Why Social Housing Matters

The timely release of homelessness figures is a reminder for both the sector and Central Government why social housing is badly needed. And why Right to Buy, whatever its guise, is wrong.

Amongst all the glitz and glamour of the NHF’s annual conference you might be forgiven for missing one of the key datasets still released by the DCLG. The quarterly Statutory Homelessness update dropped today and the figures, like so many relating to housing in this country, do not make great reading. The number of households in temporary accommodation is up 12% on the same period last year. Some 66,980 individuals or households are currently reliant on this emergency form of housing.

The lack of security associated with assured shorthold tenancies (AST) is also laid bare. Around 30% of all households accepted by local authorities as being owed a homelessness duty had lost their ‘settled’ home due the ending of an AST. When looking at long-term trends of households accepted as homeless by local authorities the below chart, shameless ripped from the DCLG data release, further worrying trends are evident. After a massive reduction between 2006 and 2010 in both households in temporary accommodation and those being accepted as homeless there has been a steady increase. The former creeping closer to mid-financial crash levels.

Homeless FiguresThese figures only relate to ‘official’ homelessness, rough sleeping and ‘hidden’ homelessness are not counted here. However a research piece by Crisis and friends, released in February this year, shows that both these forms of homeless are also increasing sharply.

As earnings further decouple from housing prices, as the consequences (intended or otherwise) of changes to in work benefits begin to pinch, as parts of our economy continue to under-perform the above numbers will rise further. Yet we are on the cusp of either being forced to, or ‘voluntarily‘ give up swathes of housing designed to help those very people. Why? Because ideology, not evidence or pragmatism is holding court for this Government and the housing market.

I noted a little while back that having a voluntary right to buy is a win-win for the Government, and in many instances for housing associations. It is not a win for local authorities who retain social housing stock. What decent assets they have will likely be forced to sell off to fund replacement properties for social landlords. I cannot fathom how on any level, except a business one, Housing Associations can sign up to such a deal. The sector has spouted the mantra social hearts, business heads. Yet, in leaving local authorities up an estuary without the proverbial wooden implement we are certainly not following our social values.

The part that angers me the most is that every single bit of evidence has so far shown that right to buy properties are not replaced at anywhere near the level they are lost at. For local authorities, hands tied behind their backs by funding and finance rules, how are they meant to replace their stock? The simple answer is they’re not. We look like we have survived this attack by Government, but only by throwing council owned social housing under a bus. This leaves a particularly nasty taste in the mouth. By agreeing to ‘voluntary’ right to buy the Government also neatly avoids a messy confrontation with the social housing sector, the House of Commons and the house of Lords. It is a fight that we could well win. Yet we sit back and go for a slow death.

As social landlords we are uniquely positioned to provide housing of all tenures to meet the varying needs of those lower down the food chain. Affordable (i.e Intermediate Market Rent), Shared Ownership, Private rent. All of these have a part to play. But we must secure social rent, truly social rent as the base on which to build. That is non negotiable.

Rant over.

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More than just a landlord, more than just a developer

If there were any doubts that the social housing sector has failed to get its message across to those in power they have been cast aside quite definitively. Stuck between a hostile Government and apathetic general public the sector is struggling to align itself to the threats facing it.

Not one but two cabinet ministers have gone after the after housing associations in the last couple of days. In and of itself that is not unusual. But the key difference here is the focus of the criticism. Both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and (more worryingly, as he really should know better) the Housing Minister have decided that all the sector does is build homes. Or more precisely not build enough of them. In doing so Mr Osborne also tried to quietly re-write history (cheeky sod). Taking the old adage that it is the victors that write the definitive account of times past a bit too literally for my liking. Shout out to Jules Birch on that one.

Indeed Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee seem intent on taking the general public down the rabbit hole regarding what we actually do. The inability of the sector to get across who we are and what we do is costing us dearly. Just as Zach De La Rocha wrote that “the radio is silent though it fills the air with noises”, so our message is being lost due to white noise and lack of cohesion. This really needs to change, explicitly.

In the face of a an entire sector being measured against a yard stick plucked out of thin air I’m reminded of a wonderful sketch done on school systems around the world (see below). Where the skill to climb a tree is perceived the best measure of an animals worth.This is Osborne & Lewis’s thinking on HAs and building homes. It is a straw man argument that doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny (they never usually do). We are a diverse sector whose focus is providing housing for the poor, the vulnerable, the destitute. We are also increasingly taking on the role of the state as adult social care, money advice services, after school clubs, community centres all shut due to Government orchestrated cuts. It is also deliberate move to shape and define the debate to come. One that favours a Government whose focus is solely on home ownership and pits them against some troublesome social landlords who aren’t too keen on state sponsored asset stripping.School system Brandon Lewis for his part has managed to highlight (I’m assuming accidentally) the consequence of his own Party’s actions. Bemoaning a 20% rise in social housing rent – sorry fella but what did you expect would happen when pushing Affordable Rent conversions. You know, where you rent the same property at up to 80% of the market rent as opposed to around 55-65% of it? That might have an impact. A 1% on future rents cut isn’t going to reverse that nonsense of a policy, just mess up the business plans of housing associations. The last bit of his pieces also narks – it is the social, with an S, housing sector not affordable. And no your track record shows anything but support. Possibly begrudging acceptance, but definitely not support. I’ve previously joked about how the Conservatives saw low-cost home ownership as the new social housing (with a metamorphosis via affordable rents). Unfortunately they didn’t see the joke and have enacted it as policy…

More in-depth analysis of the last couple of days events have been done by the ever capable Jules Birch and John Land for Inside Housing and 24 Dash respectively. Always worth a read. You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

So Long Sucker

As the social housing sector looks to engage, influence and ultimately work with the current Conservative Government. An administration that at best has been blasé towards the raison d’être of social landlords, and at worst sought to openly undermine our long-term existence. Game Theory might offer some clues as to our future direction of change.

For the uninitiated/blissfully unaware, Game Theory is the study of strategic decision-making. Though funnily enough part of the origins of Game Theory comes from studies designed to mathematically analyse poker games. Some people just want to take away all the fun… For those of you old enough to remember the cold war (I was 3 when the Berlin Wall came down so I don’t think that counts) M.A.D is the epitome of La Théorie des Jeux. Whilst I wouldn’t say we are in a zero sum game at the moment, though others in the sector probably would, there is certainly some interesting repositioning policy-wise currently going on.

Dilbert Explains Game Theory

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Credit – Dilbert Learns Game Theory – Copyright Scott Adams Inc./Dis. By UFS, Inc.

The potential move towards a ‘voluntary’ Right To Buy (VRTB) for social landlords, in exchange for building low-cost homes is an intriguing one. It could negate the messy situation for Government whereby a quirk of accounting adds a load of debt onto the nation’s balance sheet. That would be more than a little awkward at a point in time where they are actively looking to lower it. Though not the first time the Conservatives would’ve shot themselves in the foot by not thinking/joining up policy decisions – housing benefit bill v affordable rents anyone? At the same time it might nullify the groundswell of opposition to a policy that CCHQ probably thought would be a stroll in the park to implement.

Whilst I am loath to give any credit to this Government VRTB is has the potential to be an exemplary move politically speaking (if it is indeed implemented/undertaken). VRTB takes away the argument that the policy is being forced onto organisations against their charitable objectives; as only those who want to take part will (I’m assuming there will be a sodding great big carrot dangling in front of the sector, somewhere). It would also allow those social landlords who are looking to move away from the provision of ‘true’ social housing a ready-made excuse to do so. The Conservatives can then say they have kept a pre-election promise (albeit one they kept bloody quiet) and a historically very popular policy that has been one of the most effect privatisation projects gets a new lease of life. Essentially it plays to everyone’s perceived self-interest, smart, very smart indeed.

Of course VRTB could all come to nothing. There is still the (sadly quite likely) option of the current incumbents in Parliament completely ignoring warnings/concerns from the CBI, CML, CIH, NHF, various financial institutions, credit rating agencies, a cross-section of the media (though I also take that with a pinch of salt) and pretty much every single social landlord and will force Right to Buy on Housing Associations. Such a move would be very much in keeping with the Fuck you buddy application of Game Theory, i.e. shit on everyone else to win/get what you want.

The NHF Conference later this month is apparently a time where more information will be given. Personally I’m not holding my breath, I just hope the sector puts the long-term ‘greater good’ of providing social housing above a rush to build homes for outright sale. We need a mix of housing types, not just the ones Government ideologically wants. FYI David Montague’s blog on what the future holds is essential reading.

Now, where are my poker chips…?

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