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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Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked

Talk is cheap, building housing isn’t. The warm and conciliatory tone struck by Sajid Javid needs to be backed up by cold hard cash. Otherwise it is meaningless.

An honest mistake

I must say that I have been taken somewhat by surprise by the first day of the NHF conference in Birmingham. Not by Sajid Javid announcing another Green Paper on Housing. We’ve had so many pieces of legislation on housing another one isn’t going to hurt. But a Conservative Secretary of State for the DCLG talking about housing beyond pure numbers and bricks and mortar was not on the cards. 

I do not share his ‘pride’ on the Conservative Party’s record on council/social housing. It is abysmal, particularly in recent years. To call it anything else would be a dishonesty of the highest order. Nor do I easily swallow the fact that his speech ignored the complicit role the Tories have played in pushing policies that have marginalised, stigmatised and residualised social housing and the people who live in it. But the fact that he’s talking about such issues is a step change in and of itself.

It is one of the genuinely positive impacts of the Brexit vote that Messrs Cameron and Osborne are out of the picture. Because, for all their talk of being in the Centre ground, they were Neo-Liberal ideologues through and through on housing. Ownership was king, social housing bred Labour supporters. It was the role of the state to get out of the way and let the market provide. Policies and funding streams were designed accordingly. Consequently, we’re currently spending 79% of the total housing budget on higher cost homes for sale, and we’ve stopped funding social rent builds. At a time when rough sleeping is up 134%, when housing homeless people in temporary accommodation is costing £845 million a year and it costs 23% more in housing benefit payments to house someone in the PRS than if they were in a social housing. That is insane.

Ain’t no rest for the wicked, money don’t grow on trees

Whilst the prospect of yet another Green Paper on housing hasn’t exactly warmed the cockles of my heart, it is an opportunity to push the case for properly funding social rent. It could also provide a break from some of the barmy policy decisions highlighted above. But just as the Housing White Paper studiously avoided an open debate about the Private Sector, its standards and greater regulation. The ‘broad’ and ‘wide ranging’ remit of the Green Paper will just focus on one element of the rented housing in this country. That is a deliberate omission, and a big mistake.

Just as policy focus  purely on building for home ownership was wrong. There is no point zeroing in on one element of policy interventions in rented housing. It is utter folly to ignore the broader policy context and market idiosyncrasies that impact on the need for more social housing. We need to provide more, better, secure housing. Regardless of whether it’s rented private housing, rented social housing or home ownership.

History Repeating

In his speech Mr Javid mentions learning from the past. I truly hope that he heeds his own words, otherwise we’ll be exactly where we started. Which is in a pretty darn big mess.

Photo Credit – Matt Biddulph – Council Estate (2008)

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

Wolves

Since I was a kid I’ve always listened to an absurdly varied/eclectic mix of music. I’m as likely to listen to the ear-bleed inducing tones of Amon Amarth as I am BB King. Probably helped by the fact the old dear loved Fleetwood Mac as much as Chris De -fucking-Burgh, or Steeleye Span (who did a whole fricking song in Latin) as much as the Rolling Stones. The old Man has a more focused musical taste – essentially anything after the 1970s sucks.

A song I find myself returning to is by the Hip Hop group Dead Prez (you’ve probably heard one of their tunes without knowing it – it’s on this VW advert). Well, it isn’t actually much of a song, it’s a speech by Omali Yeshitela which itself is overlaid on a sample of ELO’s Another Heart Breaks. In his speech Omali uses a wolf hunting anecdote – where wolves are tricked to bleed to death by licking a blood covered knife blade – to highlight how the use of crack-cocaine (i.e. the production and selling of it) by African Americans to obtain material wealth has subsequently done enormous damage to their communities across the US. For the purpose of this blog it’s also an apt metaphor for the UK’s relationship with its housing market.

Too much of a bad thing is worse than too much of a good thing

With the Housing Market being such a significant part of our economy successive Governments have chosen to prioritise a superficially buoyant housing market over a sustainable, stable one. By focusing on one element of housing, home ownership, they have helped to create a market that is working for an increasingly smaller section of society. Just like the wolf in Omali Yeshitela‘s speech, what Governments have thought was a free meal will ultimately be their undoing.

The horrific scenes at Grenfell seem to have hit a nerve with the public in a way many in the sector have failed to do over the years. It shouldn’t need this sort of horror to to jolt the public consciousness, particularly as this has happened before. The front headline of Inside Housing was simply How could this happen. AGAIN. I must confess I share their disbelief. It is as appalling as it is preventable.

I am not going to go through the ins and outs of the technicalities on Fire Risk Assessments (and associated regulations) in high rises. Because frankly I haven’t got a clue on the subject. However, a worthwhile (non-technical) perspective on Grenfell is available here by the Municipal Dreams blog. I just hope lessons truly are learned this time.

Better the Devil you don’t know, ‘cos this one sucks

Much of the anger around Grenfell is tied to the lack of voice those who raised concerns have had. They reflect the broader sidelining of renters by successive Governments. Who have failed to provide adequate protection for those living in rented accommodation. Politicians have consistently riled at further state regulation of the most basic element of human need, shelter. With such moves often being portrayed as some sort of mad cap descent into Stalinist autocracy. Case and point:

The Revenge Eviction Bill’s first incarnation was filibustered by Philip Davies and Christopher Chope. When Labour’s attempt to ensure private renters were able to expect housing that was fit for habitation both the current Secretary of State for the DCLG, Sajid Javid, and our former PM David Cameron voted against it, one of 72 MPs registered as landlords that helped to defeat the bill. I’m sorry, but how the fuck is that controversial enough to vote down? The answer is it’s not. But politically speaking renters (like the young) are seen as easy enough to ignore. It’s simply been more politically expedient to ignore renters than help them.

Grenfell may well turn out to be a tipping point in housing policy in the UK. But that will only happen if the sector stands up for what is morally, financially and policy-wise the right thing to do. David Lammy’s comments on the future direction we as a society need to decide on are available here. They are heartfelt and, in my humble opinion, are 100% correct. It’s a discussion we need to get involved with. The sooner, the better, if we are to make the UK Housing market work for those at the top, as well as the bottom.

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

Photo Credit –Wojtek Gurak (2011) Celosia Social Housing

Grown Up Talk

Historically you’d barely have time to finish the “ue” in posing the question Does the sector provide Value For Money? when most housing associations would throw their toys out of the pram so violently you’d be amazed if those in the near vicinity got out unscathed. It is a reaction that has needed to change, and very gradually it is.

Play Time is Over

As businesses, housing associations rely on public funding for a very large proportion of the money that makes up their profits. Either directly from Central Government in Capital Grant, or indirectly via Housing Benefit/Universal Credit. Therefore it is not unreasonable for the public interest to be protected by a higher level of expectation regarding scrutiny over VFM than otherwise might be the case. It is an agenda we would do well to properly engage with. As in the long run damage to both the reputation of the sector in the eyes of the public, and of Government is at stake.

Whilst the Eye of Sauron attention of Government/the media has shifted from blaming housing associations for the housing crisis by not building enough, it is likely that the focus will once again return on what more we need to/why it’s all our fault. There are noises coming on VFM and the sector, ones we would be wise to heed as they offer risk, but also opportunity. Because it will be by engaging the agenda of Value For Money that the sector can own the teams of the debate and promote its own interests at the same time. The development of the VFM scorecard via a variety of organisations with the support of the DCLG is a welcome start in the process. Albeit with a feeling that the sector is looking to jump before being pushed*.

There are over 1,200 organisations doing essentially the same thing, inevitably some will be more efficient and provide better VFM than others

We are no longer the amateur-hour/slightly bent housing organisations that were set up in the 60s and 70s. Nor are we Local Authority housing departments. We cannot simply ignore outside scrutiny and hope it will go away and/or block it via meaningless bureaucracy. There are over 1,200 organisations doing essentially the same thing, inevitably some will be more efficient and provide better VFM than others. We need to recognise this and make improvements where necessary. The best way to do that is to have an methodology of measurement, which we currently lack. Something that ties into the legacy of crap benchmarking in the sector. But that’s a blog for another day.

Learning from History

Landlords must provide value for money – and they need to be able to evidence it.

As ever I’m not the first to write on this subject- check out Emma Maier’s piece in Inside Housing, as well as Mark Henderson’s, for further info/insight. In particular I agree with Emma when she notes that “Landlords must provide value for money – and they need to be able to evidence it”. The VFM Scorecard is potentially a way to achieve both this and to work more closely with Government. It increases the transparency of organisations within the sector. It gets on board with an element of the current Government’s agenda that is not a major impact on our finances. Fundamentally it helps to build trust.

If we, as a sector, want to be treated like grown ups in a relationship with Government, we need to act like grown ups. That means engaging and facilitating policy changes that can fit with our own agendas and policy preferences. The aim being to create a critical friend relationship, where the mutual benefits of working together, regardless of politics, can be seen. Only from that standpoint can we enact meaningful change. Pissing from the outside, whilst no doubt exhilarating, does not always enable one to move forward their agenda and influence policy.

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

Photo CreditMyXI – Tongue & Groovy (2009)

*It’s nice to see that we’re consistent in our approach to enacting change. Not so much ‘nudge’ theory in play, but ‘shove’ theory.

 

 

Building Bridges

Under Theresa May we have a Government that appears to be listening the voice of the social housing sector, at least in part. Following a very sympathetic Autumn Statement it is time to make the most of the opportunity at hand.

A couple of years ago at a Housing Party breakout session the question was asked is the sector independent or tied to Govt policy? The room was reasonably split, whilst my answer was both (yea, I’m that guy) though more on the side of Government influencing. HAs might like to think they operate independently, but in reality they play within the rules of a game set by Government. It’s why we’ve so often been chasing our tails trying to adapt to whatever new short-term measure has been thrown in by some smart muppet with a grip on reality as vague as 2yr old mid-tantrum.

Unforeseen benefits

Historically I’ve been pretty critical of some of the lobbying efforts of the CIH and NHF. Too often they appear to have been caught off guard by policy announcements, reacting rather than managing the policy changes coming the way of the sector. However, there were very few surprises in this budget. Indeed a number of the key housing policy alterations are remarkably similar to what has been suggested by Mr Orr et al. That is both a reflection of how successful the NHF and CIH have been at shaping the debate. But also of the changes that have occurred in the Cabinet of Mrs May’s Government.

It pains me to say it but Brexit has helped immeasurably here. With Cameron and Osborne leaving their positions the key blocks to funding for the social housing sector have been removed. The Treasury under Osborne dominated both welfare and capital investment programmes. It is no surprise that 2010-16 saw the sector have very little influence on housing policy. Under May and Co there appears to (at last) be at least some realisation of the difference between want and need in relation to housing. The majority of us might want a house, but with homelessness of all kinds on the rise and a housing market not working for an increasingly large proportion of the public. The need of a secure home is just as important policy wise.

The removal of forced Pay to Stay, the Land Registry privatisation being kicked into the long grass and a specific pot of money for sub-market rent are all very welcome developments. As a private renter, so is the plan to scrap letting agent fees. Though at £1.4bn over 5 years (2016 -21) the Autumn statement is not so much making rain for the sector, but giving it a bit of a damp drizzle. Considering the situation the sector was facing just over half a year ago, I’ll take it. It’s like being 3-0 down at half time but being able to salvage a draw. Not so bad from Mr Hammond, a chap who is fast giving John Major a run for his money on lacking charisma.

Still in Choppy Waters

It’s not all plain sailing, VRTB is being expanded, albeit in pilot form, the draconian cuts to the Benefit Cap to £20,000 are still going ahead and the absurdity that is the Bedroom Tax is still in play. Of concen is that social rent is conspicuous by its absence. Additionally, the tweaks to the Universal Credit taper and uplift of the national ‘living wage’ are smaller than hoped and don’t go far enough.

Elsewhere fixed term tenancies are also in, and have caused a bit of stink. But to be honest it’s not something I have much of an issue with. They are already in use in the sector and the kicker is more in the symbolism of such a move, rather than the practical reality. 

As a side note the next year or so might see some interesting case-law as the first batch of 5 year tenancies come to an end (thanks to LaweyergirlUK for highlighting that). Better cross those Ts and dot those Is because as Cardiff City Council v Lee [2016] showed, the landscape can change pretty quickly when it comes to ending tenancies.

What the Autumn Statement has done is shown that this Government, for some of its failings, is at least willing to hear the sector and take on board what it is saying. There have been times since 2010 when the silence from Cameron et al on social housing has been deafening. The U-turn since this summer cannot be underestimated. Still, whilst there is much to commend, there is much more to do. But at least there is now a fighting chance.

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

Photo Credit –

London at Night (Churchill Gardens) | by scotbot [2014]

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…