow. Stagnation is the death of a business, social or otherwise. And where change happens, so opportunities grow. But I don’t have kids, or a mortgage to worry about. What I would recommend is less time on flashy slide shows and focus more on the communication of the change; why it’s happening, will it affect jobs, what are its benefits. Otherwise your change will fail.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

UK Housing Policy: A mess years in the making


Insecure tenancies and poor quality housing are health issues, they should be treated as such. Investment in all of the 3 main types of housing tenure and reform of Private Rented Housing is needed to avoid a crisis evolving into a full on catastrophe.

Political Failure Manifest

Complicated is what we use to avoid simple truths (Some bloke off the internet, 2016)

The modern-day crises that make up the UK Housing crisis are a complex mish-mash of competing and conflicting needs.  More housing is desperately needed, but no Government wants to dampen house prices when the economy and individual wealth creation are heavily tied to ever-increasing house prices. To get around this tricky issue, Cameron et al have attempted to side step the main problem at hand i.e. instead of increasing the supply of the right type of housing in the right areas they have deliberately mis-identified the actual problem (of supply) with an easier issue to solve (demand). Why? Because simpler problems are easier to fix.

As Campbell Robb noted the battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the public has longed been lost in relation to social housing provision. So it seems has all logic. We want our kids to get housing of their own, to be able to afford to buy, but for our own house prices to keep on rising. With Teresa May now PM it remains to be seen if the over-focus on Home Ownership will continue, Jules Birch fears, just like Teresa, it May (sorry…too tempting).

Poor quality housing is a public health issue, treat it as such

As the social housing sector has been allowed to dwindle, those who used to be on the margins of being accepted into social rent have had to turn to the private sector. In the South and South East this has put an inevitable strain on housing, pushing rent prices further away from affordable levels. This in turn has led to families unable to buy, but ineligible to rent social housing relying on insecure private sector tenancies. It is no surprise that the number one reason for being made homeless in the UK is the ending of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST). Insecure, poor quality housing can be just as detrimental as being homeless, all being linked to:

A parallel issue is poor quality housing. It is not uncommon to see news reports on landlords who have not just violated HMO rules, they’ve jumped up and down on them, popped them in one of those circus canons and blown them apart as spectacularly as Michael Gove’s leadership bid. I’m sure the resistance to any kind of further regulation and licensing of private landlords has nothing to do with the fact that a large part of MPs are landlords themselves, but the wilful inertia needs to stop. In the right conditions Private Renting is a very good form of housing provision, the majority of landlords are good. But when lack of alternatives are driving those in the bottom income quartile to beds in sheds, overcrowded and frankly dangerous housing, the buck needs to stop.

So why are we not doing more to battle this?

I just want a house, not a mansion or anything like that, just some stability for my boy. [I’m] Fed up of moving all the time.

The current Tory Government will argue that via RTB2, Help to Buy and Shared Ownership they’re helping those like my friends (and me). But whilst there are a plethora of products designed to facilitate access to home ownership, many simply just aren’t suitable for those who most need it. We need a Government to invest in all 3 of the main tenures in this country, because what we have right now is poorly channelled money and whimsical, wishful thinking. Post EU Referendum I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. Let’s take back control of something that actually matters, our housing policy.

The above quote is symptomatic one of a many up and down the country having to juggle affordable private renting, school and the need to provide secure home for their kids. It’s from a mate of mine, one of at least 3 in the same situation. As a private renter myself I’m one legal notice and 2 months away from homelessness at any given time. So pardon me if I sound a little pissy at A) the lack of action and B) the wrong policies being pushed.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.