How to Make Friends and Influence People

It is a broken record on repeat but the sector needs to do more to get heard outside of the bubble that is housing.

About 18months ago I moved to deepest, darkest Warwickshire, Bidford on Avon to be precise. It’s the kind of place where time hasn’t so much stood still but lost all interest and buggered off elsewhere. For me and the lady-friend, who like busy cities the same way the Body Coach likes a greasy kebab after an all day session down the Winchester, it suits quite well. However, one of the things we hadn’t expected was the reaction of some of the locals.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Bidford, like most of Warwickshire, is as about as Blue as you can get without seeing portraits of Margaret Thatcher in every living-room. It is conservative with small, medium and large C’s. Whilst I had clocked this early on in the move I hadn’t quite clocked what impact it might have. As a keen gym enthusiast (the heavy weight, not treadmill running kind) I’m pretty much as broad as I am tall (being 5ft 8inch helps). I’m reasonably tattooed with a full sleeve supplemented by a half sleeve and a chest piece. Finally, I own a Staffie. In short, I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, and frankly neither are they mine.

Exhibit A – World’s Least Dangerous Dog

The first time I saw a middle age woman clock me and my dog, stop, then walk across the road it made me laugh. After the 3rd or 4th time it really began to piss me off, I swear I could hear the anuses clenching as I went past. After a while, and through general interaction with people in the village such instances became rarer. More so after many people actually stopped to chat to the dog (yes, people do that). These days the local teenagers refer to her as “Well cute” whilst my general presence appears to be accepted.

What happened? Well, me and the lady-friend made a conscious effort to show that both of us, and our dog were perfectly normal everyday people and posed no threat/ill to anyone. Essentially we went outside our own bubble. In many ways social housing is still yet to do this. Neil Jackson (all the cool people are called Neil…) provided what I thought was the best blog of Housing Day by highlighting this point. For all the effort (hats off to Ade Capon, the lad has worked tirelessly to grow the event) given on the day how many outside the bubble came across it/engaged with it? A snap poll with the Lady-friend concluded, not many. I won’t bore you with her precise words but they were akin to, “Oh, that thing OK…”.

All is not lost

Scientifically valid checks against impact aside (see here for the actually rather impressive figures). The sector is still capable of influence Central Government policy. One of the greatest examples can be seen with Shared Ownership. Consistent targeted lobbying alongside co-ordinated work has seen something that frankly has been a backwater bolt on to social housing gain significant traction.  To the point where there may genuinely be a ‘fourth tenure’ of mainstream housing in this country.

Such an achievement didn’t come through the back slapping, circle-jerk that the sector is occasionally prone to. And whilst warmer noises have been coming from the new-look Government, they frankly couldn’t have been much colder. Nick ‘Kind of Stating the Obvious’ Clegg’s serialised memoirs in the Guardian (let’s face it, no-one else would bloody do it) have highlighted what many thought. That a significant part of the Conservative Party is hostile to social housing and see it as a Labour Voter breeding machine. Let’s hope Mr Barwell’s warm noises come to something. Historically the NHF Conference has led to conciliatory noises from Government followed by business as usual. Real change occurs outside our housing bubble.

The above does raise the old ‘what does it all mean/what should we build question’. But I loathe the term used to describe the intersection of two roads. And quite frankly the mid-life crisis that is the sector’s inability to decide what it wants to be is starting to bore. So I shall ignore it here.

Regardless, continuing to speak to, and build bridges with, those who have not been traditional bed-fellows is a must. Pushing how good the sector is, and what it can bring to the table is also essential. Alongside Health and Education, housing is one of the 3 pillars a person builds their life on. It is something that everyone needs and can understand the importance of. Even if how someone conceptualises what a safe and secure home looks like is different, we all need one. The trick is to tap into that and tie it to how we can help this Government achieve its aims of more housing for all.

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

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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…

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.

 

Hey you! Old Patronising Person, shut up.

So, Edwina Currie is alive. Who knew? Not me, alas her latest interjection into the world is as misguided as it is baffling. Called Hey Youngsters! No pension? No Home? No wonder. Look at you! The article is a middle class, public school going, Daily Mail believing wet dream. A ladies what lunch brigade tirade at the perceived ills of the ‘yoof’ of today. In short, it is 100% bollocks. Tell me Edwina, what the fudge is a gadfly way? I’m not as up with street parlance as I once was, so you will have to explain that to me, perhaps over a glass of Pinot Grigio at Les Chalets de la Serraz, so I can show you who skis in the French Alps (spoiler: it ain’t me and my mates).

It was odd reading your piece as I really couldn’t decide whether it was unintentional satire or an interesting insight into how far removed your ilk are from the travails of modern day lives for those of us under 30 and not living off a trust fund. I refuse to take seriously the opinion of anyone who found John Major sexually alluring. So you are immediately on the backfoot opinion-wise. But enough of your life choices, lets have a look at some of your arguments.

Firstly Louboutins and Manolo Blahniks!? What on God’s green Earth is a Manolo Blahniks? What do you think people under 30 spend their money on? Let me give you a hint, it’s rent for the most part. In the past year alone rents have risen by nearly 12%, and are set to rise further, potentially overtaking increases in house prices. Given that the majority of under 30s who aren’t living at their parent’s house (presumably getting moist over John Lewis’ latest magazine update by your logic) rent privately, we are unduly affected by such changes. This means an ever increasing proportion of income is being taken up by rent, and other household bills. Not by Lou-fucking-boutins purchases (I’m more of a Next man myself, their jeans are cracking value for money).

On the moving job bollocks you espoused. Yes you are right, many people have left behind the ‘stay with one employer all your life’ mantra and move jobs frequently. But this is not always through choice. If you haven’t noticed there has been a recession that has been painfully slow in sorting itself out. When the markets go tits up employers tend to be a bit more cautious in terms of hiring. Particularly when you are lower down the food chain (as most young people are) this results in fixed term contracts, zero hour contracts and in general being treated like cattle. Consequently, you tend to move job a lot more often, whether you like it or not. I myself, after graduating with a masters in 2012, only got my first permanent contract in 2015. At one point my ladyfriend was made redundant twice in a 6 month period. Between us we have had around 8 different positions in 5 different companies in 6 different cities/towns over the last 4 years. Trust me, neither of us wanted that.

I fully agree with you on contributions being a necessity in terms of paying for the welfare state. Having had jobs of one type or another since I was 18 I can assure you I’ve been more than paying my way in terms of taxes and national insurance (although I earned so little at one point I didn’t pay any tax, sorry). The same can be said of my mates. We must be a terrible shame for your misconceived visions of the youth of today. Paying our way, saving sensibly. Instead of passing the courvoisier we’re sharing the latest deals banks are offering on interest rates.

So in short, shut up Edwina or at least have the decency to do a Portillo and go make inane TV programs about Trains and/or Railways. I’ve got more pressing things to worry about than a patronising old muppet telling me that if I just rolled my sleeves up and graft everything will be OK, because I stopped believing in fairy-tales a long time ago. Your argument is as whimsical as having a Prime Minister that believes a house worth £250,000 (or £450,000 if you live in London) is affordable, trust me when I say it really goddamn isn’t.

*Update* I’ve edited some of this blog because 1 – spelling mistakes 2- a few points were, in hindsight, a bit close to the edge. Personal insults shouldn’t really be undertaken in any part of life. There’s enough crap out there without me adding to it.

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

Want is not of need

The only thing more predictable than the unpredictable nature of the Spending Review/Autumn Statement is the flurry of blog posts after the fact. I won’t attempt to cover the ground that has already been well trodden. But the housing policy geek in me can’t help but chew the fat on a couple of points.

Firstly, the good points. Housing has finally got the increase in funding and political attention it desperately needs. A nod here must go to the NHF, CIH and the Homes for Britain campaigns. Further mentions to Generation Rent, Shelter and Crisis. Given how far down the list of priorities perceived by the general public a few months ago it is relieving to see the subject set as one of the focal points of the Spending Review.

Now the bad news. (Yet) again the debate has been skewed to one particular facet of the housing market. Whilst ideology does play a part, there is something more fundamental here. Politicians like stories with happy endings. The story itself might be one of woe, but there is a solution in sight (theirs of course, the opposition’s vision won’t work). With housing, its complex nature, myriad set of interests and unpredictability negates a happily ever after. For there must be losers in housing to ensure winners. Mr Osborne knows this, and has played his cards accordingly.

Previous blogs of mine have highlighted the perceived need by those in power to highlight problems (real or imaginary) that then need resolving (the deficit for example…). They have also pointed to the works of people like Adam Curtis and Naomi Klein who in turn note that such narratives often belie more troublesome endgames and unaccounted-for consequences. The Government for example has chosen to frame the housing crisis as a problem that is just about affordability for first time buyers.

As the JRF rightly points out this current crisis is not just about the inability to buy. But it’s a lot easier for politicians to willy wave about helping those buy their homes than tackle the overarching mindfuck that is the mess our housing system is in. Particularly when actually making housing more affordable would hit the pockets of those who have already won in the game of housing.

Approaches to tackle this narrow view of the housing crisis are thus deliberately limited in their scope. And even then all is not what it seems, many won’t come into effect for a couple of years. Anthony Hilton’s delightfully bitchy, but informed piece, highlights the tricks played by Osborne et al. in their attempts to address housing affordability quite beautifully. For those who can’t be bothered to read outside this article the points to take are:

  • The greatest house building program since the 1970s might not actually build (materially speaking) more homes than already had been slated
  • The affordable homes that are built won’t be that affordable
  • Houses have been reclassified as affordable by a sleight of hand, not in cash terms or in their genuine affordability

Indeed when looking at both the newest Housing Bill and the funding put in place by the Spending Review it’s as if a whole sub-section of society is being written off. Brandon Lewis’s belief that the poorest will be able to buy thanks to the flurry of housing policies is frankly misguided bullshit. When you can’t put money aside for a mortgage, when keeping your crappy rented property as the roof over your head buying doesn’t come into it. But when the narrative is set to that of home-ownership as the solver of all society’s ills I wouldn’t expect anything less.

If allowed social rent will play an important role in helping with the issues in our housing system. Giving people the chance/space to breathe, get their shit in order then maybe one day buy. But until the narrative changes to admit that, we will continue on this merry-go-round of smoke and mirrors with the end result being that housing is utterly unaffordable for an even greater proportion of the country. And with it the chance of a happily ever after.

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.