How to lose friends and alienate people

It has constantly struck me how slow the social housing sector has been on the uptake of social media.  Of course being a sector where there are essentially 1,200 odd organisations (not including councils) providing the same product, there will be some good examples and bad examples but as a whole the sector is pretty poor with Twitter et al.  I have met staff from the lowest to highest levels with no clue about how or what Twitter, Facebook or Linkedin are, let alone Pinterest, Snapchat or Instagram.  Granted I have a bit of an advantage given that I’m not a billion years old like a lot of people in the sector are (a billion in this instance is >= 35) and I’ve been exposed to computers from a young age.

Despite my little dig it should be noted that age isn’t a justifiable barrier to new ways of thinking.  For one thing my Gran didn’t have a computer, or even a mobile phone, until a few years ago.  Now the woman is Lol-ing and OMG-ing via text and email to her heart’s content.  The old girl never ceases to amaze me.  Though I really hope she hasn’t come across all the porn.  I feel it is more likely a fear of the unknown on the part of a lot individuals rather than age and/or ineptitude blocking greater use of social media.  And in fairness working in social housing does lead you to be liable to a lot of stick from disgruntled tenants.  The internet gives those who feel they have been let down and/or are bored/slightly unhinged the perfect, cheap, medium to inflict long lasting damage to an organisation’s reputation.  Midland Heart, a Birmingham based organisation, knows this better than most.  It has been the victim of a sustained internet campaign, the origins of which I’m not sure of, but you can visit the website in questions at http://midlandheart.com/ and see for yourself.  It is enough to make any PR team wave the white flag and go foetal, if just for some of the arguments put forward.

However the advantages of using social media far outweigh the cons.  The Social housing sector has always put great stock in involving tenants residents customers (or what the hell it is we call them these days, I try to use their name myself) in the running of its organisations.  The sector spends a shite-tonne of money each year surveying and measuring tenant satisfaction.  Why turn down a relatively inexpensive means by which to get almost immediate feedback from tenants?  Whilst I doubt many tenants will be tweeting “Just had my boiler repaired, thanks [insert vaguely inspirational name of social housing organisation here], you are awesome as always xoxoxox” opening up further means of communicating with, and ultimately understanding, our clients better can only be a good thing.  For reference tenant’s tweets are usually like the one below.  Very droll, very droll indeed.

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Aside from being all lovey-dovey with the kind folk who keep us in pocket it is also useful to have some selfless promotion of what we do/are.  Because as a sector we suck at it.  Last November’s #housingday, where the sector sought to promote what it did etc, was a start, and the numbers provided by Adrian Capon are pretty impressive.  They are however not the norm.  Organisations such as Bromford and Halton Housing Trust who have fully embraced all things computery are way ahead of the pack, just check out their respective Twitter accounts @HaltonHousing and @Bromford.  A lot of the sector has dabbled its toes, left it to some Comms person with a background in marketing and sales and hoped it would go away.  OK I maybe a little harsh there but given the amount of stuff you can do for next to nothing via social media the sector does need to pull the proverbial wooden implement from where the sun does not shed daylight*.

As the recent outrage against the Mail on Sunday’s ‘expose’ of the Trussell Trust being charitable and handing out food to people who need it (what is the world coming to).  Social media can be a very powerful tool, and not always to your advantage, just ask the NYPD.  That being said social media, Twitter in particular, is just a means to an end and not an end in itself.  We can tweet all day but unless social housing organisations do the work we are best at, working with the disadvantage, it all counts for nothing.  I just hope that we as a sector aren’t too late on the uptake and make the most of a golden opportunity to advance our cause.  As one Chief Executive in the sector dryly noted, social housing organisations need to “adapt or die”.

*Side note, it always amuses me that we have two main publications for housing news, Inside Housing and Housing 24 (with its on-line version 24dash). We do large amounts of willy waving in these news outlets, read almost exclusively by people in the sector, yet fail to regularly hit national news unless it’s something like Benefits Street or how to get a council house. We then wonder why we aren’t as influential in policy agenda setting as we should be.

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An open letter to the Daily Mail…

Put much better than I could.

squidgetsmum

The Daily Mail chose today to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, champion of the oppressed, by publishing this article today.  Here’s my response.

 

Dear Daily Mail,

I’ve got a little boy.  His name is Isaac, and he’s nearly three.  Like any little boy, he loves cars, balls, and running around.  He’s barely ever still.

A few days ago though, he was.  I took him to the supermarket to spend his pocket money, and we passed the donation basket for our local food bank.  It was about half full – nothing spectacular, in fact, mostly prunes and pasta – and he asked what it was.  As simply as possible, I tried to explain that it was for people to give food for other people who couldn’t afford it.

This affected his two year old brain fairly deeply.  After a lot of thought, he decided to spend a little bit of…

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Time for a new PR team methinks

So I think it is safe to say that as a sector we are losing the PR battle, badly, like Ukraine v Russia badly.  How to Get a Council House has re-hit our screens like a bottle of warm liquid smacking your cranium in a crowd at a festival.  It stinks, everyone else knows what it is, and you have to clean up the mess.  At a time when public attitudes towards benefits are at a level akin to Gordon Brown’s popularity in the run up to the 2010 election. We, as a sector that works with/for the poor and vulnerable, who need social security, need to grow a pair.  Fast.  Here’s some figures for you to illustrate the point.

The general public thinks that 41% of the money we spend on benefits goes on the unemployed, the DWP says it is actually 3%.

The public thinks £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is lost on fraud, it is actual 70p.

Nearly a third believe we spend more money on JSA compared to pensions.  It is actually the other way round, we spend £4.9bn on JSA v £74.2bn on pensions (NB no dates for what year this was).

If that wasn’t enough here’s a depressing graph about the hardening of social attitudes, you are a miserably tight lot.

Public attitudes to poverty and welfare 1983-2011
Clarey et al. 2013

It is these attitudes that we as a sector need to confront head-on.  Because tied in with the notion that we pay out too much in benefits, or that all housing benefit claimants are unemployed, is that social housing should only be for the deserving poor.  This is a dangerous train of thought, it harks back to a Dickensian age where a social security net was non-existent and it was taken as fact that there was the deserving and undeserving poor.  Our job is to help those in need of it. Not decide which right type of poor person should get it.

It is often that attitudes, particularly negative ones, are formed by people who don’t truly know or understand a certain subject.  As a sector we have too often let the politicians do the talking, at one and the same time pandering to and encouraging a viewpoint counter to the reality on the ground.  We have not taken hold of the debate, not reached out enough to those who don’t know or understand what we do. People want to watch programmes like Benefits Street or How to Get a Council House because it reinforces their negative stereotypes of the sector and the people that live within it.  It is the equivalent of going to Wales once and seeing that it is sunny and believing there is always glorious sunshine in Wales.  As someone who has had mates live in both Swansea and Cardiff I can assure it is most definitely not.  They Welsh traded good weather for a decent rugby team years ago.

The sector is waking up.  The NHF is being a lot more vocal these days, various regions have set up pressure groups, the G15 for London, the Birmingham Social Housing Partnership for, er, Birmingham and the East 7, not to be confused with East 17 for the East of England.  More is needed to be done.  The use of the ‘other’ has long been deployed in political debates. We need to ensure social housing, and the people who live within it, isn’t referred to in these terms.  More importantly, we need to make sure that the people who rely on our help, understanding and support are treated with the respect they deserve.

A final, slightly positive, thing to leave you with. Despite not having the slightest clue about the money we spend on benefits the general public isn’t a totally heartless beast.  The British Social Attitudes Report showed a softening towards those on benefits.  Now just over half people believe benefits are too generous (51%) compared to 62% in 2011. Opinions can be changed.  You just need to educate people.  Best get cracking.

My thanks to In Actual Fact for the heads up on the figures used.

Lies, Damned Lies and Ian Duncan Smith

Central Government, particularly IDS et al at the DWP has consistently stated that the bedroom tax is fair and necessary.  They have steadfast stuck to their guns and whilst they may get 10/10 in terms of effort and conviction.  There has been scant little support for their claims.  In particular a recent BBC report and the Works and Pensions Committee report on Welfare Reform have both cast significant doubts over the claims of the DWP.  I will quickly run through some of the arguments put forward by Government and offer my thoughts.

Arguments put forward by the DWP in defence of the bedroom

1. It’s fair to those in the private sector

This argument has been rolled out by the Government over several of its more contentious policies (i.e. nearly all of them).  In relation to the bedroom tax they cite changes to way in which housing benefit has been given to people renting in the private sector and the need to be fair to both sectors.  They argue that the Local Housing Allowance (rules for the amount of housing benefit will be given in the private sector) don’t provide for a ‘spare room’ and that this should be replicated in social housing.  True, apart from the fact that this argument is utter bollocks due to the circumstances under which the LHA was changed.  Reforms to the LHA by David Cameron et al. and his hug a hoody Tories, applied to new claimants only.  Alas not so avec the ‘spare room subsidy’.  It has been applied to all current claimants of housing benefit in order to maximise potential savings to the government.  It is very rare in life that you will go to sleep doing nothing wrong and wake up to find that you are.  Well with the exception of getting married (when as a bloke you are always wrong). But this is what has happened with the bedroom tax.  It is not fair, it is not similar, it is bollocks, like their argument.

2. It will help better manage the housing stock in the UK

Again, no.  Whilst London and the South East will largely benefit from the bedroom tax due to the chronic nimbyism lack of housing in that part of the world, overcrowding is a real issue in the South East, other parts of the country will struggle.  As reported in my previous post the BBC has noted just 6% of those affected have moved, though many more would like to.  Interestingly Joe Halewood in his Speye blog notes that this could just be standard movement within the sector.  The BBC report itself is ambiguous over correlation between the bedroom tax and the numbers moved.  Something to be mindful of.  Regardless the House of Commons report into the reforms, available here highlights the lack of options for people very bluntly.  The North-West and North-East don’t have enough smaller homes required for those affected by the bedroom tax to move into, neither does Wales.  This has largely been due to the fact that Councils and social landlords had the dastardly inclination not to future-proof their developments against ill-thought through welfare policies and built to actual, rather than Government imposed housing need.Iain Duncan Smith must be furious. However, as this map of England according to Londoners neatly summarises, I don’t think Westminster cares that much.  London is important, not the ‘North’ and its problems.  Bedroom tax works in the South so sod it.

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Map of England according to Londoners

Another thing that needs to be mentioned is that a large number of those ‘under-occupying’ their home, technically aren’t.  They have just fallen foul of the arbitrary rules brought in to support the bedroom tax.  Take the following example. 1 family in a 3 bed house, mummy and daddy (or mummy and mummy or even daddy and daddy, I don’t care, this is a theoretical family) and little Timmy aged 8 and Emma aged 6.  In most households this would be fine.  Our straight/gay/transgender couple get one bedroom, Timmy gets a place for all his Pokemon cards and Emma can have her space for what the hell it is little girls have (I come from a family of 4 brothers, as such I don’t have lot of source material for this example). But this is a bedroom tax affected household, under the rules for the spare room subsidy (bedroom tax’s official name) this family is under-occupying.  Any children under the age of 10 are expected to share a room regardless of their sex.  Under 15s are expected to share if they are the same sex.This scenario is replicated across the country.  What would Jesus you do?  Move to a property where your kids will have to share a room or stick it out so they can have at least some vestiges of dignity*.

3. It will save money

When I first came across the policy I did the Confused_dogequivalent of this adorable dog (see left).  There are inherent contradictions in the reasons given for the bedroom tax being put forward by the Government.  The notion of managing housing stock better is laudable.  The ‘nudge’ via bedroom tax questionable. But the only way the tax acts as a cost saver is if more people stay put and fork out for the reduction in housing benefit.  Thus perpetuating the ‘poor’ management of social housing stock.  It is a perverse incentive to the Government and exposes the utterly fuctarded thinking around the policy.  These two competing aims actively undermine each other.

Additionally, given the lack of smaller social housing for those affected to move into many are having to move into the private sector.  Where rents are higher and where the taxpayer will actually be paying more for a smaller property.  For an insightful, if slightly dated and hysterical example of this, visit the another Speye blog by Joe Halewood.  Well worth a read.

A final point to make is that those most likely to be in a home unsuitable for their needs (according the rules set in place by the Government) are not included in the measures.  This groups is of course the over 60s, particularly those not longer of working age (over 61 at the moment, soon to be 63 and then basically until your last breathe on this Earth if Gideon Osborne has his way).  This bunch of largely Tory voting, space wasters (sorry Gran!) having deliberately been left out of the bedroom tax even though they are most likely to have more than 2 rooms spare.  Why, ‘cos no-one wants to be seen as the party kicking out old ladies from their homes.  Looks like the Tories learnt from the Poll Tax after all.

*Full disclosure, I shared a room with my brother until I was about 14, aside from his constant farting and habit of sleep talking/snoring like a whale it was OK.  But the moment I had my own place was bossmense.  Coming from a larger than average family I fully appreciate the need for space and some privacy.

F@#k social, go private

“So what exactly is a social housing organisation?”.  This is a question that I have frankly never been asked by any of my mates, I can only guess the reason being:

  1. They don’t care
  2. They already know
  3. They really don’t care

It’s probably a combination of 1 and 3, but I can’t be certain.  As alluded to in my previous post, the primary role of social housing organisations is to provide cheap accommodation to those who can’t afford to buy or rent from the private market.  In addition they provide formal and informal support, money advice, employment advice and generally help out those in a bit of a bind.  They are vastly undervalued by both the general public and Central Government but continue to provide invaluable services, help and support to those individuals/families who most people don’t give a flying monkey’s about.

Despite its good work the sector is coming under increasing pressure from a number of sides.  Already mentioned welfare reforms are biting, but long term attitude changes, both in the mind of the public but also politicians, are also having an effect.A Century of Home Ownership

Social housing been on a downward trend for the best part of 3 decades (notice the pretty info-graphic courtesy of the ONS). Partly this is due to the aspiration of most of you ugly buggers to buy a house.  But it is also the result of a sustained assault on the sector by both Labour and the Conservatives (Lib Dems you get a mention when you form your own Government).

Funding for social housing from Central Government has nosedived (note the not so pretty graph).  Expectations however have risen.  In the 2008-11 programme 155,000 properties were expected to be built with £8.4billion of central Government investment.  In the 2015-18 programme 165,000 homes are expeted to be built with just £1.7billion.Capital Funding

Why does this matter? Well it is changing the shape of social housing organisations, the ones people know nothing about and don’t care about.  As funding dries up the sector has to look at other means of funding new builds.

A prime example is London and Quadrant, a 70,000 unit social landlord based in London.  In 2012/13 it spent whopping £147million on affordable housing.  Impressive, but it spent even more on homes to sell and rent on the private market.  To be precise £225million.  Granted they operate in London so this probably got them a leaky 1 bed apartment in Soho, but the figures tell a very distinct story.  Sell private to fund social.

Well more precisely use public finance, a lot of re-investment from surplus (profit to you and me) and a lot of borrowing from private lenders to fund social.  This is being replicated across the sector.  Essentially the sector is cross-subsidising and mortgaging itself to the hilt in order to build.  Great in the short term and brilliant for the Government, as it’s getting much more for less.  But the stakes are high and not everyone is able to play the game.  Step forward Cosmopolitan Housing Group and their utter failure in attempting to get in on the student accommodation market.

In order to tap into private finances social housing organisations are having to become more business like and a lot more professional.  Moving further and further from their historical routes.  Whilst modernisation is welcome (and desperately needed in some cases, just look at some of their websites) the sector is undergoing something of a soul searching period.  Many now refer to themselves as social businesses or enterprises rather than solely social housing organisations.  Personally I don’t care what they call themselves as long as they continue providing the houses and support millions desperately need.

The Stick of Truth and Iain Duncan Smith

So yet again IBS, er sorry I mean, IDS (Iain Duncan Smith to you and me) has been doing the rounds stating that everything is A-OK with his pet project to get every single darn rascal who has the audacity to be poor, ill, or worse still out of a job, off benefits. This time he was on the Andrew Marr Show stating that as well as getting people who had been out of work for a long time back into employment the reforms would save the taxpayer £50bn by the end of this parliament.  So far so cushty, but it hasn’t been an easy couple of weeks for IDS.  As mentioned in my previous blog on the bedroom tax, far from hitting targets around cost savings and making best use of housing stock, may well cost the taxpayer rather than at the very least being cost-neutral.

Additionally, Atos, the much loved and respected firm that has been dealing with the fit to work tests benefit claimants have to undertake to claim Employment and Support Allowance has decided its leaving the DWP.  Well its contract at any rate.  Interestingly IDS used the interview with Andrew Marr to state that it wasn’t Atos but the Government that sought to end the contract early.  A bit like your mate at high school who claimed he dumped Jenny, and totally not the other way round.  In all honesty no-one really cares but it is amusing to watch yet another seemingly straightforward bit of news go a bit sideways for the DWP.  Less amusing is the fact that 4 out of every 10 decisions from Atos are overturned on appeal.  Unlucky Atos, best of luck with your next Central Government contract.

And of course there is the great IT debacle that continues in a manner that would put some Greek Tragedies to shame (my favourite one has always been Oedipus, if only for the joke “Oedipus, Schmoedipus, what does it matter as long as the boy loves his mother?”).  Hopefully we will see something akin to an IT system capable of delivering what the DWP wants, though I have a feeling at somepoint someone is going to go “f@#! it, let’s just use spreadsheets”.

Remarkably, in defiance of all logical trains of thought, IDS is still really quite buoyant.  Though I do feel his is so in the same way the financial backers of the Lehmans Brothers were shortly before it went tits-up.  Too much at stake to back out, too much pride to step back.  Not a good combination.  Certainly his grasp of figures, if not his grasp on reality has been called into question on previous occasions.  I just hope that the support and guidance IDS claims will be there for those entering the dizzying world of the Job Centre and the realms of work after years of economic inactivity will actually materialise.  As, despite promising much, not a lot of what the DWP has set out to do since 2010 has actually come off.

Mr Duncan Smith, your moment of truth is nigh.

Happy anniversary, now get out

It’s one year to the day that the bedroom tax aka the spare room subsidy aka some nitwit’s idea from the DWP came into effect.  And quite frankly it is not an anniversary to savour.  Recently released stats by/via the National Housing Federation (NHF), the BBC and the Guardian has highlighted the issues faced by social housing residents and social landlords.

The Headlines

How can we resolve a problem like the bedroom tax?

Despite Iain Duncan Smith smacking anyone with a metaphorical wet plimsoll who dares to deem otherwise, it is unlikely that the bedroom tax will last beyond a Conservative (OK, Coalition) Government.

In all its infinite wisdom the Government wants more 1 bed housing built to offset the drastic shortage of smaller accommodation now needed due to the introduction of the bedroom tax.  But as Ian Munro the Chief Executive of New Charter Housing makes clear in his opinion piece dans le Guardian, the social housing sector has other ideas.

“To be building homes now that will be with us for the next 100 years as an answer to the iniquitous, incompetent and inevitably short-lived bedroom tax lacks foresight.”

FYI – Mr Munro also referred to the policy as “barking mad”, never met the chap but I like him already.

Whilst I admire his honesty and opinion, this point of view does cause a bit of an issue.  The number of smaller homes for families to downsize into do not meet the demand both in terms of quantity of properties and their locality.  A significant number of people choose to stay and pay (or not pay as the case may be) due to close family/friendship ties within an area.  As such, if no further smaller homes are to be forthcoming from the social housing sector we have a bit of a problem.  Arrears will rise and people risk losing their homes and racking up substantial levels of debt. We may have to hope the private sector, known for it’s socially minded spirit, will save the day.  After that miracle I may just knock out god (Sin City reference there for you graphic novel/movie remakes of graphic novel lovers out there).

However, in terms of the bedroom tax most people are just going to have to tough it out and hope the other reforms don’t bite them so hard that they have to go to the modern day equivalent of the poor house.  Oh yea, that’s what social housing is…

In summary

The first year of the bedroom tax has pretty much been a full on disaster.  Vast numbers of the poor are being pushed further into poverty due to the ineptitude of those who are meant to be working for them  Social landlords are looking at having to scale back development plans, starving the country of much needed new homes. Worst of all I have to continuously look at articles on and/or about Iain Duncan Smith.  Not cool. Here’s hoping the next 12 months are the last of this ill thought out, poorly delivered policy.