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)

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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]

To Boldy Go Where No-one Has Gone Before

The pragmatist in me knows why voluntary Right to Buy has a significant amount of attraction. If I were in charge of a housing association I would probably have ticked yes myself. But that doesn’t mean a debate shouldn’t have been had. It doesn’t mean that we all have to like it. Being given a week to look over this is frankly unforgivable, it is a grade ‘A’ balls-up however you look at it. But before we all get busy patting ourselves on the back it may be worth reminding ourselves of some uncomfortable facts.

In 1981 England had 7 million units owned by either Local Authorities or Registered Providers, by 2014 this had dropped to 4 million.

In 1981 England had 7 million units owned by either Local Authorities or Registered Providers, by 2014 this had dropped to 4 million. The population in 1981 was just under 46 million, by 2014 it was 54.3 million. I.e we have less social stock for a larger population. Over the past 4 years those accepted as unintentionally homeless has increased from 42,390 in 2010 to 53,410 in 2014. Those living in temporary accommodation has increased from 48,240 (2010/11) to 64,710 (2014/15). Those found to be unintentionally homeless as a result of their assured shorthold tenancy ending has risen from 15% (6,150) of decisions in 2010 to 29% (15,420) in 2014. Those in work, yet claiming housing benefit, surpassed 1 million in 2014 (in 2008 it was just 430,000). In one of the most advanced countries in the world that is outrageous. It also highlights why social housing is needed.

You will no doubt have seen I’ve been vehemently opposed to both Right to Buy (RTB) and ‘Voluntary’ Right to Buy (VRTB). It’s clear that my personal beliefs are quite opposed to a number of those in the sector. I am grateful for the open and frank debates that have been had. It is one of the things I admire about social housing. Difference of opinion is accepted, even encouraged (just don’t expect for your view not to be challenged). Though I must admit talk of a ‘re-set’ in our relationship with Government does nark. Had the sector been better at lobbying, at influencing i.e. had a better relationship with Government in the first place this wouldn’t need to be the case. I don’t work in PR but I doth my cap at those putting a positive spin on one of our greatest failures.

I am 1 of 4 brothers, but I’m the only one who has a permanent contract…

A significant part of my anger, of my unwillingness to accept the extension of Right to Buy in any guise is quite a simple one. Many of you will be talking from position of secure housing. Many of you will be talking from a position of home ownership. I am not. I have family who live in social housing, friends currently wholly or partially reliant on benefits to, you know, live. I am 1 of 4 brothers, but I’m the only one who has a permanent contract (and I was 27 before that beauty came along). Alongside my travails my ladyfriend was made redundant twice in a 6 month period last year. In total we’ve moved 5 times in the last 4 years (all were work and/or affordability related). My family has seen depression, cancer, job losses and death in an uncomfortably short period of time. But the backdrop to all of that was a secure family home. One I ended up living back at for most of 2014.

Out of all my friends (a disparate group of around 20 chaps and chapesses) a grand total of 2 own the property they live in. As such policy developments matter deeply to me. When life is as precarious as outlined above the potential removal of an invaluable safety net is highly alarming. Housing Association properties might be saved by VRTB, but truly social rent via LAs, I’m not so sure. I have been challenged to provide another way. I would politely throw the challenge back.

Whilst I support a true variety of housing; social rent, market rent, home ownership, shared ownership, and all the betwixt and between, from all types of providers. For many just a roof over their head is a priority, yes develop other things but we still need social housing, we still need that base. Because it is often the one secure/reliable facet in the lives of so many vulnerable households. When the dust settles, when we are all back being busily ‘inefficient’ and not building things that may be worth remembering.

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Why Social Housing Matters

The timely release of homelessness figures is a reminder for both the sector and Central Government why social housing is badly needed. And why Right to Buy, whatever its guise, is wrong.

Amongst all the glitz and glamour of the NHF’s annual conference you might be forgiven for missing one of the key datasets still released by the DCLG. The quarterly Statutory Homelessness update dropped today and the figures, like so many relating to housing in this country, do not make great reading. The number of households in temporary accommodation is up 12% on the same period last year. Some 66,980 individuals or households are currently reliant on this emergency form of housing.

The lack of security associated with assured shorthold tenancies (AST) is also laid bare. Around 30% of all households accepted by local authorities as being owed a homelessness duty had lost their ‘settled’ home due the ending of an AST. When looking at long-term trends of households accepted as homeless by local authorities the below chart, shameless ripped from the DCLG data release, further worrying trends are evident. After a massive reduction between 2006 and 2010 in both households in temporary accommodation and those being accepted as homeless there has been a steady increase. The former creeping closer to mid-financial crash levels.

Homeless FiguresThese figures only relate to ‘official’ homelessness, rough sleeping and ‘hidden’ homelessness are not counted here. However a research piece by Crisis and friends, released in February this year, shows that both these forms of homeless are also increasing sharply.

As earnings further decouple from housing prices, as the consequences (intended or otherwise) of changes to in work benefits begin to pinch, as parts of our economy continue to under-perform the above numbers will rise further. Yet we are on the cusp of either being forced to, or ‘voluntarily‘ give up swathes of housing designed to help those very people. Why? Because ideology, not evidence or pragmatism is holding court for this Government and the housing market.

I noted a little while back that having a voluntary right to buy is a win-win for the Government, and in many instances for housing associations. It is not a win for local authorities who retain social housing stock. What decent assets they have will likely be forced to sell off to fund replacement properties for social landlords. I cannot fathom how on any level, except a business one, Housing Associations can sign up to such a deal. The sector has spouted the mantra social hearts, business heads. Yet, in leaving local authorities up an estuary without the proverbial wooden implement we are certainly not following our social values.

The part that angers me the most is that every single bit of evidence has so far shown that right to buy properties are not replaced at anywhere near the level they are lost at. For local authorities, hands tied behind their backs by funding and finance rules, how are they meant to replace their stock? The simple answer is they’re not. We look like we have survived this attack by Government, but only by throwing council owned social housing under a bus. This leaves a particularly nasty taste in the mouth. By agreeing to ‘voluntary’ right to buy the Government also neatly avoids a messy confrontation with the social housing sector, the House of Commons and the house of Lords. It is a fight that we could well win. Yet we sit back and go for a slow death.

As social landlords we are uniquely positioned to provide housing of all tenures to meet the varying needs of those lower down the food chain. Affordable (i.e Intermediate Market Rent), Shared Ownership, Private rent. All of these have a part to play. But we must secure social rent, truly social rent as the base on which to build. That is non negotiable.

Rant over.

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More than just a landlord, more than just a developer

If there were any doubts that the social housing sector has failed to get its message across to those in power they have been cast aside quite definitively. Stuck between a hostile Government and apathetic general public the sector is struggling to align itself to the threats facing it.

Not one but two cabinet ministers have gone after the after housing associations in the last couple of days. In and of itself that is not unusual. But the key difference here is the focus of the criticism. Both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and (more worryingly, as he really should know better) the Housing Minister have decided that all the sector does is build homes. Or more precisely not build enough of them. In doing so Mr Osborne also tried to quietly re-write history (cheeky sod). Taking the old adage that it is the victors that write the definitive account of times past a bit too literally for my liking. Shout out to Jules Birch on that one.

Indeed Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dee seem intent on taking the general public down the rabbit hole regarding what we actually do. The inability of the sector to get across who we are and what we do is costing us dearly. Just as Zach De La Rocha wrote that “the radio is silent though it fills the air with noises”, so our message is being lost due to white noise and lack of cohesion. This really needs to change, explicitly.

In the face of a an entire sector being measured against a yard stick plucked out of thin air I’m reminded of a wonderful sketch done on school systems around the world (see below). Where the skill to climb a tree is perceived the best measure of an animals worth.This is Osborne & Lewis’s thinking on HAs and building homes. It is a straw man argument that doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny (they never usually do). We are a diverse sector whose focus is providing housing for the poor, the vulnerable, the destitute. We are also increasingly taking on the role of the state as adult social care, money advice services, after school clubs, community centres all shut due to Government orchestrated cuts. It is also deliberate move to shape and define the debate to come. One that favours a Government whose focus is solely on home ownership and pits them against some troublesome social landlords who aren’t too keen on state sponsored asset stripping.School system Brandon Lewis for his part has managed to highlight (I’m assuming accidentally) the consequence of his own Party’s actions. Bemoaning a 20% rise in social housing rent – sorry fella but what did you expect would happen when pushing Affordable Rent conversions. You know, where you rent the same property at up to 80% of the market rent as opposed to around 55-65% of it? That might have an impact. A 1% on future rents cut isn’t going to reverse that nonsense of a policy, just mess up the business plans of housing associations. The last bit of his pieces also narks – it is the social, with an S, housing sector not affordable. And no your track record shows anything but support. Possibly begrudging acceptance, but definitely not support. I’ve previously joked about how the Conservatives saw low-cost home ownership as the new social housing (with a metamorphosis via affordable rents). Unfortunately they didn’t see the joke and have enacted it as policy…

More in-depth analysis of the last couple of days events have been done by the ever capable Jules Birch and John Land for Inside Housing and 24 Dash respectively. Always worth a read. You can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

So Long Sucker

As the social housing sector looks to engage, influence and ultimately work with the current Conservative Government. An administration that at best has been blasé towards the raison d’être of social landlords, and at worst sought to openly undermine our long-term existence. Game Theory might offer some clues as to our future direction of change.

For the uninitiated/blissfully unaware, Game Theory is the study of strategic decision-making. Though funnily enough part of the origins of Game Theory comes from studies designed to mathematically analyse poker games. Some people just want to take away all the fun… For those of you old enough to remember the cold war (I was 3 when the Berlin Wall came down so I don’t think that counts) M.A.D is the epitome of La Théorie des Jeux. Whilst I wouldn’t say we are in a zero sum game at the moment, though others in the sector probably would, there is certainly some interesting repositioning policy-wise currently going on.

Dilbert Explains Game Theory

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Credit – Dilbert Learns Game Theory – Copyright Scott Adams Inc./Dis. By UFS, Inc.

The potential move towards a ‘voluntary’ Right To Buy (VRTB) for social landlords, in exchange for building low-cost homes is an intriguing one. It could negate the messy situation for Government whereby a quirk of accounting adds a load of debt onto the nation’s balance sheet. That would be more than a little awkward at a point in time where they are actively looking to lower it. Though not the first time the Conservatives would’ve shot themselves in the foot by not thinking/joining up policy decisions – housing benefit bill v affordable rents anyone? At the same time it might nullify the groundswell of opposition to a policy that CCHQ probably thought would be a stroll in the park to implement.

Whilst I am loath to give any credit to this Government VRTB is has the potential to be an exemplary move politically speaking (if it is indeed implemented/undertaken). VRTB takes away the argument that the policy is being forced onto organisations against their charitable objectives; as only those who want to take part will (I’m assuming there will be a sodding great big carrot dangling in front of the sector, somewhere). It would also allow those social landlords who are looking to move away from the provision of ‘true’ social housing a ready-made excuse to do so. The Conservatives can then say they have kept a pre-election promise (albeit one they kept bloody quiet) and a historically very popular policy that has been one of the most effect privatisation projects gets a new lease of life. Essentially it plays to everyone’s perceived self-interest, smart, very smart indeed.

Of course VRTB could all come to nothing. There is still the (sadly quite likely) option of the current incumbents in Parliament completely ignoring warnings/concerns from the CBI, CML, CIH, NHF, various financial institutions, credit rating agencies, a cross-section of the media (though I also take that with a pinch of salt) and pretty much every single social landlord and will force Right to Buy on Housing Associations. Such a move would be very much in keeping with the Fuck you buddy application of Game Theory, i.e. shit on everyone else to win/get what you want.

The NHF Conference later this month is apparently a time where more information will be given. Personally I’m not holding my breath, I just hope the sector puts the long-term ‘greater good’ of providing social housing above a rush to build homes for outright sale. We need a mix of housing types, not just the ones Government ideologically wants. FYI David Montague’s blog on what the future holds is essential reading.

Now, where are my poker chips…?

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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.