Diary of A Wimpy Kid

Following what can only be described as a remarkable General Election the UKHousing sector must take stock and build on the solid work over the last year.

The Winner Takes it All (or not)

To say this General Election has put a spanner in the works would be putting it mildly. Shout out to YouGov for having the balls to stick by that poll. I don’t think many people would have predicted a Tory minority Government, especially one being propped up by the DUP. For the social housing sector this has already had some serious consequences. In Gavin Barwell we had a housing minister who at least gave some support and hope to the sector. It is a sorry state of affairs when we’re happy with a minister who wasn’t total shit. But at least Barwell (mostly) fought our corner and, Affordable Rents aside, I agreed with a lot of the work he did.

The Long and Winding Road

Many challenges still face both the social housing sector and the UKhousing market more broadly. Barwell’s admission that the ‘new generation of council housing’ was going to be at (non) Affordable Rent levels is deeply worrying. As is the LHA Cap, particularly given that the stay of execution is only temporary, the minimal amount of Capital Funding available, as well as the slow and painful roll out of Universal Credit. Without a significant increase in genuinely social housing in this country Housing Associations will more and more focus on those who can afford to pay their rent without Housing Benefit. This is simply because the accumulative cuts to welfare support and the alterations to those who can access it are making it increasingly risky to rent to the unrentables.

As grant is (even further) replaced by private sector loans and cross-subsidising, so is exposure to risk increased. Risk that, again, is best served by renting to those off Housing Benefit and in secure work. It is a pretty horrific catch 22. For one to build more social housing, greater levels of private finance are needed, but to fund that higher levels of rent/proof of financial stability is required. Those at the bottom will ultimately miss out as dollar signs push organisational priorities.

We’re not at a Crossroads, but times are a-changing

Many have used the term ‘crossroads’ to describe where the sector is at. I hate that phrase for a number of reasons:

  1. Because it reminds of this God-awful pop group from the early 2000s
  2. Because it doesn’t reflect the gradual change in focus for the sector, or the pressures currently facing it
  3. Because we’ve been using private funding and cross-subsidising builds as a sector for decades

However, what we are seeing is a parallel split in the sector, largely across a couple of issues. Firstly in terms of the primary focus of building – home ownership and affordable rent over social rent – secondly in terms of who we’ll let to.

I bet you think this song is about you

Many in the sector are giving significant consideration to excluding the very people we should be renting our homes to. The logic to be more selective in who we rent to is perfectly sound, and as organisations we have a legitimate need to ensure financial stability and security. But that doesn’t make these thought processes anymore horrific. Smaller, more community focused organisations will (probably) continue to rent to the unrentables. However for the bigger boys and girls this, in the long run, may prove to be too problematic. Some may claim this is not the case, but looking at the tenure split of the Affordable Homes Building Programme figures and such an assertion has merit.

I am not one for melodrama, but just as the country is entering uncharted, and hazardous waters over Brexit. So too is the sector. Hopefully over the coming months we’ll get a better idea of how May (or her replacement) will deal with the bloody nose the electorate has given the Conservative Party. That we haven’t yet had a Housing Minister announced when most of the posts have been re-filled by the incumbent is not a great sign. But let’s face it, we’ve always been on the periphery. Whoever it is will need to make the best of this clusterfuck and to take housing seriously. For our part we’ll need to deliver the housing this country, and not just our profit margins, needs.

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

Photo Credit – Matt BiddulphCouncil Estate (2008)

 

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I am the Walrus

One of the more amusing anecdotes I’ve come across recently involves The Beatles, more specifically John Lennon. Apparently, after receiving a bit of fan mail which noted that an English teacher was getting his students to study and analyse Beatles songs, Mr Lennon decided to deliberately obfuscate future attempts. The result was I am the Walrus. If this video is anything to go by, it’s safe to say he succeeded.

Sadly it is not just long dead musicians who can baffle and befuddle those looking beyond the face value meaning of things. At play right now are a couple of pieces of policy, and legislation, that are not quite as comprehensible as they could be when the broader picture is brought into view.

The Good

There is much to be commended regarding the Homeless Reduction Bill (HRB). It has, by and large, been brought forward for the right reasons. Homelessness is increasing in pretty much every measure. Aside from the personal tragedies and traumas that play out on an individual level (the impact of which is not to be underplayed), the cost to Government (and by default you and I) is considerable. Thus both morally and financially speaking it makes sense to try to reduce homelessness by prevention as much as ‘cure’.

By extending the threshold of those threatened with homelessness from 28, to 56 days and making greater provisions to help single homeless individuals the HRB will help to plug significant gaps in LA requirements to help those at risk of homelessness. These are good, welcome measures that can hopefully be of significant benefit.

The Bad

The problem I have with the Homeless Reduction Bill is that unless significant changes to policy elsewhere are made, it is going to struggle to have any real, sustained impact. Aside from shifting blame from Central to Local Government. Dawn Foster has done a good job of noting a number of the qualms regarding the HRB here, as ever, so has Shelter. Between them they’ve highlighted that:

  • More responsibilities for LAs without long-term secure funding it not a good idea
  • Homelessness needs to be taken more serious as an issue in its own right
  • Operating in isolation the HRB will not be effective, more cross departmental working is needed

But there are further concerns that need attention here. The single largest reason for councils accepting an individual (or household) as unintentionally homeless is the ending of an assured tenancy. A part of that picture is evictions after complaints/repairs have been logged by tenants. Whilst a welcome step, as highlighted by the BBC last week there are still many issues with the Revenge Eviction legislation* and its enforcement that need ironing out.

Elsewhere, a fit for habitation clause was conspicuous by its absence in the Housing White Paper (HWP). And despite renting, and in particular Private Renting, getting a larger mention in the HWP, very little in terms of greater security or protection for those in the PRS was forthcoming.

At the same time measures set in motion under Cameron et al. will start to have an impact, notably:

All of these measures will directly and indirectly impact on the ability of individuals, charities and the state (both local and central) to counter the rising levels of homelessness. And run counter the very aims of the HRB, which seeks to reduce those without a secure home.

The Ugly

Without labouring the point it appears that a significant part of this Government’s rhetoric on helping those just about managing is just that, rhetoric. The link between housing, the welfare state, security of tenure and homelessness are not being explicitly acknowledged or acted upon. This Government seems to think it can continue to erode support via the welfare state, yet by making moderate tweaks in legislation it will solve a whole host of ills. That, quite simply, is utter bollocks.

Whilst more money has been made available for additional ‘affordable’ housing, and changes to expectations on Starter Homes put in place. The level of ambivalence to outright social housing (despite a thawing in relations between the sector and new housing minister) means a significant weapon in reducing homelessness is being left in the armoury. Don’t believe me, ask Finland.

Fundamentally homelessness, housing provision and support go hand in hand. You either pay upfront via capital grant for more housing and preventative support services for greater levels of assistance; or you pay time and time again via acute/emergency housing relief for an increasing number of people. It is that simple. Failure to recognise that fact means for all its good intentions the Homeless Reduction Bill is on dodgy foundations before it even starts. Something that, given wider issues with our housing system, we can ill afford.

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

Photo Credit – Nico Hogg (2008) Innis House, East Street

*Last year the Government, heels dragging, eventually did support a Revenge Eviction Bill. No thanks to Philip Davies and Christopher Chope. Muppets.

 

How to Make Friends and Influence People

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

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

Down the Rabbit Hole

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

Exhibit A – World’s Least Dangerous Dog

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

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

All is not lost

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

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

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

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

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

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…

UK Housing Policy: A mess years in the making

Insecure tenancies and poor quality housing are health issues, they should be treated as such. Investment in all of the 3 main types of housing tenure and reform of Private Rented Housing is needed to avoid a crisis evolving into a full on catastrophe.

Political Failure Manifest

Complicated is what we use to avoid simple truths (Some bloke off the internet, 2016)

The modern-day crises that make up the UK Housing crisis are a complex mish-mash of competing and conflicting needs.  More housing is desperately needed, but no Government wants to dampen house prices when the economy and individual wealth creation are heavily tied to ever-increasing house prices. To get around this tricky issue, Cameron et al have attempted to side step the main problem at hand i.e. instead of increasing the supply of the right type of housing in the right areas they have deliberately mis-identified the actual problem (of supply) with an easier issue to solve (demand). Why? Because simpler problems are easier to fix.

As Campbell Robb noted the battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the public has longed been lost in relation to social housing provision. So it seems has all logic. We want our kids to get housing of their own, to be able to afford to buy, but for our own house prices to keep on rising. With Teresa May now PM it remains to be seen if the over-focus on Home Ownership will continue, Jules Birch fears, just like Teresa, it May (sorry…too tempting).

Poor quality housing is a public health issue, treat it as such

As the social housing sector has been allowed to dwindle, those who used to be on the margins of being accepted into social rent have had to turn to the private sector. In the South and South East this has put an inevitable strain on housing, pushing rent prices further away from affordable levels. This in turn has led to families unable to buy, but ineligible to rent social housing relying on insecure private sector tenancies. It is no surprise that the number one reason for being made homeless in the UK is the ending of an Assured Shorthold Tenancy (AST). Insecure, poor quality housing can be just as detrimental as being homeless, all being linked to:

A parallel issue is poor quality housing. It is not uncommon to see news reports on landlords who have not just violated HMO rules, they’ve jumped up and down on them, popped them in one of those circus canons and blown them apart as spectacularly as Michael Gove’s leadership bid. I’m sure the resistance to any kind of further regulation and licensing of private landlords has nothing to do with the fact that a large part of MPs are landlords themselves, but the wilful inertia needs to stop. In the right conditions Private Renting is a very good form of housing provision, the majority of landlords are good. But when lack of alternatives are driving those in the bottom income quartile to beds in sheds, overcrowded and frankly dangerous housing, the buck needs to stop.

So why are we not doing more to battle this?

I just want a house, not a mansion or anything like that, just some stability for my boy. [I’m] Fed up of moving all the time.

The current Tory Government will argue that via RTB2, Help to Buy and Shared Ownership they’re helping those like my friends (and me). But whilst there are a plethora of products designed to facilitate access to home ownership, many simply just aren’t suitable for those who most need it. We need a Government to invest in all 3 of the main tenures in this country, because what we have right now is poorly channelled money and whimsical, wishful thinking. Post EU Referendum I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. Let’s take back control of something that actually matters, our housing policy.

The above quote is symptomatic one of a many up and down the country having to juggle affordable private renting, school and the need to provide secure home for their kids. It’s from a mate of mine, one of at least 3 in the same situation. As a private renter myself I’m one legal notice and 2 months away from homelessness at any given time. So pardon me if I sound a little pissy at A) the lack of action and B) the wrong policies being pushed.

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

Hope Note Hate

As the dust starts to settle on what quite frankly has been one the of the ugliest political campaigns (Zac I’m Not saying Kahn is a terrorist sympathiser but…Goldsmith’s mayoral campaign aside) I can’t remember one quite as openly ugly, earnest reflections on who we are as a nation are needed.

Lies, Damned Lies and Vote Leave

Perhaps I was a bit naive but at the start of the EU Referendum campaign I had hoped that although tightly fought both sides would bringing meaningful arguments to the debate. That facts and figures would be used to back arguments instead of being bent to breaking point in order to fit the narrative being spun. That quite simply hasn’t happened, and instead false claims and counter claims have been thrown about by both sides. And little by little the arguments used have become uglier and uglier.

As someone who works in housing, who has a degree in Sociology & Social Policy and a Masters in Housing Policy and Practice it particularly pisses me off when rumour, misinformation, gossip and outright lies around access to social housing, and housing more generally and the EU are bandied about. I don’t blame the Poles for a lack of social housing in this country. I blame the Coalition Government for reducing the capital funding for social housing by 60% and the subsequent Tory Government for ignoring it in its entirety.

homer-simpson-quote-oh-people-can-come-up-with-statistics-to-prove

The consistent lying has been quite breathtaking, God bless FullFact, they have been working overtime trying to provide insight and context behind some of the ‘facts’ that been flying around. I will be very glad when its over just so I don’t have to put up with seeing Vote Leave politicians in a live public debate knowingly lie and misrepresent figures because their basic argument is a essentially of mixture of nostalgia and mild xenophobia. With a position that goes against the advice of the IMF, IFS, various Central Banks across the world, not to mention the overwhelming majority of economists. But don’t worry Andrea Leadsom and Gielsa Stuart are mothers and therefore knows best.

Blame the foreigner

Realistically Ms Leadsom/Stuart aren’t the worst, not by a long shot. The fact that someone like Nigel Farage gets air time is appalling. His latest stunt, from the Joseph Goebbels school of propaganda, is case and point. To his defenders he is one of the bastions against ‘PC going mad’, a chap who says it how it is. He isn’t, he’s just an opportunistic muppet, happy to rail against the EU whilst securing a great big pay cheque from it. There are chocolate teapots in this world that contribute more to this country than that oxygen thief. And for the record political correctness isn’t going mad it’s just society has decided to move on from some of the racist, homophobic and misogynistic traits it used to have. Whilst we still have a long way to go you’re just a little bit behind the curve, try to keep up.

As ugly as it is, the frenzied xenophobia masquerading as concern over the state of our country that has been plastered all over our papers is symptomatic of underlying tensions in our nation’s psyche.  Regardless of the result there are some clear issues that need addressing. There are elements of society, particularly (but not exclusively) those in the working class, who feel let down, marginalised and threatened. They have legitimate concerns over immigration (yes it’s an issue, no not in the way portrayed by a lot of our press), pay, working conditions, state support and a perceived encroachment on their lives by the state (ironically enough). Whether a Tory Government will give a damn, or a Labour Party desperate to get back in power (with or without its current leader) will dare to be seen as being too pro-working class (you do have to go back to the 80s for that mind) remains to be seen. Either way their concerns need to be heeded.

In Summary

What I am hoping for tomorrow is quite simply that, Hope. That optimism about the benefits of the EU wins out over blind nostalgia and cynical manipulation of legitimate concerns. That we opt, at least in terms of the EU, for a more progressive and inclusive approach to politics. Because bugger me it’s been severely lacking over the past few years.

What we don’t need is rhetoric that is essentially – blame the foreigner, blame the foreigner, blame the foreigner. How about blame the austerity cuts to Housing, blame the cuts to Local Authority budgets. Blame neoliberalism’s failed experiment with our economy. Leaving Europe solves none of the actual issues facing the UK. Fuelling hatred based on nationality merely deepens divisions. That helps no one.

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

*Updated to expand on social housing points

 

 

Why I’m rejecting Help to Buy

I’m rejecting Help to Buy, here’s why you should too.

Firstly, apologies, the title is a bit of a necessary white lie. I’m actually rejecting all forms of state assistance to buy a home currently on offer. But frankly a title that says “Why I’m rejecting, Help to Buy, Rent to Buy, the expanded shared ownership programme plus other miscellanea relating to Government schemes to purchase a home” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. But you get the point.

As someone who has worked ‘professionally’ since graduating, who has had to move homes on an above average basis, who has experienced in-work poverty (that sucks kids, don’t try it) and who has been unable to save for a house because you know, life. It might be a bit odd to some to reject the assistance available. Particularly given the breadth of schemes on offer.

List of Schemes Currently in Play

  • Help to buy – Equity Scheme
  • Help to buy – mortgage guarantee
  • Starter Homes
  • Shared Ownership
  • Rent to Buy
  • Right to Buy v2.0 for LA tenants
  • (Voluntary) Right to Buy for HA tenants
  • ISAs to save

Why the hissy fit?

Fundamentally money that was going to be spent on housing the most in need in this country will now be spent elsewhere. Yet many of those who on the face of it would be set to be helped by Starter Homes (those unable without the cash and/or credit to buy, but ineligible for social housing) probably won’t be able to afford it. Had to rely on figures from Shelter here, because the Government appears to have lost the fag packet on which they did their sums.

As someone who puts a great emphasis on social justice the latest set of proposals from Government are incredibly nauseating to take. As someone who works in Performance, where methodology and reasoned decision making is important this blasé approach is deeply concerning. But it as a taxpayer that I’m fucking fuming. Money is being thrown around in the wrong way, often at the wrong people. In attempting to make it rain for the middle and lower middle class this Government has decided to stretch the definition of a affordability to its very limits. In doing so it is continuing the creeping death of social housing and the distortion of a highly dysfunctional housing market. That doesn’t end well, for anyone.

Right to Bollocks

The political bung that is the Right to Buy extension to Housing Association tenants, albeit in a voluntary form and with some tweaks after an agreement between Government and the sector (well, most of it), highlights the absurdity of thinking going on. Much needed council housing will be sold off to pay for other people to buy much needed social housing. Even with a like for like replacement (even 2 for 1 in London) it is unlikely that a net loss of social housing will be avoided. But that’s not the point. Replacements have never matched the numbers being sold, and despite some debatable sums being thrown about, the jury is very much still out. Often once sold the same property is then let at market rent. In many instances the person renting the RTB property is then claiming housing benefit. Meaning that the lucky owner profits twice at the expense of the general public. That is utter madness and piss poor value for money.

At a time of increasing homelessness and at best stagnated progress on inequality it is a disgrace that these policies are being pushed through without a social housing element. This country needs more of all kinds of housing. Not just the type that hopes to win votes. In the end this is what matters. Cameron et al. have decided to abandon those at the bottom of the pile to help those higher up. I want no part of that. Period.

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