Stand Up for Cathy

Every now and again I watch Cathy Come Home. I did so once more after attending a ‘Stand Up for Shelter’ fundraiser during the week starring the stunningly funny Eddie Izzard.

Next year it will be 50 years since this ‘Wednesday Play’ was first shown, preceding the launch of Shelter in 1966 by 2 weeks – I believe it was a coincidence. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine that a single play could have such an impact, but there was little competition on the ‘box’ in those days. Controversial plays could get huge audiences and become the main topic of conversation for weeks to follow, without being drowned out by the cacophony of channels and 24-hour news. I was 16 when it was shown and it had a profound effect on my life and attitudes. After all this time, homelessness is still the issue that gets me worked up more than any other.

The film itself, directed by Ken Loach and written by Jeremy Sandford, propelled the issue to the top of the public’s attention. It followed a young couple, Cathy and Reg (Carol White and Ray Brooks) from the optimism of their early married life, through a spiral of misfortune following Reg’s accident at work, to poverty, eviction and separation, culminating in a hysterical Cathy having her children forcibly taken away from her by the State. No happy ending.

On the 40th anniversary of the film, in 2006, Chris Holmes, a former Director of Shelter, wrote:

“The film showed graphically how losing your home and not being able to find somewhere to go could have such a traumatic effect on the whole family. Most people in Britain didn’t understand what people like those in the film were going through.

“What really struck people was the harshness of the treatment by council officials, housing departments and the landlords. It wasn’t a caricature….. And there seemed to be a sense among officials that if you’d been sensible, if you’d behaved better, you wouldn’t have got into these difficulties. So it was a true and very accurate portrayal of what could and did happen to people.”

Then as now.

From the high point and optimism of the passage of the 2002 Homelessness Act, homelessness as an issue has almost disappeared off the bottom of the political agenda. The rights of individuals have been seriously eroded, especially since the Coalition came in, the experience of homeless people has become much worse, public and media attitudes have hardened seriously, and much of the bureaucracy has regressed to 1966 mode.

The mutation of many of the good ideas from 2002 – for example, that more priority should be given to trying to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place and that people presenting as homeless should have all of their housing options reviewed with them – has combined with a growing shortage of social housing to create a new monster which has come to be known as ‘gatekeeping’. To a greater or lesser extent, all councils, egged on and channeled by the government, have placed more barriers in front of homeless people to reduce their ability to access social housing.

Despite all the false protestations of concern for the homeless, the real policy of the Coalition was exposed in its full glory by a former Government adviser, Andy Gale, a couple of years ago. After the Government launched a new set of rules governing homelessness, Gale said: ‘The overall conclusion of introducing this framework is inevitably that new statutory homelessness applications will become minimal.’  Red Brick’s view at the time – ‘hypocrisy and double-speak’ – can be read here.

Many of the bad, and indeed illegal, practices that have come to characterise the treatment of homeless people were exposed in a Court case involving Southwark Council last week (see the excellent discussion of the case by Giles Peaker of the Nearly Legal website. Southwark, and they are not remotely alone, admitted to employing a series of sometimes illegal tactics to stop people making homelessness applications, even to the extent of putting unlawful and misleading policies on leaflets and their website. Issues included treating people as ‘housing options’ clients rather than ‘homeless applicants’, sending people away on spurious bureaucratic grounds, and providing false and incorrect information about legal rights. Giles explains how these practices were not only illegal but could not be put down to misunderstandings of the law or the actions of poorly trained officers. They were quite deliberate. Southwark says it has reformed; we can only hope so.

The statistics of homelessness show a rapid increase since 2010 after many years of decline under Labour. In some ways this is surprising because, as we have seen, so many people are now prevented or discouraged from presenting to their council as homeless and, once they have applied, the ‘solution’ offered is unattractive. No-one except the most desperate would go through the mill of the homelessness acceptance process. Certainly in London, a long period in temporary accommodation awaits, often years, almost certainly the accommodation will be inadequate to the needs of the family and increasingly often it will be a long way from home.

After many months if not years of disruption, uncertainty and poor conditions, rehousing in a private rented flat is increasingly the outcome – expensive and insecure. As the ending of a private tenancy is now the biggest cause of homelessness, the expression the revolving door seems particularly apt. Far from being spongers jumping the housing queue, as they are portrayed, it is a real statement on the depths of the housing crisis that families feel that they have to put up with such appalling treatment. The biggest losers are often the children caught up in this, just like those of Cathy in the film.

The mitigation for Councils is that they are under such enormous pressures, with huge demands (not just from homeless households) and an extremely limited supply of social housing. In lettings policy, attitudes and guidance have also moved strongly against giving high priority to homeless households. But even for households lucky enough to eventually be offered a social home, the accommodation that is coming through the social housing pipeline is at high rents and is let on fixed term insecure tenancies. What is the point of that?

One of the measures of civilization is how a society treats its homeless people. It seems to me that we have regressed a long way.

Cathy Come Home is available at the BBC Shop.

 

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The Green Party fluffs its lines

Natalie Bennett’s incredibly awkward interview on LBC suggested either that the Greens don’t know how to fund their proposal to build 500,000 social homes by 2020 or that their leader hadn’t done her homework. Which is it?

In fact, the proposal is helpfully spelled out in a policy briefing issued this month which must have been unaccountably missing from Ms Bennett’s briefcase. Let’s look first at what the policy might cost. First, it’s clear that the homes are to be social rented (not let at the coalition’s higher Affordable Rents). Second, the promise appears to be to build them over the five years 2016-2020, i.e. 100,000 per year. Third, they estimate the cost in grant to be £60,000 per unit, or £6bn per year. This compares with current grant investment which they put at £1.5bn per year. So an extra £4.5bn is needed.

Are the costings correct? On the face of it, they are. The last Labour government’s programme was funding social rented homes at an average cost of £51,000; work by PwC for L&Q suggests that grant would now need to be £60,000 per unit if homes were to be let at social rents. There is a quibble about the phasing in of the extra investment though: the Greens suggest the full £6bn will not be available until 2017 which suggest that the 100,000 annual target won’t be met until at least 2018, so delivering half a million social rented homes by 2020 looks nigh on impossible (quite apart from capacity issues and lead-in times within the sector). However, let’s give them some leeway and focus on the 100,000 annual target and the extra £4.5bn it would require.

The Greens want to fund this principally from ending landlords’ tax relief on their mortgage interest payments (MITR). Generation Rent recently put this as worth £6.6bn although earlier estimates have suggested it’s more like £5bn. However, this is the size of the tax relief, not the loss to the Treasury in unpaid tax. The Intergenerational Foundation assessed the total cost to the Treasury of all landlord income tax reliefs to be a maximum of £5.2bn, assuming all landlords pay a marginal tax rate of 40% (and clearly not all do). Under half of this figure is due to MITR, so being optimistic the savings on this might give the Greens £2.5bn towards the £4.5bn extra they need. The problem is that ending MITR would be very unpopular and would probably drive a proportion of landlords out of the market.

So the potential tax savings have a number of question marks against them, not least because the Greens’ policy paper seems to miss the points made above. It’s true that they could get closer to and perhaps reach their £4.5bn target if they attacked other landlord tax reliefs such as the ‘wear and tear’ allowance, but their case would no longer benefit from the neat argument that owner-occupiers can no longer claim MITR so why can landlords do so?

The Greens also throw in modest savings from cuts in housing benefit spending. The problem here is that – as work by both PwC and John Healey MP has shown, while the savings are real they don’t clock up into significant figures unless you look ahead over 30 or 40 years, which doesn’t help to balance the books in cash terms now.

Finally, the Greens also want to remove borrowing caps on local authorities (hooray!) and expect more tax revenue to result from a bigger building programme. They’ve clearly been influenced by reports like Let’s Get Building, and this is all to the good. Overall, though, I conclude they deserve seven out of ten for their arithmetic, but it needs brushing up if they really do want to influence the next government.

However, there are two wider points to be made. One was well put by Colin Wiles when he argued that at least one party had read the SHOUT manifesto and wants to act on it. However we get there, the 100,000 social rented homes target is clearly a very good thing and deserves Red Brick’s support.

The second is that if Natalie Bennett really wants to advocate the policy she’d better read her own policy briefing and be able to answer a few simple questions on it (this post may help). She tripped up on basic points like whether Greens could really build houses for £60,000 each (answer: that’s just the grant needed), and indeed whether 500,000 of them wouldn’t cost rather more than £6bn (answer: that is the five-tear target while £6bn is the annual cost). The LBC presenter may have gone for Bennett’s jugular when he asked whether this meant the houses would be built of plywood, but who could blame him? The danger is that poor arguments don’t just ridicule the Green Party. They also damage the case for a very worthwhile policy that should, indeed, be adopted by Labour on the basis of a more rigorous assessment than the Greens have so far been able to do.

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Evan Davis answers Natalie Bennett’s question for her (and for everyone else)

One of my favourite pastimes is raging at the TV, especially when Newcastle United are on, but mainly at political shows.

As I’m a BBC person, I idle my way through the Daily Politics (Andrew Neil is the best interviewer on TV but I find the programme’s topic selection highly anti-Labour and his mocking attitude to Ed Miliband unprofessional), Question Time (the selection of panellists is a disgrace and it is so badly chaired that I might join those who have given it up for Lent) and Newsnight (much improved since the retirement of the infuriatingly smug Paxman). The latter has many of the best reporters, especially on international matters.

So it was joyous, amongst the dross, to come across a wonderful little lecture on housing economics from Evan Davis on newsnight on Tuesday. It was an interlude between pieces about Natalie Bennett’s bad day trying to answer questions about how the Greens would finance their promised 500,000 new social homes.

evan davisPhoto by Peter Searle (peter@petersearle.com).

Davis is of course an economist. His Wikipaedia entry shows him to be no lefty. Like so many people in the Establishment, he did PPE at Oxford (getting the mandatory first). He was the BBC’s main economics editor before going to the Today programme on radio and then on to Newsnight. He also does a business programme for Radio 4 and fronts Dragon’s Den, the programme that proves that success in business is mainly random.

Anyway, enough of the intro. This is what he said:

It is possible by the way to answer the question Natalie Bennett was struggling with as to how you finance half a million councils houses.

You get the land cheaply by buying without permission to build on it. Once you’ve acquired it you give it building permission. Half a million homes at a hundred thousand pounds each costs £50 bn, chuck in another £50 bn for infrastructure around the homes, and all you need to borrow is £100 bn and at current government borrowing rates that’s about £2 bn a year.

You finance that by the rents you make on the homes. You’ll be fine if the rents are £400 a month for each home.

Property development can be a profitable business which is why so many rich people do it. Anyway that is not the answer Natalie Bennett gave.

Simple, isn’t it? The BBC normally seems to operate on the complete assumption that ‘austerity’ is the only available economic policy, ‘the deficit’ is the biggest economic issue, and ‘public borrowing’ is an evil activity. So it was wonderful to see someone knowledgeable make the case for good borrowing – building capital assets, paying for itself, and meeting community needs for generations to come.

Thanks Evan, I’ll watch again.

 

 

 

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More homeowners at any cost?

With levels of homeownership lower than for decades, is there nothing that the Tories will not do to stop the slide? Last week saw Duncan Smith’s batty idea of giving social homes away to previously unemployed tenants who get back into work for a year. This week a more subtle agenda is set by Natalie Elphicke in Conservative Home, following on from her rather insipid report to the housing minister in late January.

Elphicke starts her argument by saying Britain ‘has one of the worst records’ of ownership. She gets in a dig at Gordon Brown by implying that he was responsible for the slide, but this is flirting with small changes in the figures: English homeownership first rose above two-thirds of households in 1989, and stayed that way for two decades until just after the recession in 2009, never rising quite as high as 70%. Then in only three years it fell by more than two percentage points, to 64% in 2012 (definitive later figures aren’t yet available). The early rise in homeownership in the 1980s was undoubtedly due to right to buy, and it’s true that sales under Labour fell dramatically with the recession in 2008. But it’s also no coincidence that the plateau in owner-occupation occurred at the same time as the rise of buy-to-let from 1995 onwards, a development allowed by the Tories which saw the growth of private renting from 10% to 18% of households in a decade, largely fuelled by purchases from former homeowners.

Elphicke’s ‘worst record’ is justified by international comparisons. But we know that the highest ownership levels in Europe are in east European countries where state-owned properties were handed to tenants. In western Europe, the picture is much more mixed, with France and Germany both having lower ownership rates than Britain. Also, several countries with high rates – notably Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal – have had extreme economic problems to which the absence of any alternative to homeownership has contributed. Look at Ireland’s deserted new build estates, or Spain’s levels of repossessions (also drawn to public attention this week by the release of the Spanish film Near to your House).

Natalie Elphicke says that ‘the left may not like it’ but the advantages of homeownership have been proved in the United States. Well, we might ask if that means she’s fully signed up to the Tory view that the recession had nothing to do with the banking collapse, which began when the US sub-prime mortgage market imploded. If homeownership works so well States-side, how come the two agencies designed to promote it as far as possible down the income ladder, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, had to be rescued by the US government when they folded?

In the Elphicke view, we need ‘a more modern right to buy’ which she wants to rebrand ‘Own your Home’. Other than a snappier title, I’m at a loss to understand what is more modern about it. She sets various principles for her new scheme: affordability (nationally and to the individual), not ‘sub-prime’ (which seems to mean no dodgy mortgage terms) and respecting property rights. One wonders about the property rights of the landlords, who over the lifetime of right to buy have been forced to sell houses for an average discounted price of £20,000 each, and even then have had to give the Treasury chunks of the cash. Needless to say, Elphicke thinks discounts still aren’t generous enough (yet somehow higher ones must still meet her test that any scheme ‘must be capable of being funded within its own terms’).

Finally, her new scheme must be ‘modern and creative’. In a priceless piece of meaningless policy-speak, she saysWe shouldn’t be afraid to consider and embrace new methods of ownership, new approaches to finance, and new ways to help people save in their home where they help with the purpose of people owning their own homes and saving for their future’. At this point she harks back to Keith Joseph and Nicholas Ridley, so we are still left wondering whether or not she believes that Duncan Smith is, like Joseph and Ridley, able to ‘think differently about meeting the housing and finance challenges of the day’.

Of course, the most ‘different’ of the Tory policy-makers in this field was Dame Shirley Porter, although her schemes to promote ownership and get rid of social housing at any cost weren’t sufficiently imaginative to escape the attentions of the District Auditor. Nevertheless, her desperation to drive up the numbers of owner-occupiers certainly has echoes in the Tories’ latest wheezes. Surely they have nothing to do with winning votes back from UKIP, do they?

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Election 2015: What’s at stake for housing?

The Centre for Labour and Social Studies, otherwise known as Class Think Tank, launched its election guide on housing in Newcastle today. Following on the heels of the launch at the weekend of the new Labour Housing Group North East (@LabourHousingNE), it is good to see such a strong interest in housing in the north.

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Speaking as someone born and raised in Newcastle who has lived in London for more years than I care to recall, it has always intrigued me how often I have had to challenge stereotypes of the north when in London and stereotypes of London when in the north. Trying to convince some northerners that many of the most deprived areas in the country are in the capital – indeed some are in Westminster, where the streets are more likely to paved with gold than almost anywhere else – is sometimes a hopeless task. Almost as hopeless as trying to convince some Londoners that there is a need for new build and new affordable homes in many parts of the north – not every home is available for sale for £1, and foreign investors have evidently been busy snapping up property in Newcastle (led by the luxury student apartment sector) as well as in the smoke. In London the Mansion Tax and the overall benefit cap are hot issues; in the north it’s hard to get beyond the Bedroom Tax and increasingly punitive DWP sanctions on claimants.

Clearly the challenges are very different, and it is increasingly important to take a regional view on housing and related issues. With another surge of devolution on the national agenda, especially to regional cities and regions, it is important to ask where housing should sit within the new vision.

Although being largely about the country as a whole, and containing all of the key statistics that any election campaigner could need, the Class publication identifies some of the distinctions between the regions:

“The crisis is not the same across Britain and every area faces different challenges. Grossly high rents and unaffordable house prices are displacing poorer households in London and the South East, while in many parts of the North poor-quality, private rented homes, derelict empty houses and policies like the Bedroom Tax have had a devastating impact.”

The Class policy prescription can be summarised in two parts:

Immediate actions:

  • Regulate the private rented sector, including longer tenancies
  • Control spiralling rents in the social and private sectors
  • End the bedroom Tax and remove the regressive overall benefit cap
  • Ban ‘buy to leave’ investment properties

End the housing crisis in a generation:

  • Build more housing
  • Protect and expand social rented housing, including ending the right to buy
  • Lift the borrowing cap on councils
  • Reform planning and ensure local involvement
  • Reform land and property taxation
  • A new programme of new towns, garden cities and urban extensions

It’s a powerful agenda and, although I would add a few caveats, it is one that most progressive people with an interest in housing could support.

In his introduction to the Class pamphlet, Tom Copley AM, puts the basic case for getting housing policy right:

“Home is the centre of people’s lives. It’s the place most people wake up in the morning and the place we return to after work or school. The quality and affordability of housing has a huge effect on health, both mental and physical, and children’s education. The stress of worrying about paying high rents, or illness caused by poor quality housing, can ruin lives. It is for this reason that we have got to get housing right, and why it is a tragedy that for so many years we have not.”

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Social housing is worth its weight in gold

Regeneration sounds like a good thing. Who could be against it?

Today’s report ‘Knock It Down Or Do It Up’ from the London Assembly shows why many people, and especially tenants on large estates, have come to see it as a dirty word.

The report looked at major regeneration schemes in London over the last ten years. It found that, although the total number of homes in the defined regeneration areas had increased significantly – in this sample, from 34,000 to 67,000 homes – virtually all of the increase comprised homes for sale at market prices – up from 3,000 to 36,000 – and ‘intermediate’ homes, including shared ownership – up from 550 to over 7,000.

In comparison, the number of homes for social rent declined from 30,000 to 22,000 – a loss of 8,000 genuinely affordable homes.

And to add insult to injury, recent regeneration schemes have added to the number of so-called ‘Affordable Rent’ homes (at up to 80% of the market rent), which have increased from virtually zero to over 7,000. Even if they are promised homes in the new development, tenants in the latest schemes are likely to find that it not ‘like for like’.

This outcome puts figures to a view that residents on many estates have had over the years: despite all the warm words, the hidden aim of the scheme is often to gentrify the area, to remove stigmatised social housing and replace it with a shiny new development that meets the needs of an entirely different group of people. Far from turning ‘mono-tenure’ estates into ‘mixed communities’, they marginalise and displace those who need genuinely affordable rented homes in favour of those who can afford to buy a new, and inevitably expensive, home. For too long the mixed communities argument has only concerned changing existing estates: in housing strategy terms it only bears scrutiny if there is also a sustained programme of providing more social rented homes in predominantly private housing areas.

The justification for sweeping tenure change is normally financial. The private homes are needed to cross-subsidise the affordable homes and to pay for the physical improvements which normally accompany the scheme. But in some cases, refurbishment of the existing stock for the existing residents would be significantly better value.

There is also the question of ‘drift’: the initial promises about the proportion of social housing in the final scheme and the ability of tenants to be rehoused back on site, are ‘revised’ as costs rise. Inevitably, the social housing is squeezed and the share of private housing is increased. Although almost every council says that the interests and views of residents are paramount, they become less so as the scheme progresses and pragmatic variations are made to keep it on course. Two other tricky issues also arise as the scheme is designed in detail: to maximise the value of the final property, the private homes have to be in the best locations, and the social homes in the poorest, and the issue of high service charges in private blocks, which social tenants cannot afford, leads to segregation, with the social tenants accessing their homes through ‘poor doors’ as they have been dubbed.

This is an important study based on the reality of what actually happened on 50 council estates around London. The written submissions and evidence sessions can be read on the Assembly website. It is a warning to residents as to what to look out for when a proposal comes your way, and it offers a clear guide to councillors who think regeneration is a good way forward for one of their estates: think it through, consult properly and transparently, do a thorough appraisal of all the options, be sceptical about developers and financial models, and keep control of the project from beginning to end.

And finally, don’t let the value of social housing be assessed merely in financial terms. It might be cheap, its value might not look much to a estimator, but it is a hugely vital and unreplaceable community asset and it is worth its weight in gold.

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So, rent controls will drive ‘three out of five landlords’ out of the market?

What an unhappy coincidence that on the day the Residential Landlords Association chose to bleat about Labour’s planned rent controls, the private rented sector was fingered as one of the main reasons for the growth in the numbers of homeless families. The latest Homelessness Monitor, published by Crisis, shows that losing a private tenancy now accounts for almost one-third of official homelessness cases and is the reason behind most of the recent growth in caseloads. Private sector rent levels are also helping to drive up homelessness because they are often too high to be eligible for housing benefit. One effect is ‘the mass removal of benefit-dependent families from the private rented sector in parts of central London’.

Yet Alan Ward, RLA chairman, claims that three-quarters of landlords have been freezing or even cutting their rents, that three out of five will leave the market if they’re subject to rent controls, and the result would be ‘many tenants paying more than they do at the moment’. Let’s take a closer look at these three points.

If RLA members really have been freezing rents they must be in a minority. Indeed, we already know they are, because Britain has approaching 1.5 million private landlords, of whom just over one per cent (17,000) are RLA members. So even if all of them froze their rents, regrettably it wouldn’t make much difference. However, in another unfortunate coincidence for Alan Ward, this week saw the ONS correct its own figures for private sector rent increases and, surprise, surprise, they have been revised upwards. The new figures show that rents have been going up by just over two per cent annually since 2011. (RLA members must be bucking the trend.)

Disregarding for the moment these official figures, let’s look at Alan Ward’s odd claim that rent controls would lead to private tenants paying more than they do now. Is he saying that official limits would lead to faster increases than those decided by the market? He seems to be, as he cites figures showing that social sector rents have been increasing proportionately faster than private ones, although the link with private sector rent controls is unclear. But is he right? The UK Housing Review shows private and social rents as a percentage of average earnings, and by this yardstick council rents have grown in ten years from just over 10% of earnings to 13%; housing association rents have grown from 12% to nearly 14% (although Affordable Rents are 18% of earnings). Over the same time frame, average private rents have risen from 21% to 26% of earnings. So will rent controls mean that private tenants pay more? – I don’t think so.

Finally, we apparently face the prospect of three out of five landlords leaving the sector if rent controls are introduced. This sounds a bit like those celebrity threats to leave the country if top rate taxes are increased. However, even if it happened, would it matter? After all, practically all private landlords acquired their property by buying it (rather than building it). Assuming they wouldn’t have a collective fit of pique and leave their houses empty, they’d either be bought by other landlords or by first-time buyers. In the process, they might even bring house prices down a bit.

The RLA is not alone in perpetuating the myth that private landlords are propping up the housing market. Only last month, the chairman of the National Landlords Association (membership: three times that of the RLA) said that landlords are ‘keeping a supply of well-maintained homes on the market when previous governments have failed to incentivise or stimulate more housing.’ And they do this by ‘putting much needed money into rented homes’. On this logic, the next time there is a critical shortage of something (say, petrol), those people who rush out to stock up on it will be applauded for helping to keep up supply.

Don’t get me wrong. Red Brick is all for an active and well-functioning private rented sector. But the price for the sector’s massive growth in the last decade (unforeseen even by supposed housing experts) is surely some much-warranted attention by government to ensure that it’s working properly? Let’s bear in mind that the sector now houses more households than social housing, and that many of them are vulnerable. Let’s bear in mind too that private landlords get three times as much subsidy through housing benefit as they did a decade ago. As well they get tax relief on their borrowing and interest-only mortgages that are unavailable to first-time buyers, allowing them to plan for a zero tax bill. Next time they claim that governments shouldn’t influence their rents, they should be reminded how much effective subsidy is going into their pockets.

Of course the hyperactivity by landlord groups is not unrelated to the Tories’ claim that the future of the rented sector is now a ‘key battleground’. Housing minister Brandon Lewis somehow believes that rent controls are a tax that is passed on to tenants, so he too seems to think that constraints on prices do, perversely, lead to them going up. He also believes that ‘a larger rental sector cannot be achieved with unnecessary regulation that strangles industry in red tape’. Tenants might argue that, far from being unnecessary, a mechanism to restrain rents is absolutely vital. They might also ask Mr Lewis, if he is so averse to red tape, why he insists on landlords making complex checks on tenants’ immigration status, given that this is hotly opposed by landlords, whom he is anxious to please? Wasn’t it the Residential Landlords Association who called them bureaucratic and overly cumbersome? Be careful, Mr Lewis, so much extra red tape might drive landlords out of the sector.

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The grass isn’t greener on the other side

Much has been made recently of the ‘Green surge’. Having had a big hand in the rise of UKIP, the media suddenly gave a lot of attention to the Green Party and the rumoured challenge to Labour from the left. There are many in Labour who have a distinct green tinge, quite rightly so, and a big increase in support for the Green Party could undermine Labour in some critical seats.

Three events last week whetted my appetite to have a look at the actual policies the Green Party has adopted. First, a statement by Bea Campbell, a Green spokesperson on Any Questions, who said that people should vote Green out of principle even if it led to Cameron being re-elected. Then Natalie Bennett’s interview with Andrew Neil on the Sunday Politics raised a lot of doubts, and we saw the case for a ‘Citizen’s Income’ fall apart before our eyes: the problems with it have since been discussed in the Guardian. And finally, in my little housing world it was said that the ‘old’ parties had nothing to offer private tenants and the Green Party is the only Party that supports rent controls.

It seemed reasonable to go the GP’s own policy website where, indeed, there are quite a lot of words about housing. Most of them are unexceptional and are worthy enough for most people to agree, blaming our housing crisis on inequality and a lack of investment. But a few points, like several references to funding from the Housing Corporation, confirm the impression that most of the policy was written more than a decade ago and that any updating has been a partial and imprecise exercise. The land section was last updated in 2000, although it does contain an outline proposal for an annual land value tax. The incredibly hostile section on ALMOs also feels distinctly outdated.

There are of course points to agree with, like housing associations should be more accountable, housing co-ops are a good thing, there should be aggressive action against empty homes, and tenants should be empowered. They would end the right to buy, devolving decisions on sales to local councils, and allow councils to build or buy houses where there is a demand for social housing. That sounds great, but I can see no estimate of how many are needed or the cost. It is nice to see the Labour Housing Group’s flagship 1980s slogan of the ‘right to rent’ adopted, but here it applies to home owners who cannot afford their mortgage. They would extend the homelessness duty to include single people and childless couples. It is no surprise to see lengthy references to energy efficiency in building and heating homes.

The outdated feel of the whole policy is illustrated by having no reference to the policies pursued by the Coalition since it came to power, for example the ending of funding for new homes for social rent, the advent of the unaffordable ‘Affordable Rent’ regime and ‘Help to Buy’, or recently arising issues like ‘Buy to Let’ and the rise in foreign purchases. There is no attempt to put a number on the number of new homes needed or to say how a big increase would be achieved or funded.

To go back to the beginning, the Greens say that the proposed Citizens’ Income, available to all individuals, would be ‘sufficient to cover basic housing costs’, whilst other benefits and tax reliefs would be gradually phased out. Housing benefit would be payable in the short term, available to anyone in any tenure. These are again uncosted proposals and the distributional impact is not discussed.

On private tenants, which is what provoked my interest, it says ‘The Green party supports the full registration of private sector rents as a precursor to monitoring health and safety’. That of course is different from rent control. In the introduction they say that the private rented sector ‘needs to have rents controlled’ but the point is not repeated nor is there any detail of what they mean – and as we have discussed previously on Red Brick, different people mean different things by the term ‘rent control’.

Reading the Green Party’s policy website was a surprisingly depressing experience. I had expected to be challenged by some radical and considered ideas. Instead I felt like I had been transported back via the Tardis or some such machine to the world of fifteen years ago, long before the Bank crash and the Coalition came along to wreak such havoc on housing.

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What’s new in the Elphicke-House Review?

The coalition’s new report on local authorities’ role in housing supply coincided with a warning from a leading parliamentary committee that council services will soon become ‘unviable’. But it’s clear that the review by Natalie Elphicke and Keith House had to tiptoe around the issue of the cuts to council services, which have decimated their planning and strategic housing roles.

It means their report is pretty bland and difficult to criticise, because it says very little that’s new. It’s already been overshadowed by the Lyons report, which for all its faults was a far more comprehensive assessment and produced a much fuller list of recommendations. Nevertheless both reports either duck certain key issues or fail to address them fully: cuts in capital programmes, the need to build homes at genuinely affordable rents, the effects of cuts in council housing services and why councils aren’t allowed to borrow more on the back of their council housing accounts.

The Elphicke-House report makes much of encouraging councils to develop stronger roles as ‘Housing Delivery Enablers’. It’s a change of language from talking about councils’ ‘strategic housing role’ but it amounts to the same thing. There’s little here that can’t be found in the Labour green papers published in 2000 and 2007, and the truth is that councils’ performance as ‘delivery enablers’ has always been mixed: many councils, including some small rural ones as well as big cities, have been excellent; others haven’t. But the erosion of resources and powers to secure affordable housing over the last five years have hardly helped. Councils’ housing services (not including their council housing) have been cut by 34% and their planning services by 46% in real terms: it is impossible to sustain this level of cuts and still to maintain adequate services. But on this issue, Elphicke-House are silent.

One effect of the cuts is that councils now find it much harder to draw in outside advice when they need it. One of the Elphicke-House proposals might help here. They want the government to set up a ‘Housing And Finance Institute’ to support both councils and business to work better together. If this could provide free consultancy services for councils to take new initiatives like setting up joint venture companies, to build a mix of market and affordable housing, this could be worthwhile. But will the government set up a new body that’s properly resourced?

Councils also need the ability to secure housing at the right quantity, scale and mix of tenures to suit local needs. Again, the coalition has been eroding councils’ role and Elphicke-House make no criticisms of the changes. Council’s ability to get the right proportion of affordable housing has been reduced by the paring back of the powers to require developers to provide affordable homes using ‘section 106’. Yet this key provision is barely mentioned in the report (despite evidence being submitted on the issue). The government has taken away councils’ ability to insist on proper space and other standards in new homes: another subject that’s barely touched on. And there is no mention either of levels of grant available and their effects on affordability. Indeed, the terms ‘social rent’ and ‘affordable rent’ only occur in the case studies, not in the main body of the report.

Then there is the issue which Gavin Smart called the ‘elephant in the room’: the caps on council borrowing. Elphicke-House weren’t allowed by their terms of reference to challenge the caps, but they say they aren’t a problem anyway, as councils can borrow outside their housing revenue accounts, with no restrictions. This is disingenuous. Councils are perfectly aware they can borrow to build market-rented housing, and some are doing so. But for many the priority is to build genuinely affordable housing, and they want to use their borrowing capacity and any available land to do just that, not just to build homes at prices that are almost at market levels. There’s also an irony in Elphicke-House encouraging councils to borrow prudentially outside their HRAs: if this is such a good idea, isn’t it an even better one to borrow within the HRA, where borrowing costs are lower, the income stream more secure and the outcome can be houses at really affordable rents?

The Elphicke-House report also coincided with a devastating study of the effects of right to buy in London. This offers evidence that, far from achieving one-for-one replacement after right to buy sales, London councils are losing three houses for every two new ones they build. In other words, their new build programmes aren’t even replacing houses sold, let alone adding to the stock. This is another issue on which Elphicke-House received evidence, and they do call on the government to allow more borrowing to facilitate replacement building – but of course only within the same borrowing headroom that’s already permitted. Yet in practice, as the government continues to jack-up right to buy discounts, the gap between numbers sold and numbers replaced is certain to get worse.

Overall, if the report is supposed to make us optimistic that a new Conservative government would take seriously the idea that councils should be ‘Housing Delivery Enablers’, it fails miserably. The one proposal that could make a difference – a new body to share experiences and develop skills – got a lukewarm reception from government. It ‘might’ be pursued, but only if it can give ‘value for money without creating unnecessary bureaucracy’. In other words, no new money will be spent and no staff we be employed. Or am I being unnecessarily cynical?

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The ‘Sunifesto’ shows why all progressives must unite to defeat the Tories and UKIP

Today the Sun publishes its ‘Manifesto’ for the Election, the ‘Sunifesto’. They say they ‘haven’t decided’ who to support in the general election, but their policy statement is incompatible with any Party to the left of Genghis Khan. It’s an astonishing document: it exposes the agenda of the right wing media and the real Tory Party. It demonstrates how awful our country could become if the Tories get into power alone. It tells me that everyone with a progressive view of the country’s future should unite to make sure they do not get into Government again.

More tax breaks for companies. Leave the EU if we don’t get ‘control over our borders’. End the Human Rights Act. Stop the NHS being ‘a money-pit’ – ‘simply pouring more money in cannot be the answer’ – think the unthinkable and radically reform the NHS ‘with private sector help’. Cut the welfare cap and other ‘handouts’, including benefits for children and OAPs. More Free schools. End the dishonest culture of spin (big joke that one!). Move quickly to exploit shale gas – ‘we do not believe Britain should lead the way in tackling (climate change)’. Surveillance powers ‘should trump civil liberties’. Consider ground troops to fight IS in Syria and Iraq. More homes through ‘private enterprise’, no mention of social or affordable housing. Reduce the BBC to ‘its core mission’. Scrap 0.7% of GDP commitment for international aid. End political correctness and boost ‘freedom of speech’.

What an agenda that is. But there can be little doubt that this is what many Tories and most UKIPers talk about in private.

Political allegiances have been fragmenting in the UK but we face a ‘Front National’ moment and not a ‘Syriza’ moment. The chance for a more proportional system was lost in the referendum and the election will be fought on ‘first past the post’. The right faces a split between Tories and UKIP during the election but there is a strong chance that they could form a Coalition afterwards. The left sees the rise in support for the Greens, which will not lead to a significant number of seats being won but which could deprive Labour of victory in some key seats. A Green spokesperson said recently that people should vote Green even if it means getting Cameron, but in my view this is the disaster the country must avoid.

Personally I would prefer to see a Coalition with the SNP (although I suspect they will not do anything like as well as the current polls suggest) rather than the LibDems, whose performance in my particular area of interest – housing – has been totally deplorable. Despite a good Party policy, their Ministers have gone along with the whole Tory agenda with no appreciable policy victories of their own. But any combination would be better than allowing Cameron back in.

So let the Sunifesto be our warning!

 

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