A brave new world, and our role in it

A few weeks ago I was at an event held by the organisation I work for. The purpose of the day (well, half day really…) was to outline the vision for the company’s future. El Capitan and his deputy were there to deliver presentations, relatively smoothly, and gather feedback on the plans for the development of the business. He said a few things of note, but one really stuck. “You can either whinge about a problem, or you can do something about it.” On the face of it this is a rather obvious statement, but sometimes you need to state the bleeding obvious.

The elections on Thursday night potentially present a new challenge to the social housing sector. Whilst I do not believe for one second that Nigel Farage and his ilk will ever make it to the holy trough that is Westminster, at least not in large numbers, they pose our sector a distinct set of issues. The success of UK Independence Party will impact on the policies the other parties pursue. When politicians get scared they instinctively shift their policies to the right. And believe me the Tories are positively quaking in their very expensive boots. Unburdened by the need to appear sympathetic to the politically liberal parts of the UK Farage has managed to gain a large slice of the right-wing populist vote. Though the picture in the local elections was more nuanced (for an excellent look at the potential impact of UKIP on housing check out Colin Wiles’ latest blog) the overall increase in support for UKIP is a concern. Whilst Ed Miliband is still scrambling around trying to look like he could lead a country and playing up a relatively successful campaign. David Cameron has already started to roll out the “I’m more right wing than him” crap.  Alas poor Nick Clegg looks like he’s been mugged twice for his lunch money before even making it to the school bus stop. Take five bro, take five.

The initial focus of the impact of UKIP’s success will undoubtedly be on how we approach the Europe question, after all that is their raison d’être, but this will soon shift elsewhere, particularly with a General Election less than a year away. Crime, health, the economy and housing (lurking somewhere at the bottom) will all be fought over in the months to come. Consequently, when it comes to housing, we need to start shaping the debate on our terms, and soon. The Tories won’t want to be out-flanked by the ‘we hate Europe, but don’t mind taking its expenses, brigade’. Expect more of the same rhetoric we have heard in recent years. People on benefits want something for nothing, they are scroungers, non-deserving. Austerity is the only way forward, cuts and tough decisions must be made. It is of course largely a load of bull, but it plays well with the crowd. I am deeply concerned that the benefit cap will be lowered and housing benefit for under 25s will be stopped. These would be disastrous steps but sadly I wouldn’t put it past Cameron et al to implement them.

I know I’m teaching you lot to suck eggs when I say that social landlords do so much more than just provide a property for someone to live in. But honestly ask your friends (if you don’t have any ask a friend of a colleague, or your mum) what they know about social housing and social housing tenants. Chances are they will roll off something akin to a cross between Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle. They will also probably spill out some half-truths Daily Mail-style around benefit recipients. The only way to debunk the common misconception around social housing, and the welfare state in general, is to show the overwhelming good that it does.

For some social housing is just a stepping stone. For others it is a lifeline. And yes for some it is an easy life. But I will gladly suffer a wretched few for all the good we do as a sector. Shout for social housing and Council Homes Chat are doing brilliant work around providing a true picture of what social housing means to the people that need it. As is #socialhousing stories and the work being done by Adrian Capon and Michelle Reid.  An honourable mention must also go to Mary O’Hara via her new book Austerity Bites.  Her piece in the Guardian today flogging her new book was a stark reminder of how valued the welfare state is by those who rely on its support.  As well as how under threat from funding cuts those on the front line in deprived communities are.  It is these stories that we need to tell.

Fundamentally we need to humanise the debate on social housing.  The old saying that one death is a tragedy but that a million is a statistic holds as true with housing.  One person on benefits is a tragedy but millions are scroungers and scallywags.  It is our responsibility, as part of efforts to take hold of the debate around social housing, to make the voices of the most vulnerable heard.  To make sure that they aren’t discarded and swept under the carpet of the consciousness of the general public.  Finally, we need to be better at showing what we do as organisations.  That we work to the betterment of communities in which we operate, often providing or subsidising services that otherwise wouldn’t be there.  And we are good at it.  It’s about time we were a little more vocal, and for god’s sake to do it outside of 24Housing and Inside Housing as well as in them.

I’ll leave you with probably the best response to the elections results from the left-wing comedian Mark Thomas who simply stated;  “Don’t despair, organise.” We’ve got less than 12 months to get social housing to the fore.  Better get cracking.

Ps Mark Thomas has the best Twitter tag-line of all time – Husband of a hate filled witch according to Louise Mensch.

 

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The of Power of Stats

Stats, they are a curious thing. They make one man weep and another man sing. That’s the power of stats. A sample of the B-Side version of the Power of Love that Huey Lewis and the News didn’t release for you there. It’s a shame as I feel this should be the perfect anthem for both Iain ‘never knowingly gets a stats release right’ Duncan Smith and the DWP, given their ability to balls up a statistical release. Politicians have always had a bit of an ambiguous relationship with statistics and quite often the truth (here’s looking at you Chris Huhne, Jeffrey Archer).  However it is more than a little disconcerting when an entire government department gets the whoopsies on data release.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t think many people trawl through statistical releases in the same way they gulp down the latest thing the Daily Mail erroneously states will give you cancer. But if you release figures in a misleading way they will be used by ‘the media’, twisted and then spat out at the general public. This charming bunch of homo-sapiens will then internalise the warped message and start an irrational disliking of a group of people they don’t know and most likely will never meet.  I might be a little deterministic in my thinking there but you get the point. Having a government department that couldn’t organise the proverbial knees in a place that ferments beverages of an alcoholic nature is dangerous. Half truths become fact, misunderstandings foster anger and resentment, people vote for UKIP.

But I digress. The latest episode of incompetence appears to be claims around disabled claimants of benefits. The UK Statistics Authority, an entity definitely not on IDS’ Christmas card list, has again slapped down his baldness. The DWP stated that 50% of claimants got a decision for Disability Living Allowance just on the basis of what was on the claim form. Crucially this would mean all these decisions were made without any additional medical evidence to support them.  Don’t worry though, in actual fact it was around 10% of claimants who had their decision made this way. Whoops. More amusingly it was the DWP’s own data that seemingly incriminated its own mess up. The UKSA took particular gumption at the ambiguous nature of the statement.  As Channel 4 News noted the message from this release does have a rather nasty sub-text. People on benefits get nothing for free and don’t deserve the financial assistance they get. Those “something for nothing people” at it again.  This appears to a common thread amongst a number of the gaffs from IDS et al (for more on these see below).  It is a prime example of ideology leading facts rather than evidence leading policy decisions.  Call me an old fashion lad but I believe you should follow the figures, not make them fit the way you see the world.

Cudos to the campaign group Parkinson’s UK for challenging the statement on DLA. But it is deeply concerning that such a mundane release of ‘facts’ should have to be challenged.  As the campaign group noted via Steve Ford, its Chief Executive:

“The Department of Work and Pensions has a long track record of misusing statistics when it comes to the benefits system.

“It’s clear this was a tactic to vindicate further welfare cuts.

“It is absurd that the Government was trying to imply that anyone going through the system had an easy ride.”

“The Department of Work and Pensions has a long track record of misusing statistics when it comes to the benefits system.

“It’s clear this was a tactic to vindicate further welfare cuts.

“It is absurd that the Government was trying to imply that anyone going through the system had an easy ride.”

– See more at: http://www.parkinsons.org.uk/news/15-may-2014/government-under-fire-misleading-benefit-statistics#sthash.88aVV5Eu.dpuf

“The Department of Work and Pensions has a long track record of misusing statistics when it comes to the benefits system.

“It’s clear this was a tactic to vindicate further welfare cuts.

“It is absurd that the Government was trying to imply that anyone going through the system had an easy ride.”

– See more at: http://www.parkinsons.org.uk/news/15-may-2014/government-under-fire-misleading-benefit-statistics#sthash.88aVV5Eu.dpuf

“The Department of Work and Pensions has a long track record of misusing statistics when it comes to the benefits system.

“It’s clear this was a tactic to vindicate further welfare cuts.

“It is absurd that the Government was trying to imply that anyone going through the system had an easy ride.”

– See more at: http://www.parkinsons.org.uk/news/15-may-2014/government-under-fire-misleading-benefit-statistics#sthash.88aVV5Eu.dpuf

“The Department of Work and Pensions has a long track record of misusing statistics when it comes to the benefits system.

“It’s clear this was a tactic to vindicate further welfare cuts.

“It is absurd that the Government was trying to imply that anyone going through the system had an easy ride.”

– See more at: http://www.parkinsons.org.uk/news/15-may-2014/government-under-fire-misleading-benefit-statistics#sthash.88aVV5Eu.dpuf

“The Department of Work and Pensions has a long track record of misusing statistics when it comes to the benefits system.

“It’s clear this was a tactic to vindicate further welfare cuts.

“It is absurd that the Government was trying to imply that anyone going through the system had an easy ride.”

– See more at: http://www.parkinsons.org.uk/news/15-may-2014/government-under-fire-misleading-benefit-statistics#sthash.88aVV5Eu.dpuf

“The Department of Work and Pensions has a long track record of misusing statistics when it comes to the benefits system.

“It’s clear this was a tactic to vindicate further welfare cuts.

“It is absurd that the Government was trying to imply that anyone going through the system had an easy ride.”

– See more at: http://www.parkinsons.org.uk/news/15-may-2014/government-under-fire-misleading-benefit-statistics#sthash.88aVV5Eu.dpuf

To honour this latest round of ‘let’s be liberal with the truth’ I have gathered a few of the other mess ups by the DWP/IDS for you.  I would say enjoy, but they are actually pretty depressing.

Depreciation Gate

When does a write off not count as a write off? Often if you ask the DWP, who were desperately trying to spin the fiasco around Universal Credit IT system so as IDS’ vanity project would not come across as a Class A f@*k up.  The jury is still out as to whether they managed it.  Either way the Work and Pensions select Committee was not impressed.

DLA Claims Gate

Grant Shapps and Duncan Smith got a telling off for “concocting” a figure (of around 878,000 people) that had left Employment Support Allowance in order to avoid a medical assessment.  It was hoped such a claim would help to firm up their argument that the benefits system needing reforming.  The UKSA stepped in to hand out a wet plimsoll beat down as this figure was as based in reality as Grant Shapps’ ambition to be leader of the Tories.  Mind you Iain Duncan Smith was leader at one point, so anything is possible.

Benefit Cap…Gate

As with the sweeping statement on DLA decisions, Mr Baldilock’s assertion that 8,000 people had moved into work because of the Benefit Cap landed him in trouble. The UKSA, yes them again, stated that this claim was “unsupported by the official statistics” that is jargon for utter baloney.

Universal Credit er, Gate

It will be delivered on time. It may be delivered on time. OK it will delivered in a controlled roll out, gradually, to all of the UK within our estimated timescales. Oh bollocks, it will just be rolled out to a few sheep in the North West. Hopefully it will reach everyone else by the next century.  Not really a statistical slip up, but it shows the trouble the department has with at least being up front on issues it is facing.

So what can we do about all this ineptitude and the rather uncomfortable subtext to messed up data releases? Well as Parkinson’s UK have highlighted, quite a bit.  An official rebuke, and the press coverage that goes with it, is helpful to the cause. It doesn’t completely counter the massive amount of negative media towards benefit claimants and social housing, but it is a start. In the meantime it shows Messrs Duncan Smith et al. that people are watching and they need to up their game. That’s the power of stats. Well the UK Statistical Authority at any rate.

Big is beautiful (again)

The social housing sector is a diverse beast, a myriad collection of the unique, the ambitious and frankly the downright bizarre. From smallscale Almshouses, to Large Scale Voluntary Transfer organisations (LSVTs) and increasingly complex group structures, the sector has a very divergent selection of organisations that operate within its boundaries.

Does it matter? Not really. What does matter is that the mantra that big is beautiful is back. Though in reality this notion has never really left us. Mergers have been a constant part of the sector for decades. It is however the set of circumstances that currently face social housing that may give renewed energy to the get big or get going brigade. Typically it has been times of cuts in, or significant changes to the administration of, funding that have seen spikes in mergers and group structures. The brave new worlds of 1974 and 1988 (private finance) saw a huge rise in mergers, followed by a jump in group structures in the mid 1990s. This has subsequently been followed by a further jump in mergers in the early to mid 2000s, just ‘cos.

And lo and behold capital funding is again getting rare, as rare as Grant Shapps not making an appearance in the media rare. Previous posts have covered this new reduction in funding. But the bleak stats require repeating. Even more so due to the fact that a number of major players have both publicly and privately turned down government funding. Bromford came out swinging, in the stylish, tech-savy way it is now known for. London based housing organisations’ snub of Mayor ‘Cor isn’t he crazy he’s not like the other Tories’ Boris Johnson has been a more private affair. The reason for the rejections? Too little wonga has been offered and the strings attached too stringent. For a number of landlords the sums increasingly just don’t add up. This has left the Mayor of London’s Office scrabbling around like a desperate ex trying to patch things up. “I’m sorry I cheated on you, we can still be awesome together, please take my money and build stuff with it”.

Of course it wouldn’t be housing blog without mentioning welfare reform. It is, potentially, a significant factor in moving organisations towards merging as it does create a slightly awkward operating environment. This in combination with lower levels of capital funding, and reduced bank lending.  Something not unnoticed by the ratings agency, Moodys. Who, in addition to the helpful advice of ‘partner up people’, did warn of potential issues around existing and future funding arrangements when doing so.

So what do we do? Well at the moment around 90% of stock in the social housing sector is owned by just 20% of the largest landlords. That means there are a lot of smaller players out there, though for how much longer remains to be seen, particularly as the number of housing associations is steadily decreasing. In 2012 there were around 1,500 organisations compared to just under 2,000 in 2002. With only 40% of the expected welfare cuts currently in play (the other 60% conveniently scheduled for after the next general election), more pain is on the way. Finding sugar daddy/momma is therefore an increasingly attractive option for smaller associations.

There will be those who argue that small organisations still have a place in the post apocalyptic housing world we are entering, and I do have sympathy with that notion. It is still debatable as to whether economies of scale are actually achieved by mergers. But you cannot keep on levering in dollar without increasing your portfolio. You can only get so much money with your existing stock. As your stock ages overheads will steadily increase, your ability to fund new projects will decrease and eventually towel throwing-in time will occur. This is a situation faced by many smaller organisations in the sector. Better get out that slinky black number and hope someone is interested.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, the sector has always been remarkably resilient. If (and it is a big if) Labour win the next election then it is likely funding will increase. Other countries, Holland in particular, have shown how a post capital funding world could look like, albeit in a highly unique situation. I doubt such collectivist action will ever happen here but a gal can always hope. Also it would be best to avoid going the route of the Dutch housing association Vestia. The derivatives market is best left to the boys in the city.

I will leave you with a quote from a very informative Think Tank policy paper on the future of the sector. It does slightly mirror my thinking on the sector and very small scale organisations in particular.

“…there are far too many of them. You’ll see three councils coming together to share services, yet in the same area there might be 20 housing associations working independently of each other. It doesn’t make sense.” (Chevin et al. 2013).

 

It’s just a case of history repeating

In the week that was, Labour trumped up rent controls as the best thing since sliced bread and the Conservatives rolled out Right to Build.  Neither really solve the problem of an inadequate supply of housing but both make good sound bites.  However, as the well thought out and deliberately chosen title of this blog suggests, we do seem to be going round in circles when it comes to policy offerings on housing from our political parties.  Because after the inevitable political handbags have been put down and the dust settles it should be noted that far from being dynamic new policies both Right to Build and rent caps are very much throwbacks to decades past.

In the guise of Right to Build the Tories have stuck with a tried and tested method.  F@*K the other sectors, it’s home ownership that counts.  It harks back to the 1980s golden era for the Tories.  As with it’s (almost) namesake Right to Buy, Right to Build hopes to use Councils as a springboard for private ownership.  This time it is land rather than existing housing stock that is the key.  The basic principle is the same in the two policies.  Home ownership is God, deplete public sector assets to ensure private home ownership.  Unlike Right to Buy there is some hope that Right to Build may actually earn Councils some dollar rather than just removing much need social housing.  If managed carefully this could be mutually beneficial policy for all involved.  Land that is otherwise vacant is used for housing.  Councils make money by leasing the land, more housing is built for us unlucky sods who would give a small body part for a home to own.  Despite the potential positives I’m not holding my breathe, especially as it appears to be a slightly re-jigged version of the Right to Reclaim Land policy announced by Michael Green, sorry – Grant Shapps, back in 2011.

Labour aren’t doing a lot better, digging deep to revive a policy that is probably older than the poor researcher tasked with coming up with something to throw at the Tories.  The idea of rent controls went out in the late 1970s/80s when someone decided Keynesianism/social democracy/policies that don’t just serve the few was old news.  Von Hayek and Milton Friedman were the people to follow.  Well their ideas on the miracles of the free market at least.  This hasn’t changed in the last 30 years. Neo-liberalism has dominated all aspects the political landscape, housing included.  The throwback to a pre neo-liberal era is welcome, as is reform of the private rented sector.  As someone who has lived in it on and off for over half a decade it could use a tweak or two.  But it is hardly new stuff.  Anyone remember Rachmanism, the outrage and the response?

Shelter and KPMG’s offering ‘Building the homes we need – A programme for the 2015 government’ has at least brought some sensible, thought-out options to the table.  For excellent analysis of the report and thoughts on Housing Policy post 2015 visit Messrs. Alex Marsh and Colin Wiles.

With just under a year until the 2015 general election it is a little depressing that the big political parties have just rehashed old policies.  I’m sure further important policy announcements will be made as the main parties (and the Lib Dems) vie for the spotlight and for votes.  And with around 80 parliamentary seats potentially being decided by people being forced to rent as they cannot afford to buy housing should creep up the policy importance ladder.  If not the consciousness of the electorate.  But really this is a poor effort by both parties and shows their inability to understand what the hell is going on.  More frustratingly social housing is still conspicuous by its absence from the national debate.  It is the dirty little secret only shown daylight via hatchet jobs like Benefits Street and How to Get a Council House.  This needs to change.

Alas in the meantime we appear doomed to repeat our past failures.  With another housing bubble potentially set to burst it could be an expensive one for all concerned.  Almost makes you glad not to have a mortgage.

It’s about housing, stupid

After years of being neglected, like your least favourite grandparent a la Grandpa Simpson, housing may be about to jump up the ratings for the electorate.  This is good for people like me who have an unnatural interest in housing beyond merely getting on that mythical ladder to happiness, owning a home.  As the lovely Graph Type Thing (1) below shows, housing has not been at the forefront of people’s minds (caveat, this is from an Economist/Ipsos Mori Poll and therefore unlikely to be a representative sample of Great Britain). However times, they are A-changing.

Graph-type thing (1) Issues Facing Britain 2013

Image

As part of his party’s cost of living crisis approach, today Ed ‘people think I’m a bit weird’ Miliband announced a cap on the amount landlords can raise their rents by.  Obviously it will only be implemented if Labour win the next General Election (bit of a long shot then) but it highlights their belief, and mine too, that people are getting concerned about housing in general.  In the monthly Economist/Ipsos Mori polls housing has been steadily rising as a concern (in percentage terms).

Although I broadly agree with the cost of living crisis narrative, it’s hard to get behind someone who, although is highly intelligent, has all the charisma of a wet sponge. It is much harder however to get behind the idea of rent controls.  Whilst limiting the amount rents can go up by each year sounds like a good idea on paper, in practice it isn’t.  It is a cure for a symptom,not the underlying illness.  Alas like many of Labour’s policies post 2010 it is about as watertight as the beaten up Clio I drive (spoiler alert, my car leaks like a sieve).  We need more housing. Lot’s more of it – big houses, little houses, even those weird ones you see on Grand Designs, although maybe a bit more practical.  I always wonder how they will clear off the cobwebs from their monumentally high ceilings.  To illustrate this point Graph Type Thing (2) charts the steady decline in housing completions over the last few decades.

My sincere thanks goes to Steve Wilcox et al, for carrying out the UK Housing Review.  It helped me immeasurably in both my under-grad and post grad studies and is a constant source of reference when showing people how crap our ability to build is.

Graph Type Thing (2) – Housing Completions by Sector – UK

Wilcox et al. 2014 - UK Housing Review
Wilcox et al. 2014 – UK Housing Review

Hopefully you get the picture.  But to (again) state the blooming obvious we aren’t building enough houses.  Private builds and Local Authority builds are much lower than previously seen.  Indeed, Public Sector completions are positively M.I.A.  Considering it is estimated that the UK needs around 200,000 new homes per year, we are in trouble big time.  Why does this matter?  Well it’s basic economics, stupid.  High demand + low supply = very high prices.  Putting a cap on rent rises would only serve to mildly dampen a very hot housing market.  It is a poorly constructed sticking plaster to a dam that may well burst its walls soon.  It is however an interesting political gambit.  The cost of living crisis took most people by surprise when it actually registered with the general public.  A rare success with the Labour Party.  Whether this move will do the same remains to be seen.  At any rate unless we can get all sectors building again the rise in house prices won’t change, unless the market collapses, again.  Who says history doesn’t repeat itself. To highlight our current lack of building ability I point to final Graph Type Thing (3), Average House Prices in the UK since 1970.

Graph type thing (3) Average House Price – UK

Wilcox et al. 2014 - UK Housing Review
Wilcox et al. 2014 – UK Housing Review

The Coalition isn’t helping much either.  Help to buy simply ratchets up demand even further, whilst again not solving the fundamental problem.  Sure a few more people get on that awesome housing ladder but the supply is still woefully short.  In the meantime they are praying the private sector will suddenly build loads of houses.  Whilst concurrently making it even harder for social housing organisations and councils to do so.  The next round of capital funding for social landlords will probably be so small we may have to do a whip-round.  I personally volunteer to wash cars in a bikini if it helps.

Quite what Osborne et al. are thinking is beyond me.  Actually it isn’t.  There’s an election next year and a feel good factor from a hot housing market may just scrape that bunch of otherworldly weirdos, who make up today’s Conservative Party, into another term in charge.

Ho hum, got any change?

One more thing

Before I dive off I would like to highlight a campaign I believe any self respecting housing professional should get behind.  In response to How to Get a Council House and Benefits Street the good chaps and chapesses at Council Homes Chat have been running an awareness campaign.  One to show the true face of social housing.  In particular, getting people to give their own personal experiences of growing up in a council and/or social housing property.  To add your support simply Tweet using the hashtag –   and follow @Councilhomechat or go to www.councilhomeschat.wordpress.com for their blog.

If you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs at https://ngblog2013.wordpress.com.

**Correction – My thanks to Ben from Ipsos Mori for correctly pointing out that the figures from the Economist/Ipsos Mori poll related to Great Britain and not the UK. Incidently I am reliably informed that the poll is nearing its 40th Birthday.  Bon anniversaire in advance! Here’s to another forty years.