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?

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+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…

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It was only a joke…?

Despite forcing Clinton Cards to remove its offensive card about council housing, as a sector there is much to be concerned about.  The battle for public opinion is still very much in the balance.

Someone at Clinton Cards HQ is probably having a very bad day.  Whilst #Cardgate has shown the positive power of social media (maybe now some higher up in the housing world will start to take note of its importance) in reality there are no winners in the events of the last few days.  The card was crass, with poor grammar and a highly debatable punchline but it raises more issues for the social housing world than merely a bad joke.

The key thing for me is not so much the content of the card, but the fact that it was thought to be publishable.  Comedy is often a yard-stick, a barometer by which to gauge public opinion.  Just as Bernard Manning has been assigned to the racist dustbin of the past by all but an idiotic few (thank god for social progress) so council/social housing has become fair game.  Whilst there was enough backlash to force Clinton Cards into a bland corporate apology the reason why the card existed in the first place is because it taps into a narrative most in this country already believe.  That those living in social housing are feckless, lazy, money leeching cretins.  I doubt if you nipped down your local boozer that many would take deep issue with the card.  Like it or lump it we’ve lost the PR battle, badly.

I fully agree with Colin Wiles’ assessment that had the phrase ‘Council Estate’ been swapped for ‘black people’, ‘gay people’ or ‘Muslim’ that veritable poo-storm would have kicked up such a stink (pun intended) that the card company would have been in deep trouble.  Instead, a few headlines have been made, one or two hardy souls popped their head over the parapet and defended the sector but realistically the whole thing will be forgotten in a week.  It is a sad indictment of the current state of play that a whole swathe of society is so easily cast aside.  But it should be no real surprise to those who live and/or work in the sector.  For years social housing has been pushed to the margins, those living within it largely reduced to the level of ‘they’, of the ‘other’.  Mostly because it is easier to belittle, isolate and undermine a group of people when they have no recognisable public identity.  Better to hate the enemy you don’t really know (or understand).

In one of his (many) blogs Joe Halewood noted that #housingday2014 should be everyday and not just one 24hr period of the year.  That as a sector we don’t do enough to promote the good that we, and the people who dwell within the homes that it serves, do.  This sorry episode backs up Joe’s argument.  On a day when the OECD, a body hardly known for its radically left-wing politics, has published a report highlighting a) the growth in inequality and b) the negative impact this has on a nation’s economy we would do well to carry on banging the drum in favour of social housing.  SHOUT and Council Homes Chat are a start, but we need much more.

For some the mere existence of social housing is an insult, an affront to their view of the world, even a lefty’s wet dream.  I would argue for the most part that these are people who never have needed social housing and probably never will.  Me, I’m a bit more of a rounded kind of guy.  My old man was born and raised on a working class housing estate, my mum was the daughter of a successful doctor who did very well in his chosen field of expertise.  Apart from getting to see both sides of the curtain it has meant that I have a chip on both shoulders (a rounded fella, dontcha know?).  I am lucky that my immediate family has been able to buy the house it lives in and have a comfortable lower-middle class life.  This isn’t the case for everyone and simply going “la la la, get on your bike and sort your self out” to people less fortunate is patronising and degrading.

As Max Salsbury puts very eloquently:

as long as genuinely affordable housing remains a pipedream; as long as right to buy homes end up in the laps of private landlords; as long as millions of people are paid hopelessly inadequate wages, social housing has to exist.”

Fundamentally we have social housing because the free-market doesn’t provide well enough for the vulnerable, the destitute or those at the margins of society.  Despite this we need to defend what is already in place because it is seen as unnecessary by a large minority. Stopping a crap Christmas Card won’t change that.  But hopefully it will help to re-affirm the need for a loud, clear and angry voice in favour of the sector that actually gives a rat’s arse about the poor.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Your revolution is a joke (?)

As part of my current responsibilities I sit on my employer’s Equality & Diversity Forum.  It is a break from my normal duties and gets me to see sides of the organisation I don’t often encounter.  They don’t let me out much…  I do occasionally feel a bit of a fraud because you know, University educated, white middle-class men have it so bad.  But it is nice to be able to be part of something that is working towards ensuring a culture of inclusiveness thrives and that all our employees (and residents) can get the most out of the services (and employment) we provide.  So far, so wishy, washy.  Bear with me, there is a point to this.

Being on the forum I was invited along to my organisation’s annual award/celebration of the efforts that individual staff and teams have made towards meeting E&D related goals.  The things people had been nominated for ranged from helping facilitate fitness classes for the grey brigade (old people), assisting in a particularly difficult domestic violence case (if there ever are simple ones?) and raising money for a plethora of causes.  The award was a poignant reminder that we as social landlords do more than simply provide bricks and mortar, and that we should continue to do so as the impacts are often immeasurable. Though not everyone got this memo.

Relatively recently the Policy Exchange, the Conservative Party’s think tank in all but name, produced a well constructed document on a future of social housing without grant and less regulation.  FYI Jon Land does a very good job of summarising the debate on the report here.  Red Brick does nice number ripping it apart, here.  From my point of view I was pleasantly surprised by the number of concessions the paper made around the folly of the incumbent Government’s policies. The notion that Affordable Rent is bollocks was given credence, well stated that it is a ‘misnomer’, that’s enough for me.  That too many strings were attached to the last funding round.  That Welfare Reform, in particular the Benefit Cap and direct payments in conjunction with higher rents caused by ‘Affordable’ Rents would lead to higher rent arrears.  That in its current form, capital grant works for no-one.

Other observations were that:

  • £1.1bn of grant funding from Government is a lot of money – this point is stressed a lot…
  • Too many housing associations won’t build/can’t build – 5 out of 6 social landlords are not build or acquiring any new housing – naughty people!
  • We spend too much time/effort/money on our current residents and should use more of our surpluses to build new homes – ‘cos who needs happy tenants…
  • There should be less regulation, but boards should be required to show what options they have explored to build/develop – so less and more regulation?

Being a little cynical the report also neatly side steps, well more brutally, ignores one or two consequences of Conservative Government policy.  The number of people on council waiting lists is lamented long and hard.  But whilst Right to Buy is talked about in the report not a single mention of its negative impact on the overall social housing stock is noted.  Nor the neutering of the ability of Local Authorities to build new housing to replace lost stock and expand existing portfolios.  The negative impacts of the Benefit Cap are nodded to, but not the Policy Exchange’s calls to reduce the draconian cap even further.  But most of all it fails to realise we don’t just deal in bricks and mortar.

The report seemed to think that all social landlords do is build houses.  Or not build as the case may be.  I understand that looking at how we can build more properties was a fundamental of the report but you cannot, shall not, separate all the other aspects of what we do from the number of properties we build.  To do so, to assume that we are merely machines for building (and shoring up piss poor policy making in central Government) completely misunderstands our raison d’être.

I do however admire the attempt to look at a different way of operating, even if it is largely based on a bastardisation of the model operating in Holland.  This is because we do need to look at alternative ways of financing future builds.  We also need to be mindful of how much debt we load onto our assets.  I can’t argue against the statement that there are too many Landlords doing too little to build, because for the most part it is true.  There are also a number of large landlords playing chicken with the financial markets.  To both these groups I would ask if, in the long run, either model is sustainable.  You can only sweat what currently exists for so long, you can only gamble so long before striking out.

Whilst a number have come out vehemently opposed to the report, I must confess I sit on the fence.  In terms of going it alone I think some in the sector a capable, frankly for a number of others I don’t think they would survive.  We do operate in a cosy environment and this has bred a certain level of complacency.  Will having more freedom mean we turn into ‘proper’ private sector organisations?  I don’t know.  What is the culture like in a LSVT organisation?  Still a whiff of the former Local Authority way of doing things there?  The culture of an organisation doesn’t change overnight.  And it doesn’t just change because the operating remit has altered. As Jon Land notes, there may well be a parting of the ways on with those seeking ‘independence’ keen to take on a role many others will feel uncomfortable doing.

I do agree we should build more private sector rent and market sale properties.  But I don’t believe that this should ever be our primary focus.  It is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  As with everything there is a balance to things.  I for one will be intrigued to see if an equilibrium between a drive for the production of more housing and providing for the social good can be maintained.  But I would say this, social housing is fundamentally about people, about place and then about buildings.  To state otherwise is to deny what makes us, us.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable

After the relative damp squib that was the Labour Party conference the ‘All in it together (but not quite) brigade’ have laid out their version of what post 2015 election landscape will look like.  David Cameron and Gideon ‘Call me George’ Osborne have given the housing sector not even a whiff of comfort.  Sadly ladies and gentleman a shit-storm is coming our way.  Better get the bleach.

I have blogged previously about worrying noises coming from both Conservative HQ and their Think Tank (because politicians have very little capacity for thinking these days) The Policy Exchange.  The first is a lowering of the already draconian Benefit Cap.  The £26,000 threshold was already too low, especially in London and the South East.  It now looks likely to fall further to around £23,000.  Obviously those households who insist on being poor and out of work need more punishment to inspire them into employment.  The second is restricting access to housing benefit for those under the age of 21. This move is particularly disturbing as you don’t develop housing needs only over the age of 21.  You need housing support when you need it, not when the clock hits midnight on your 20th birthday.  To say I’m livid about this move is an understatement.

These arbitrary, callous and utterly short-sighted moves are vote winning at its finest.  Unlike the much maligned bedroom tax, a restriction on the cash people can receive in benefits has proved consistently popular with the electorate.  Acknowledging it is behind Labour on the cost of living crisis this is a smart political gambit, a refresher for the public that ‘tough’, ‘hard’ decisions i.e. one’s that fuck over the poor, the vulnerable (and those unlikely to vote) will be made by the Tories for ‘the greater good’.  Alongside tax cuts (that only really help those at the top of the ladder) it is a solid vote winner.

Alongside the two aforementioned policies a freeze on working age benefits post April 2016, on top of a restricted 1% from 2012 (again not biting the hand that feeds) has been announced.  It would be laughable how blatantly unfair these policy announcements are, if their affects weren’t so potentially horrific.  These changes would be bad enough on their own however more than 50% of Gideon Osborne et al’s cuts to local and central governments budgets are yet to take effect.  This will be catastrophic, not just for those at the bottom of the pile but the services, benefits and organisations that they rely on.  This my friends at the Million Homes, Million Lives Think Tank is why we in the social housing sector are stocking surpluses like a squirrel in late Summer/Autumn.  We know, as Martin Lawrence so eloquently put it in Bad Boys 2 [that] “Sh@# just got real”.

Universal Credit looks set to be rolled out further and more extensively than previously seen.  Iain Duncan Smith taking Queen’s statement that the show must go on to very extreme lengths.  Yet another senior figure in the project team has decided enough is enough.  The Universal Credit Project delivery team is the only part of the civil service going through more staff than the Housing Minister position.  For all of IDS’s bluster I smell bullshit in his claims of progress.

It has been a very grim week for housing, enough to dampen even my normally chirpy spirits.  The thing that has struck home more than anything is how woeful an opposition the lot in Labour have been.  The Tories have honed, vote winning policies set out.  Ed ‘sorry my face is forgettable’ Miliband can’t even remember his own speech.  The counter-points to the Tory proposals have been weaker than a comeback from your average high school kid.  It’s all a bit pathetic.  These policies are scary, detrimental in the long run and grossly unfair.  But they will probably win the Tories the next election.  Heaven help us all.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Skills to pay the bills

It is alas that time of the year again when the devout believers make their yearly pilgrimage to the conference of their preferred cult/party. For the most part they are non-events, apart from when the keynote speaker forgets a good chunk of his speech. Or if the party in question is UKIP. When they are in town I like to play the game of how many quasi-xenophobic and/or sexist gaffes can one party make in a day.

Out of Labour’s conference has come the announcement of wanting to push the minimum wage up to £8. This is a step in the right direction. But, when you look at the details, it is not enough. The rising cost of living is a one of the few areas that Labour has scored well in and this is definitely an attempt to score more brownie points with the electorate.  Regrettably, as often there are, the caveats water-down the announcement. Any rise will happen “by the end of the next parliament”. So probably 5 years away. Businesses are already making sucked teeth noises, meaning some loopholes may apply.  It is heartening however to hear a mainstream party recognise that wages are not where they should be and people are feeling the pinch.

Having worked in enough bars, restaurants, pubs, warehouses and factories to ensure I’m never working in such jobs again I can assure you a ‘minimum’ wage is sweet f@*k all. My time on the character-buildingly-low wage was manageable because I was at home or studying at uni. The fact I was on minimum wage, zero-to-very-low hour contracts didn’t matter because my rent payment wasn’t contingent on it. This is not the case for millions of people, who are very much in this situation. You only have to look at the sharp rise of those in work and receiving housing benefit to see the consequences of that.  For many the state is now effectively indirectly subsidising poor pay from private, public and third sector organisations alike.  Whilst work does pay, and often more than a purely benefit-provided income, for many it does not pay enough.  Hell when even the Daily Telegraph is noting that the cost of living is outstripping wage increases something is definitely amiss.

Borrowed Chart 1 – Pay Growth v CPI Inflation

Daily Telegraph (2014)
Daily Telegraph (2014)

I would argue that as social landlords we have a duty to provide a living wage (rather than just a minimum wage) to our employees.  Given all those massive surpluses out there I’m sure we could find a bob or two to cover the uplift in pay required.  More fundamentally it is about bringing home the work we do in the communities we serve.  You cannot espouse the need to support those on low/no income and the vulnerable without ensuring your own staff aren’t being swept aside by the same tide.  Poor pay is just as damaging as no pay and as progressive employers (in my experience only M&S have come close to offering as good employment T&Cs as social landlords) we have a duty that our staff can actually pay their bills.

Don’t be fooled, the minimum wage is just that – a bare minimum, combined with poor terms and conditions it can leave those in work trapped in poverty.  If you have the time I suggest reading the JRF’s contribution on this subject.  As ever it is insightful, thoughtful and to the point.

Whilst a sizeable number of social landlords already pay equivalent to the living wage (as opposed to minimum wage), more need to follow suit.  If not for anything but to show that successful businesses can afford to pay a fair, living wage to their employees.  Charity they say often begins at home, I suggest we take this notion when it comes to pay as well.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

All in it together (for reals)

All told it has been an interesting week as the CIH and NHF have both (finally) taken their gloves off and taken a swing at the monumental balls up that is housing policy in our beloved (possibly soon to be dissolved) country.  As Jules Birch expertly notes the proposals from the CIH pretty much entirely go against the current line of thinking vis a vis housing policy.  Good.  It’s a crock of shite and has been for at least 3 decades.

Apart from sticking the middle finger at Government thinking on housing and the welfare state (albeit in a polite and well thought out manner).  The CIH also makes a number of observations that I have previously noted.  In particular:

  • Current welfare reforms are looking to suppress symptoms rather than address the overall cause of the rise in housing benefit
  • The DCLG and DWP need to pick up the phone and co-ordinate policies a hell of a lot better
  • Iain Duncan Smith is an idiot (OK maybe made that one up, John Major agrees though…kinda)

Brownie points for me aside I have to say that the CIH could have picked a much better week for the release of this report.  With everyone getting their kilts and/or knickers in a twist over whether those north of the border will stay with us or go it alone press coverage will be minimal.  We have less than a year to go before another election hits us (working on the booby traps for unsuspecting candidates as we speak) accidentally burying your hard work in Brave-heart week is not a smart move. Particularly as Ipsos Mori has recently put housing bottom of the things people give a rat’s arse about regarding the general election.  This could have been handled a little bit better.  That being said it is a very well put together report that does something successive Governments have failed to do and has actually joined up a set of thought processes around housing, jobs and the welfare state.  You can read it here.

The NHF for its part has set out its #Homesforbritain campaign.  Which alongside #yestohomes and #SHOUT should keep badge manufacturers busy up and down the country.  Presumably their is a plan for the campaign to be shifted to #Homesforthecountryformallyknownas if the Yes campaign wins the #indyref.  If you are interested in the #Homesforbritain campaign you can go to it here.  The aim is to get housing up the political agenda and into the consciousness of the zombie-like masses that form the electorate.  And lay a platform for a long term set of solutions to our housing crisis.  Not wanting too much then.

Joking aside I support all three campaigns because anything that looks to raise the profile of social housing and increase its supply gets my support.  I just hope we don’t get bogged down in the differences between the campaigns.  All are aiming for the right thing (it’s not like football you can have more than one team…) so give them the time, energy and support they deserve.  If you don’t Nigel Farage will continue to turn up on our TV screens.  No one wants that #justsaying.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.

Me, my tenant and I

The relationship between a tenant/customer and their housing association is a messy criss-cross of conflicting interactions, some of them highly volatile. Whilst back in t’day the likes of Octavia Hill would rule like a benevolent demon. Kicking out the drunks and upstarts but providing homes to those who desperately needed it at a time when the state was still looking the other way. These days, for better or for worse, the links between us and our residents are a little more nuanced.  Though I have no doubt that housing managers of the modern era would love to be able to do the same as Ms Hill, it is probably for the best they can’t.

Fundamentally the ties between social landlords and those that dwell within their properties are continuously evolving.  Greater levels of commercialism, welfare reforms (both those in effect and those yet to come) and organisations generally getting their act together mean we now know more about our customers than ever before.  At the same time many are looking to get more distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’.  The sector appears to be favouring a more transactional approach over the traditionally paternalistic (possibly even patronising) one.  Yes we will still provide all the ‘fluffy’ add-ons that come with the territory but as a sector many are looking at being facilitators, enablers rather than providers (irony abounds given that we are RPs).  The result is that we talk of customers, not tenants.  ‘Profit for purpose’, but not surpluses.  We are looking at being more efficient at customer contact, more private sector in our thinking.  Like actually deal with a complaint instead of pretending it didn’t happen or simply stating that they (the customer) should just be grateful that they have a roof over their head.  None of these are bad things in and of themselves.

Can I just ask? I mean, I don’t mind using the term profit (surpluses is a bit woolly for me) but can someone explain to mean when a profit doesn’t have a purpose?  ‘Profit for purpose’ is a singularly ridiculous phrase.  I appreciate that normally the purpose of profit is to make rich people richer and we want to keep a distance from that but cut out the bullshit bingo please.

So what does this transactional, stand-off approach mean then?  Inexorably it means a shift to fewer neighbourhood offices, less physical contact and a greater use of technology.  An approach that can currently be best described as digital by best hope rather than by default.  The sector has long talked about moving to a more digital mode of operation, alas for the most part it has been exactly that, talk.  For the cynic in me this is partly because many organisations aren’t entirely IT competent themselves.  However a few hardy souls are at least attempting to bring on this brave new world and show us what it might look like.  Halton Housing Trust are beginning a pilot to see how customers/residents/’them lot’ fare with a digital only approach (with some caveats).  Needless to say this has been picked up chewed over and overly dramatised by the press (housing and non-housing alike) and some residents.

Although it is interesting in its own right, and you bet your bottom dollar I will be keeping a keen interest in the results.  It has been the response to Halton’s work that has most intrigued me.  I am genuinely saddened by how knee-jerk and ill informed a number of the responses to Halton’s approach have been.  It is symptomatic of a deeply conservative approach that the sector takes to pretty much anything.  Getting movement on things in housing is like trying to steer a particularly grumpy cat i.e. tricky and likely to result in a higher than socially acceptable amount of pain (for you, not the cat, that bastard won’t even notice what’s going on).  I have always been of the opinion that it is better to try a different approach and fail (i.e. learn something) then repeat past failures.  To carry on doing the same thing and expecting different results is the very definition of insanity (see below, it genuinely is).  As our relationship changes, so too must our approach, otherwise we will be found wanting.

Einstein QuoteFace it lads and ladies, change is coming.  You don’t nip down to your local British Gas office to make a payment, you don’t drive up to Salford to sort out your TV licence with the BBC.  Why should we expect customers do this with us? In some circumstances physical contact with customers is a necessity (ASB springs immediately to mind) but the vast majority of interactions needn’t require a phone call let alone an office visit.  If you want to be more stand-offish then you need to give customers the tools do so.  As a sector we better get cracking on making this happening.  Hopefully Halton will provide some invaluable insight into how to do just that.

As always if you want to follow me on Twitter simply click here or find me using the handle @ngoodrich87, you can view the rest of my blogs here.