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)

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

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Generation Snowflake

So the joke goes, this generation never had it so good. Millennials have Xbox’s, PlayStations, PacMan video games and iPads. Their predecessors simply had the ability to buy their first home before they were 30. These days it seems, those looking to get on the mythical ladder to The Faraway Tree home ownership have everything but a home to call their own. The picture is often more complex than that, below is my thoughts on the current situation. Warning, whinging millennial mode engaged.

Trust me it’s not the negative press or a lack of rolling up one’s sleeves that’s stopping me from buying a house, it’s the money involved.

Nice One Grandma, Cheers Dad

The recently released Resolution Foundation report has caught the attention of the press. The piece notes that Millennials (i.e. me and my mates) will potentially be the first ever generation to record lower lifetime earning than their predecessors. That our inability to buy a home will have implications on lifetime standards and that redistribution of taxes via the welfare state are tilted in the favour of the Baby Boomers and their elders, and how this impacts on inter-generational ties. Yea, it’s a real chirpy read*.

Decreasing numbers of younger homeowners

home-ownership

ONS Digital (2015) Housing and Home Ownership in the UK

In his blog that preceded the Resolution Foundation’s report (via an article in The Times) David Willetts argued that whilst a proportion of the population is reaping the benefits of being the baby boomers. It needs to do more to help the younger generations†. It’s an interesting, well thought out article with a helpful analogy (or is it a metaphor, always shit at these) of big birth cohorts like baby boomers being akin to a pig that’s been swallowed by a Python. Something that creates enormous strains, but also opportunities (well, not for the pig, he’s fucked).

However, as I’ve blogged before recently policies have either largely ignored those struggling to sort their housing situation or have been distorted by ideology, with interventions such as help to buy having the very opposite of their intended effect. And whilst I concur with Mr Willetts deliberations, there is concern his view, and that of the Resolution Foundation might not be heard.

It’s all so simple

If you believe parts of the press (step forward Daily Telegraph) we’re all a bunch of whinging areses who’ve never had it so good. Because despite trebled tuition fees, greater levels of insecure working, greater levels of household debt, Brexit and spiralling housing costs as rents and house prices outstrip wage increases, we need to pull our fingers out. Why? Because it turns out that despite masses of evidence to the contrary, we can buy a house. This is apparently the case due to affordability factors getting  back to their long-term average and deposits no longer being an issue due to the fact we can simply get a 100pc mortgage with a parental guarantee. Trust me it’s not the negative press or  me being a whinge-bag and not rolling up my sleeves that’s stopping me from buying a house. 100pc mortgage or not, it’s the money involved that’s the problem, period.

Declining Number of First Time Buyers (Number of mortgage loans for first time buyers, UK, 1980 to 2013)

first-time-buyers-mortgages

ONS Digital (2015) Housing and Home Ownership in the UK

Moving Forward

There has been a number of suggested solutions ranging from the genuinely innovative to the downright odd. Including, but not limited to, live in converted shipping containers, rely on your rich relatives to die/give you money, live in houses that don’t meet space standards to make them cheaper, fuck off to Europe, increase shared ownership. Some of the above may help, others not so much. But they need to be pulled together into a coherent strategy, where the state, the private sector and social housing sector play complementary roles.

Teresa May is increasingly putting forward a case for the state to be involved in improving the lives of those struggling in society. That our society is not a just a big one, but a shared one. And whilst John Rentoul is right to note she is very good at saying a lot without actually saying anything, the rhetoric is welcome. Hopefully it will be backed with policy and cash. Otherwise the inter-generational gap will only widen and with it the life chances of future generations will undoubtedly decrease.

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

Photo Credit: herefordcat (2008): Georgian Terrace

+Updated 11/01/2017 to include graphs

*For a legitimately amusing aside, check out these millennial v baby bloomer tweets.
†An argument that is slightly undermined by the fact that Mr Willetts was the Minister of State for Universities and Science who trebled tuition fees, thus negatively impacting on the life chances of younger generations via increasing their debt burden. Cheers Dave.

 

 

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/

Why Spend More?

Government cuts merely shift the burden, and associated costs, from one department budget to another. Often providing poorer value to the taxpayer as a result. If there is to be a change in policy direction highlighting the absurdities of arbitrary cost cutting in the Welfare State, and capital funding in infrastructure more generally, is needed.

Working in housing you can get caught up in a couple of broken records, repeating time and time again that social housing is needed; and that please, won’t someone think of the poor people. It can all sound a bit noblesse oblige but often you’re one a very few voices pushing those messages. Changing tack, if only for the sake of your sanity, is therefore occasionally necessary.

Show Me the Money

What is often left out in arguing the need for a more progressive approach to policy making in this country is that being a tight arse as a Government often ends up costing the taxpayer (directly and indirectly) more than is saved.  If you have time to read his works, the University of Cambridge based economist Ha-Joon Chang is worth a visit. Whilst the forever left (behind) Owen Jones interviewed him the other week, he has been vocally critical of trickle down economics and Austerity for some time. Notably because the former is bollocks as a theory and the latter more costly for economic growth than expected.

Post-Brexit is seems ‘experts’ (i.e. people who’ve spent years learning about a particular subject) are old hat, who needs them when you’ve got a former Investment Banker (but not part of the establishment) and a former journalist with a penchant for Shakespearean-esk melodrama to tell you the truth+. But it is perhaps worth listening to the various research pieces/staff notes coming out of the world-renowned hotbed of Marxist thinking, the IMF. It has released a number of critical pieces on more recent macro-economic policy approaches and how they’ve failed to solve inequality and provide sustained growth.

It should be noted that the contents of such works represent the views of the authors and not necessarily the IMF itself. Bloody economists, they’re always particularly anal about caveats and detail. Almost as bad as accountants. To ram home the point reading Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine highlights how the IMF, amongst others, has been fundamental in pushing many of the policies that have actually caused greater economic damage than progression.

What Does this Mean for Housing?

Well, being selfish, it means that it is probably worth setting aside more capital funding for infrastructure projects (like building social and affordable housing). It would also be worth re-visiting plans to strip back the welfare state to the point where all that’s available is a couple of turnips* and stale corn flakes. Both of these pipe-dreams are unlikely to happen any time soon. But redirecting the narrative is desperately needed where Central Government and the Welfare State is concerned (a bit like Own Our Future, but without the OOF acronym). Thanks to excellent research from the likes of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the negative impact of inequality on households is well-known. However, the more recent admission from the IMF that inequality negatively impacts growth should provide the ammunition to make the case for investment over cuts. Or as Olivier Blanchard put it:

what is needed in many advanced economies is a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation, not a fiscal noose today

So change-up the language and change the focus of dialogue. The old adage of needing to spend money to make money (or in this case, save money) is useful here. By highlighting that through investing in secure, good quality, affordable housing the state, and by extension the taxpayer, gets far more bang for its buck (though I would say that, wouldn’t I?). When you can show the cost effectiveness of preventing individuals and households from hitting crisis point (and therefore requiring acute, high cost interventions) you’ve won half the battle.

Not Convinced?

Just count the cost of housing those accepted as being statutory homeless, count the cost of those sleep rough on the streets. Count the cost of those relying on friends and family for a sofa to sleep on. Count the cost of the severe damage to job prospects, education and even health that is caused by insecure, poor quality housing. Add that up and investing in social housing and a Welfare Sate is frankly a snip at the price.

Because, why spend more?

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

+Is this a dagger I see before me? No Michael Gove, it’s your political ambitions going up in smoke.

*In fairness, in Worcester (my home town) this would probably make you King…

Food for Thought

On 23rd June UKHousingFast joins us again, bringing together the Ramadan, the housing crisis in the UK and raising food donations and money for a very important charity, The Trussell Trust (I think even the DWP likes them now). Essentially it is the perfect opportunity for a ‘what does it all mean’ moment. Just don’t go and buy a bloody sports car afterwards. This is a period for a reflection, not an enabler for a midlife crisis.

An Unlikely Faster

If you ever proffered me a penny for my thoughts my response would probably involve food. I love the stuff, usually the more unhealthy the better (FYI there is an immense Cro-nut stall down the market by Greenwich Pier). Nutella (other hazelnut based spreads are available) and Pizza are probably my biggest weaknesses. I can devour a large Domino’s (Pepperoni, always) in one sitting, me and the Ladyfriend rarely have Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream for the same reason. Needless to say the concept of #UKHousingFast did not immediately appeal.

If you’re thinking of going to the gym whilst fasting, don’t.

Lessons from Last Year

However last year I decided to give it a go. I also decided to go to the gym whilst fasting. To cut a long story short if you’re thinking of doing this and you are going all day without food, don’t. Take the whole day to have some introspection. On a side note it is amazing how much will power is needed to A) Not think about food B) Not eat the damn stuff, but that might just be me.

Whilst in no way the main part of the day or even a stated focus of #UKHousingFast. A consistent theme amongst people who have undertaken was the respect it brought out of them for their Muslim friends, colleagues and family. Doing this for one day, or even a meal is tough, doing it for the entire period of Ramadan is a dedication that can only described as impressive. But just as important, and more in tune with what the day is about, is the reminder that for an increasing number of people fasting is not a choice tied to faith but a survival tactic when money is incredibly tight. It is a small part of a wider network of support for those living on the breadline.

One of the things that really works with #UKHousingFast, it’s an immensely personal but also incredibly diverse/open campaign to get involved in

What to Take From the Day

Whatever you want, support from colleagues friends, both real and social media based, makes the day on its on. But fundamentally you get out of it what you put in. If you just want to raise some awareness, get some money in for the Trussell Trust that’s fine. If you want to go further that’s also great. There’s a list of things you can do here. That’s one of the things that really works with #UKHousingFast, it’s an immensely personal but also incredibly diverse/open campaign to get involved in (Housing PR people, take note).

If you want to get involved you can find out more at https://ukhousingfast.wordpress.com/ or you can follow them on Twitter with the handle @ukhousingfast. If you’re taking part don’t forget to tweet using the #UKHousingFast hashtag. I will be tweeting my little heart out, probably be giving a minute by minute guide to what I will devour come night fall.

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

 

A Problem Shared, A Problem Halved?

In many ways the Shared Ownership product is a rather useful metaphor when looking at the Social Housing sector in the UK. Those who know it, who ‘get it’ tend to champion it to the bitter end. Outside of the bubble rumour, misinformation and gossip tend to undermine something that, in the right place, at the right time and the right people can be an invaluable alternative to mainstream housing. Oh that’s the other thing, it’s totally outside the norm for most people as well.

Some Light Reading

If you haven’t had a chance I would strongly recommend reading Orbit and the CIH’s report on making Shared Ownership the 4th mainstream tenure. It rather accurately and succinctly sums up the product and doesn’t shy away from drawing out some of its deficiencies (in its current form) notably:

  • Inflexibility around moving between shared ownership properties
  • Potentially costly requirements tied to stair-casing
  • Failure to market a consistent product
  • Localised variations to a nationally offered product
  • Considerable difference between supply and demand
  • Limited lender appetite

There are of course some significant pros, for the most part:

  • A pathway to full home ownership for those marginalised by the existing market
  • Security of tenure for those looking for a way out of private renting
  • Flexibility (to a point) to adapt one’s housing situation to their financial one
  • Affordability in an increasingly disjointed housing market

The Broader Context

The Government has substantially increased funding available for Shared Ownership, tying in to a belief (ideological as much as anything) that Home Ownership is the main tenure that should be supported. After the inevitable willy waving, and blaming of a party that hasn’t been in power since 2010, the detail is interesting to say the least. A total of£4.7bn has been set aside for Shared Ownership and Affordable Homes for the 5 year period 2016 to 2021. That mulla will fund:

  • 135,000 homes for help to buy and/or Shared Ownership
  • 10,000 for rent to buy
  • 8,000 for supported and older people accommodation (these could fail to materialise if LHA restrictions, currently delayed, are implemented)
  • 0 social rent properties

The last figure on that list isn’t actually included in the prospectus, indeed you can’t actually find any reference, aside from rent to buy,to renting – either social or affordable. With the current funding stream for that out of favour tenure due to end in 2018 grant funding for none home ownership products could very well cease. That should set all sorts of alarm bells ringing, especially at a time when every form of homelessness is on the increase. But you know, politics, money goes where votes are. And baby, there’s a bucket load in home ownership.

Opportunity Knocks

Considering the historic mis-match between demand and supply for Shared Ownership any increase in this type of housing tenure is welcome. Particularly a product that allows those worried about the insecure nature of private renting, but ineligible for social housing and unable to afford outright ownership, a type of housing that meets their needs. It also allows the sector to right some historic wrongs.

I can count on one hand the number of non-housing people who know about Shared Ownership housing. They all now own one, this is largely typical of when people know about S/O they like the idea (if not always the reality). Finding Narnia is often easier than finding, and then buying a S/O property. And that is before you hit the administrative cock ups our side.

Having worked in and studied the sector for a while the horror stories of bungled S/O are legend. Legal documents without HAs on them (bit awkward when the lender sort to repossess), all sorts of faux pas around tenant rights and responsibilities. A fundamental lack of knowledge about the product outside of one bloke who left in the late 90s. In short S/O doesn’t have a glorious history. This funding regime can provide a consistent, coherent product that can help one element of the 3 sub-crises that make up our current of the housing crisis. And gloss over years of ballsing it up.

The Catch

This Government seldom gives without taking something, the Housing and Planning Bill, along with the latest funding regime, are designed to steer HAs away from social and affordable rent provision. Though in truth some don’t need much steering. So far there has been a complete blindness to the need of a diverse set of policy interventions from Cameron et al, home ownership is truly king. Don’t get me wrong, S/O is a darn good product, but it is not for everyone and it is not a silver, gold or even rainbow coloured bullet for our housing woes.

Whilst some in the sector might be getting moist at the thought of becoming even more a provider of housing for sale instead of rent, it is worth remembering why we are here. If you are having a bout of amnesia, just look at the DCLG figures homelessness. Might be worth showing your local Tory MP as well, because the recent rise is largely their party’s fault.

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

A Matter of Perspective

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

1 – Every Single Measure of Homelessness is on the Increase

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

Crisis - Homelessness Monitor

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

chart2 – The Middle Class Malaise

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

housing-tenure(3)

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

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

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

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

Rounding it up

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

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