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)

 

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Are We Nearly There Yet?

Whilst significant inroads have been made at Government level, popular support for state provision of housing, and the welfare state more generally, is still an issue that needs addressing. And as the regulator is busy ruffling feathers by making history repeat, as a sector we need to avoid the same old mistakes and convince the public of our worth, and the cost of decades of policy failure.

Different Year, Same Story, Pretty Much the Same Blog

A few months down the line since the madness of the post Post Brexit vote the Government of the day may be listening more, but public support is scattergun at best. And with backing for welfare spending in continuing decline, particularly when looking at out of work benefits such as unemployment benefit, we need to look at how we sell ourselves. Because, like it or not, we as a sector are inexorably tied to welfare spending and the welfare state more generally. Probably doesn’t help that for the taxpayer our core business model always has been, and most likely always will be, give us loads of your money and we will build houses for people other than you to live in. At a price cheaper than you pay for yours. That’s about as tough a job as an ice cube seller in the Arctic i.e. damned difficult, and we need to get better at it.

Pay Your Money, We’ll Have to Take Your Choice

Given what has been mentioned above, numerous Governments have sought to withdraw state intervention in the housing market. But as David Bentley over at Civitas has noted, just as Governments have sought to reduce their role. More and more they’ve actually had to prop up the private market. Largely due to policies that have focused on demand side fixes.  Thus perpetuating a cycle where the very measures sought to increase the ability of consumers to purchase housing ends up pushing houses further out of their reach.

A number have sought to highlight the utter absurdities of demand side policies and house prices. Seriously, the more you dip into George Osborne’s housing policies, the more idiotic they appear. Others have noted the positive financial impact genuinely social housing can provide. But it’s tying it altogether that has been the difficult part. Namely because it involves pointing the finger at those who’ve been making batshit mental policy decisions in recent years and going – these fuckers don’t have a bloody clue what they are doing – and then trying to work with them.

Is there a Point to All this?

Kind of. As a sector we may have a more benign Government in power, but we have failed to convince the general public that we are providing value for money. In the long-term that will be a killer. For all the KPIs we produce about performance, for all the smoke and mirrors about being upfront about our costs and what we deliver. We need to drive home the value of what we do. For whilst there is a groundswell politically for investment and support in what we do. In the mind of the General Public the battle is far from won.

As the incumbents in power realise they need to do more than simply cut corporation tax to help JAMs, Marmalades and other food groups. We need to take advantage and reach out beyond our usual audience. Because unless we state in plain and simple terms, very clearly and very loudly what we do, why we do it and how well we do it. And repeat Ad Nauseum (I call this the Farage method of mass communication). We’ll be left in vacuum of rumour, misinformation and gossip. That helps no-one, least of all us.

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

Photo Credit:

VMAX137  (2012): View of South Lake Union and Queen Anne Hill

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/vmax137/

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.

Every little helps…

Being the low level minion that I am I don’t tend to do much of the meet and greet malark. Most of my days involve spreadsheets, pivot tables and reams of data, so much so that the team I work in occasionally has the moniker “the Geek Squad”. We take it on the chin as the good banter it is.  Personally I largely attribute this nickname to the fact that we can competently use Microsoft Excel, or as others in the organisation seem to think of it, “black magic”. I’m not sure how I feel about the nickname because (A) I can talk to women without wetting myself and (B) I don’t know computer coding, I don’t play Dungeon & Dragons and I have certainly never messed around with Linux* so I don’t see myself as much of a geek.  I guess it is all a matter of perception.

This weekend saw me get away from my beloved Excel documents and brave the bright lights of outdoors. My ever patient and long suffering girlfriend dragged me out to help her and her netball team, Scarletts Netball Worcester, complete a Cyclothon for Asha Women’s Centre. I have to admit, my burning quads aside, that it was a lot of fun and helped to raise money for an organisation that can always use a bob or two.  As councils across the country continue to slash spending organisations like Asha, who deal with the vulnerable and those on the margins, are likely to feel the squeeze even more.  Fortunately it appears that Asha at least has a diverse set of funders and will carry on doing the good work that it has always done.

CyclothonSomeone else who appears to need some spare change is Iain ‘why always me’ Duncan Smith.  After claiming everything is tout sweet (again) the treasury seems a little jittery at signing off further funding for the beleaguered project.  I could make a joke about state dependency and government funding here but that would be too easy.  Cheap shots aside it is deeply worrying how much of train wreck Universal Credit has become.  And although the DWP expects its business case to be signed off soon it is all a bit of a mess.  Frankly I am bored with writing about the subject.  Reform of the welfare state is needed, and I do support Universal Credit in principle.  However many of the reforms are crude short-termist cost cutting measures that penalise the poor and vulnerable.  They are also highly unlikely to save the money they were projected to and place ever more burden on charities, local authorities and social landlords.  It is a Grade A balls up and those in power need to recognise it as such.

The gift that keeps on giving aside another interesting development was the announcement of infrastructure funding, largely scheduled for post 2015, for ‘the regions’.  Based on recommendations from Lord ‘right to buy’ Heseltine it is probably the closest we will come (i.e. not very) to an announcement of government funding for new housing before the next general election.  It is a welcome departure from a heavily London focused approach to sorting out our economy.  Though it remains to be seen what impact the funding will have and dollar for housing is (again) heavily focused on getting largely private developments up and running.  That being said the deals do appear to provide for a number of mixed tenure developments and frankly as long as more housing gets built I can’t complain too much.  A point I would make is that if you can fund projects to facilitate private housing developments, you can fund public housing.

A final point.  Some lovely chaps and chapesses at  are holding a day on the 15th July.   The idea is to get sponsored to fast & raise money for a related good cause.  You can follow their blog at ukhousingfast.wordpress.com to find out more, I would suggest looking at Michala Rudman and Rob Gurshon’s guest blogs they are as insightful as they are excellent.  

*For the uninitiated this is not some form of recreational substance but a free/open source operating system that requires a fair amount of technical skill and knowledge to use.