Are we dead yet?

It isn’t often I get to doth my cap (figuratively speaking, hats don’t suit me) but I shall do so towards the BBC’s Panorama programme from this week.  Because when the BBC isn’t ‘accidentally’ ballsing up footage of the miner’s strikes or ignoring 50,000 people protesting against austerity measures (outside fucking Parliament, I mean how do you miss that?) they make very good TV documentaries.  In this instance the excellently put together BBC Panorama programme Britain’s Homeless Families (for a thoughtful blog on the subject matter see Jules Birch’s blog in Inside Housing).  The show adeptly highlighted the true cost of implementing policies that have served to marginalise social housing and tenancy insecurity within the private sector in this country. People suffering through no fault of their own.  What’s more the programme had the common decency to show people in work trying to get social housing and not just a bunch of Jeremy Kyle rejects living it large for the cameras.

This week also saw an opinion dividing piece from nouveau agent provocateur Peter Hall.  In a series of punchy blogs, and an article or two in 24housing, Peter has raised some interesting points.  If you are of a slightly squeamish disposition I would go and see a doctor.  But seriously, old school thinkers on social housing would do better to look away.  Social rent is dying a slow death, all hail affordable rent is essentially the lad’s tag line.  On first glance I was tempted to politely show this train of thought the front door, but once you look at the nuts and bolts it does have legs.

For Mr Hall public opinion has long been negative of social housing because of its reinvented purpose in the late 70s and 80s (cheers Iron ‘Lady’).  Artificially mixed communities have been promoted and implemented for a number of years but the jury is still out.  A large amount of resentment stems from the public purse paying for nice housing for poor people.  I can’t argue with much of what is being said here.  Peter’s proposal, a genuinely flexible and affordable rent model could well provide a workable model for social housing.  If it can provide a decent yield for investors and housing associations alike, and counter negative perceptions of social housing then sign me up sweetheart I’m sold.  Flexibility for Peter is the key, work with investors on a viable development mix and match the level of rent customers pay with their earnings.

A key thing for this policy would be that it would be able take into account localised housing markets.  Something many Londoncentric policies do not (bedroom tax anyone?).  By tying into the local market level then drilling down (or up) rents as appropriate, social landlords will have the ability to adapt business plans and operate free from a restrictive rent formula.  It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but as shown in Britain’s Homeless Families the lack of social housing and the insecurity of the private sector means more homes from social landlords are needed, period.  If this is flexible rent mechanism is a means by which to provide them, then so be it.

As with any idea there are questions to be asked.  What could landlords do to ensure that those paying extra, for what is essentially the same product, feel they aren’t paying over the odds?  After all it would be those paying the higher rents who are effectively subsidising the lower rents in the scheme.  Would it be a two track repairs system?  That would be a very quick way to piss off a lot of people.  But whatever the pros and cons it is clear that the current state of play needs to change.  New ideas like those put forward by Peter need to be given thought and piloted.  No point in completely replicating that past.  And as figures released by the Department for Misappropriated Statistics, known to you and me as the DWP, suggest, many people are still struggling.  In January 2009 there were 446,809 housing benefit claimants who were in work.  By December 2013 there were 1,038,008 housing benefit claimants who had a job.  That is a more than doubling of the number of housing benefit claimants who in work in just 4 years.

Pretty Graph (1) Number of Housing Benefit Claimants in Work

DWP (2014) Summary Tables for Housing Benefit Recipients
DWP (2014) Summary Tables for Housing Benefit Recipients

Ultimately it will take some innovative thinking to change the current malaise we find ourselves in.  We need more housing from all sectors, personally I feel the government should get off its ass and provide more funding. But hey that’s just me (one of the joys of being young is you are allowed to be idealistic, oh and you have hair on your head, lots of it…jealous?).

I would say this, unlike Leonardo Di Caprio’s character in Wolf of Wallstreet I haven’t been both a rich and a poor man so I can’t say I would take being rich “every f@*king time”.  But I have been a poor and un/non-poor bloke, and being poor definitely sucked.  A little state support now and then goes a long way.  Another thing I would add to Mr Hall is that, as a person of #generationrent I champion public funded housing for the less fortunate for the same reason why I pay my taxes, national insurance contributions and support the NHS.  One day I might need the bloody thing.  But I do like your thinking.  I will ask you not to write us off just yet.

Housing and its malcontents

So social housing finally has a coherent, thought-out statement of intent.  Given that it is a week in which David Cameron has been banging on about the need to promote British values and big up our institutions you would be forgiven for thinking he was on about social housing.  Alas no.  He must mean having a cabinet almost entirely Ox-bridge educated, a lopsided economy and a set of national teams that underachieve to such an extent the opposition must almost take pity on us.

No, the statement of intent has come from within rather than from one of the political parties.  Social Housing Under Threat aka SHOUT has published a manifesto it hopes will swing the debate, and more importantly funding, back towards “genuinely affordable housing“.  The dirty word – council housing – is expressly promoted, as is the need for politicians of all creeds to publicly back council housing and to reverse the demonisation of a whole section of society based on their tenure of residence.  Essentially it is everything our good ‘n’ proper political powerhouses should have been saying and doing, but haven’t.

The manifesto comes at an interesting juncture for social housing.  Some in the sector are openly embracing the move towards a more private sector mode of operating, particularly those in the south, where such a move can be particularly profitable. A number of housing leaders have publicly spoken of the need to have a mixed portfolio.  If I was to be a mite bitchy I would point out that many organisations already do, but I ain’t that guy.  Others are more cautious, arguing that to stray too far from the holy path of social housing provision and bad things will happen (I’m guessing something a la the dwarves in The Hobbit when they did so whilst journeying through Mirkwood?). Certainly there are cautionary tales to be told from home and abroad, Vestia you know what I’m talking about.  From my point of view it depends on your operating environment, running costs and legacy debt.  We are a very diverse sector and one approach won’t fit all.  Plus it would be a bit dull if we all did the same thing.  Have some originality chaps and chapesses.  Standing still is not an option.

I am intrigued by a return to council led building.  Given the enormous strain on local authority finances currently in effect it will be interesting to see how councils would handle the new freedom.  And, more importantly, how it would impact on social landlord’s – how will they step up to the new competition?  As someone who is a bit of a housing history geek it does strike me a little as a bit of history repeating.  Not helped by the fact the manifesto makes explicit reference to previous Government support for council builds (back in the 60s/70s).  But for once I am not entirely against it.  We need more housing, we need better management of the housing stock we have.  We definitely need policies that are a little less Londoncentric.  We need a political establishment that gives a rat’s arse.  This is a very good starting point to get those things.

It is of course not the first such statement.  Shelter produced something similar just last month.  Whether it will be heard is another matter. After a small splash not much has happened since Shelter’s report.  But the fact that it has come from within our mighty sector is encouraging.  It is not the usual suspects, the NHF or the CIH, it is a new group (albeit a group made up of a number old hands in the sector).  Similar to Council Homes Chat, this new group is rising to counter the unanswered blows that our sector has taken for a sustained period of time.  I hope this is the start of a prolonged period of pro-social housing campaigning.  I hope this is not a repeat of the shambles of left-wing politics in this country, where academic arguments take precedent over actually getting something done.  I once attended a function where a self-proclaimed Neo-Marxist declared he would rather be date-raped than be a Trot (pro-Trotsky).  Stupidity sometimes knows no bounds.

All I would ask is for Shelter, Crisis, the NHF, the CIH the LGA, Council Homes Chat and SHOUT to come under one banner to make a joint statement that enough is enough.  We have less than a year to make an impact.  Sadly as the British attitude survey shows today, we have a long way to go.

Nice ‘borrowed’ infograph – British Social Attitudes 31 (2014)

Natcen British Social Attitudes 31 (2014) Benefits and the cost of living
Natcen British Social Attitudes 31 (2014) Benefits and the cost of living

Although positive attitudes towards some benefits are relatively high, unemployment benefit still takes a whack.  Of note is the increase in support for benefits if the public are given more information i.e. we need to start winning the PR battle.  The more people know, the less of a d#@k they seem to be in terms of their attitudes towards benefits.  So get SHOUTing people (see what I did there..?).

If you feel so inclined you can support SHOUT’s campaign by ‘Liking’ their facebook page or follow them on twitter using the Twitter Handle @4socialhousing and the #SHOUT hashtag.  I would strongly recommend reading the manifesto and sending it to your local MP.  It is available here.  Remember, it’s about housing, stupid.

Don’t Despair, Organise

So the last Parliamentary session looks like it will be bringing no surprises to the table for housing.  Right to buy and help to buy look set to continue and the HCA looks set to get hold of more public land to handover for development.  Other than that it was barely worth tuning in to see our ‘Liz read through a speech that was shorter than a lot of fairy-tales.

On the subject of tales, the sector is finally getting the notion that more personal accounts of the impact of social housing are needed in the on-going PR war against years of negative press.  Blog’s from the likes of Tom Murtha and all the others at Council Homes Chat have helped to give voice to those who have benefited from social housing.  Last week a piece of research released from the Housing Network, part of the Guardian, gave housing professionals the chance to put forward their thoughts.  The results of the poll have been insightful, if a little worrying.  Alas I was not involved, I’m guessing my survey got lost in the post.

Apart from the bleeding obvious point that many believed a lack of Government funding has been detrimental to house building levels.  The perceived indifference of the Coalition towards low-income households was also seen as playing an important part in restricting the building of more affordable homes.  Pleasingly (for me at least as I have said this in previous posts, cue smug face) many thought that the sector provided good value for money but was poor at demonstrating it.

Overall, and on the same day that the IMF warned that the current set of policies towards the housing market was risking the long term recovery of the economy (hitting 2 for 2 here), the poll is pretty grim reading.  A quarter of those surveyed reckoned housing associations had done all they could.  Around 43% were negative about the future of social housing.  In addition to those joyous insights, key themes from the surveys were 1) the sector needed to be more commercially minded (that’s me 3 for 3) and 2) that the Government had already decided that the private sector was the provider of choice (4 for 4, ooosh!).

Aside from feeding my ego, the survey results do show those working in the sector to be rather embattled.  With the impact of reforms to the welfare state and severe cuts in public funding meaning housing professionals are having to fill in where the state (local or national) has withdrawn.  And the various legislative and funding changes that have served to restrict the sector’s ability to build new properties (or even let them out at truly social rent levels) I can understand why a few housing professionals might be feeling a bit miffed.

A potential solution to our funding woes, if not all the other ills affecting the sector, has been suggested in the form of a national investment bank for housing.  This has already been put forward not once but twice prior to the think tank The Smith Institute’s proposal.  The bank would, in theory, be able to lever in funding for social housing as is the case in a number of places in Europe. I must admit whilst it is a different idea (which is a bonus in its own right as housing policy has a case of repeating on itself like a dodgy late night kebab), whether it is workable in the UK is unknown.  Hannah Fearn points out a number of its weaknesses, noticeably the relative failure of a similar attempt to invest in social causes via the big society bank.  That being said housing, particularly that of the social kind, does represent a steady and secure investment opportunity (Legal and General are going fricking mad for it at the moment) but it remains to be seen if a British take on this experiment will work.

What is more certain is that we are resilient, if slightly pessimistic bunch.  If you didn’t notice in my previous blog building by housing associations has actually stayed remarkably steady since the last market balls-up in 2007.  No mean feat considering the monumentally financial cock-up that took place.  OK that is a highly selective example of our resiliance but after 30 years of hostile policy making there’s still 1,500 or so social housing organisations.  I would say that is an achievement, even if some of the smaller ones should merge.

Reused graph type thingy 1

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

Over the decades we have grown, adapted and improved (if you ever want to partake in masochism I can lend you a copy of my undergrad dissertation on this subject).  Along the way we have helped millions of people by providing safe housing of a standard that is severely lack in a significant part of the private sector.  We have ploughed millions of our own cash into support initiatives and helped to regenerate areas forgotten by others.

Like Tom Murtha I despair at the broken consensus around the need to invest in social housing, it’s residualisation, and the demonisation of a whole sector of society based on their tenure.  I am however given hope by the work that we do, that just like Tom and his family, many more will benefit from living in a home provided by a landlord that gives a flying f@*k about more than just receiving the rent.

On a side note it has come to my attention that somewhere in London a douche-bag of the day has decided to put spikes up outside a block of flats in an apparent attempt to stop homeless people sleeping there.

Homeless Spike - Courtesy of The Telegraph Website
Homeless Spikes – Courtesy of The Telegraph Website

I hadn’t realised homeless people were now relegated to the status of pigeon.  It is an often repeated phrase that you should judge a society on how it treats its less fortunate.  On the basis of this new development we’ve got a long way to go.

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.

For more info on Council Homes Chat search for the hashtag –    follow their Twitter account @Councilhomechat or go to www.councilhomeschat.wordpress.com for their blog.