Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start

I’m not one for New Year resolutions, they’re not worth the booze stained paper they’re written on. Whilst an arbitrary date might help some on the path to negating an annoying habit/chronic cake addiction, the reality is that most of us will fail to keep to those good intentions. Governments are not excluded from such foibles, especially when it comes to housing policy. Unfortunately, unlike the Konami games of old, you can’t just use a cheat code to solve a nation’s housing market problems. A pity really, given the way housing policy is currently heading we probably need all the ‘help’ we can get.

OK Time for Plan B

For all the positive vibes coming from the Barwell/Javid axis little has materially changed so far in May’s tenure as Prime Minister. The switch in rhetoric has been welcome, and you do genuinely get the feeling that Sajid Javid is sincere in his desire to improve the housing situation facing many in the UK. However rhetoric and reality have not quite met. At least not consistently. Indeed it seems at times that Mrs May is willing to do pretty much anything to help the housing crisis, apart from actually do things that will help on a practical level. Promises of a Britain that works for the many have so far fallen flat. That needs to change, sharpish.

Right to Buy, or at least its extension to Housing Associations, is seemingly getting kicked into the long grass (FYI check out Nick Atkin’s piece on why RTB has had its day here). Positive news over better regulation for parts of the PRS and the scrapping of lettings fees should help those renting. But policy and capital funding wise the Autumn Statement proved to largely be a bust. The vast majority of the £44bn earmarked for housing initiatives has been kept for demand side interventions. And of that all bar £15.3bn had already been announced.

A give away on Stamp Duty and a continuation of policies such as Help to Buy are not really what the doctor ordered. With Help to Buy being described by the Adam Smith Institute as being like throwing petrol onto a bonfire. Whilst the Stamp Duty cut is a great example of a policy that on the surface is great for individual households but is actually bollocks at the macro-economic level – a typical state of play for housing policy in the last 2 decades.

Elsewhere, although several million has been set aside to help with homelessness initiatives. Even here Theresa May has managed to piss me off. Her response at the last PMQs before Christmas showed just how little she understands the subject. She also showed that you can be right on a technicality, but utterly wrong on the bigger picture. Being homeless doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sleeping rough. But regardless, the lack of a safe, secure and affordable home has serious detrimental effects. Still, shout out to Theresa May’s researchers for finding the one technical point where the homelessness situation wasn’t total crap. But make no mistake, as a country we’ve been regressing alarmingly on this issue since 2010.

Here Comes the New Sound, Just Like the Old Sound

Since the clusterfuck that was the Brexit vote and subsequent change of personnel in Government I’ve been hoping for a significant departure, in practical terms, from the clueless/ideologically driven housing policy under Cameron et al. Sadly, some honourable mentions aside, what we’ve had so far is more of the same.  Plus ca change. Some improvements have been made, but it’s all a bit piecemeal.

Still, it could be worse, the Conservative Party’s attempt at revamping its social media presence is nothing short of alarming. Honestly, Activate is probably the shittest thing I’ve come across on social media since Mogg-Mentum. It sounds like the start of a fight on Robot Wars for fucks sake. Who are these clowns? Have they met real life people? One only hopes that Conservatives spend more time on fine tuning their housing policy in the upcoming Housing Green Paper than they have on their current social media engagement strategy. Otherwise we really are fucked.

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

Photo Credit – Emil Athanasiou (2015) Same Yet Different

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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…

Time To Go Out Swinging?

The non-emergency, emergency budget has seen the last vestiges of hug-a-hoody, compassionate Conservatism washed away in a tide of ideologically driven cuts. Housing and the communities we patronise serve will bear a significant proportion of the associated burdens in this round of fiscal belt-tightening. The future is grim, which ever way you want to spin it. Indeed so dour is the result of the latest budget that it makes the subtext of your average Charles Dickens book seem downright cheerful. A pocket or two is being picked, alas it is the pockets of those who can least afford it that are being rifled through. Though instead of an old man leading his gang of young rascals it is George Osborne, the Treasury and the DWP doing the dirty, so to speak.

Still, the sector perseveres, today saw the NHF hit up  #aplanforhomes in a further attempt at talking some sense into those poor souls who operate in that black hole of logical thought/pit of despair more commonly known as the House of Commons. One of the tweets coming from the event was that the ball was now with Government and that they needed to work with us to deliver it (the aforementioned plan). It is probably the deep cynic in me but being brutally honest they don’t just have the ball; they have all the rackets, the courts and the viewing public as well. And frankly it is here that our fundamental issue exists, for all the fluff, for all the bluster we have not managed to sway public opinion.

When a Government so opposed to the provision of social housing exists the ony real option is to win the popular argument. Regrettably we are still struggling to get our voices heard where it counts. Admittedly it really doesn’t help that our central message is, give us lots of your cash and we will build homes for poor people. Oh yea and whilst doing so we will be charging them rent at a lower level than you will be paying either on your mortgage or your privately rented home/flat/hobbit-hole. Even if the figures stack up in terms of fiscal policy; that my friends is largely beside the point. We’re talking politics here, not sound economics or evidence based policy.

If you have the time I would highly recommend reading The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. A bit of an opinion splitter this one, it won’t give you ‘the’ divine truth but will hopefully provide some context as to the current Government’s thinking. The book highlights how various neo-liberal movements have used existing crises to advance their own ideological agenda. Typically this involves radically shrinking state spending, pulling back social security assistance and pushing market reforms favourable to private sector enterprise at a time when the general public is too shell-shocked to resist. Sound familiar?

This is pretty much what has occurred in the past 30 5 years. It is also why I very much doubt that in the long run we and the boys and girls in blue will be bosom buddies. We are an affront the very idea of neo-liberal economic thought. A monolithic extension of all that is bad with Government intervention in a market. Let the invisible hands of capitalism work its magic and all will be tout sweet, so goes the thinking (the obvious caveat being that this is utter bollocks).

Some have argued that this could be a new dawn for housing.  Others, that the sense of community spirit will be key. And some, well they are just interesting to read. Whilst I admire the generally positive sentiment I can’t quite gee myself up to be as chipper, sorry kids, I just ain’t that guy. Still, I have been proved wrong before (I had my money on Federer beating Djokovic) and I may well be again. In the meantime I’m going to fetal for a bit, wake me up when it’s a little sunnier.

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

The Goldilocks Conundrum

If you ask any Chief Executive what they would like their organisation to be in the next few years the chances are they will answer with one of the following.  1) To be bigger 2) To be more efficient 3) to have a more diverse portfolio in order to spread risk and maximise income.  The last week or so has shown that such ambitions are not easy to fulfil in the current operating climate.

Our first example is a small organisation (if you have under 5,000 properties you are small) in the North West, Venture Housing, an organisation now with the dubious honour of joining Cosmopolitan by getting both a G4 and V4 from the HCA.  It also appears that both the board and executive have failed in their responsibilities to control the finances of the social landlord despite warnings from the regulator.  Having worked for an organisation twice the size, but still small in general terms, I can appreciate budgets are relatively tight.  However, just as we advise customers when things get tough for them, spend within your means, if you can’t afford to borrow it, don’t.  And whilst welfare reforms, budget cuts and the continued economic squeeze have made things tricky, as a sector we still get 50% + of our income direct to us.  So to mess up this badly means something has seriously gone wrong.  For the sake of the customers, staff and the sector in general I hope the issues involving Venture can be resolved soon.

At the other end of the spectrum some interesting news has come out of one of the big hitters in social housing.  Sanctuary, the 95,000 property behemoth has published its financial statement for 2013/14.  Apart from the usual utterly tedious and dry figures is the admission that the housing association’s debt to asset ratio, I believe the technical term is ‘gearing’, stands at 95%*.  To someone who has very little knowledge around all things finance that is sodding huge.  Though I do concede that it is ability to service debt that is the key issue here, something that does not seem to be in any doubt.  Of greater interest to me is the reason for the increase.  Inside Housing have cited the landlord going to the private sector to fund its development programme as the prime cause for the high gearing.  This is unsurprising due to the massive drop off in capital grant available for building new homes.  If central government ain’t good for it, and you want to build it, you gotta go private.  That means borrowing against what you own.  In the future it is plausible that a number of the bigger organisations follow suit.  Particularly as they largely shunned the last round of funding, much to Brandon Lewis’s delight.

It will be interesting to see how the sector will realign its financing.  For me mortgaging yourself up to the hilt is only manageable for the short term  You may manage to create some self-fulfilling growth but it is a potentially risky, almost reckless approach.  Fundamentally you can be creative as you like but to have truly affordable (i.e. social) housing you need central government grant or at least access to cheap credit somewhere in the mix.  You can make grant funding go further with additional private finance, something we have done as a sector since the 1980s.  You can be more efficient at what you do and the way in which you provide your services, something we don’t always manage.  But you need some of that good old home brewed capital grant to make the figures stack in the long run.

Ultimately one must find that Goldilocks moment (don’t worry I was always going to fit it in), where the risks are not too great/hot, or the rewards too cold (sorry), and the means to achieve your ambitions all fit (just right).  Yes we should never accept the mediocre, and certainly mustn’t throw the towel in over fighting against the reduce level of funding.  But we also need to balance what we can achieve with the means at our disposal.  Otherwise you might just find the HCA knocking on your door.

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.

*Correction 15/10/14 Reliable sources have stated this figure could be nearer 85%.

One more time, with feeling

It’s nearly two years to the day that my old dear dropped dead.  Having only very recently spoken to her, and not too long after she had been given the all clear following a battle with cancer, it was a bit of a shock.  I’m not one for crying, or showing much emotion apart from anger, that day I shed bucket loads.  Regressing back to the scared pre-teen kid, uncertain of what the hell would happen next.  My parents had been planning how to spend their semi-retirement, a camper-van purchase (much to my embarrassment) was in the pipeline.  This was not how it was supposed to be.

The old bat had many, many positive facets, often described by mates as a whirlwind I simply referred to her as ‘momma Goodrich’.  Despite being a white middle class woman under 5’5″ she always seemed to have the presence of a powerful Afro-American matriarch.  Being the mum of 4 lads this was probably a good thing. What I will remember her most for is her compassion and her energy.  I’ve never met anyone who has come close to her relentless drive and passion.  Never have I met anyone so willing to help others.  Her faith, deep and strong but not rigid (she saw the Bible as a moral guide, not a set in stone rulebook) played a role, but she was forever helping those who needed it.  I’ve lost count of the people she helped with HR matters (her speciality), how many of my friends she pointed in the right direction over CVs or disciplinary action.

In stark contrast, what we have seen time and time again since the election of the Coalition Government is policies that lack this most basic facet of human nature, of compassion, of empathy.  A couple of weeks ago David Cameron lauded a ‘family test’ to be used when devising legislation.  It was a quite frankly breathtaking statement, completely and utterly ignoring the irony of the fact that many of the policies enacted under his stewardship have done so much to undermine the family.  The bedroom tax and the benefit cap have had severe repercussions for families up and down the country.  But because they are not the Tory core the Blue Brigade don’t give a crap.  Austerity hits the poor hardest, the most vulnerable hardest.  Those most likely not to vote, hardest.  And in the run up to a general election those at the bottom who don’t vote, don’t count.

The Guardian (yes I read the Guardian, no I don’t wear socks with sandals) recently published an article highlighting the difficulties facing local authorities in undertaking their statutory duties around homelessness.  Central Government and Local Government cuts are meaning already overworked, unfunded staff are feeling the squeeze even further.  And bizarrely Councils are having to shed out so much wonga housing homeless people that it makes more financial sense to buy property and then let it out.  The scale of the increase in homelessness is equally striking, equally horrific.  Other reports highlight the increase in food-banks and the rise in cases of rickets and malnutrition.  We are a developed country in the 21st Century, how the fuck is malnutrition an issue!?

Austerity is fine and well on paper, on the balance-sheet, in Whitehall.  Unfortunately, like any ideology, when it hits a little thing called life everything goes out the proverbial window.  We have a cabinet of which 36% went to private schools, 59% were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge.  They are a group of people who’s only idea of what being poor is comes from gogglebox tv programmes like Benefit Street.  Compassion doesn’t enter into the equation because they can’t get their head round the fundamental situation.  Worse is yet to come, 60% of the austerity measures aren’t due to hit until post 2015.  This is not going to get better any time soon.  But you can make small differences with small bits of compassion.  Simple things, buy the big issue, invest time, money and effort into organisations like Shelter, Crisis, Refuge.  Write to your local MP, be vocal in your criticism.  Hell, even write a blog.  Do not sit idle.  Compassion is a proactive trait as much as a positive one.  As Michala Rudman stated in her blog for #UKHousingFast, do all the good you can, by all the means you can.

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.

Got Any Change?

Working in housing can some times feel as rewarding as head-butting a rather unforgiving wall.  The circular nature of policy announcements can be as perplexing as it is incomprehensible.  This week has perfectly summed up how relentlessly negative parts of working in housing can be.  The blue half of the Coalition Government lining up to give a financial kicking to those it deems unworthy of financial support.  The yellow half still unsure what to do or how to position itself, presumably they are pre-occupied by having to look at alternative forms of employment post 2015.  As for Labour, well, Ed Miliband, need I say more?

Last year George ‘nobody likes me’ Osborne tested the waters over reducing the Benefit Cap whilst earlier this year the Tories put feelers out over cutting access to housing benefit to the Under 25s.  This week The Policy Exchange, a Think Tank closely aligned to the Conservatives has again called for a reduction in the benefit cap. I have (unintentionally) experienced what it has been like to try and live in a household surviving on circa £26,000 per annum.  Living a modest life (no wild parties, cocaine and hoes for me) running a car on finance and a two bed house with 2 dogs is hardly excessive.  Yet at the time me and my girlfriend had sod all money at the end of the month.  How families have survived the cap at the currently level, and with child dependants is beyond me.  Reducing the cap to £23,400, whilst admittedly higher than the originally mooted figure of £18,000, will serve to drive already struggling families even further into poverty (and perversely into an even greater state of dependence).  The notion of cutting housing benefit to the under-25s is so arbitrary, so grotesque and so skewed from real life (not everyone can rely on family and friends) that I feel disgusted giving it even some credibility by talking about it.  It has had only a smattering of airing since first being suggested but still, back to the drawing-board Tory HQ.

I get the political motivation behind these moves.  It plays very well with the Tory bread and butter support, pushes Labour into a sticky situation on how it would approach the issue and the Blue brigade get to look tough on benefit ‘scoundrels’.  Apparently looking tough is a good thing in politics, they should get out more methinks.  It is a move that is largely doomed to fail as it doesn’t address the fundamental issues driving up HB payments i.e. the lack of genuinely affordable housing (well housing full stop) and the rising cost of living.  It will simply punish the poor unfortunate sods who fall foul of yet another moving of the goal posts.

Most frustratingly, as the cost of living and house prices continue to outstrip wage growth more and more are having to rely on housing benefit to make ends meet.  The powers that be still don’t seem to understand the nature of the problem at hand or what needs to be done to resolve it.  Of course it is a lot easier to further marginalise a minority with little political clout than address the systemic failings of our housing system.  Investing in desperately need social housing (at levels that will actually yield positive results) seems to be a pipe dream at the moment.  And just as help to buy and right to buy have served to ratchet up housing demand without facilitating increased supply, withdrawing state assistance to the poor will serve to magnify their dire situation.  Housing costs, and housing benefit payments will continue to rise until the housing market’s flaws are resolved.  Period.  No amount of redefining eligibility for housing benefit assistance will change that.  As Shelter’s tweet earlier this week neatly sums up, the increase housing costs facing you, I and t’others is getting ridiculous.

Shelter - Rise in house prices
Shelter – Rise in house prices

The Government will point to recent employment figures as proof that things are improving.  Yes there may be more people in work than seen for many years but the security, pay and nature of the work out there is debatable.  On this I can only really speak from personal experience.  But despite having both a 1st Class Degree (OK it is only in Social Policy and Sociology) and Masters (in Housing Policy and Practice) I have only ever had jobs on fixed term contracts.  My lady-friend has been through two spells of unemployment and I have mates who are still on the rock ‘n’ roll.  Regardless of the official figures it ain’t easy job-wise at the moment for us young’ns.

Re-re-used Graph 1 – Rise in number of working claimants on housing benefit

DWP (2014) Summary Tables for Housing Benefit Recipients
DWP (2014) Summary Tables for Housing Benefit Recipients

I find it utterly bizarre that politicians constantly look to implement policies that treat symptoms and not causes of problems (perhaps I am a tad naive).  And I hope the announcements mentioned above are merely political posturing in the run up to next year’s election.  Alas I cannot help but feel they have a distinct possibility of becoming reality.  Both moves would mean further hardship, but this government seems to be able to cast a blind eye of such realities in the name of ‘progress’ being made elsewhere in the economy and gains at the ballot box.  I’ve said it before, and I will say it again.  You judge a civilised society by how it treats its most vulnerable and in need.  On this measure we are failing miserably.

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 at https://ngblog2013.wordpress.com.

Between a rock and a hard place

Despite ostensibly being an independent sector, the uneasy marriage of public funding, public policy diktat and a requirement to house the sods unlucky enough to be poor has meant our independence is about as concrete as Iain Duncan Smith’s grip on statistics.  This may change in the coming years as lower funding levels means the sector can, quite legitimately, give the old ‘stuffez-vous’ to central government.

A new lease of independence (bring back pre 1974!) can have many far reaching consequences and this week one of them got an airing.  An interesting point and counter point from Hannah Fearn and Martin Collett around council nominations has highlighted one of the (many) quirks of social housing delivery in the UK.  Councils have a right to very high nomination rates, largely a result of LSVTs in the 80s, 90s and 00s.  The deal being we provide the house, they provide the people.  But as the restrictions on access to housing get ever tougher social landlords are having to be increasingly wary of who comes a-knocking.  Particularly with bright ideas like the bedroom tax (now in the on-line version of the Oxford Dictionary no-less) currently in play.

Whilst I have sympathy Hannah’s point, I would disagree with her that allowing social landlords to pick and choose who gets housed is the thin end of the wedge for a couple of reasons.  1) It is already happening.  Like it or lump it social landlords can veto a nomination (provided there is good reason).   2) Because providing poor/marginalised people with housing is still the primary purpose of social landlords (well depending on who you talking to in the sector…).  This isn’t going to change any time soon.

Much to the chagrin of the free-market, trickle-down theorists out there* there are still a large number of financially up the creek people who can’t afford to own or rent privately.  And given the utter inability of the private sector to build enough homes (no it isn’t just down to s106 agreements or planning policy) we are having to step up to the plate.  Yes welfare reforms will make our job tougher, though at least the DWP is coming round to the idea of letting us know who will be getting Universal Credit.  But this does not mean that as a sector we will completely spin off the poorest and most vulnerable or cherry pick the best.  We are an increasing financially competent bunch, but we’re not heartless.  Surprisingly the poorest and most vulnerable tend to be a lot easier to manage arrears wise.  This is because they receive 100% housing benefit, it is directed straight to us and all is tout sweet (mostly).  The royal pain in the backsides are the self-employed (unreliable cash flow means we turn into de facto credit facility via rent arrears) and the part-claimants (fraud, error and complexity are abounds here).

However it is the wider point of independence raised in the two blogs that is of interest to me.  Does a post grant operating environment mean we can reposition ourselves as a truly independent sector? Freedom via mounting private debt? Not quite William Wallace is it and in all honesty probably not.  As I have blogged about before this scenario has worked in Holland (with one or two pitfalls) but that is a unique situation and alas I do not think it is workable here.  The need for, if not the liking of, central government to facilitate low cost, subsidised housing for the poor will remain.  Whilst this continues to be the case the big chiefs in London town will want to retain a broad control over policy direction in housing, but not the cost of implementing it (obviously).  And thus will be reluctant to let social housing rule itself.  Ironically true freedom may only be ours when there is no longer a need for social housing.

*Who would have thought that by ensuring that a small minority (of largely white, middle class men) get to stay insanely wealthy, that the rest of society wouldn’t see the benefit?  Personally I’m shocked.

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.

Ps if you haven’t checked out Hannah Fearn‘s work or the Guardian Housing Network page I would highly recommend them.  You don’t even have to wear sandals.