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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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.

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.

New Year, Same Issues

A new year has arrived but the omens already look bleak.  It is time the housing sector made a few changes before we really are up the proverbial creek with no wooden implement.

It’s a new year but it is not a new dawn and I am definitely not feeling good. Though in fairness that might be the post Christmas come-down.  Those of you who keep an eye on such things will have noticed the pre-election bollocks is in full swing. As predicted by none other than yours truly (and pretty much every political commentator in existence) the rise of UKIP has seen Mr Cameron and co shift to the right.  Talk of a coalition with the ‘live off EU brigade’ has been left in the air, further budget cuts are looming large and there may even be a referendum on membership of the EU earlier than planned. Goodie, haven’t had a proper white elephant in politics for a while.

On the subject of white elephants, the notion of rent controls appears to have gathered momentum again.  I have blogged on this before and without wanting to sound too Milton Friedman-esk, as that guy is a monumental bell-end, this sort of state intervention is not the answer, at least not on its own.  I have sympathy with Civitas, the think tank whose report  promotes rent controls (as well as Generation Rent) and certainly there appears to be public support for such measures (see Mr Birch’s excellent article on the subject).  However as Civitas notes, ultimately it is more housing that is needed. On its own rent controls will merely act as a mild dampener on a housing market that is only working for those already in an advantageous position.

One of my new year’s resolutions was to be bit more helpful in my criticisms, so after slagging off housing policy for the umpteenth time here are a few of my suggestions for a glorious new world.  You can thank me later, or even better pay me.  Some of these are for the housing sector as a whole, others for the incumbents in power, enjoy.

  • Stop with the brooding introspective bollocks.  The social housing sector is not Ryan from the O.C #mancrush, whilst I have also been guilty of bemoaning the fact we aren’t the most popular kid in school it is time to stop looking moodily in the distance and go talk to somebody, anybody.
  • Find a friend.  Campaign under one unified banner (Homes for Britain is the closest to doing this) a splintered set of competing pressures groups is about useful as a chocolate teapot (at least I could eat the teapot…).  Though whoever thought of the Ho Ho Homes for Britain bit please don’t do that again, ever.
  • Grow a pair (of balls or boobs, I’m an equal opportunity muse so take your pick) and get over providing properties for private rent and sale.  I’ve lived in private accommodation, I’m about to go back into the sector.  The majority of the muppets currently pretending to be landlords know as much about renting as they do astrophysics.  Get into the sector, outperform the rest of the competition and reap the benefits for all your customers.
  • Scrap Right to Buy. Because this policy provides about as much value for money to the tax payer as throwing fifties off a tour bus in central London.
  • Scrap the bedroom tax and the benefit cap.  Neither would pass the so called ‘family test‘ supposedly being carried out against new Government Policy and because fundamentally they don’t do what they are meant to do.
  • Pay a living wage.  Whether you are a social landlord, investment bank, social enterprise or a high street store pay your staff a living wage.  Aside from the fact to not do so is a total d**k move.  The number of working households in receipt of housing benefit is sky-rocketing because the cost of pretty much everything is outstripping wages.  In addition cycles of low pay, no pay are key part of poverty and failure to act will mean further reliance on the state to make up the shortfall.  Make profit through good products and efficiency savings, not through underpaying your staff you cheap son of a rabid water vole.  Invest in the people who work for you and reap the benefits.
  • Scrap affordable housing (the type of rent not social housing in general!).  Or at the very least call it Intermediate Market Rent and let those properties out to people who don’t qualify for social housing.  Because it damn well isn’t affordable for the people who need it the most.  And for the love of Michael Flatley don’t complain that the housing benefit bill is going up when a policy as stupid as this is in place.
  • Invest in social housing, whether the economy is in good nick or going the way of Old Yeller there will always be a need for social housing.  Invest in it, it is a cost we can all share.

Positive rant over, I feel like a new me already…

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Get angry, get organised

Real Life Reform has just released its fourth report into the impact of the various welfare reforms.  It is grim reading and if you aren’t already angry about the botched way in which the reforms have been slapped into place, you should be.  Fuck, I’m that pissed I’ve done a second blog in two days #firstworldproblems.  But in all seriousness the harrowing statistics brought forth in this latest release highlight the monumental gap between the expectation of the reforms by those who are bringing them into play and the reality on the ground.

Here’s some of the highlights from the report:

  • Debt payments have doubled
  • Nearly a quarter of those surveyed owned money to loans sharks or payday lenders
  • 12.5% have used a food bank at least once in the last 3 months

What should be utterly shocking is that people are spending less on food i.e. going hungry to put the heating on, or living in cold houses to be able to afford to eat.  This is 21st Century Great Britain, and people are having to make choices that should not exist. However they do exist and as such the horror of the situation needs to be told.  Austerity Bites by Mara O’Hara has already highlighted many of the impacts of the reforms, and the linked mass reduction in government funding up and down the country.  Real Life Reform’s Report hammers home the same messages of anger, despair and desperation.  All brought on because of an ideology that trumps the notion of individualism, of people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps of the power of the market above all else.  All well and good when you are white middle class male from a well to do background but sometimes state assistance isn’t just a helping hand it is a god damn lifeline.

I have never understood why those so removed from the realities of deep engrained poverty feel that they have a unique position on how to turn it around.  I have been in the dire straights that the individuals looked at by Real Life Reform have been in.  Counting every penny, turning down drinks with your friends, not going to the gym or even playing 5 a side footy with your mates because you can’t afford it.  Not buying Christmas presents, stressing about every food shop.  These things may sound trivial bit in the midst of it they occupy most of your thinking capacity and drive home the sadness that comes with the social isolation associated of having sod all in the bank.  Let me get this straight poverty is not fun, it is not a choice.  It is dark, depressing and soul wrenching set of circumstances.  Particularly if like me you were working at the time.  I cannot explain the shear pressure that you go under when trying to make sure you have little pleasures like the heating on for an hour in the morning and an hour at night or being able to have pint (literally just one) with friends.  Poverty porn like Benefits Street, like How to Get a Council House don’t show the other side of having f@#k all money, if they did they would be lot more shocking, but for the right reasons.

I am lucky, I have a great family, awesome mates and a good job.  Like many people my experience of poverty was a temporary one.  It could however return, and part of the reason why I so strongly support more social housing and a proper safety net is that I might need it one day. As Mary O’Hara argues state support isn’t about dependency, it is about opportunity, about giving those who have been dealt a beat down from life another chance.  The combined impact of the reforms is taking away that support and bizarrely far from removing itself from the lives of its citizens (as per neo-liberal doctrine) under the Coalition the state is evermore encroaching on our lives.  With things like the claimant commitment and attempting to force the ‘workshy’ into work placements seemingly at odds with letting the individual make their own choices.  Being tough to the poor may play well to the crowd in the home counties but often the state of play is different to how it is imagined.  Peoples’ lives are more complex than we would like to think.

Please take this report and show it to all and sundry.  I have written before that ignorance breeds contempt and mistrust towards the unknown.  Opinion polls have consistently shown that when given greater information the general public is actually rather sympathetic to those on the margins and in receipts of benefits.  It is our job to ensure that they are kept well informed.  Keep up the good work Real Life Reform, I’m just sorry that there is a need for you to do so.

You can get Real Life Reform’s full report from here or go to http://www.lyha.co.uk/documents/Real_Life_Reform_Report_No4_July_2014.pdf.

A brave new world, and our role in it

A few weeks ago I was at an event held by the organisation I work for. The purpose of the day (well, half day really…) was to outline the vision for the company’s future. El Capitan and his deputy were there to deliver presentations, relatively smoothly, and gather feedback on the plans for the development of the business. He said a few things of note, but one really stuck. “You can either whinge about a problem, or you can do something about it.” On the face of it this is a rather obvious statement, but sometimes you need to state the bleeding obvious.

The elections on Thursday night potentially present a new challenge to the social housing sector. Whilst I do not believe for one second that Nigel Farage and his ilk will ever make it to the holy trough that is Westminster, at least not in large numbers, they pose our sector a distinct set of issues. The success of UK Independence Party will impact on the policies the other parties pursue. When politicians get scared they instinctively shift their policies to the right. And believe me the Tories are positively quaking in their very expensive boots. Unburdened by the need to appear sympathetic to the politically liberal parts of the UK Farage has managed to gain a large slice of the right-wing populist vote. Though the picture in the local elections was more nuanced (for an excellent look at the potential impact of UKIP on housing check out Colin Wiles’ latest blog) the overall increase in support for UKIP is a concern. Whilst Ed Miliband is still scrambling around trying to look like he could lead a country and playing up a relatively successful campaign. David Cameron has already started to roll out the “I’m more right wing than him” crap.  Alas poor Nick Clegg looks like he’s been mugged twice for his lunch money before even making it to the school bus stop. Take five bro, take five.

The initial focus of the impact of UKIP’s success will undoubtedly be on how we approach the Europe question, after all that is their raison d’être, but this will soon shift elsewhere, particularly with a General Election less than a year away. Crime, health, the economy and housing (lurking somewhere at the bottom) will all be fought over in the months to come. Consequently, when it comes to housing, we need to start shaping the debate on our terms, and soon. The Tories won’t want to be out-flanked by the ‘we hate Europe, but don’t mind taking its expenses, brigade’. Expect more of the same rhetoric we have heard in recent years. People on benefits want something for nothing, they are scroungers, non-deserving. Austerity is the only way forward, cuts and tough decisions must be made. It is of course largely a load of bull, but it plays well with the crowd. I am deeply concerned that the benefit cap will be lowered and housing benefit for under 25s will be stopped. These would be disastrous steps but sadly I wouldn’t put it past Cameron et al to implement them.

I know I’m teaching you lot to suck eggs when I say that social landlords do so much more than just provide a property for someone to live in. But honestly ask your friends (if you don’t have any ask a friend of a colleague, or your mum) what they know about social housing and social housing tenants. Chances are they will roll off something akin to a cross between Benefits Street and Jeremy Kyle. They will also probably spill out some half-truths Daily Mail-style around benefit recipients. The only way to debunk the common misconception around social housing, and the welfare state in general, is to show the overwhelming good that it does.

For some social housing is just a stepping stone. For others it is a lifeline. And yes for some it is an easy life. But I will gladly suffer a wretched few for all the good we do as a sector. Shout for social housing and Council Homes Chat are doing brilliant work around providing a true picture of what social housing means to the people that need it. As is #socialhousing stories and the work being done by Adrian Capon and Michelle Reid.  An honourable mention must also go to Mary O’Hara via her new book Austerity Bites.  Her piece in the Guardian today flogging her new book was a stark reminder of how valued the welfare state is by those who rely on its support.  As well as how under threat from funding cuts those on the front line in deprived communities are.  It is these stories that we need to tell.

Fundamentally we need to humanise the debate on social housing.  The old saying that one death is a tragedy but that a million is a statistic holds as true with housing.  One person on benefits is a tragedy but millions are scroungers and scallywags.  It is our responsibility, as part of efforts to take hold of the debate around social housing, to make the voices of the most vulnerable heard.  To make sure that they aren’t discarded and swept under the carpet of the consciousness of the general public.  Finally, we need to be better at showing what we do as organisations.  That we work to the betterment of communities in which we operate, often providing or subsidising services that otherwise wouldn’t be there.  And we are good at it.  It’s about time we were a little more vocal, and for god’s sake to do it outside of 24Housing and Inside Housing as well as in them.

I’ll leave you with probably the best response to the elections results from the left-wing comedian Mark Thomas who simply stated;  “Don’t despair, organise.” We’ve got less than 12 months to get social housing to the fore.  Better get cracking.

Ps Mark Thomas has the best Twitter tag-line of all time – Husband of a hate filled witch according to Louise Mensch.