Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start

I’m not one for New Year resolutions, they’re not worth the booze stained paper they’re written on. Whilst an arbitrary date might help some on the path to negating an annoying habit/chronic cake addiction, the reality is that most of us will fail to keep to those good intentions. Governments are not excluded from such foibles, especially when it comes to housing policy. Unfortunately, unlike the Konami games of old, you can’t just use a cheat code to solve a nation’s housing market problems. A pity really, given the way housing policy is currently heading we probably need all the ‘help’ we can get.

OK Time for Plan B

For all the positive vibes coming from the Barwell/Javid axis little has materially changed so far in May’s tenure as Prime Minister. The switch in rhetoric has been welcome, and you do genuinely get the feeling that Sajid Javid is sincere in his desire to improve the housing situation facing many in the UK. However rhetoric and reality have not quite met. At least not consistently. Indeed it seems at times that Mrs May is willing to do pretty much anything to help the housing crisis, apart from actually do things that will help on a practical level. Promises of a Britain that works for the many have so far fallen flat. That needs to change, sharpish.

Right to Buy, or at least its extension to Housing Associations, is seemingly getting kicked into the long grass (FYI check out Nick Atkin’s piece on why RTB has had its day here). Positive news over better regulation for parts of the PRS and the scrapping of lettings fees should help those renting. But policy and capital funding wise the Autumn Statement proved to largely be a bust. The vast majority of the £44bn earmarked for housing initiatives has been kept for demand side interventions. And of that all bar £15.3bn had already been announced.

A give away on Stamp Duty and a continuation of policies such as Help to Buy are not really what the doctor ordered. With Help to Buy being described by the Adam Smith Institute as being like throwing petrol onto a bonfire. Whilst the Stamp Duty cut is a great example of a policy that on the surface is great for individual households but is actually bollocks at the macro-economic level – a typical state of play for housing policy in the last 2 decades.

Elsewhere, although several million has been set aside to help with homelessness initiatives. Even here Theresa May has managed to piss me off. Her response at the last PMQs before Christmas showed just how little she understands the subject. She also showed that you can be right on a technicality, but utterly wrong on the bigger picture. Being homeless doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sleeping rough. But regardless, the lack of a safe, secure and affordable home has serious detrimental effects. Still, shout out to Theresa May’s researchers for finding the one technical point where the homelessness situation wasn’t total crap. But make no mistake, as a country we’ve been regressing alarmingly on this issue since 2010.

Here Comes the New Sound, Just Like the Old Sound

Since the clusterfuck that was the Brexit vote and subsequent change of personnel in Government I’ve been hoping for a significant departure, in practical terms, from the clueless/ideologically driven housing policy under Cameron et al. Sadly, some honourable mentions aside, what we’ve had so far is more of the same.  Plus ca change. Some improvements have been made, but it’s all a bit piecemeal.

Still, it could be worse, the Conservative Party’s attempt at revamping its social media presence is nothing short of alarming. Honestly, Activate is probably the shittest thing I’ve come across on social media since Mogg-Mentum. It sounds like the start of a fight on Robot Wars for fucks sake. Who are these clowns? Have they met real life people? One only hopes that Conservatives spend more time on fine tuning their housing policy in the upcoming Housing Green Paper than they have on their current social media engagement strategy. Otherwise we really are fucked.

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

Photo Credit – Emil Athanasiou (2015) Same Yet Different

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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.

Right To Bye

The Welsh Government has begun the process to scrap the Right to Buy in Wales. For the social housing sector this will be an important victory if it makes it through the Welsh Assembly. It highlights the fascinating splintering of approaches to housing across the UK, and whilst not universally popular, it is a decision that (it is hoped) will help with the shortage of social housing in Wales. Along with similar measures already put through in Scotland case studies of scrapping the Right to Buy are abound for those in England to mull over.

It’s a Numbers Game

There is a stat I have regularly used to put things in perspective regarding Right to Buy, and it’s one that is worth repeating. In 1980 UK had just over 7 million permanent dwellings rented from LA or Housing Associations*, by 2014 that figure was under 5 million (DCLG Live Table 101). In 1980 the number of social housing units started and completed by HAs* or Councils was 109,930. In 2014 it was just 30,090 (DCLG Live Table 211). In broadly the same period (1980/81 to 2013/14) 1.8 million properties were bought under Right To Buy. Put simply we’ve lost too much and replaced too little social housing (see the chart below).

If the Government was willing to ensure Councils got the full market value of the property and all the receipts, or even facilitated the tenants buying a house elsewhere at an equivalent discount, and crucially guarantee a 1:1, like for like replacement I’d be all for it. But historically that simply hasn’t happened, and improved noises from Barwell et al aside, I don’t see this changing any time soon. And therefore neither will my opposition to Right to Buy.

More’s the point research has consistently shown that 1) Right to Buy has had an adverse impact on the housing benefit bill, diverting resources to (higher cost) private renting than would have been the case 2) crucially through the loss of social housing Right to Buy has intensified problems of housing affordability. In London the problem has been particularly acute.

Dwellings by Sector new
Source -DCLG Live Table 101 [Dwellings] by Tenure (UK) Historical Series
As a side note, the IFS did some interesting modelling work on Right to Buy prior to the Voluntary Version coming into play. It’s worth a read.

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

Subtle changes have been occurring with the current UK Government’s approach to housing. Gavin Barwell has admitted, at least in part, that replacements for RTB have not always been secured fast enough and has sought to increase capital funding for non-market rent properties. And it seems the urgency for the roll out of VRTB has been somewhat tempered.

Elsewhere the passing of Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Bill has been heartening, as has the interest being shown by Sajid Javid in the Housing First approach to treating vulnerable homeless individuals. 18 months ago this was frankly unthinkable. They show a more mature approach to tackling the various housing crises in this country than has previously been the case since 2010. Albeit with continuing issues on Welfare provision, which is an intrinsic part of the picture.

Conclusions

Ultimately the scrapping of Right to Buy in Scotland, and now potentially in Wales are unlikely to influence the current Government. But they will provide the opportunity to test how to end a policy that has, for the most part, benefited the individual at the cost of the wider community, and by extension society. If we are to have a more balanced, long-term approach to housing in the UK it needs to go. Whether there is the political will to do that remains to be seen. Either way it’s a fascinating, if endlessly frustrating, time to be a housing policy geek.

 *What the DCLG wraps up under the umbrella of a Housing Association.

Grown Up Talk

Historically you’d barely have time to finish the “ue” in posing the question Does the sector provide Value For Money? when most housing associations would throw their toys out of the pram so violently you’d be amazed if those in the near vicinity got out unscathed. It is a reaction that has needed to change, and very gradually it is.

Play Time is Over

As businesses, housing associations rely on public funding for a very large proportion of the money that makes up their profits. Either directly from Central Government in Capital Grant, or indirectly via Housing Benefit/Universal Credit. Therefore it is not unreasonable for the public interest to be protected by a higher level of expectation regarding scrutiny over VFM than otherwise might be the case. It is an agenda we would do well to properly engage with. As in the long run damage to both the reputation of the sector in the eyes of the public, and of Government is at stake.

Whilst the Eye of Sauron attention of Government/the media has shifted from blaming housing associations for the housing crisis by not building enough, it is likely that the focus will once again return on what more we need to/why it’s all our fault. There are noises coming on VFM and the sector, ones we would be wise to heed as they offer risk, but also opportunity. Because it will be by engaging the agenda of Value For Money that the sector can own the teams of the debate and promote its own interests at the same time. The development of the VFM scorecard via a variety of organisations with the support of the DCLG is a welcome start in the process. Albeit with a feeling that the sector is looking to jump before being pushed*.

There are over 1,200 organisations doing essentially the same thing, inevitably some will be more efficient and provide better VFM than others

We are no longer the amateur-hour/slightly bent housing organisations that were set up in the 60s and 70s. Nor are we Local Authority housing departments. We cannot simply ignore outside scrutiny and hope it will go away and/or block it via meaningless bureaucracy. There are over 1,200 organisations doing essentially the same thing, inevitably some will be more efficient and provide better VFM than others. We need to recognise this and make improvements where necessary. The best way to do that is to have an methodology of measurement, which we currently lack. Something that ties into the legacy of crap benchmarking in the sector. But that’s a blog for another day.

Learning from History

Landlords must provide value for money – and they need to be able to evidence it.

As ever I’m not the first to write on this subject- check out Emma Maier’s piece in Inside Housing, as well as Mark Henderson’s, for further info/insight. In particular I agree with Emma when she notes that “Landlords must provide value for money – and they need to be able to evidence it”. The VFM Scorecard is potentially a way to achieve both this and to work more closely with Government. It increases the transparency of organisations within the sector. It gets on board with an element of the current Government’s agenda that is not a major impact on our finances. Fundamentally it helps to build trust.

If we, as a sector, want to be treated like grown ups in a relationship with Government, we need to act like grown ups. That means engaging and facilitating policy changes that can fit with our own agendas and policy preferences. The aim being to create a critical friend relationship, where the mutual benefits of working together, regardless of politics, can be seen. Only from that standpoint can we enact meaningful change. Pissing from the outside, whilst no doubt exhilarating, does not always enable one to move forward their agenda and influence policy.

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

Photo CreditMyXI – Tongue & Groovy (2009)

*It’s nice to see that we’re consistent in our approach to enacting change. Not so much ‘nudge’ theory in play, but ‘shove’ theory.

 

 

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…

S is for Social

Housing Association decides to make the most of its historical mission to help the most disenfranchised by totally abandoning its raison d’être.

So I’m a little late to the game. Sadly life events are getting in the way of blogging as much as before. However the beauty of being a perennially pissed off chap (Churchie Chats, you ain’t got shit on me grump-wise) is that eventual something will bring the Wrath of Khan Me into focus.

You Can Go Your Own Way, But we don’t have to like it

If you have haven’t noticed Genesis under Neil Hadden, their Chief Executive, has made the decision to move away from social/affordable rent i.e. abandon the fundamental purpose of being a Housing Association. Apparently poor people are no longer his organisation’s problem, well those who can’t afford home ownership at any rate. More specifically he stated:

“We are not able, or being asked, to provide affordable and social rented accommodation to people who should be looking to the market to solve their own problems. I do think [the Budget] is a watershed in all sorts of ways.”(Inside Housing 30/07/15).

In stating that we (as Housing Associations) are not being asked to provide social rented accommodation Mr Hadden is correct. But then again we weren’t in the 1960s, or the 1970s, when LSVTs came along in the 80s and 90s again this wasn’t a Government backed program, well not at first. Back then groups of individuals and organisations identified a real burning need within the communities they lived and sought to do something about it. No-one asked them to, they just did it. That situation hasn’t changed to this day. No-one asks for social housing, but there is one hell of a need for it.

That quibble aside, no worries Genesis, I’m all up for supporting new entrepreneurs. I’m sure we can set up a Crowd-Funding page for you to get you all set up in your brave new world, hell I’ve even sorted out your new organisation’s name ‘REvelations’ – the first E will be backwards, ‘cos that is apparently what all the cool kids do these days. The pay-back is that you give us your social (and affordable) rent houses, your historic grant and charitable status and you can kindly jog off into the sunset.

Jokes aside I do have some sympathy with Genesis, after all the sector, following years of relatively easy-going and achieving fuck all influence in Central Government, has been seeing some rough times recently. This could be an attempt at wrestling back some control/autonomy in interesting times. However, I don’t believe throwing in the towel is the answer, especially when you help to fund the research piece which has facilitated tougher times coming about (tut, tut). But as Tom Murtha has noted (I must get that chap to do my Lotto numbers) mission creep and now outright jumping ship will be the long-term death of social housing. Just a cursory look at the figures of Social, actual Social housing new builds and you can see Tom’s point.

However, for all the ills of providing housing other than Social rent I fundamentally believe a diverse portfolio is needed and that social and Low Cost Home Ownership products can co-exist. Not everyone wants to rent, not everyone wants to own. Not everyone can afford to do either privately. This means there is an opportunity here for Housing Associations to assist those at the bottom end of the money scale to fulfill their housing pathway of choice. It also means that if you ain’t building or expanding, time to go sister.

The Elephant in the Room

What this sorry state of affairs does reinforce is the monumental diaspora that is the Social Housing sector. A bit like the Labour Party there are those that would love Hippy-Esk communes (hard lefties), those who want Co-op housing (moderately hard lefties), those focused on social care, those just on General Needs (Centre Lefties), and those who are selling their souls to Tony Blair the devil (Centre Right/Genesis*). Our message/purpose is lost in a haze of BS and mission statements. A culling/merging of organisations is required. Handily a lot of first generation housing chaps and chapesses are coming up for retirement in senior positions. That should help the process a bit…

Wrapping it Up

I can understand why Genesis are looking to move the way they are, I just believe it is fundamentally wrong. No doubt the reaction of myself and a number of other in the sector will be seen as nothing more than the “depressingly predictable howls of protest” by Mr Hadden. But that is the joy of this sector, you can present a bad new idea and we can poo poo it.

*I of course speak in jest here.

Rumour, Misinformation and Gossip

I’m not usually lost for words (I’m not quite Deadpool, but I’m not far off) however I do find myself at a bit of a loss at what to say following the utter hatchet job undertaken by The Spectator. As someone who works in a heavily performance/data focused part of a housing association I am well aware there is more than one way to skin a cat. The issue is you actually need a moggie in the first place. Alas the Spectator should have gone to Specsavers because whatever it has been skinning, it ain’t a feline.

Inside Housing has done a very good job of debunking a number of figures thrown about with alarming disregard for their origin or the context in which they exist (see below for my favourites). And as much as they are to be commended it would be nice to have seen slight sterner stuff come from the sector’s representative bodies. Something akin to “this is utter bollocks; we are not going to even dignify it with a full response because my 2-year-old child could have done a better job sourcing those figures” for example. Whilst the NHF has done well to rally the responses have lacked a certain punch.

Myths Debunked:

‘Places for People built 792 homes last year’- This is true although the piece does not mention the association’s plans to complete a further 6,631 homes over the next three years.

‘Housing associations managed [to build] just 23,300 homes last year’- As Inside Housing’s development survey shows, the top 50 largest associations alone completed 40,213 homes in 2014/15.

‘Over the last four years housing associations received £23bn* in government grants’ – This has already been corrected by The Spectator itself. In fact, housing associations received £4.5bn of grant through the affordable homes programme between 2011 and 2015.

*I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who went ‘eh!?’ at that particularly erroneous figure…

What the article does show is two things 1) Not many people outside of the sector have much of a clue on what we actually spend our money on – it ain’t just new homes kids, unlike a lot of private landlords we reinvest in our properties. Though occasionally we do balls this up, like really bad. 2) We need a new PR agency… stat. Maybe not so much #ImInWorkJeremy more like #ImDoingMoreThanJustBuildingNewHomesYouDicks. An excellent example has come via Phillipa Jones and Bromford (sorry I know I use these guys a lot but this is a simple, easy to use eample to prove my point). This is the kind of detail we need to set out – publicly, not just in our annual report, because who reads them, honestly?

I think what really narks me is that despite the utter shitness of the article (#sorrynotsorry it really is shit) there is a grain of truth in what is being said. We do need to build more, we do need to be more mindful of how much the upper echelons get paid. We also need to be far more proactive in the PR game. Because it ain’t even half time sweethearts we’re 3-0 down and we’re not looking pretty.

What I’ve also been saddened by is the lack of people pushing the wide range of activities we undertake. Admittedly only in the short 8hrs or so since the article hit. But Housing Associations are essentially mini-welfare states in the communities they operate. Money advice, debt advice, day care centres, training/skills classes, community regeneration are just the tip of the iceberg of what we do. For fuck sake we do so much unheralded work with the people who live in our communities (with being the operative word) but because we can’t pull our fingers out and highlight what we do (outside of 24Housing and InsideHousing) we’re getting smashed.

I will be watching Channel 4 tonight to see what is occurring; honestly I hope it’s better than the preamble that have so far been put out. If its not, I’ll be doing what all middle class people do and write a strongly worded letter…

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