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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How to buy a house: The Millennial’s Guide

Hey you, under 30? Want to own your own home? Not a trust fund baby? Then read on to find how you can join our great property owning democracy.

Channel your inner Chairman Mao

As the great philosopher Dizzie Rascal said ‘if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true’. But if you don’t have a plan, then all you have is wishful thinking. So lay out a five year plan to save for your deposit. Now I know in an era of Packman video games, BookFace and WhatsUp us millennials are all about that instant gratification #LifeGoals but stick with me on this one. It’s worth it.

Chairman Mao was great at 5 year plans, utter shit at being a good, democratic leader. But at plans, he got his game on tight. So it would be worth following his lead, and if you work hard, keep an eye on your costs and can stack away £250 a month over 5 years you’ll have saved £15,000. Which is great because it means you’ll only be £18,000 short of the average deposit needed for a first time buyer. So whilst you won’t be anywhere near the required target for buying a house. You’ll have managed to see 5 years of your life drag by in the desperate hope of not living under the roof of a landlord who is a complete dick. Or with complete strangers who aren’t complete dicks. Or living with your parents who probably think you’re a complete dick.

Oh yea, that £33,000 figure is the UK average, so if you’re in London it’s nearer the £100,000 mark #SozBoss. The good news is that Chairman Mao had more than one 5 year plan, so you just continue to follow his lead and start another one, or two.

Find a rich old person, hope they die

I’m not going to lie, this one works best if you’re a financial beneficiary of a rich old person. So whilst strictly speaking you can do this with any rich old person, it would be better to be related to the aforementioned cashcow er I mean much loved elderly member of society. Considering we are a generation that may well be worse off than our predecessors, getting a leg up from your dead Nan is probably a good way of avoiding a tricky time to be alive and affording to buy a house. Particularly given that, of the estimated £7 trillion increase in net wealth in the UK since 1995, £5 trillion is related to the increase in the value of dwellings in this fair isle. So whilst 50 Cent had a plan to get rich or die trying. It’s probably best to focus on getting rich by someone else dying.

Read the Runes

Not getting paid enough to keep up with the rising cost of living? You’re a millennial, so you’re probably not, and living in the private rent sector, which is what most of us do, isn’t going to help. Well, there’s a number of ingenious ways you can help keep those pesky bills down. Helpful* souls like Edwina Currie, Strutt and Parker (although their numbers are a tad out there) and Tim Gurner have given really helpful advice on how to make your money go further. Which considering households today can spend like 36% of their income on housing costs is totes helpful.

Well there you have it, a quick and easy guide to getting a home. Good luck on your journey to joining the massive debt mountain that is keeping our crushingly unproductive economy going.

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

Photo Credit – KJØKKENUTSTYR (2016) Avocado Toast

*Arsewipes

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

Diary of A Wimpy Kid

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

The Winner Takes it All (or not)

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

The Long and Winding Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

I bet you think this song is about you

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

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

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

Photo Credit – Matt BiddulphCouncil Estate (2008)

 

Warm Smiles Don’t Make You Welcome Here

Housing Associations are increasingly trapped by their own ambitions and whilst Mr Hilditch is right to highlight mission creep, the sector’s problems go deeper than simply chasing dollar signs. It still does not understand how to deliver good customer service based on the needs of its end users. Continued failure to address this issue will further erode credibility in the sector and ultimately the very values it claims to uphold.

Customer Service

For those blissfully detached from the internet over the last couple of weeks the power of failing in the very basics of customer service was beautifully highlighted by United Airlines. A fee paying passenger was physically, and very forcefully removed, (getting injured in the process) on a flight that was overbooked. Whilst initially unrepentant and largely unapologetic. Sharp drops in the company’s share prices, alongside a massive social media backlash forced the CEO Oscar Munoz to apologise. It is an extreme case, but highlights that get customer service wrong in the private sector and you will, literally, pay the price. And that’s before the inevitable lawsuit.

For me this is where a large number of the problems with the sector lie. The main focus of a business, social or otherwise, should be to ensure that the customer gets a good service. That comes from a culture that accepts and embraces customer service as a necessity. Something that social housing orgs, without the type of competition seen in the private sector, have struggled to come to terms with.

The Power of the Market, but Beware of the Dark Side

Some of the most popular apps have been developed out of a perceived need. I can order an Uber, book a table, hunt for houses to rent all on my smart phone (another need based development). Yet when it comes to social housing how progressive have we been in our service offer? As Tim Pinder has noted, only a modest number of social housing organisations offer customers the rather simple ability to book a repairs appointment online. I think he was being polite regarding his nod to the fact that in reality most of these were actually ‘fancy emails’ with a scheduler still required to actually sort the appointment. Not only does this save time and effort for customers, as Tim notes it can also deliver savings for the organisation. The two factors are not mutually exclusive.

Elsewhere opening hours continue be highly restrictive and inflexible. Opening 9am-5pm is next to useless for most people who work. So too is being open Mon – Fri. Letting agents in the private rented and home ownership sectors are open on a Saturday. This is because they recognise the need to be available at times that suit potential customers. So why aren’t social landlords who own and manage tens of thousands of units doing the same? Even banks have changed their opening times to be more customer friendly (admittedly dragging their heels the whole way). Again, why aren’t we looking at this seriously? Flexible hours of working should not just be for the benefit of staff. 

I’m not for a moment suggesting a marketisation (is that a word? It is now) of social housing, anyone who’s witnessed the basket-case of New Labour quasi-markets in the NHS will know the perils of trying to create a state-led market out of thin air†. Certainly not all organisations act in the best interests of their customers, or even the long term viability of the business. However, the lack of a need for invention combined with the nature of many of the organisations that provide social housing has inevitably left the UKHousing sector wanting in a number of ways.

Talk is Cheap

We’ve often talked about embracing the better elements of the private sector. But in reality these have largely been confined to pursuing activities that make more money (not a bad thing in and of itself). But not on the relentless, necessary drive for developing and improving products/services* or the need for good, responsive customer care. Or the requirement to design services around the needs of the customer, not around the business, or worse still – what the business thinks the needs of the end user are.

I will let others rally around the Big is Bad, Developer is bad arguments. There are truths and falsehoods there. As this documentary by Adam Curtis has noted the problems highlighted by John Harris and by Steven Hilditch on build quality and customer service are nothing new in the development of properties for the social housing sector. As with housing policy more generally these issues have a depressingly predictable tendency to come round full circle.

As ever, it depends on the organisation, the culture and the desire to improve as a business, and yes – the profit motive if you wish to improve the services you provide. Key to this is putting the customer at the forefront of what you do, otherwise it’s just lip service. A stance that ultimately will erode your service offer, trust in you as an organisation and the very values you should be standing up for. The choice is simple one, but it’s yours to make.

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

Picture Credit – Wojtek Gurak – Bouça Social Housing

†That and , you know, pretty much every single ‘communist’ country, ever.

*There are obviously some caveats here, I’ve lost count of the number of tech firms I’ve come across directly and indirectly that are flogging a bit of kit that last saw major investment when Tony Blair was still PM. But you get the gist.

 

Arguing With Thermometers

Fact, fiction or managing the narrative? Housing has long had an image problem, one that has been embedded by failure to counter powerful narratives to pervade public discourse and, to a large extent, public policy initiatives. Is it time for the sector to get down and dirty?

The Beat that My Heart Skipped

A recent train of thought I’ve come across is the (statistically backed) claim that we need to stop pretending that everyone is a couple of paychecks away from homelessness. This is largely because there are real and significant differences in the chances of someone becoming homeless. These heavily (but not exclusively) depend on one’s age, ethnicity and socio-economic background. My only problem with above argument is that despite being technically correct, such approaches miss the point.

The dominant narrative around homelessness has been that individual pathology i.e. our own choices and behaviours are by far and away the main driver for one’s housing situation. This message has been picked up and rammed home to such an extent that it largely goes unchallenged. This has problematic consequences for housing policy because it impedes the ability of people to back ‘progressive’ policy changes i.e. it makes our job a lot harder than it should be. Something Campbell Robb nailed in this post whilst still at Shelter.

Hypocrite

Simply stating technical arguments isn’t going to reverse this wet dream of the centre right. Because it assumes that evidence based arguments have got us to where we are. Quite bluntly they haven’t. Emotive, ideologically driven bullshit has. We’re not really living in a post facts age. People have just refined ways of finding what they perceive to be evidence based support for the way they view the world. However, what has been interesting about the gradual change in the tide of public opinion in housing (both here and over in the US) is that it’s become less of an ethereal problem that effects others. Everyone has family, colleagues, and friends who have been affected or know someone affected by housing affordability problems. It brings home a policy issue that previously been on one’s periphery. This offers a way in for those looking to influence public opinion.

Homelessness is more of a tricky beast. Those working in the sector have long been alarmed at the rising rates of homelessness. But this doesn’t engage with the public. Don’t believe me, casually observe people’s behaviour when they see street homeless. Better still, observe your own. There is a real detachment here, from empathy and acknowledgement of the problem at hand.

Whilst people don’t care about technical arguments, they do care about what affects them, their friends, their families. They also like to believe negative life events happen to other people, preferably due to their own poor choices rather than an ingrained unjust system in which they play a part. It’s more of a convenience to blame other individuals rather than structural problems associated with our drug like dependency on the housing market. Whilst many of us have friends struggling with their housing situation. Few know a homeless person.

It Ain’t What You Do It’s the Way that You Do it

I’ve long argued for the UKHousing sector to own the narrative, to control the image relating to it. It has routinely failed to do so. But more recently progress has been made as better lobbying and a different Government, with its head at least partially out of the clouds, providing a tweak in housing policy. The Homelessness Reduction Bill has also shown signs of change. Albeit one that will be utterly insignificant if we do not build more social housing. Honestly kids, that part of the housing crisis is the easy bit.

As ever it’s the PR and Marketing side of things that has let both the housing and homelessness sectors down on occasion. Too much facts, not enough empathy. Particularly at a time where one can easily twist publicly available information to meet their own desired view of the world. Our message needs to be clearer, simpler and more accessible. That doesn’t mean diluting the truth, but it does mean refining the message.

A massive thanks to Beth Watts for both initial discussions and some very useful reading material. Also to Burcu Borysik for tweets from #CrisisConf which helped to frame this blog. As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit – Birgit Kulbe (2012) Homeless

Music References

Arguing With Thermometers – Enter Shikari (2012)

The Beat That My Heart Skipped – Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip (2007)

Hypocrite – Midasuno (2002)

It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do it) – Bananarama (1982)

 

Right To Bye

The Welsh Government has begun the process to scrap the Right to Buy in Wales. For the social housing sector this will be an important victory if it makes it through the Welsh Assembly. It highlights the fascinating splintering of approaches to housing across the UK, and whilst not universally popular, it is a decision that (it is hoped) will help with the shortage of social housing in Wales. Along with similar measures already put through in Scotland case studies of scrapping the Right to Buy are abound for those in England to mull over.

It’s a Numbers Game

There is a stat I have regularly used to put things in perspective regarding Right to Buy, and it’s one that is worth repeating. In 1980 UK had just over 7 million permanent dwellings rented from LA or Housing Associations*, by 2014 that figure was under 5 million (DCLG Live Table 101). In 1980 the number of social housing units started and completed by HAs* or Councils was 109,930. In 2014 it was just 30,090 (DCLG Live Table 211). In broadly the same period (1980/81 to 2013/14) 1.8 million properties were bought under Right To Buy. Put simply we’ve lost too much and replaced too little social housing (see the chart below).

If the Government was willing to ensure Councils got the full market value of the property and all the receipts, or even facilitated the tenants buying a house elsewhere at an equivalent discount, and crucially guarantee a 1:1, like for like replacement I’d be all for it. But historically that simply hasn’t happened, and improved noises from Barwell et al aside, I don’t see this changing any time soon. And therefore neither will my opposition to Right to Buy.

More’s the point research has consistently shown that 1) Right to Buy has had an adverse impact on the housing benefit bill, diverting resources to (higher cost) private renting than would have been the case 2) crucially through the loss of social housing Right to Buy has intensified problems of housing affordability. In London the problem has been particularly acute.

Dwellings by Sector new
Source -DCLG Live Table 101 [Dwellings] by Tenure (UK) Historical Series
As a side note, the IFS did some interesting modelling work on Right to Buy prior to the Voluntary Version coming into play. It’s worth a read.

It Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way that You Do It

Subtle changes have been occurring with the current UK Government’s approach to housing. Gavin Barwell has admitted, at least in part, that replacements for RTB have not always been secured fast enough and has sought to increase capital funding for non-market rent properties. And it seems the urgency for the roll out of VRTB has been somewhat tempered.

Elsewhere the passing of Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Bill has been heartening, as has the interest being shown by Sajid Javid in the Housing First approach to treating vulnerable homeless individuals. 18 months ago this was frankly unthinkable. They show a more mature approach to tackling the various housing crises in this country than has previously been the case since 2010. Albeit with continuing issues on Welfare provision, which is an intrinsic part of the picture.

Conclusions

Ultimately the scrapping of Right to Buy in Scotland, and now potentially in Wales are unlikely to influence the current Government. But they will provide the opportunity to test how to end a policy that has, for the most part, benefited the individual at the cost of the wider community, and by extension society. If we are to have a more balanced, long-term approach to housing in the UK it needs to go. Whether there is the political will to do that remains to be seen. Either way it’s a fascinating, if endlessly frustrating, time to be a housing policy geek.

 *What the DCLG wraps up under the umbrella of a Housing Association.