A guide to recognising your saints

For those slightly out of the loop Right to Buy is basically the sector’s kryptonite (the green version, not the red one, no-one is going to go BS-mental on Metropolis just yet).  It raises passion, anger, worry and acts as a unifier to a sector so often at odds with itself.  Though funnily enough, like green kryptonite it does severely weaken us.

The reaction of the sector to the potential rolling out of Right to Buy has been fairly standard (i.e. we all went a bit cray cray, myself included).  But what has been surprising is that all these emotions appear to be coming from people outside of the sector as well.  Media that has usually at best been ambivalent, and often borderline hostile, have come out against the move (here’s looking at the Daily Telegraph).  Hell even the general public is a little bit unimpressed (hats off to YouGov for that poll), not even those who considered themselves pro-Tory.  Commentators, ‘experts’, housing insiders and a whole host of politicians have come out against it.  Embarrassingly for the Conservatives, so did they, well at least to members of the Coalition in 2013.  Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.

In terms of popular policies Right to Buy is up there with the best.  But a counter attack via the Daily ‘racist in public so you don’t have to’ Mail (fyi still one of Russell Howard’s best jokes) has highlighted how negatively the policy has been received this time round.  But as Colin Wiles notes even at the Daily Fail not everyone is on board.  Peter Hitchens providing some unflattering comments on the policy (that being said I still always prefered his late brother, Chris).  Either way you know things are getting nasty when pay gets involved.  I could make snide comments about Conservative MPs, duck ponds and public money.  But I’m above all that.  Actually I’m not, what an utterly moronic set of circumstances.

So what does this all mean?  Well the answer, is partly provided by Julia Unwin and the guys and gals over at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  Julia et al quite rightly point that the debate over housing has long been skewed to home ownership. And that arguably the most efficient way of helping to alleviate poverty and provide stability and security (social housing) is ignored.  Right to Buy, rent to buy, the promise of buckets more housing (to buy) are all geared around a political consensus that buying votes is preferable to renting.  Consequently each party is keen to show that they will provide the best opportunity people to purchase their own home.  Sadly for all the fluff and bluster little has been put forward as to how to increase supply as well as actually deal with an acute affordability issue.  Though the boys in blue fare particularly poorly and the public is definitely not convinced.  Especially those who rent, with the Tories polling badly around housing policies.  On a side note a majority of the public appears to back greater borrowing to build more affordable housing.

Elsewhere the BBC Panorama programme the Great Housing Benefit Scandal showed that for once a TV could tactfully highlight the plight of ordinary people on benefits.  Showing the suffering of folks like you and me (only they are poor, apparently that makes them different) at the hands of sub-quality housing as opposed to being some glitzy Jeremy Kyle look at the poor people hate-fest.  It also did a very good job at showing some of the sorry excuses of landlords out there.  Before the National Landlords Association gets its knickers in a twist I doubt any of those highlighted in the show were paid up members.  Good private sector landlords do exist.  But it is hardly surprising when a few rogue private landlords put profit before both the quality of the housing they provide and the unfortunate souls who reside in their dwellings.

So where does this all leave us?  Well frankly in exactly the same place we always have been.  A country with a housing market that is fundamentally failing to meet the needs of the suckers who live in it.  I will leave you with a quote from a mate of mine, it neatly sums up the situation for a lot of people.

“I just want a house, not a mansion or anything like that, just some stability for my little boy. I’m fed up of moving all the time.”

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.

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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.

Fool’s Gold

You may have noticed that housing had a small get together last week.  Yea… this is another Homes for Britain rally blog.  Sorry, it’s been a long week or so and these things don’t write themselves. It was good to see such that such a large cross-section of the housing world was in attendance.  Well they appeared to be based on the tweets.  I didn’t actually speak to too many people… SHOUT were also there in force and it was good to see so many people so passionate about (let’s face it) something that is a bit mundane to the average punter.

The speakers were from all the main political parties (and UKIP) plus a selection of informed contributors. My top 3 were: Ken Loach was full of passion, a fierce wit and an utter lack of respect for time limits.  It was worth the trip alone to see him in full flow. Though sorry fella but a planned economy is never happening.  Frances O’Grady – set fire to the 3rd bar and a few more besides. Full of rage against inequality and injustice, highly articulate and definitely worth listening to.  Finally, Miriam Ahmed. Homeless at a young age, visibly pissed at the hand people can be dealt with and determined to change things for the better. If you are holding a staff conference, or simply want to remind people of why we do what we do, I would suggest getting her along.  Your staff will be singing Les Marseilles quicker than you can say to the barricades.

What was clear however, despite all the glitz and glamour was the enormity of the task ahead. Two very key contributions came from Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home. The other from Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks. Tim noting it is all well and good for all the speakers to say they believe housing is an issue at a pro-housing event but what are they saying elsewhere? Both Labour and the Lib Dems have had opportunities to do so, but haven’t.  This would suggest that neither the public or the political class deem housing to be a vote winner, not just yet at any rate.  This was supported by Deborah who pointed to the fact that polls still place housing down the agenda. That whilst people see housing as an issue they don’t see it an issue affecting them locally, something that is key.  ‘Cos you know if ain’t happening down their road most people don’t give a monkey’s.  Ironically enough a majority think more housing was needed, just not in their backyard thank you very much.

Mr Michael Green Grant Schapps duly popped in to play the pantomime villan (oh no he didn’t…sorry, I’ll stop now).  Whilst all the other parties admitted more work needed to be done on housing (well Farage just went on about brownfield sites, the days of yore and I think something about immigration) Mr Schapps sounded off a bunch of dubious figures with the general demeanour of someone stating, “you’re wrong” at every challenging remark.  He did at least manage a wry smile when reminded of his occasionally dodgy memory by the hostess with the mostess, Jonathan Dimbleby.

It was a hint of things to come from his colleague the Rt Hon Gideon George Osborne (honestly what is it with this lot and names).  In the final budget before the next General Election Mr Osborne popped out another demand side initiative.  A move that is seen as aiming to perpetuate a superficial feel good factor pre-general election. Short term political gain aside it will not do a lot (though it did get the ire of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, small mercies and all that).  Certainly it won’t help to resolve our housing crisis. The two best responses to the budget came from the JRF and Danny Dorling in the Daily Telegraph. I couldn’t put it better myself, so I won’t.

If you want a real downer from the upper that was the homes for britain rally I would suggest reading Mr Halewood’s piece on our inability to frame the terms of reference in the debate on housing.  And our failure to properly highlight our value for money to the taxpayer.  Turns out we save Joe Bloggs a bomb compared to housing poor people in private rent properties.

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

Let’s face the music and dance

Homes for Britain Rally an important step in PR battle but a pro-housing stance amongst the general public is more nuanced than a simple nod to more social housing.

So the day is about to/has arrived (depending on when you read this) when all and sundry in housing pop down to London town in order to support the call for more housing in Britain.  I must admit I have had my doubts about the campaign.  Whilst the pressure group SHOUT has been very explicit in its calls for more social housing, Homes for Britain has tread a more fleet-footed approach.   No direct mention of social housing, just the line that we have a housing crisis.  I would like to see a more out and out support for social housing than has been the case.  I get the need for an approach that appeals to more than just the housing sector.  But on occasion it feels a little false.  That being said (for the record mostly) I support both Homes for Britain and SHOUT (I’m an inclusive kinda gal).

Despite my ever present doom and gloom recent weeks have been encouraging.  Housing has got into the mainstream press with the NHF in particular getting a large amount of air time.  Ramming the message home that not enough homes are being built.  That all the political parties have a golden opportunity to address a chronic problem.  That inaction is not an option.  And the public appears to be listening.  Shelter even won a highly important victory today over revenge evictions.  No Chope or Davies to filibuster the legislation this time.  Democracy works after all.  Positives aside, the ever reliable guys and gals over at Ipsos Mori have been producing some interesting survey results on housing for a while, not all of them good news.

A remarkable 75% of those surveyed believed there is a housing crisis, but only 5% indicated it would change the way they would vote.  It is also a bit removed, with only 40% saying there was a housing crisis in their local area.  This is a little troublesome.  Unless you can resonate the issue with people positive sentiment will not translate into action. Stuff that appears to sod off other people doesn’t quite cut it.  The Housing Day Survey did indicate a largely positive support for more social housing, but home ownership was still the preferred choice.  And housing is still down the pecking order in more recent pulse checks of the voting pulic perhaps a bit more passion might help our cause?

If you ever needed a bit of a pick me up I suggest you take a look at either this video from Michael Sheen or this one from Harry Smith.  Both provide what our side of the debate often lacks, visible passion, pride.  And a warning not to walk quietly into the night. Raw, un-distilled and in your face.  At a time when more and more it is only sanitized opinions (or needlessly controversial, looking at you Katie Hopkins) that are in the public space, showing some chanelled emotion may prove worthwhile.  As Mr Sheen himself states on the general apathy in British politics “by God believe in something“.  Tomorrow is our opportunity to show we do just that, I hope we grab it.

If you are at the rally I will be in and around and mostly on my best behaviour.  See you there, feel free to pop up and chat.  If you are inclined you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the Twitter handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

The Power of Nightmares

If you haven’t managed to I strongly recommend taking a look at a couple of documentaries by Adam Curtis.  The first provides the name for this blog, The Power of Nightmares, the second is Bitter Lake.  Both focus on the power of meta-narratives that seek to explain the world we live in.  Both highlight the often unintended consequences of doing so.  Particularly in Bitter Lake which links the over-simplification of worldviews to the spiralling violence in the Middle East.

Whilst a Neighbourhood Office can be pretty frenetic at times I would balk at comparing it to the various swathes of carnage ripping up parts of the world far away from our shores.  However the central messages from Mr Curtis and his dark, compelling and surreal documentaries ring true for social housing.  For years politicians have used highly negative narratives when looking at the welfare state and social housing.  Providing a justification for dismantling one of the central support systems for the general public.  Where once was assistance is now dependency, where once was a council house now stands a privately owned building sold for a lot more than it was lost for.  Benefit claimants are shirkers, not people.  So the story goes.

Within the pervading political explanations of the modern world is a set of basic assumptions.  And as with Bitter Lake these assumptions, which in turn have driven policy, have led to unintended outcomes.  The emergence of Neo-liberalism from pariah to main stay of both political thought and economic policy brought about a seismic shift in housing tenure. Home ownership has come to dominate the UK Housing market. With this domination a set of ideals, of pre-scripts, have become buried within our nation’s psyche.

Table Numero Uno – Trends in tenure, 1980 to 2013-14

Trends in tenureWe are one of only a few countries in Europe where a property is seen as a money-making endeavour above other beneficial factors of home ownership. Where buy-to-let small-scale landlords have been positively encouraged. Programmes like Homes Under The Hammer or Location, Location, Location typify our approach to housing. We believe house prices will always increase for short-term profit. Yet somehow housing will remain affordable for our children. This is a lie and a dangerous one.

At the same time we have been fed a myth that living standards will always improve. That consumerism is a good thing. That the wheels of the economy will keep on turning and benefit us all. The fact that our current recovery is based on, and now threatened by, ever-increasing individual debt as credit replaces cash savings is ignored. Roll the dice baby, papa needs a new pair of shoes.

The latest Conservative Party policy announcement beautifully illustrates the point. A scheme that provides cheaper home ownership, via public subsidy, at the possible expense of actual affordable (social) housing for the most in need is only possible where the pervading narrative is utterly warped from the reality it seeks to explain. It is about housing, stupid. The utter lack of it. The continued loss of social housing via right to buy. The inability for those of my cohort to even begin to countenance the prospect of buying due to the inherent costs.  Some half-baked initiative to help schmucks like me is akin to pissing in the fucking wind when the mess that is our housing system is seen in its entirety.

As Colin Wiles has noted yet another demand side initiative is not the answer here.  More needs to be done on the supply side.  And with the Private sector so utterly unable to meet pent-up demand approaches like Starter Homes and Help to Buy miss the point.  But given the worldview in which they have been formed, where the state cannot provide the solution, it is perhaps hardly surprising.  What we need is a Government that will reverse the drop in social housing and invest in housing and infrastructure, properly.  Alas I do not see this coming from the boys in blue.

Graph Numero Due – Households aged 25-34, by tenure, 2003-04 to 2013-14

25 to 32 Housing TenureOf small comfort is that housing is now seemingly on the agenda for politicians. However looking more closely at the policy announcements there is still reason enough to be glum. In a week where The Green Party fluffed its lines, where Labour promised 200,000 new homes built a year by 2020.  The Tories for their part have stated they are on course to do this by 2017. The focus is overwhelmingly on home ownership. Social housing is merely an aside. Indeed the Conservative Party has been so consistent in conflating social housing with its wider affordable housing provision aims I think they see schemes like Help to Buy, in their eyes at least, as an acceptable form of social housing (see equation below).

Social Rent = Affordable Rent
Affordable Rent = Affordable Housing
Affordable Housing = Cheap home ownership.
Providing cheap home ownership = Providing social housing(ish)

The policy announcements of this week are a start but they are nowhere near enough. Nice sound bites and vague promises around how much housing will be built. Or in the case of Brandon Lewis an absence of targets (guess you can’t miss them if you don’t have them…). Are all well and good but the lack of a coherent approach to housing policy has left this country in a very large pickle. Just got to hope we will eventually wake up.

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

Roll Call

Social housing can play a key role in reducing in-work poverty.  In doing so not only will they be helping those who work for them but also the communities in which they operate.

So it turns out if you pay your staff a decent wage not only do they increase their productivity but their reliance on the state might also reduce.  Who wudda thunk it?  The JRF has recently been releasing a number of blogs/research pieces highlighting that whilst some progress is being made a large minority are being left behind.  Worst still for the state assistance is state dependency brigade this is impacting our welfare payments.  Those of you who have even only occasionally read my blogs will have noticed a recurring graph.  This is the one relating to those housing benefit claimants who are in work.  This graph has inexorably been moving up.  However, unlike Yazz and the Plastic Population up isn’t the only way (baby).

There have been a number of reports, largely from the centre left that highlight the absurd situation where the market is able to pay crap wages because the state will subsidise it.  The damage this causes has been known for a while, 5 years ago the JRF released a research piece into the damaging cycles of low-pay-no-pay (another piece I crack out from time to time).  The simple point is this, yes employment has increased in terms of number but like many things this is not just a simple numbers game.  It is the quality of the jobs, and the pay that goes with them, that is key here.  Unfortunately we are being found severely wanting in this regard.

I have previously called for social landlords to put both their money and their ideals where their mouths are on this subject.  A quick look at the Living Wage Foundation’s website will show that a number of housing associations are already doing so.  But given that there are over 1,500 in the country and the foundation has 1,218 businesses/organisations signed up more need to pull their finger out.  You cannot state that you work to better the lives of the communities you operate in without looking after your own community of workers as well.  A guaranteed Living Wage isn’t the be all and end all, but it is a start.

The Living Wage, according to the Foundation that takes its name from the notion, is £7.85 outside of London, £9.15 inside.  That equates to £14,695.20 and £17,128.80 per year respectively.  If as an organisation you can’t guarantee to pay that, or at least the pro-rata equivalent, then I’m sorry but you have no business being a social landlord.  I’m not saying that you chase yet another standard to pin on the bottom of your letterheads.  But God  knows as sector we chase awards like kids at a sweet shop.  Why not chase something that has some benefit other than inflating ego?

The benefits to both business and employees are pretty hefty.  For businesses absenteeism, staff turnover and productivity all improve whilst reputation is also enhanced.  Employees feel more loyal to their employer, are (again) more productive and have a better psychological wellbeing.  Invest in your staff, reap the benefits.

Please don’t take this as a slap down to the sector.  I am highly aware (and appreciative) of the very generous employment packages the sector puts together for its workers.  Having worked both in the Private and 3rd Sector spheres it is always refreshing to see how much time and effort housing associations and their peers put into staff development.  I am also keenly aware that many social landlords do pay something akin or even above the Living Wage at the bottom end of their pay scales.  But this is a simple, but significant, way of protesting against general poor pay whilst having a positive impact closer to home.  As the old saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

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

Eat, sleep, collect data, repeat

Report from Sheffield Hallam University highlights the sector still has work to do around data and their approaches to Universal Credit.

So first off here’s the caveats, whilst researched and published by Sheffield Hallam the report was commissioned by Housing Partners.  Given that their primary business is heavily tied into providing IT solutions to the social housing sector a pinch of salt is needed here.  That being said SHU has a long history of research, particularly in the social housing sector.  Hell they even had the pleasure of my company for a year whilst I bumbled my way through a Masters Degree there.  Forgiving the deepest of sins (I did my undergrad degree at the University of Sheffield) #UniTilliDie and fundamentally both the report, and Housing Partners’ associated trumpeting of it, carry some weight.

Given the monumental delays, recriminations, borderline lies and fluster coming from Iain ‘never knowingly gives sound statistics’ Duncan Smith and the DWP you would be forgiven for forgetting that we are midway through the roll out of Universal Credit.  And whilst there are undoubtedly many more rocky steps to take, piss poor project management aside, it is here to stay.  It is therefore somewhat surprising to see that a number of social landlords are still in a bit of a muddle around their customer’s data.  The greatest advantage we have as a sector is that there is no element of surprise, rumblings around UC started in 2010, so we don’t really have an excuse.  But the findings from the guys and gals t’up north show the same issues that we had a couple of years ago are still around.  It does make you wonder what the fudge have we been doing?

I appreciate the monumental task at hand, particularly for the larger social landlords.  People move in and out of our properties, have kids, get married, get divorced, get married again (on a number of occasions to the person they divorced) etc etc.  Mobile phone numbers are as concrete as a chocolate tea-pot and no-one and I mean no-one takes ownership of the bloody data.  But it is not just the day to day grind around data that we appear to have a problem with.  As usual there appears to be a disconnect between the IT systems we have, and the systems we need to use.  I say this from something of an odd position because the organisations I have worked with have had pretty solid, if unspectacular IT systems. Their data collection, protection and insight processes, whilst not perfect, are pretty advanced and are being used in the correct way i.e. to inform the business and improve customer satisfaction.

The most interesting thing about the Bedroom Tax, Universal Credit and now the report from SHU and Housing Partners (from a purely data point of view, not the suffering and utter shiteness of the policies themselves) is that they have illustrated how little we know about our customers.  Or in some cases our own stock. It does make you wonder what the situation would have been like without such external stimuli.  Would we as a sector remained largely oblivious to how bad our data was?

Many organisations when the Bedroom Tax came out probably looked at undertaking a census.  No doubt many who responded to SHU’s survey are thinking of doing the same again.  These bad boys are great at providing a big bang effect.  It will indicate areas where you have been lacking data (typically you will see a sudden spike in certain demographics sets) but they are only part of the solution.  It is in the day to day interactions that you will gather the majority of your information. To truly keep your data fresh you need identify how and when you and your customers interact and make the most of those opportunities.  You also need to make sure you properly store the data you already have.

I find it deeply alarming that some 42% of the 167 or so organisations surveyed admitted to using paper based systems (i.e. paper) to store some data on its tenants.  This is utterly horrendous and frankly unforgiveable.  Storing data on off-system spreadsheets is bad enough, but paper?  How the hell do you ensure any consistency, any accountability and any basic audit trail if part of your data is on paper!?  If your IT system can’t store the data you need there are plenty of options out there.  Side note, if you are procuring make sure the business and not the IT bod is the customer and the lead on the project.  IT facilitate, they don’t lead on business focused IT procurement. Though quite often no-one tells them that.

By and large data is a simple beast. Work out what you need, why you need it, how you are going to store it, how are you going to keep it fresh but most importantly how are you going to use it.  That my friends is basically it.  Everything else is just mere details.

If you feel so inclined (I wouldn’t advise it, you will be disappointed) you can follow me on Twitter here or find me using the Twitter handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.