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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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

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.

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.

 

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]