Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked

Talk is cheap, building housing isn’t. The warm and conciliatory tone struck by Sajid Javid needs to be backed up by cold hard cash. Otherwise it is meaningless.

An honest mistake

I must say that I have been taken somewhat by surprise by the first day of the NHF conference in Birmingham. Not by Sajid Javid announcing another Green Paper on Housing. We’ve had so many pieces of legislation on housing another one isn’t going to hurt. But a Conservative Secretary of State for the DCLG talking about housing beyond pure numbers and bricks and mortar was not on the cards. 

I do not share his ‘pride’ on the Conservative Party’s record on council/social housing. It is abysmal, particularly in recent years. To call it anything else would be a dishonesty of the highest order. Nor do I easily swallow the fact that his speech ignored the complicit role the Tories have played in pushing policies that have marginalised, stigmatised and residualised social housing and the people who live in it. But the fact that he’s talking about such issues is a step change in and of itself.

It is one of the genuinely positive impacts of the Brexit vote that Messrs Cameron and Osborne are out of the picture. Because, for all their talk of being in the Centre ground, they were Neo-Liberal ideologues through and through on housing. Ownership was king, social housing bred Labour supporters. It was the role of the state to get out of the way and let the market provide. Policies and funding streams were designed accordingly. Consequently, we’re currently spending 79% of the total housing budget on higher cost homes for sale, and we’ve stopped funding social rent builds. At a time when rough sleeping is up 134%, when housing homeless people in temporary accommodation is costing £845 million a year and it costs 23% more in housing benefit payments to house someone in the PRS than if they were in a social housing. That is insane.

Ain’t no rest for the wicked, money don’t grow on trees

Whilst the prospect of yet another Green Paper on housing hasn’t exactly warmed the cockles of my heart, it is an opportunity to push the case for properly funding social rent. It could also provide a break from some of the barmy policy decisions highlighted above. But just as the Housing White Paper studiously avoided an open debate about the Private Sector, its standards and greater regulation. The ‘broad’ and ‘wide ranging’ remit of the Green Paper will just focus on one element of the rented housing in this country. That is a deliberate omission, and a big mistake.

Just as policy focus  purely on building for home ownership was wrong. There is no point zeroing in on one element of policy interventions in rented housing. It is utter folly to ignore the broader policy context and market idiosyncrasies that impact on the need for more social housing. We need to provide more, better, secure housing. Regardless of whether it’s rented private housing, rented social housing or home ownership.

History Repeating

In his speech Mr Javid mentions learning from the past. I truly hope that he heeds his own words, otherwise we’ll be exactly where we started. Which is in a pretty darn big mess.

Photo Credit – Matt Biddulph – Council Estate (2008)

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

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Float On

As a child my ladyfriend was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. She replied matter of factly that she was going to be a lipstick. A response that wins hands down in terms of blue sky thinking. Alas my aspirations were a bit more mundane. If I remember correctly the two main ones were to become a Firefighter or a mechanic. Turns out I’m afraid of heights and crap with tools, so it’s probably a good thing I got into housing.

Who’d have thought that after all, Something as simple as rock ‘n’ roll would save us all

I’ve never particularly had a plan. Other than I knew I wanted to work in social housing, and even that came quite late, it’s all been a bit fuzzy. As a teenager and in my early 20s I did my fair share of crap jobs. Ones that suck the life out of you. Subsequently my only real guide has been to find jobs that are of interest to me, that challenge me, and hopefully ones that can leave behind some kind of meaningful change. Other than that I’m pretty open to the options out there.

Perhaps that lack of a plan probably wasn’t a bad thing, Chairman Mao-esk 5 yr plans have historically left a lot of people dead, but more importantly priorities change and as Colin Powell noted ‘No plan survives the battlefield’, so why have one? More’s the point, despite what those earnest posts on LinkedIn will have you believe, very few people have set out plans for their career development, let alone a point by point explanation of their daily routine. Weirdos.

If you don’t have a dream, How you gonna have a dream come true?

However, not having a plan is not the same as not having an end goal. So if you had asked me 5 years ago where I wanted to end up I’d have probably said as a Chief Executive of a Housing Association. The pay is pretty good (or bad, depending on your point of view) and in being white, middle class and male I figured I was near enough half way there. However, if you asked me now, I’m not sure if I’d still agree with my younger self.

I’ve witnessed one parent suffer a nervous breakdown and battle depression, and saw the other drop dead as their semi-retirement approached. Such events tend to give one pause for thought. Particularly when it comes to how one’s work/life balance is set up. As you get further up the greasy pole that balancing act becomes harder to manage. These days I’m unsure if I’m willing to pay the price to maintain it.

I’ve got mates with kids who hate their jobs, but feel the need to stay in the role because they need the money. For them coming home to their family makes it worthwhile. Whilst I can see that point of view, I don’t think I could stand being in a job that I hated. But who am I to judge? 

I guess that’s the point though, isn’t it? We all make different life choices for different reasons*. A point we’re sometimes too quick to forget, and should try harder to remember. One person’s success is another’s mediocrity. In the end it’s all relative, we’re all just floating along trying to work out what it all means. If you ever find the answer (I hear it’s 42) do let me know.

*For a case and point see this handy guide on how not to be a complete dick when someone tells you they don’t have/aren’t planning on having any kids. 

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Ian Hasley (2012) Tower Block_Jardine Crescent_Coventry_Feb12

A Hotel of Views

Talent management is essential to both the future of the sector and the organisations that make it. Consequently it makes sense to work together to provide what many cannot do on their own.

Let’s Push Things Forward

As Adam Clark noted we still have an issue with people ‘falling’ into the sector like it’s a good thing. Certainly it’s the standard joke at any housing event I’ve been to. But clichés aside we’re still behind on nurturing talent and promoting the sector as a career of choice. Part of the issue is due to the disparate nature of the beast. Whilst there are some behemoths about, the majority fall into the Small to Medium Enterprise category. Whilst not intrinsically a bad thing, it means it’s doubly hard to set up AND maintain talent programmes. They require time, effort and drive. Lose one or two key staff members and the programme falls by the wayside.

The NHF has the Young Leaders events, the CIH has the Rising Stars, both are great for highlighting the potential we have in the sector. Having met winners and finalists of both they are humble, ambitious and utterly talented people. But it strikes me that few have been able to slot into follow-on talent development programmes. The kudos gained from entering national competitions has helped get them noticed but what happens afterwards? Elsewhere the GEM Programme is an exceptional means by which to get graduates into the sector.  But again, what happens after the initial placements end? How do we, as a sector, manage the undoubtedly talented guys and gals that we have?

Ducks fly together

It’s normally at this point in a blog about personal development that Richard Branson is quoted. This blog is no different. For me, the two most notable ones from him/Virgin more generally are:

Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to.

If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers. It’s that simple.

They’re great quotes, and great principles to work towards but where are Housing’s Richard Bransons? I fully agree with Nick Atkin that we need to change our shop window. But to do that we need to have an honest look at ourselves, at who we want to be as organisations and as a sector. I’ve no doubt that many organisations want to develop and invest in their staff above and beyond what they already do. But whilst that willingness may be there in terms of developing talent, the ability to do so might not be.

For me what is needed is a sector wide development programme. One that allows the participants to work within different organisations as well as between different departments as is usually the case. As I’ve said before, we’re pretty darn good at sharing knowledge and best practice. Why not share the nurturing of the talent that will drive us forward?

The advantage of working together is the shared benefits. Organisations without the ability to provide talent programmes of their own would be able to offer their staff an opportunity to develop that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Bigger organisations could benefit from an outside view of their systems and processes that could be otherwise drowned out.  There’s also potential to help even out the mix and match talent managment programmes the sector currently has. Everybody wins.

This approach might not work for all, but the worst that will happen is that we just return to what we’re doing now. Hardly the end of the world in terms of risk, so why not try?

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Eirik Refsdal (2007) Scaffold

Sit Down, Be Humble

The conference is dead. Long live collaborative work events.

Time is money, so don’t f*ck with mine

One of the lessons I learned early on in my career is that most networking doesn’t actually take place in events designed to facilitate networking. This is odd, because as a sector we are pretty good at sharing learning and best practice. Particularly lower down the food chain. But these events tend to follow a wearily predictable pattern. The coffee is horrific, the biscuits worse and that’s before your attempts at making small talk with someone who probably thinks WhatsApp is an internet. Yes interpersonal networking is a necessary skill, but give a chap a chance with a decent Hobnob or two, we’re not animals, you beasts.

The speeches are hours of your life you won’t get back. Where engaging content is typically treated as an afterthought by the speakers. The breakout sessions are rushed and haphazard. Frenetic energy & forced enthusiasm are not a good mix. I dunno what annoys me more at these faux seminar encounters – the person who talks over everyone else, or getting stuck having to write up the bloody notes. I’m sure useful stuff happens at these things. But I’ve found one makes better, more interesting, connections via less formal gatherings than at a conference. Because frankly if I wanted to listen to a bunch of middle aged men living on past glories and discussing subjects that provide no real insight/are of no particular use, I’d turn on the TV and watch Soccer Saturday†.

Dust in the Wind

For those of us born after Duran Duran were a thing, networking online before physically meeting someone is pretty normal. Whilst unconferences (I know, I hate the term too, but they have their uses) tend to offer a more palatable affair than their more orthodox cousins. There’s something essentially democratic about a day where topics are proposed and then assigned on a basis of passionate arguing for their right to exist. By allowing delegates to steer the focus of the learning one tends to get a better level of information exchange. Which is ultimately one of the main goals of a conference, to disseminate knowledge en masse. As well as you know, meet interesting people and make small talk about how shit the weather is.

Even the online presence of conferences annoy me. Instead of having an arbitrary hashtag most folks get wrong, despite being reminded every 5mins to tweet using it #OMGBestConferenceEver17. The more organic social media presence that comes with peer created, less formal conferences generate a better and more memorable buzz. Because they allow people to buy into the day by getting them to shape it. Such an approach also gives people the opportunity to share ideas, and dare I say it, network prior to the day. This makes it a darn sight easier to hit the ground running and thus offers a greater potential for a heavy focus on collaborative working/discussions instead of cringe worthy icebreakers. It is a better way to network, it is a better way to work collaboratively full stop.

There may well continue to be a place for standard conferences. God knows we need our peacock season, where people go to see and be seen. It’s also a useful means by which to get one’s senior management team out of everyone’s hair for a day or two. But fundamentally I am yet to be convinced we are getting a good bang for our buck in relation to what’s currently available. For the layperson they offer very little. Well beyond ego massaging that is. But if that’s all there is, why bother?

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

†We’re in the UK, you sods, it’s bloody Football. Not Soccer.

Photo Credit Dimitris Kalogeropoylos – Conference (2008)

Wolves

Since I was a kid I’ve always listened to an absurdly varied/eclectic mix of music. I’m as likely to listen to the ear-bleed inducing tones of Amon Amarth as I am BB King. Probably helped by the fact the old dear loved Fleetwood Mac as much as Chris De -fucking-Burgh, or Steeleye Span (who did a whole fricking song in Latin) as much as the Rolling Stones. The old Man has a more focused musical taste – essentially anything after the 1970s sucks.

A song I find myself returning to is by the Hip Hop group Dead Prez (you’ve probably heard one of their tunes without knowing it – it’s on this VW advert). Well, it isn’t actually much of a song, it’s a speech by Omali Yeshitela which itself is overlaid on a sample of ELO’s Another Heart Breaks. In his speech Omali uses a wolf hunting anecdote – where wolves are tricked to bleed to death by licking a blood covered knife blade – to highlight how the use of crack-cocaine (i.e. the production and selling of it) by African Americans to obtain material wealth has subsequently done enormous damage to their communities across the US. For the purpose of this blog it’s also an apt metaphor for the UK’s relationship with its housing market.

Too much of a bad thing is worse than too much of a good thing

With the Housing Market being such a significant part of our economy successive Governments have chosen to prioritise a superficially buoyant housing market over a sustainable, stable one. By focusing on one element of housing, home ownership, they have helped to create a market that is working for an increasingly smaller section of society. Just like the wolf in Omali Yeshitela‘s speech, what Governments have thought was a free meal will ultimately be their undoing.

The horrific scenes at Grenfell seem to have hit a nerve with the public in a way many in the sector have failed to do over the years. It shouldn’t need this sort of horror to to jolt the public consciousness, particularly as this has happened before. The front headline of Inside Housing was simply How could this happen. AGAIN. I must confess I share their disbelief. It is as appalling as it is preventable.

I am not going to go through the ins and outs of the technicalities on Fire Risk Assessments (and associated regulations) in high rises. Because frankly I haven’t got a clue on the subject. However, a worthwhile (non-technical) perspective on Grenfell is available here by the Municipal Dreams blog. I just hope lessons truly are learned this time.

Better the Devil you don’t know, ‘cos this one sucks

Much of the anger around Grenfell is tied to the lack of voice those who raised concerns have had. They reflect the broader sidelining of renters by successive Governments. Who have failed to provide adequate protection for those living in rented accommodation. Politicians have consistently riled at further state regulation of the most basic element of human need, shelter. With such moves often being portrayed as some sort of mad cap descent into Stalinist autocracy. Case and point:

The Revenge Eviction Bill’s first incarnation was filibustered by Philip Davies and Christopher Chope. When Labour’s attempt to ensure private renters were able to expect housing that was fit for habitation both the current Secretary of State for the DCLG, Sajid Javid, and our former PM David Cameron voted against it, one of 72 MPs registered as landlords that helped to defeat the bill. I’m sorry, but how the fuck is that controversial enough to vote down? The answer is it’s not. But politically speaking renters (like the young) are seen as easy enough to ignore. It’s simply been more politically expedient to ignore renters than help them.

Grenfell may well turn out to be a tipping point in housing policy in the UK. But that will only happen if the sector stands up for what is morally, financially and policy-wise the right thing to do. David Lammy’s comments on the future direction we as a society need to decide on are available here. They are heartfelt and, in my humble opinion, are 100% correct. It’s a discussion we need to get involved with. The sooner, the better, if we are to make the UK Housing market work for those at the top, as well as the bottom.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit –Wojtek Gurak (2011) Celosia Social Housing

Diary of A Wimpy Kid

Following what can only be described as a remarkable General Election the UKHousing sector must take stock and build on the solid work over the last year.

The Winner Takes it All (or not)

To say this General Election has put a spanner in the works would be putting it mildly. Shout out to YouGov for having the balls to stick by that poll. I don’t think many people would have predicted a Tory minority Government, especially one being propped up by the DUP. For the social housing sector this has already had some serious consequences. In Gavin Barwell we had a housing minister who at least gave some support and hope to the sector. It is a sorry state of affairs when we’re happy with a minister who wasn’t total shit. But at least Barwell (mostly) fought our corner and, Affordable Rents aside, I agreed with a lot of the work he did.

The Long and Winding Road

Many challenges still face both the social housing sector and the UKhousing market more broadly. Barwell’s admission that the ‘new generation of council housing’ was going to be at (non) Affordable Rent levels is deeply worrying. As is the LHA Cap, particularly given that the stay of execution is only temporary, the minimal amount of Capital Funding available, as well as the slow and painful roll out of Universal Credit. Without a significant increase in genuinely social housing in this country Housing Associations will more and more focus on those who can afford to pay their rent without Housing Benefit. This is simply because the accumulative cuts to welfare support and the alterations to those who can access it are making it increasingly risky to rent to the unrentables.

As grant is (even further) replaced by private sector loans and cross-subsidising, so is exposure to risk increased. Risk that, again, is best served by renting to those off Housing Benefit and in secure work. It is a pretty horrific catch 22. For one to build more social housing, greater levels of private finance are needed, but to fund that higher levels of rent/proof of financial stability is required. Those at the bottom will ultimately miss out as dollar signs push organisational priorities.

We’re not at a Crossroads, but times are a-changing

Many have used the term ‘crossroads’ to describe where the sector is at. I hate that phrase for a number of reasons:

  1. Because it reminds of this God-awful pop group from the early 2000s
  2. Because it doesn’t reflect the gradual change in focus for the sector, or the pressures currently facing it
  3. Because we’ve been using private funding and cross-subsidising builds as a sector for decades

However, what we are seeing is a parallel split in the sector, largely across a couple of issues. Firstly in terms of the primary focus of building – home ownership and affordable rent over social rent – secondly in terms of who we’ll let to.

I bet you think this song is about you

Many in the sector are giving significant consideration to excluding the very people we should be renting our homes to. The logic to be more selective in who we rent to is perfectly sound, and as organisations we have a legitimate need to ensure financial stability and security. But that doesn’t make these thought processes anymore horrific. Smaller, more community focused organisations will (probably) continue to rent to the unrentables. However for the bigger boys and girls this, in the long run, may prove to be too problematic. Some may claim this is not the case, but looking at the tenure split of the Affordable Homes Building Programme figures and such an assertion has merit.

I am not one for melodrama, but just as the country is entering uncharted, and hazardous waters over Brexit. So too is the sector. Hopefully over the coming months we’ll get a better idea of how May (or her replacement) will deal with the bloody nose the electorate has given the Conservative Party. That we haven’t yet had a Housing Minister announced when most of the posts have been re-filled by the incumbent is not a great sign. But let’s face it, we’ve always been on the periphery. Whoever it is will need to make the best of this clusterfuck and to take housing seriously. For our part we’ll need to deliver the housing this country, and not just our profit margins, needs.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Matt BiddulphCouncil Estate (2008)

 

A Little Goes A Long Way

As UKHousingFast approaches, it is time for all of us to reflect and consider the world from a different point of view. And maybe, just maybe, start to change the world for the better.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved with UKHousingFast for a number of years, it is such a simple, yet rewarding, concept. For one day fast, skip lunch or breakfast, the same way that millions of others do. Some for their religious beliefs, some to lose weight, some because they have no choice but to go hungry. You can take from it what you want, and more importantly give to it what you feel you can give. It is in many ways a personal, but also very connected, form of introspection. One, despite my love of food, I’m happy to take part in. And in supporting the Trussell Trust this year’s event will be helping out a charity that is doing vital work for those at the sharp end.

A Little Story 

I’m one of 4 lads, lads that can eat a lot. We were lucky to grow up in a household where love and, fortunately, food was plentiful. I’ve never had to skip a meal or worry about the electricity getting cut off. Yes hand-me-downs were de-rigour but the only word I would use to describe my upbringing is comfortable. So it was a bit of a shock when shortly after move number 2 (of 4 in a 24 month period) me and the lady-friend came up against the reality of in-work poverty.

Don’t get me wrong, bills were paid, food was eaten but we only had pounds left over at the end of every month (better than some, but not a great state of affairs). For a 6 month period the word most often said to friends was ‘No’ because saying ‘Yes’ meant doing stuff we simply couldn’t afford. At one point, to try to help us budget even more tightly I devised a spreadsheet to cost up all our outgoing and incoming cash. I used to look at that spreadsheet so often the lady-friend would joke that our money problems wouldn’t magically improve simply by looking at it.

A little goes a long way

Despite how tough it was, I remember the kindness of family and friends. My brothers clubbed together to pay for my gym membership for 3 months. For my birthday all my mates surprised me at my home with a party (organised by the lady-friend), the very mates I hadn’t been able to visit for ages. It’s those things that stick with you. That period in our lives serves as a constant reminder for how close things can get to going side-ways out of no fault of one’s own. It is a large part of why I’m more than happy to get involved in UKHousingFast. We were lucky, our problems were temporary, for many they aren’t.

Whatever your own particular reasons for getting involved I hope you get as much out of it as I have. Whether you fast, donate, or simply raise awareness, it all goes to supporting a great charity. Don’t forget to tweet, blog and generally promote the day as much as possible – it’s 14th June 2017. Looking forward to my end of fast meal already.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here. You can find UKHousingFast here and follow them on Twitter here.