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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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.

 

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]

System Failure

For all the pain, the anguish and upset so visible in No Place to Call a Home the end result is crushingly predictable. Not just because we haven’t been building enough of the right type of housing in the right areas for years, but because it highlights how much central Government has pulled back the safety net that is meant to help those who need it.

I feel like writing to every paper and saying do something!

The Twitter outrage will die out shortly, Mrs May’s Government may ride some tough questioning in the short-term. But for someone who has studied and worked in social policy and social housing for the best part of 10 years the stories being told in No Place to Call a Home are all too familiar. They are a reminder that ordinary people are having to ever more rely on friends and family as the state is unable, and at national level, unwilling to help. That for many simply having a job is not enough to keep a roof over one’s head, and that being at crisis point isn’t enough to get the help you need.

What I found most striking was the thoughts of those covered by No Place to Call a Home. The shock at their predicament, the re-assessing of how they view others in the same place.  They’re probably mirroring the thoughts of most of us watching. And as someone who has been through in work poverty (albeit only temporary) it is a reminder that in another life that could have been me. It still can be.

I used to judge people…but now I’m in that situation I’m more understanding…it’s probably going to get harder.

These are Fucking People, Not just Figures

Another thing successfully highlighted by the show is the detrimental impact of having no secure shelter. That regardless of whether you are young, old, black or white, you can have your sense of safeness yanked away at any time. You don’t need to be unemployed, you don’t need to be a drug addict, you don’t need to be a delinquent.

We’ve become so good at dehumanising the effects of policy and/or policy failure that you forget the people behind the numbers. We’ve been so quick to blame individual pathology, to blame the other, to blame immigrants, to blame anyone and anything but the monumental failure of housing and welfare policy in this country. That we’re failing to do what any civilised country should. Help those in need. It’s as if we have cultivated this collective blind-spot. Because nearly all of us are a couple of missed pay-cheques from being homeless, it’s about time we remembered that.

We’re Almost Back Where we Started

50 years ago the release of Cathy Come Home caused such an uproar that two major charities (Crisis and Shelter) were formed, Government policy altered significantly and many of the Housing Associations in operation today were formed. However, thanks to 30 years of hostile policy, of bad policy and of neglect we are almost back where we started. Right to Buy has stripped back social housing stock, as has more recent under-funding of new construction of social stock. Years of hostile press has seen the reputation of social housing and those unfortunate enough to need state help is in tatters.

We don’t need to keep failing, we choose to.

In 21st Century Britain it is a fucking travesty that we still have issues of homelessness and housing insecurity. I’m writing this on a laptop that has more processing power in its little finger than the Apollo Space shuttles had. Mobile phones are now so juiced up you can practically run a whole business from them. We have Hoovers that don’t need you to control them to clean your house (mind = blown). We can fund a massive white elephant in Hinckley, we can fund nuclear weapons. Yet we still can’t ensure everyone has a roof over their head and that we have a properly funded capital investment programme to build social housing for those in dire need. That’s not unfortunate, it’s utter incompetence.

Opportunity Knocks

For the first time in what seems like an eternity (OK, 6 years or so) we have a pragmatic (on paper at least) Chancellor willing to invest instead of simply prioritising deficit reduction and bullshit dogma. We also have a housing minister, who whilst unable to mention the s-word (social) rent, has indicated more of a willingness to fund sub-market rent. I wholeheartedly agree with a number of chaps and chapesses in the sector who have been calling to work with the current incumbents in power. It is time to make the most of the hand that has been dealt, because the status quo is not an option.

Leaving on a Positive Note

One of my all time favourite quotes is from Mr Kennedy (not him, the other one, who could more often than not keep his dick in his trousers). It’s a reminder that each of us can change history, that together we can be greater than the sum of our parts. After spending most of this blog bitching it’s probably best to have some positive messages. Enjoy.

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance

Fetch me a shovel. Let’s do this.

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

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.

A Matter of Perspective

Often when talking about ‘the housing crisis’ people actually gloss over the fact that there are probably about 3 interlocking crises.  Lack of joined up policy making, particularly where the welfare state, local authority budgets and the provision of social housing are concerned, has helped to make a bad situation significantly worse. Even more so when political dogma and vote winning have interfered with policy decisions.

1 – Every Single Measure of Homelessness is on the Increase

The 2000s saw a remarkable drop in households being accepted as homeless. However, this situation is reversing, rapidly. largely it must be said as a direct and indirect result of austerity measures and cuts to welfare assistance. Whether ‘official’ homelessness, the rough sleeper count or hidden homelessness, the trends are deeply worrying. The below graph, shamelessly nicked from the Homelessness Monitor Report from Crisis (Jan 2016), shows the recent up-trend, and broader context. We are in a much better position than previously, but we’re heading in the wrong direction.

Crisis - Homelessness Monitor

It is not just in homelessness where there is any issue. Those living in temporary accommodation are also on the increase, as councils struggle to meet legal requirements around homelessness thanks (again) to the reduction in social housing available, especially in the capital.

chart2 – The Middle Class Malaise

The broadening of Affordable Housing (coinciding with the death of the term social) to a point where a £450,000 home can be seen as affordable is frankly bollocks. But it fits if your focus is on the middle class voters that got (and will keep) you in power. Whilst a renewed interest in Shared Ownership (with the severe kinks in this product hopefully to be ironed out) is very welcome as it might actually help the lower income quartile; the overwhelming focus is straight home ownership.Why? Because even the middle class are feeling the pinch and their voices are better organised and more readily heard than those at the bottom of the pile. Aside from winning the next election. The below chart from Savills’ analysis of the ‘crisis of home ownership‘ highlights quite neatly the long term state of play in housing tenure and de facto why the Government is so keen to reverse declining trends of home ownership.

housing-tenure(3)

The volume (and cash set aside) of the schemes available to help is quite remarkable. Especially at a time when funding for social housing is being slashed and austerity is still the medicine of the day. The problem with the initiatives being put in place is that not one of them is a supply side measure. Great if you want to look busy doing something whilst actually achieving fuck all. Bad if you actually what to solve systemic issues with housing in this country. Sadly this is not new in housing policy  and the failure to tackle the UK’s housing market shortcomings is 3 decades in the making. And whether you are red, blue or yellow, none of the main political parties come up smelling of roses here.

3 – Loads of People Now Rely on the Private Rented Sector

The push towards private renting has a number of influences. Changes in lifestyles, the amount of money required for a deposit, house price to earning ratios, the overall cost of buying & then maintaining a mortgage and greater restrictions (post 2008) on accessibility of finance to purchase have all played their part. Let’s be clear, private renting isn’t bad in and of itself (they fecking love it on the continent), though long term there are some potential drawbacks. But the growth of buy to let landlords, of amateur hour landlords is an issue. As are increasing rents, and the horrific standards of some rented properties.

Whilst this Government has steadfast ignored Generation Rent (I’m sure this has nothing to do with how many MPs are landlords) there are serious concerns about how to regulate a sector that does not always work efficiently and effectively. FYI simply because something is private enterprise, doesn’t mean that it is a bastion of efficient working (just ask a train provider in this country). Throwing schemes at people to help them buy, particularly ones that aren’t affordable for a lot of private renters, doesn’t solve the problem, it merely gives political cover to ignore it. The silence on this issue in Parliament is deafening and real, fundamental change, is required to make the private sector meet the needs of those who use it.

Rounding it up

Like or lump it a thriving economy needs a stable housing market. You will only get that with a greater amount of regulation in private sector, a social housing sector big enough to meet the demand and needs of those on the margins. Because for a significant proportion of households simply keeping a stable roof over their head is day to day struggle.  And whilst intervention is welcome for those aspiring to buy, any approach to housing policy must look to assist those at all points of their housing journey. Not just those who can shout the loudest. We can start to do that by recognising the separate, but interlinked, elements of our housing crises.

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