Arguing With Thermometers

Fact, fiction or managing the narrative? Housing has long had an image problem, one that has been embedded by failure to counter powerful narratives to pervade public discourse and, to a large extent, public policy initiatives. Is it time for the sector to get down and dirty?

The Beat that My Heart Skipped

A recent train of thought I’ve come across is the (statistically backed) claim that we need to stop pretending that everyone is a couple of paychecks away from homelessness. This is largely because there are real and significant differences in the chances of someone becoming homeless. These heavily (but not exclusively) depend on one’s age, ethnicity and socio-economic background. My only problem with above argument is that despite being technically correct, such approaches miss the point.

The dominant narrative around homelessness has been that individual pathology i.e. our own choices and behaviours are by far and away the main driver for one’s housing situation. This message has been picked up and rammed home to such an extent that it largely goes unchallenged. This has problematic consequences for housing policy because it impedes the ability of people to back ‘progressive’ policy changes i.e. it makes our job a lot harder than it should be. Something Campbell Robb nailed in this post whilst still at Shelter.

Hypocrite

Simply stating technical arguments isn’t going to reverse this wet dream of the centre right. Because it assumes that evidence based arguments have got us to where we are. Quite bluntly they haven’t. Emotive, ideologically driven bullshit has. We’re not really living in a post facts age. People have just refined ways of finding what they perceive to be evidence based support for the way they view the world. However, what has been interesting about the gradual change in the tide of public opinion in housing (both here and over in the US) is that it’s become less of an ethereal problem that effects others. Everyone has family, colleagues, and friends who have been affected or know someone affected by housing affordability problems. It brings home a policy issue that previously been on one’s periphery. This offers a way in for those looking to influence public opinion.

Homelessness is more of a tricky beast. Those working in the sector have long been alarmed at the rising rates of homelessness. But this doesn’t engage with the public. Don’t believe me, casually observe people’s behaviour when they see street homeless. Better still, observe your own. There is a real detachment here, from empathy and acknowledgement of the problem at hand.

Whilst people don’t care about technical arguments, they do care about what affects them, their friends, their families. They also like to believe negative life events happen to other people, preferably due to their own poor choices rather than an ingrained unjust system in which they play a part. It’s more of a convenience to blame other individuals rather than structural problems associated with our drug like dependency on the housing market. Whilst many of us have friends struggling with their housing situation. Few know a homeless person.

It Ain’t What You Do It’s the Way that You Do it

I’ve long argued for the UKHousing sector to own the narrative, to control the image relating to it. It has routinely failed to do so. But more recently progress has been made as better lobbying and a different Government, with its head at least partially out of the clouds, providing a tweak in housing policy. The Homelessness Reduction Bill has also shown signs of change. Albeit one that will be utterly insignificant if we do not build more social housing. Honestly kids, that part of the housing crisis is the easy bit.

As ever it’s the PR and Marketing side of things that has let both the housing and homelessness sectors down on occasion. Too much facts, not enough empathy. Particularly at a time where one can easily twist publicly available information to meet their own desired view of the world. Our message needs to be clearer, simpler and more accessible. That doesn’t mean diluting the truth, but it does mean refining the message.

A massive thanks to Beth Watts for both initial discussions and some very useful reading material. Also to Burcu Borysik for tweets from #CrisisConf which helped to frame this blog. As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Birgit Kulbe (2012) Homeless

Music References

Arguing With Thermometers – Enter Shikari (2012)

The Beat That My Heart Skipped – Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip (2007)

Hypocrite – Midasuno (2002)

It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do it) – Bananarama (1982)

 

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Generation Snowflake

So the joke goes, this generation never had it so good. Millennials have Xbox’s, PlayStations, PacMan video games and iPads. Their predecessors simply had the ability to buy their first home before they were 30. These days it seems, those looking to get on the mythical ladder to The Faraway Tree home ownership have everything but a home to call their own. The picture is often more complex than that, below is my thoughts on the current situation. Warning, whinging millennial mode engaged.

Trust me it’s not the negative press or a lack of rolling up one’s sleeves that’s stopping me from buying a house, it’s the money involved.

Nice One Grandma, Cheers Dad

The recently released Resolution Foundation report has caught the attention of the press. The piece notes that Millennials (i.e. me and my mates) will potentially be the first ever generation to record lower lifetime earning than their predecessors. That our inability to buy a home will have implications on lifetime standards and that redistribution of taxes via the welfare state are tilted in the favour of the Baby Boomers and their elders, and how this impacts on inter-generational ties. Yea, it’s a real chirpy read*.

Decreasing numbers of younger homeowners

home-ownership

ONS Digital (2015) Housing and Home Ownership in the UK

In his blog that preceded the Resolution Foundation’s report (via an article in The Times) David Willetts argued that whilst a proportion of the population is reaping the benefits of being the baby boomers. It needs to do more to help the younger generations†. It’s an interesting, well thought out article with a helpful analogy (or is it a metaphor, always shit at these) of big birth cohorts like baby boomers being akin to a pig that’s been swallowed by a Python. Something that creates enormous strains, but also opportunities (well, not for the pig, he’s fucked).

However, as I’ve blogged before recently policies have either largely ignored those struggling to sort their housing situation or have been distorted by ideology, with interventions such as help to buy having the very opposite of their intended effect. And whilst I concur with Mr Willetts deliberations, there is concern his view, and that of the Resolution Foundation might not be heard.

It’s all so simple

If you believe parts of the press (step forward Daily Telegraph) we’re all a bunch of whinging areses who’ve never had it so good. Because despite trebled tuition fees, greater levels of insecure working, greater levels of household debt, Brexit and spiralling housing costs as rents and house prices outstrip wage increases, we need to pull our fingers out. Why? Because it turns out that despite masses of evidence to the contrary, we can buy a house. This is apparently the case due to affordability factors getting  back to their long-term average and deposits no longer being an issue due to the fact we can simply get a 100pc mortgage with a parental guarantee. Trust me it’s not the negative press or  me being a whinge-bag and not rolling up my sleeves that’s stopping me from buying a house. 100pc mortgage or not, it’s the money involved that’s the problem, period.

Declining Number of First Time Buyers (Number of mortgage loans for first time buyers, UK, 1980 to 2013)

first-time-buyers-mortgages

ONS Digital (2015) Housing and Home Ownership in the UK

Moving Forward

There has been a number of suggested solutions ranging from the genuinely innovative to the downright odd. Including, but not limited to, live in converted shipping containers, rely on your rich relatives to die/give you money, live in houses that don’t meet space standards to make them cheaper, fuck off to Europe, increase shared ownership. Some of the above may help, others not so much. But they need to be pulled together into a coherent strategy, where the state, the private sector and social housing sector play complementary roles.

Teresa May is increasingly putting forward a case for the state to be involved in improving the lives of those struggling in society. That our society is not a just a big one, but a shared one. And whilst John Rentoul is right to note she is very good at saying a lot without actually saying anything, the rhetoric is welcome. Hopefully it will be backed with policy and cash. Otherwise the inter-generational gap will only widen and with it the life chances of future generations will undoubtedly decrease.

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

Photo Credit: herefordcat (2008): Georgian Terrace

+Updated 11/01/2017 to include graphs

*For a legitimately amusing aside, check out these millennial v baby bloomer tweets.
†An argument that is slightly undermined by the fact that Mr Willetts was the Minister of State for Universities and Science who trebled tuition fees, thus negatively impacting on the life chances of younger generations via increasing their debt burden. Cheers Dave.

 

 

Are We Nearly There Yet?

Whilst significant inroads have been made at Government level, popular support for state provision of housing, and the welfare state more generally, is still an issue that needs addressing. And as the regulator is busy ruffling feathers by making history repeat, as a sector we need to avoid the same old mistakes and convince the public of our worth, and the cost of decades of policy failure.

Different Year, Same Story, Pretty Much the Same Blog

A few months down the line since the madness of the post Post Brexit vote the Government of the day may be listening more, but public support is scattergun at best. And with backing for welfare spending in continuing decline, particularly when looking at out of work benefits such as unemployment benefit, we need to look at how we sell ourselves. Because, like it or not, we as a sector are inexorably tied to welfare spending and the welfare state more generally. Probably doesn’t help that for the taxpayer our core business model always has been, and most likely always will be, give us loads of your money and we will build houses for people other than you to live in. At a price cheaper than you pay for yours. That’s about as tough a job as an ice cube seller in the Arctic i.e. damned difficult, and we need to get better at it.

Pay Your Money, We’ll Have to Take Your Choice

Given what has been mentioned above, numerous Governments have sought to withdraw state intervention in the housing market. But as David Bentley over at Civitas has noted, just as Governments have sought to reduce their role. More and more they’ve actually had to prop up the private market. Largely due to policies that have focused on demand side fixes.  Thus perpetuating a cycle where the very measures sought to increase the ability of consumers to purchase housing ends up pushing houses further out of their reach.

A number have sought to highlight the utter absurdities of demand side policies and house prices. Seriously, the more you dip into George Osborne’s housing policies, the more idiotic they appear. Others have noted the positive financial impact genuinely social housing can provide. But it’s tying it altogether that has been the difficult part. Namely because it involves pointing the finger at those who’ve been making batshit mental policy decisions in recent years and going – these fuckers don’t have a bloody clue what they are doing – and then trying to work with them.

Is there a Point to All this?

Kind of. As a sector we may have a more benign Government in power, but we have failed to convince the general public that we are providing value for money. In the long-term that will be a killer. For all the KPIs we produce about performance, for all the smoke and mirrors about being upfront about our costs and what we deliver. We need to drive home the value of what we do. For whilst there is a groundswell politically for investment and support in what we do. In the mind of the General Public the battle is far from won.

As the incumbents in power realise they need to do more than simply cut corporation tax to help JAMs, Marmalades and other food groups. We need to take advantage and reach out beyond our usual audience. Because unless we state in plain and simple terms, very clearly and very loudly what we do, why we do it and how well we do it. And repeat Ad Nauseum (I call this the Farage method of mass communication). We’ll be left in vacuum of rumour, misinformation and gossip. That helps no-one, least of all us.

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

Photo Credit:

VMAX137  (2012): View of South Lake Union and Queen Anne Hill

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/vmax137/

Building Bridges

Under Theresa May we have a Government that appears to be listening the voice of the social housing sector, at least in part. Following a very sympathetic Autumn Statement it is time to make the most of the opportunity at hand.

A couple of years ago at a Housing Party breakout session the question was asked is the sector independent or tied to Govt policy? The room was reasonably split, whilst my answer was both (yea, I’m that guy) though more on the side of Government influencing. HAs might like to think they operate independently, but in reality they play within the rules of a game set by Government. It’s why we’ve so often been chasing our tails trying to adapt to whatever new short-term measure has been thrown in by some smart muppet with a grip on reality as vague as 2yr old mid-tantrum.

Unforeseen benefits

Historically I’ve been pretty critical of some of the lobbying efforts of the CIH and NHF. Too often they appear to have been caught off guard by policy announcements, reacting rather than managing the policy changes coming the way of the sector. However, there were very few surprises in this budget. Indeed a number of the key housing policy alterations are remarkably similar to what has been suggested by Mr Orr et al. That is both a reflection of how successful the NHF and CIH have been at shaping the debate. But also of the changes that have occurred in the Cabinet of Mrs May’s Government.

It pains me to say it but Brexit has helped immeasurably here. With Cameron and Osborne leaving their positions the key blocks to funding for the social housing sector have been removed. The Treasury under Osborne dominated both welfare and capital investment programmes. It is no surprise that 2010-16 saw the sector have very little influence on housing policy. Under May and Co there appears to (at last) be at least some realisation of the difference between want and need in relation to housing. The majority of us might want a house, but with homelessness of all kinds on the rise and a housing market not working for an increasingly large proportion of the public. The need of a secure home is just as important policy wise.

The removal of forced Pay to Stay, the Land Registry privatisation being kicked into the long grass and a specific pot of money for sub-market rent are all very welcome developments. As a private renter, so is the plan to scrap letting agent fees. Though at £1.4bn over 5 years (2016 -21) the Autumn statement is not so much making rain for the sector, but giving it a bit of a damp drizzle. Considering the situation the sector was facing just over half a year ago, I’ll take it. It’s like being 3-0 down at half time but being able to salvage a draw. Not so bad from Mr Hammond, a chap who is fast giving John Major a run for his money on lacking charisma.

Still in Choppy Waters

It’s not all plain sailing, VRTB is being expanded, albeit in pilot form, the draconian cuts to the Benefit Cap to £20,000 are still going ahead and the absurdity that is the Bedroom Tax is still in play. Of concen is that social rent is conspicuous by its absence. Additionally, the tweaks to the Universal Credit taper and uplift of the national ‘living wage’ are smaller than hoped and don’t go far enough.

Elsewhere fixed term tenancies are also in, and have caused a bit of stink. But to be honest it’s not something I have much of an issue with. They are already in use in the sector and the kicker is more in the symbolism of such a move, rather than the practical reality. 

As a side note the next year or so might see some interesting case-law as the first batch of 5 year tenancies come to an end (thanks to LaweyergirlUK for highlighting that). Better cross those Ts and dot those Is because as Cardiff City Council v Lee [2016] showed, the landscape can change pretty quickly when it comes to ending tenancies.

What the Autumn Statement has done is shown that this Government, for some of its failings, is at least willing to hear the sector and take on board what it is saying. There have been times since 2010 when the silence from Cameron et al on social housing has been deafening. The U-turn since this summer cannot be underestimated. Still, whilst there is much to commend, there is much more to do. But at least there is now a fighting chance.

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

Photo Credit –

London at Night (Churchill Gardens) | by scotbot [2014]

System Failure

For all the pain, the anguish and upset so visible in No Place to Call a Home the end result is crushingly predictable. Not just because we haven’t been building enough of the right type of housing in the right areas for years, but because it highlights how much central Government has pulled back the safety net that is meant to help those who need it.

I feel like writing to every paper and saying do something!

The Twitter outrage will die out shortly, Mrs May’s Government may ride some tough questioning in the short-term. But for someone who has studied and worked in social policy and social housing for the best part of 10 years the stories being told in No Place to Call a Home are all too familiar. They are a reminder that ordinary people are having to ever more rely on friends and family as the state is unable, and at national level, unwilling to help. That for many simply having a job is not enough to keep a roof over one’s head, and that being at crisis point isn’t enough to get the help you need.

What I found most striking was the thoughts of those covered by No Place to Call a Home. The shock at their predicament, the re-assessing of how they view others in the same place.  They’re probably mirroring the thoughts of most of us watching. And as someone who has been through in work poverty (albeit only temporary) it is a reminder that in another life that could have been me. It still can be.

I used to judge people…but now I’m in that situation I’m more understanding…it’s probably going to get harder.

These are Fucking People, Not just Figures

Another thing successfully highlighted by the show is the detrimental impact of having no secure shelter. That regardless of whether you are young, old, black or white, you can have your sense of safeness yanked away at any time. You don’t need to be unemployed, you don’t need to be a drug addict, you don’t need to be a delinquent.

We’ve become so good at dehumanising the effects of policy and/or policy failure that you forget the people behind the numbers. We’ve been so quick to blame individual pathology, to blame the other, to blame immigrants, to blame anyone and anything but the monumental failure of housing and welfare policy in this country. That we’re failing to do what any civilised country should. Help those in need. It’s as if we have cultivated this collective blind-spot. Because nearly all of us are a couple of missed pay-cheques from being homeless, it’s about time we remembered that.

We’re Almost Back Where we Started

50 years ago the release of Cathy Come Home caused such an uproar that two major charities (Crisis and Shelter) were formed, Government policy altered significantly and many of the Housing Associations in operation today were formed. However, thanks to 30 years of hostile policy, of bad policy and of neglect we are almost back where we started. Right to Buy has stripped back social housing stock, as has more recent under-funding of new construction of social stock. Years of hostile press has seen the reputation of social housing and those unfortunate enough to need state help is in tatters.

We don’t need to keep failing, we choose to.

In 21st Century Britain it is a fucking travesty that we still have issues of homelessness and housing insecurity. I’m writing this on a laptop that has more processing power in its little finger than the Apollo Space shuttles had. Mobile phones are now so juiced up you can practically run a whole business from them. We have Hoovers that don’t need you to control them to clean your house (mind = blown). We can fund a massive white elephant in Hinckley, we can fund nuclear weapons. Yet we still can’t ensure everyone has a roof over their head and that we have a properly funded capital investment programme to build social housing for those in dire need. That’s not unfortunate, it’s utter incompetence.

Opportunity Knocks

For the first time in what seems like an eternity (OK, 6 years or so) we have a pragmatic (on paper at least) Chancellor willing to invest instead of simply prioritising deficit reduction and bullshit dogma. We also have a housing minister, who whilst unable to mention the s-word (social) rent, has indicated more of a willingness to fund sub-market rent. I wholeheartedly agree with a number of chaps and chapesses in the sector who have been calling to work with the current incumbents in power. It is time to make the most of the hand that has been dealt, because the status quo is not an option.

Leaving on a Positive Note

One of my all time favourite quotes is from Mr Kennedy (not him, the other one, who could more often than not keep his dick in his trousers). It’s a reminder that each of us can change history, that together we can be greater than the sum of our parts. After spending most of this blog bitching it’s probably best to have some positive messages. Enjoy.

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance

Fetch me a shovel. Let’s do this.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Far from the Maddening Crowd

It’s time to stop with the Excel Spreadsheet fetish, it’s pretty bad for you, but it’s worse for your business. Step away from the grid-lines, now!

Time to go Cold-Turkey

One of things that has always surprised, and frankly occasionally unnerved me, is the lack of basic digital skills in the sector. Now I’m not talking about being a Black Belt in Python (until 6 months ago I thought that was just a type of snake) or a Pokemon master at Q-Basic here. I’m simply talking about a broader depth of knowledge beyond the Housing Management system people use (or more’s the point, the narrow part of it related to their role) and Microsoft Word. But it is not just at an individual level that the sector has a bit of an issue. If you were to take a look around your business I guarantee your mortgage (I can’t afford one so I rent #millennialproblems) that a significant proportion of your staff are using off-system solutions to carry out day-to-day work. Why? Because your current software solutions doesn’t meet their need.

Square Pegs, Round Holes: Failure to Develop = Failure

People fall back onto Excel and Access-based solutions when there is no obviously better way to interrogate data. Their over-use is symptomatic of a business crying out for a more suitable solution but without the foggiest idea of what it needs or where it can be acquired from. It is also a result of failure to update and refresh the software solutions the business has as its disposal.  It’s no good thinking your billy big balls with your Morris Minor when everyone else is cruising around in their Audi R8. Also, considering the sector seems fine to throw a dollar or two around when it comes to Chief Executive pay maybe they can cough up and pump some money into the machinery that keeps the organisation ticking over. Just a thought.

FYI good reads come from Jules Birch and Kevin Williams on Chief Executive pay and the wider debate/ramifications related to them. Funnily enough Kevin’s Blog is from last year’s nicker twisting championships on the same subject. But it’s worth re-reading if only for the fact the name comes from my favourite Biggy Smalls song.

Sorry, got side-tracked 

The problem is for a lot of staff Excel is actually pretty crap when trying to communicate performance and data trends. Surprise, surprise, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed the near meltdowns I’ve seen when merely mentioning the name Excel is highly amusing. It’s like dropping the Voldemort-bomb at a Harry Potter LARPing event. Additionally spreadsheets are not always easily understood and it’s too easy to miss important information in them. And I can guarantee you unless you lock that baby down someone is going to delete an essential bit of formula quicker than Liam Fox can insult the entire country’s business community.

More worryingly for the sector they’re actually not great when being used for managing essential business processes (good heavens, no!). So if you’re using them to monitor performance for say Planned Works or Estates Services, or god forbid Repairs. Please stop. Now. Because the amount of things that could go tits up relying on spreadsheets for such business critical processes frankly gives me nightmares.

What to do

Go back to basics. Look at what you want to report, who you want to report it, why you need to report it and then how. Because believe me there are a million and one better pieces of kit out there to monitor, report on and interrogate data than Excel. 

Excel is fine for basic bits and pieces, but it should be a useful extra, not the go to for essential business processes. It’s like using an abacus when you have calculator available. Cute for none users to admire your handiwork, but you’ll be buggered if you believe everyone else can use it. Worse over-reliance on it will leave you over-exposed to one muppet and the delete button. Be brave, make the change.

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

*Updated 13/09/16

 

Why Spend More?

Government cuts merely shift the burden, and associated costs, from one department budget to another. Often providing poorer value to the taxpayer as a result. If there is to be a change in policy direction highlighting the absurdities of arbitrary cost cutting in the Welfare State, and capital funding in infrastructure more generally, is needed.

Working in housing you can get caught up in a couple of broken records, repeating time and time again that social housing is needed; and that please, won’t someone think of the poor people. It can all sound a bit noblesse oblige but often you’re one a very few voices pushing those messages. Changing tack, if only for the sake of your sanity, is therefore occasionally necessary.

Show Me the Money

What is often left out in arguing the need for a more progressive approach to policy making in this country is that being a tight arse as a Government often ends up costing the taxpayer (directly and indirectly) more than is saved.  If you have time to read his works, the University of Cambridge based economist Ha-Joon Chang is worth a visit. Whilst the forever left (behind) Owen Jones interviewed him the other week, he has been vocally critical of trickle down economics and Austerity for some time. Notably because the former is bollocks as a theory and the latter more costly for economic growth than expected.

Post-Brexit is seems ‘experts’ (i.e. people who’ve spent years learning about a particular subject) are old hat, who needs them when you’ve got a former Investment Banker (but not part of the establishment) and a former journalist with a penchant for Shakespearean-esk melodrama to tell you the truth+. But it is perhaps worth listening to the various research pieces/staff notes coming out of the world-renowned hotbed of Marxist thinking, the IMF. It has released a number of critical pieces on more recent macro-economic policy approaches and how they’ve failed to solve inequality and provide sustained growth.

It should be noted that the contents of such works represent the views of the authors and not necessarily the IMF itself. Bloody economists, they’re always particularly anal about caveats and detail. Almost as bad as accountants. To ram home the point reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine highlights how the IMF, amongst others, has been fundamental in pushing many of the policies that have actually caused greater economic damage than progression.

What Does this Mean for Housing?

Well, being selfish, it means that it is probably worth setting aside more capital funding for infrastructure projects (like building social and affordable housing). It would also be worth re-visiting plans to strip back the welfare state to the point where all that’s available is a couple of turnips* and stale corn flakes. Both of these pipe-dreams are unlikely to happen any time soon. But redirecting the narrative is desperately needed where Central Government and the Welfare State is concerned (a bit like Own Our Future, but without the OOF acronym). Thanks to excellent research from the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the negative impact of inequality on households is well-known. However, the more recent admission from the IMF that inequality negatively impacts growth should provide the ammunition to make the case for investment over cuts. Or as Olivier Blanchard put it:

what is needed in many advanced economies is a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation, not a fiscal noose today

So change-up the language and change the focus of dialogue. The old adage of needing to spend money to make money (or in this case, save money) is useful here. By highlighting that through investing in secure, good quality, affordable housing the state, and by extension the taxpayer, gets far more bang for its buck (though I would say that, wouldn’t I?). When you can show the cost effectiveness of preventing individuals and households from hitting crisis point (and therefore requiring acute, high cost interventions) you’ve won half the battle.

Not Convinced?

Just count the cost of housing those accepted as being statutory homeless, count the cost of those sleep rough on the streets. Count the cost of those relying on friends and family for a sofa to sleep on. Count the cost of the severe damage to job prospects, education and even health that is caused by insecure, poor quality housing. Add that up and investing in social housing and a Welfare Sate is frankly a snip at the price.

Because, why spend more?

You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

+Is this a dagger I see before me? No Michael Gove, it’s your political ambitions going up in smoke.

*In fairness, in Worcester (my home town) this would probably make you King…