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.


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.

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.

Das Capital

Right to Buy, the Russians acting like an empire (again), big hair, leggings and electro music being popular amongst the ‘yoof’, a Government pushing policies that continuously undermine those further down the food chain.  You’d be forgiven for thinking this is the 1980s with Thatcher in her prime.  Regrettably it is 2015 and it’s an election year.  Whilst Cameron and co may be stopped I can’t do a lot about the fashion choices and poor taste in music amongst the hell spawn younger than even I, sorry.

As if it needs spelling out Right to Buy is a bit like kryptonite to our beloved sector.  It is the perfect political weapon to decimate social housing.  In a country obsessed with home ownership and asset based capital it is a highly potent mix of aspiration and access to cold hard cash.  It’s better than Help to Buy, it’s better than Shared Ownership and pretty much every other initiative designed to assist those with lower incomes acquire a property.  Why?  Because you can buy the property you are currently living in, in the neighbourhood where you have built up substantial local networks.  More importantly you can do so for a fraction of the cost of even the best low cost home ownership products out there.  Though frankly as a sector we have been bumbling through the provision of those products for years.  Even better you can sell it on for large profit after a few years, especially if you are in the right part of London and the South East.  It’s the postcode lottery (the good kind, not the one where your local hospital is shit).

Unsurprisingly it is bloody popular.  The figures below show just how many people have bought their council/housing association property through Right to Buy (and it’s watered-down cousin Right to Acquire).  So it is no surprise that the announcement last week that Right to Buy may be extended to include Housing Association properties has caused nothing short of alarm.  Though nowhere near its heyday peak of the early 1980s allowing Housing Association tenants to purchase their home under Right to Buy will give the figures below a significant kick up the bottom.

On a side note for a beautifully biting critique of our reaction as a sector and attempts to nullify other policies of the Coalition I do suggest you read Rob Gershon’s piece in 24 Dash.  The chap has a wonderful way with words.

Depressing Chart 2 – Right to Buy Sales – England

Right to Buy SalesIn addition to decimating social housing stock (see depressing graph 2 below) Right to Buy provides piss poor value for money to the tax payer.  As a policy it has the dubious honour of being paid for by the taxpayer twice.  The first time to build the property then, after it has been sold, we pay again as the property is rented back by the Local Authority that sold them, at higher rents.  For a (slightly) oldie but goldie report on this utterly stupid situation please see Tom Copley’s report.  His report, a year old today (Mazel Tov my friend) highlights the cost of Right to Buy in London, but it is a situation likely to be repeated up and down the UK.  You know this, I know this but does the general public care?  Probably not.

Depressing Chart 2 – Dwelling stock by tenure, UK, 1980 to 2012
Dwellings by Sector

As Colin Wiles notes (I really do need to write my blogs quicker) Right to Buy is bollocks on a number of levels.  It is an ideological weapon to suit the needs of those who wield it, a means by which to rid the country of a housing sector that has no real place in the vision of the UK held by those in Government.  Interestingly, for me at least, Right to Buy’s second lease of life raise a number of questions in relation to the long term direction of our sector.  Is this another nudge towards going it ‘alone’?  How would it work if housing associations were allowed to buy their way out of historic debt/grants?  Will this serve to discourage future uptake of grant (no grant, no strings, no Right to Buy)?

So what do we do?  Fight the inevitable an uphill battle, because in essence we need to convince the general public that social housing is worth fighting for.  But more critically that they should sacrifice the opportunity to make a quick buck in order to maintain it.  Telling the Treasury to keep its dirty mitts off the Right to Buy sales receipts would also be worth doing.  Cheeky sods.

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 handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

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.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Don’t Despair, Organise

So the last Parliamentary session looks like it will be bringing no surprises to the table for housing.  Right to buy and help to buy look set to continue and the HCA looks set to get hold of more public land to handover for development.  Other than that it was barely worth tuning in to see our ‘Liz read through a speech that was shorter than a lot of fairy-tales.

On the subject of tales, the sector is finally getting the notion that more personal accounts of the impact of social housing are needed in the on-going PR war against years of negative press.  Blog’s from the likes of Tom Murtha and all the others at Council Homes Chat have helped to give voice to those who have benefited from social housing.  Last week a piece of research released from the Housing Network, part of the Guardian, gave housing professionals the chance to put forward their thoughts.  The results of the poll have been insightful, if a little worrying.  Alas I was not involved, I’m guessing my survey got lost in the post.

Apart from the bleeding obvious point that many believed a lack of Government funding has been detrimental to house building levels.  The perceived indifference of the Coalition towards low-income households was also seen as playing an important part in restricting the building of more affordable homes.  Pleasingly (for me at least as I have said this in previous posts, cue smug face) many thought that the sector provided good value for money but was poor at demonstrating it.

Overall, and on the same day that the IMF warned that the current set of policies towards the housing market was risking the long term recovery of the economy (hitting 2 for 2 here), the poll is pretty grim reading.  A quarter of those surveyed reckoned housing associations had done all they could.  Around 43% were negative about the future of social housing.  In addition to those joyous insights, key themes from the surveys were 1) the sector needed to be more commercially minded (that’s me 3 for 3) and 2) that the Government had already decided that the private sector was the provider of choice (4 for 4, ooosh!).

Aside from feeding my ego, the survey results do show those working in the sector to be rather embattled.  With the impact of reforms to the welfare state and severe cuts in public funding meaning housing professionals are having to fill in where the state (local or national) has withdrawn.  And the various legislative and funding changes that have served to restrict the sector’s ability to build new properties (or even let them out at truly social rent levels) I can understand why a few housing professionals might be feeling a bit miffed.

A potential solution to our funding woes, if not all the other ills affecting the sector, has been suggested in the form of a national investment bank for housing.  This has already been put forward not once but twice prior to the think tank The Smith Institute’s proposal.  The bank would, in theory, be able to lever in funding for social housing as is the case in a number of places in Europe. I must admit whilst it is a different idea (which is a bonus in its own right as housing policy has a case of repeating on itself like a dodgy late night kebab), whether it is workable in the UK is unknown.  Hannah Fearn points out a number of its weaknesses, noticeably the relative failure of a similar attempt to invest in social causes via the big society bank.  That being said housing, particularly that of the social kind, does represent a steady and secure investment opportunity (Legal and General are going fricking mad for it at the moment) but it remains to be seen if a British take on this experiment will work.

What is more certain is that we are resilient, if slightly pessimistic bunch.  If you didn’t notice in my previous blog building by housing associations has actually stayed remarkably steady since the last market balls-up in 2007.  No mean feat considering the monumentally financial cock-up that took place.  OK that is a highly selective example of our resiliance but after 30 years of hostile policy making there’s still 1,500 or so social housing organisations.  I would say that is an achievement, even if some of the smaller ones should merge.

Reused graph type thingy 1

Wilcox et al. UK Housing Review 2014
Wilcox et al. UK Housing Review 2014

Over the decades we have grown, adapted and improved (if you ever want to partake in masochism I can lend you a copy of my undergrad dissertation on this subject).  Along the way we have helped millions of people by providing safe housing of a standard that is severely lack in a significant part of the private sector.  We have ploughed millions of our own cash into support initiatives and helped to regenerate areas forgotten by others.

Like Tom Murtha I despair at the broken consensus around the need to invest in social housing, it’s residualisation, and the demonisation of a whole sector of society based on their tenure.  I am however given hope by the work that we do, that just like Tom and his family, many more will benefit from living in a home provided by a landlord that gives a flying f@*k about more than just receiving the rent.

On a side note it has come to my attention that somewhere in London a douche-bag of the day has decided to put spikes up outside a block of flats in an apparent attempt to stop homeless people sleeping there.

Homeless Spike - Courtesy of The Telegraph Website
Homeless Spikes – Courtesy of The Telegraph Website

I hadn’t realised homeless people were now relegated to the status of pigeon.  It is an often repeated phrase that you should judge a society on how it treats its less fortunate.  On the basis of this new development we’ve got a long way to go.

If you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs at https://ngblog2013.wordpress.com.

For more info on Council Homes Chat search for the hashtag –    follow their Twitter account @Councilhomechat or go to www.councilhomeschat.wordpress.com for their blog.