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…

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Food for Thought

On 23rd June UKHousingFast joins us again, bringing together the Ramadan, the housing crisis in the UK and raising food donations and money for a very important charity, The Trussell Trust (I think even the DWP likes them now). Essentially it is the perfect opportunity for a ‘what does it all mean’ moment. Just don’t go and buy a bloody sports car afterwards. This is a period for a reflection, not an enabler for a midlife crisis.

An Unlikely Faster

If you ever proffered me a penny for my thoughts my response would probably involve food. I love the stuff, usually the more unhealthy the better (FYI there is an immense Cro-nut stall down the market by Greenwich Pier). Nutella (other hazelnut based spreads are available) and Pizza are probably my biggest weaknesses. I can devour a large Domino’s (Pepperoni, always) in one sitting, me and the Ladyfriend rarely have Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream for the same reason. Needless to say the concept of #UKHousingFast did not immediately appeal.

If you’re thinking of going to the gym whilst fasting, don’t.

Lessons from Last Year

However last year I decided to give it a go. I also decided to go to the gym whilst fasting. To cut a long story short if you’re thinking of doing this and you are going all day without food, don’t. Take the whole day to have some introspection. On a side note it is amazing how much will power is needed to A) Not think about food B) Not eat the damn stuff, but that might just be me.

Whilst in no way the main part of the day or even a stated focus of #UKHousingFast. A consistent theme amongst people who have undertaken was the respect it brought out of them for their Muslim friends, colleagues and family. Doing this for one day, or even a meal is tough, doing it for the entire period of Ramadan is a dedication that can only described as impressive. But just as important, and more in tune with what the day is about, is the reminder that for an increasing number of people fasting is not a choice tied to faith but a survival tactic when money is incredibly tight. It is a small part of a wider network of support for those living on the breadline.

One of the things that really works with #UKHousingFast, it’s an immensely personal but also incredibly diverse/open campaign to get involved in

What to Take From the Day

Whatever you want, support from colleagues friends, both real and social media based, makes the day on its on. But fundamentally you get out of it what you put in. If you just want to raise some awareness, get some money in for the Trussell Trust that’s fine. If you want to go further that’s also great. There’s a list of things you can do here. That’s one of the things that really works with #UKHousingFast, it’s an immensely personal but also incredibly diverse/open campaign to get involved in (Housing PR people, take note).

If you want to get involved you can find out more at https://ukhousingfast.wordpress.com/ or you can follow them on Twitter with the handle @ukhousingfast. If you’re taking part don’t forget to tweet using the #UKHousingFast hashtag. I will be tweeting my little heart out, probably be giving a minute by minute guide to what I will devour come night fall.

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

 

When Bulls Play God

With the Housing Bill making its way through Parliament, rent cuts and a generally rough operating environment the temptation may be to cut back non-core services. But with the Tories intent on reducing state help to a couple of plasters and a turnip, helping communities and individuals (not just building homes) needs to remain a key focus.

If I only had one dollar left I would invest it in an employment advice and tenancy support service.

Bill Gates is often quoted as saying that if he only had one dollar left he would invest it in PR. If I had that dollar I would put it into an employment advice and tenancy support service and it appears many in this sector would agree. Research by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion found that 67% of housing associations either already ran, or were planning to run, a programme to support customers into work. Many seeing this as a natural extension of their role and an increasingly important priority.

The link between landlord and poverty is an interesting one, with property owners in a unique position to directly (by rent) and indirectly (by additional services) impact (if not solve) the socio-economic security of the tenant. Research on that very subject is available here and neatly highlights the approaches/strategies of the sector and the impact they may have. In addition to this report, the struggles of Gentoo and Circle, both laying off staff as the operating environment toughens, show the balancing act many are having to play.

Well paid, secure work, alongside secure housing, is by far and away the best route out of poverty.

Well paid, secure work, alongside secure housing, is by far and away the best route out of poverty. However, for many living in social housing that is either not a realistic achievement due to physical/mental health issues or because of care commitment (in and of itself an undervalued part of our welfare state). But for others, with help, guidance and sustained support it is. As the report from CESI indicates many have, or are about to, rise to the challenge. It is not uncommon for social landlords to build-in apprenticeships and training opportunities for customers/communities into contracts with 3rd party service providers. Maintenance and repairs organisations in particular. Others match fund, or directly fund specific employment training and/or soft skills courses.

So far, so noble but the issue many organisations currently have is defining the benefits for the business. I’ve never been truly convinced by social value calculations. Yes there are undoubtedly more generic benefits that can loosely be quantified but specific cost benefits to businesses are much harder to define. It often takes years for an individual/households to get over historic debt/arrears issues. Poverty is often an up and down life event, it is seldom static. Most importantly life doesn’t neatly fall into financial years for accounting purposes. That aside what should you actually measure? Arrears? Contact with the organisation? Number of repairs? Often such work throws up more questions than answers.

My fear is that without further work into this area, to provide hard and fast, quantifiable proof that employment support benefits all (the CESI report reckoned about £70million could be shaved off the benefit bill) many will simply withdraw as operating pressures squeeze budgets and organisations play safe. That would be a shame for all concerned. Especially those at the sharp end of George Osborne’s attempts at creating lower tax, lower welfare economy.

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

To Boldy Go Where No-one Has Gone Before

The pragmatist in me knows why voluntary Right to Buy has a significant amount of attraction. If I were in charge of a housing association I would probably have ticked yes myself. But that doesn’t mean a debate shouldn’t have been had. It doesn’t mean that we all have to like it. Being given a week to look over this is frankly unforgivable, it is a grade ‘A’ balls-up however you look at it. But before we all get busy patting ourselves on the back it may be worth reminding ourselves of some uncomfortable facts.

In 1981 England had 7 million units owned by either Local Authorities or Registered Providers, by 2014 this had dropped to 4 million.

In 1981 England had 7 million units owned by either Local Authorities or Registered Providers, by 2014 this had dropped to 4 million. The population in 1981 was just under 46 million, by 2014 it was 54.3 million. I.e we have less social stock for a larger population. Over the past 4 years those accepted as unintentionally homeless has increased from 42,390 in 2010 to 53,410 in 2014. Those living in temporary accommodation has increased from 48,240 (2010/11) to 64,710 (2014/15). Those found to be unintentionally homeless as a result of their assured shorthold tenancy ending has risen from 15% (6,150) of decisions in 2010 to 29% (15,420) in 2014. Those in work, yet claiming housing benefit, surpassed 1 million in 2014 (in 2008 it was just 430,000). In one of the most advanced countries in the world that is outrageous. It also highlights why social housing is needed.

You will no doubt have seen I’ve been vehemently opposed to both Right to Buy (RTB) and ‘Voluntary’ Right to Buy (VRTB). It’s clear that my personal beliefs are quite opposed to a number of those in the sector. I am grateful for the open and frank debates that have been had. It is one of the things I admire about social housing. Difference of opinion is accepted, even encouraged (just don’t expect for your view not to be challenged). Though I must admit talk of a ‘re-set’ in our relationship with Government does nark. Had the sector been better at lobbying, at influencing i.e. had a better relationship with Government in the first place this wouldn’t need to be the case. I don’t work in PR but I doth my cap at those putting a positive spin on one of our greatest failures.

I am 1 of 4 brothers, but I’m the only one who has a permanent contract…

A significant part of my anger, of my unwillingness to accept the extension of Right to Buy in any guise is quite a simple one. Many of you will be talking from position of secure housing. Many of you will be talking from a position of home ownership. I am not. I have family who live in social housing, friends currently wholly or partially reliant on benefits to, you know, live. I am 1 of 4 brothers, but I’m the only one who has a permanent contract (and I was 27 before that beauty came along). Alongside my travails my ladyfriend was made redundant twice in a 6 month period last year. In total we’ve moved 5 times in the last 4 years (all were work and/or affordability related). My family has seen depression, cancer, job losses and death in an uncomfortably short period of time. But the backdrop to all of that was a secure family home. One I ended up living back at for most of 2014.

Out of all my friends (a disparate group of around 20 chaps and chapesses) a grand total of 2 own the property they live in. As such policy developments matter deeply to me. When life is as precarious as outlined above the potential removal of an invaluable safety net is highly alarming. Housing Association properties might be saved by VRTB, but truly social rent via LAs, I’m not so sure. I have been challenged to provide another way. I would politely throw the challenge back.

Whilst I support a true variety of housing; social rent, market rent, home ownership, shared ownership, and all the betwixt and between, from all types of providers. For many just a roof over their head is a priority, yes develop other things but we still need social housing, we still need that base. Because it is often the one secure/reliable facet in the lives of so many vulnerable households. When the dust settles, when we are all back being busily ‘inefficient’ and not building things that may be worth remembering.

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

First as tragedy, then as farce?

One of the greatest frustrations I have with housing is its lack of unity when seeking to influence policy. In everything we do there are a myriad set of interests that are often directly competing against each other. If there is a means by which to do the same thing over and over in a million different ways you can bet your bottom dollar housing will find a way to do it. This is one of our great strengths, but also one of our biggest weaknesses.

Hell you just need to see the number of different award ceremonies there are to see this in action. Sometimes I wonder how the fudge we can actually get any work done. Awards don’t just occur, you bid for them, the same way you do for a contract or a piece of work. The only difference is you get a fancy dinner (that you pay for) a nice evening (that you pay for) and a chance to swan around with an award (that you have paid for in work hours putting the bid together). Don’t get me wrong, as a lad born and raised in a land distinctly lacking in diversity I appreciate the need (and benefit) of/for difference. But we seriously need to stop replicating crap for the sake of it.

I was intrigued by Hannah Fearn’s piece on the sector’s reaction to right to buy. Yes, there are some elements that have been a bit hysterical. There are some that do need to be slapped with a wet plimsoll and told to pull themselves together. However, you can’t blame a sector for reacting passionately against such a poor policy that (regardless of whether it will come to pass) would devastate the sector. In his book, this blog post gets its title from; Slavoj Zizek highlights Marx’s contention that history repeats itself. First as tragedy and then as… well, you get the idea. After the last 3 decades of leeching vital social housing via Right to Buy we need to ensure that this tragedy is not repeated as a farce. Though [insert deity of choice here] the guys and gals at CCHQ are giving it their darndest.

What we must be more aware of is that screeching about how crap a policy is will do next to nothing to change it. It is the equivalent of Evangelicals turning up at your door to convert you. You are polite, you listen and (if you are like me) you then point out all the absurdities of the bible/their faith (yup, I’m that guy). In the end you despair and say, “Yes heaven and eternity with you guys sounds swell but I’m happy to be an atheist. At least if I am damned to an afterlife in hell it’s where all the cocaine, hookers and decent music will be…” They go away having achieved nothing and frankly so have you.

Realistically the best way to defeat the extension of Right to Buy will be via the complexities of its implementation. I can’t see this getting through the House of Lords intact, even if it does there is a very strong case for legal action. Though if anyone can get that damn impact assessment released (open government my arse) that would be ace. Any move against Right to Buy will need to highlight the cost of the status quo (i.e. the horrifically bad housing policy in this country) and the value for money we provide. Because at the moment people essentially just see us giving houses to Jeremy Kyle rejects (or foreigners if you are UKIP) paid for by their taxes. Lose public opinion and you’ve already lost the battle.

SHOUT, in conjunction with Capital Economics and the National Federation of ALMOs has put forward a strong argument to highlight our true value. They have also shown some grim figures around the potential cost to all concerned if we carry on our current course and the absurdity of some of Central Government’s thinking. The good ship ‘Make it up as you go along’ needs to change direction. I won’t go through the nitty gritty, Steven Hilditch has already done a cracking job of that. But if you wish to read it you can get your grubby mitts on here.

In the meantime calm down dear, it’s only a bullshit policy. One we can stop.

As always you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…

The Guardian’s latest opine (though a legitimate one) on the potential further cuts said to be drafted up by Whitehall rams home the point that those receiving state assistance are fair game politically.  Regardless of the repercussions.

I am constantly amazed that those in a position of wealth, security and responsiblity continuously, and dishonestly, shun those below them.  A significant undertone to the pre-election campaigns has been the denigration of those at the margins of society.  Let me be clear these proposals (outlined below) are immoral, unworkable and will fail to deliver what is needed to help the economy recovery properly.  They also forget that we are all a couple of missed pay cheques, a stroke, an accident, a bereavement away from being in the same position of many of those we help on a day-to-day basis.

In short the proposals include:

  • Prevent the under 25s from claiming housing benefit and incapacity benefit (because of course no-one under 25 needs any state assistance)
  • Increasing the bedroom tax (because that has worked so well so far)
  • Freezing benefit payments across the board
  • Stricter fit for work tests (because the current ones run so smoothly)

Whilst a neoliberal’s wet dream these potential changes are simply horrific.  And if they are anywhere near as unsuccessful as the benefit cap, the bedroom tax v 1.0 and the already stricter fit for work tests they will cause havoc and poverty to those already struggling.  They will not re-balance the economy, they will not drive up employment, they will fuck over those who least deserve a good kicking.  They are a set of policies symptomatic of a political set that simply cannot, will not understand what it is like to be on the bread line.

I have been steadfast in my desire for our sector to be more proactive, more influential and to be more progressive in its efforts.  Whilst much more work is needed to be done the momentum gained pre-election has been welcome.  Housing is much higher up the agenda and those at both SHOUT and the Homes for Britain campaigns deserve credit for their efforts.  We must however be broader in our remit.  We must defend those who live in our homes, not just because it makes sense financially but because it is often the most vulnerable who have the least say.

David Backwith has recently written (well yesterday in-fact) that social workers must work with service users to understand and counter the detrimental impacts of austerity and poverty.  I would argue we need to go further and fight with them, not just on their behalf, but actually together (not just like resident involvement in decision-making, real collaboration).  Because otherwise these proposals will help shrink state support to some bizarre Victorian-esk level.  And frankly the 19th century was a bit shit, so let’s not go back there.

Ultimately you judge a society by how it treats those at the margins, those at the bottom.  I would rather be on the side that offered a hand up rather than a slap down.  I believe as a sector we do a great, great amount of work to help communities and individuals that otherwise would be cast aside.  It is time we did a bit more to stand up for them.

As always you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Social landlords have often been left open to the charge of being too quiet on the issues that affect their customer base. In the interest of self-preservation it may now be necessary to become a bit more vocal.

The social housing sector is often caught between a rock and a hard place. We operate in, provide homes for and work with, those on the margins of society. However we are also compelled to work within a highly political context. Not only dealing with whims of Central Government, contradictory policies from different departments. But also muppets who have epiphanies on inner city housing estates in Glasgow (who then go and miss the point of said epiphany). And that is before the minefield of dealing with a myriad set of Local Authorities and councillors with their own agendas. As a consequence we tend to be a bit vanilla in our criticisms of Government.

A couple of pieces caught my eye earlier this week.  The first involving Isabel Hardman and how we as a sector can get more of an influence in westminster.  Noting that moaning about a policy and then using it isn’t the best move.  And that as a sector we have an image problem with the ‘Right’.  The second was from Hannah Fearn noting that too much power lies with social landlords and not enough for their tenants.  Whilst I don’t agree with all her points I am firmly with her on the statement that we should serve best our tenants, not Government.  Key to both these pieces is that they reinforce the problem for our sector.  In an attempt to be all things to all people (politically speaking) we become not much of anything.  Or worse still, we piss off all sides.

The current set of welfare reforms have never been about just getting people into work. They are cost cutting measures, part of a long-term move to reduce state support and intervention. In short, they are a neo-liberal wet dream. The problem with such fantasies is that they are often only workable for the people who dream them up. It always narks me that those who make ‘tough decisions’ have probably never really had to make a tough choice in their personal life. Well I guess if you include the horrific decisions to be made over chilli humus or quiche then maybe, but you get the point.

Yet despite the impact the reforms have on our customer base we have always been too focused on the direct impact of the changes on our bottom line and not openly angry about indirect ones.  At least not uniformly. For me this is all the more bizarre because from a housing point of view we are paying for these reforms (and associated cuts in budgets for Local Authorities) 3 times over. 1) In higher rent arrears as more draconian sanctions cut benefits for a larger group of people, who then can’t pay us. 2) Because we then have to pay for interventions to help assist those having to deal with the fall out of ‘tough decisions’. 3) We then have to pay for schemes that provide a service formerly under the auspices of local authority but jettisoned due to budget cuts. As a sector we appear to have failed to be convinced by the moral argument to publicly oppose the reforms, at least en masse. Maybe a financial one will do the trick?

There are a few that have been systematically quantifying the impact of the reforms and being very vocal about their impact.  Real Life Reform, the JRF and the LSE have all produced research pieces showing the detrimental impact of the reforms.  SHOUT have also been very active in promoting the case for more social housing and the negative impact of the current Government’s policies. But as a sector we have more often than not done the equivalent of tutting, going “too bad” and moved on.  The consequence? Just look at the figures.  The number of social homes is at its lowest for years. Capital grant is at its lowest point for decades. The number of households relying on food banks is rising, as is the number of working households claiming HB. We have gone through 3 (or is it 4?) housing ministers since 2010. Frankly that paints a picture of being crap at influencing.

The Benefit Cap and right to buy policies are popular but when people learn more about the ins and outs of many of the welfare reforms support falls (as G.I Joe always said, knowing is half the battle…). We have a Government that relies on soundbite policies delivered to an uninformed public to drive through its agenda. It is part of our duty to address this imbalance when those policies affect us and the communities we ultimately serve. But maybe that’s just me being a bit naive.

Regardless of who wins the next general election we need to look at our approach to influencing.  We need to be better at understanding how housing influences (and is influenced by) changes in other policies areas.  We need to be better at supporting our tenancy base in its battles against the unintended (and intended) consequences of poor policy decisions.  We must accept the fact that in the game of politics passivity is not an option.

You can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.