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)

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Sit Down, Be Humble

The conference is dead. Long live collaborative work events.

Time is money, so don’t f*ck with mine

One of the lessons I learned early on in my career is that most networking doesn’t actually take place in events designed to facilitate networking. This is odd, because as a sector we are pretty good at sharing learning and best practice. Particularly lower down the food chain. But these events tend to follow a wearily predictable pattern. The coffee is horrific, the biscuits worse and that’s before your attempts at making small talk with someone who probably thinks WhatsApp is an internet. Yes interpersonal networking is a necessary skill, but give a chap a chance with a decent Hobnob or two, we’re not animals, you beasts.

The speeches are hours of your life you won’t get back. Where engaging content is typically treated as an afterthought by the speakers. The breakout sessions are rushed and haphazard. Frenetic energy & forced enthusiasm are not a good mix. I dunno what annoys me more at these faux seminar encounters – the person who talks over everyone else, or getting stuck having to write up the bloody notes. I’m sure useful stuff happens at these things. But I’ve found one makes better, more interesting, connections via less formal gatherings than at a conference. Because frankly if I wanted to listen to a bunch of middle aged men living on past glories and discussing subjects that provide no real insight/are of no particular use, I’d turn on the TV and watch Soccer Saturday†.

Dust in the Wind

For those of us born after Duran Duran were a thing, networking online before physically meeting someone is pretty normal. Whilst unconferences (I know, I hate the term too, but they have their uses) tend to offer a more palatable affair than their more orthodox cousins. There’s something essentially democratic about a day where topics are proposed and then assigned on a basis of passionate arguing for their right to exist. By allowing delegates to steer the focus of the learning one tends to get a better level of information exchange. Which is ultimately one of the main goals of a conference, to disseminate knowledge en masse. As well as you know, meet interesting people and make small talk about how shit the weather is.

Even the online presence of conferences annoy me. Instead of having an arbitrary hashtag most folks get wrong, despite being reminded every 5mins to tweet using it #OMGBestConferenceEver17. The more organic social media presence that comes with peer created, less formal conferences generate a better and more memorable buzz. Because they allow people to buy into the day by getting them to shape it. Such an approach also gives people the opportunity to share ideas, and dare I say it, network prior to the day. This makes it a darn sight easier to hit the ground running and thus offers a greater potential for a heavy focus on collaborative working/discussions instead of cringe worthy icebreakers. It is a better way to network, it is a better way to work collaboratively full stop.

There may well continue to be a place for standard conferences. God knows we need our peacock season, where people go to see and be seen. It’s also a useful means by which to get one’s senior management team out of everyone’s hair for a day or two. But fundamentally I am yet to be convinced we are getting a good bang for our buck in relation to what’s currently available. For the layperson they offer very little. Well beyond ego massaging that is. But if that’s all there is, why bother?

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†We’re in the UK, you sods, it’s bloody Football. Not Soccer.

Photo Credit Dimitris Kalogeropoylos – Conference (2008)

Skills to pay the bills

It is alas that time of the year again when the devout believers make their yearly pilgrimage to the conference of their preferred cult/party. For the most part they are non-events, apart from when the keynote speaker forgets a good chunk of his speech. Or if the party in question is UKIP. When they are in town I like to play the game of how many quasi-xenophobic and/or sexist gaffes can one party make in a day.

Out of Labour’s conference has come the announcement of wanting to push the minimum wage up to £8. This is a step in the right direction. But, when you look at the details, it is not enough. The rising cost of living is a one of the few areas that Labour has scored well in and this is definitely an attempt to score more brownie points with the electorate.  Regrettably, as often there are, the caveats water-down the announcement. Any rise will happen “by the end of the next parliament”. So probably 5 years away. Businesses are already making sucked teeth noises, meaning some loopholes may apply.  It is heartening however to hear a mainstream party recognise that wages are not where they should be and people are feeling the pinch.

Having worked in enough bars, restaurants, pubs, warehouses and factories to ensure I’m never working in such jobs again I can assure you a ‘minimum’ wage is sweet f@*k all. My time on the character-buildingly-low wage was manageable because I was at home or studying at uni. The fact I was on minimum wage, zero-to-very-low hour contracts didn’t matter because my rent payment wasn’t contingent on it. This is not the case for millions of people, who are very much in this situation. You only have to look at the sharp rise of those in work and receiving housing benefit to see the consequences of that.  For many the state is now effectively indirectly subsidising poor pay from private, public and third sector organisations alike.  Whilst work does pay, and often more than a purely benefit-provided income, for many it does not pay enough.  Hell when even the Daily Telegraph is noting that the cost of living is outstripping wage increases something is definitely amiss.

Borrowed Chart 1 – Pay Growth v CPI Inflation

Daily Telegraph (2014)
Daily Telegraph (2014)

I would argue that as social landlords we have a duty to provide a living wage (rather than just a minimum wage) to our employees.  Given all those massive surpluses out there I’m sure we could find a bob or two to cover the uplift in pay required.  More fundamentally it is about bringing home the work we do in the communities we serve.  You cannot espouse the need to support those on low/no income and the vulnerable without ensuring your own staff aren’t being swept aside by the same tide.  Poor pay is just as damaging as no pay and as progressive employers (in my experience only M&S have come close to offering as good employment T&Cs as social landlords) we have a duty that our staff can actually pay their bills.

Don’t be fooled, the minimum wage is just that – a bare minimum, combined with poor terms and conditions it can leave those in work trapped in poverty.  If you have the time I suggest reading the JRF’s contribution on this subject.  As ever it is insightful, thoughtful and to the point.

Whilst a sizeable number of social landlords already pay equivalent to the living wage (as opposed to minimum wage), more need to follow suit.  If not for anything but to show that successful businesses can afford to pay a fair, living wage to their employees.  Charity they say often begins at home, I suggest we take this notion when it comes to pay as well.

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