Turning away ‘Homeless Jesus’ is an appropriate metaphor

Some unusual events make a point in a pertinent but roundabout way. Westminster Council has turned away a ‘Homeless Jesus’ in the form of a life-size bronze sculpture of Jesus sleeping on a park bench by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, which was planned to be placed in front of Methodist Central Hall. With a characteristic sense of propriety and priority, Westminster say it “would fail to maintain or improve (preserve or enhance) the character or appearance of the Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square conservation area”. As a metaphor for what is happening to homeless people generally, this could be the most apt since the ‘bicycling baronet’ Sir George Young (allegedly) complained about stepping over homeless people coming out of the opera.

Of course the housing crisis in London is largely about the failure of supply over 3 decades. But there is also a specific crisis at the sharpest end of the general housing shortage. Homelessness appears out of control, with numbers in all categories rising rapidly and costs escalating. Councils and homelessness organisations are increasingly frantic, yet virtually all the housing programmes in the capital have had their focus switched callously from providing rented homes targeted at vulnerable people or people on low incomes to shoring up home ownership and increasing the chances of first time buyers. No new build of social rented homes combined with the forced sale of rented housing association and council homes will guarantee that supply in the form of new lettings will fall rapidly. The only questions are how rapidly and how disastrous will the impact be?

If (I hope when) Sadiq Khan becomes mayor of London the focus will change and people in desperate housing need will get a look in again. The mayor used to have a big role in homelessness, targeting part of the investment programme towards alleviating homelessness and taking a strong role in the provision of housing and other services to those who were homeless on the streets or living in hostels. Over the past few years the rights of homeless people have been downgraded – both by legislative changes under the Tories and by increased ‘gatekeeping’ by councils of all colours. Some councils, like Islington, have done everything in their power to keep up the supply of social rented homes; others, like Westminster, have failed over decades to take opportunities to get more social housing in the borough, and yet expect the rest of London to share their current burden.

Landlords have made the most of the lack of focus of the current mayor, exploiting competition for temporary accommodation between councils to push up rates, increasingly insisting on nightly lets that maximise their income. Some boroughs have been fighting back, starting to co-ordinate their activities to set maximum rates they will pay. A powerful new mayor will be in a good position to ratchet up these activities and push the councils to do far more. In particular, the mayor should ensure that the Notify system – where boroughs inform each other of cross-border movement so, for example, children can remain linked in to care services – is rigorously enforced.

There is at least some fresh thinking going on about homelessness. The House of Commons Select Committee on Communities and Local Government is in the middle of a wide-ranging homelessness inquiry which seems to be getting to the real issues – the evidence submitted is well worth reading. This week an expert panel convened by Crisis published its recommendations following its independent review of the homelessness legislation, proposing a new legislative framework with a stronger duty on local authorities to help prevent homelessness and to act in advance of a crisis, close to the model adopted in Wales. There is a lot in this to debate and this is a highly recommended and suitably technical report, but I am cautious because ‘prevention’ has too often become ‘gatekeeping’ in practice as homelessness has been de-prioritised by Government, councils, and housing providers. I am made even more wary by reports that the Government is considering imposing a new legal duty on councils to prevent homelessness. More duties and fewer homes to put people in seems like the kind of localism this Government believes in.

The following are recommended reading on homelessness.

Official ‘Statutory Homelessness’ statisticslatest bulletin

Rough sleeping statistics: the number of rough sleepers increased by 27% in London and 31% in the rest of England in one year up to autumn 2015. Latest bulletin

The Homeless Monitor – the fifth annual monitor published by Crisis records all the trends and forecasts in England.  Written by a very expert team of Suzanne Fitzpatrick, Hal Pawson, Glen Bramley, Steve Wilcox and Beth Watts.

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Grand plans but tenants just an afterthought (and worse)

Big is beautiful – and more efficient. That’s the mantra that seems to be driving the housing association world at the moment. Egged on by the Government in the shape of the increasingly desperate Housing Minister Brandon Lewis, we have had some huge merger announcements in the recent past: Genesis and Thames Valley, Circle and Affinity Sutton, and now the biggest of them all with L&Q, Hyde, and East Thames joining forces to form a body with 135,000 homes.

The claims for the benefits of the merger are grand, under the headline ‘Stronger Together‘ (which I’ve seen somewhere else recently). There are planned savings of £50 million a year (through combining back office functions and IT, refinancing and better procurement deals) as well as a target of building 100,000 homes over a decade, making it the fourth biggest housebuilder in the country (the top 3 all being private companies). We do not know how much work has been done to test these estimates; achieving savings on this scale is easy on paper and a lot harder in practice. Small organisations can be as efficient as big ones; reorganisations eat up huge resources (ask the NHS) and frequently lead to managers taking their eyes off the ball. Managerial hubris is common in mergers;  empire buiding which is not soundly based frequently fails.

But if the savings are there to be made, and the new organisation can deliver more homes that the existing three, why did this announcement still make me feel uncomfortable?

First, the organisation does not yet have a name but we do know who the top dogs are to be. The three existing chief executives become the top managers in the new organisation, with David Montague of L&Q taking the CEO role. He’s always struck me as being exceptionally good at the job (more than I say about some other HA CEOs), which gives me more confidence that the claims for the new organisation will be delivered, and he normally has interesting things to say about housing policy. So this isn’t personal. But it makes me scratchy when the top jobs are stitched up before an announcement on the principle of the merger is made.

This applies not only at employee level but also at Board level. The ‘Chair Designate’ is L&Q’s existing chair, Aubrey Adams, a former chief executive of global estate agent Savills and a non-executive director of British Land.  The Deputy will be Mark Sebba, the current chair of Hyde, a former chief executive of a luxury tailors as well as being involved in investment banking.

It all feels nice and cosy, but it also makes it look more like an L&Q takeover.

My second misgiving is about the social purpose of the new organisation. The PR tries to make it feel good. David Montague says: “Our plans will allow us to tackle the housing crisis head on, driving greater efficiency, building more homes, creating beautiful new places and sustainable, independent communities. At the heart of our united mission will be the continued provision of affordable homes for those in need.

Yet the new building programme, with the target of 100,000 over ten years, will comprise 25,000 new homes for first time buyers, 25,000 new homes for (unaffordable) ‘affordable rent’, with the remaining 50,000 new homes for market rent and sale. There is not one word about aiming to build any at all for social rent, and so claims that they intend to help low income families sound just a little hollow. It looks like another step on the road to losing the sector’s social purpose, and it is nothing short of outrageous to claim that ‘Half of these new homes will be for people on lower incomes’. They will not be, and I do hope Sadiq Khan will take them to task when he becomes mayor.

Thirdly, where are the tenants? They scarcely get a mention in the merger announcement although there are some vague promises about consultation on the detail. Yet the strength of the mergees is based on the rents that tenants have paid in the past and these organisations belong to them as much as anyone else.

Tenants do get a mention in an article by the Deputy CEO-designate published on the same day as the merger announcement. It got my hackles up. With so many things that she could have written about, Elaine Bailey, formerly a senior executive at Serco, ‘set out a vision for the new giant organisation’ by saying she would tackle the ‘dependency culture’.

In a piece entitled ‘Knuckle Down’ she says: “We have been responsible and are partly to blame for the dependency culture we have created”. Her particular beef is that tenants do not take enough ‘personal responsibility in respecting their homes and making an effort to help themselves’. This is stereotyping and condescension rolled into one, turning tenants’ most common complaint – the quality of the repairs service they pay for through their rent – on its head. You would think that the new Deputy CEO-designate would emphasise how the merger provides a great opportunity to review and improve services and offer tenants better value for money. By choosing to use Iain Duncan Smith’s favourite phrase, yet another £200K a year boss looks down her nose at people who are struggling to get by. I bet they even keep coal in the bath.

Dependency Culture: By choosing to use Iain Duncan Smith’s favourite phrase, yet another £200K a year boss looks down her nose at people who are struggling to get by. I bet they even keep coal in the bath.

We are left to speculate about the name of the new organisation. LH & Q? Jekyll and Hyde? Perhaps just ‘Big’. Suggestions in the comments box below please!

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Child poverty won’t be reduced by ending the attack on pensioner poverty

I rarely disagree with anything that comes from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Their work over the years on housing, regeneration and poverty has been second to none. But this week they surprised me by publishing a ‘Memo for the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions’ on ‘five things he can do to reduce poverty’.

Four of the five things are hard to disagree with. They are to:

  • Reboot Universal Credit – reverse cuts to the Work Allowance.
  • Support Living Rents – peg social rents to earnings levels.
  • Focus on creating better jobs not just more jobs.
  • Reshape welfare to work programmes – so they are geared to helping people increase their earnings as well as get a job.

My objection comes to their point about pensions:

  • Revisit the pension triple lock – because child poverty will continue to rise while pensioner poverty continues to fall, the Chancellor ‘needs to make sure that resources are used fairly and efficiently, so that no generation is locked into poverty’.

This seems to me to pander to a narrative which says that there is some kind of inter-generational battle going on, under which older people have feather-bedded themselves with valuable houses and extremely generous pensions that no future generation will ever receive, and that this has been at the expense of younger people and children. Whatever the generality of the position retired people find themselves in, it does not apply to pensioners who are still in or close to poverty. The battle for resources is between rich pensioners, who have tax-relief driven large pensions, and poor pensioners, not between pensioners as a whole and later generations.

JRF defines poverty as ‘when a person’s resources are not enough to meet their basic needs’. So why would they support a policy which implies de-prioritising the attack on pensioner poverty in order to release resources to reduce child poverty? I simply do not think these things are linked. Removal of the triple lock (state pensions rising linked to incomes, prices or 2.5%, whichever is the higher) might lead to a saving but do they really believe that Osborne would apply this saving to helping poor children? No way.

The decline in pensioner poverty is indeed a success story, declining from over 40% in the 1980s to around 12% now. But 12% is still scandalously high. Much of the achievement came under the Labour Government but it has continued since 2010 – no doubt as a result of the power of the ‘grey vote’. Over the same period since the 1980s, child poverty has remained stubbornly high at around 30%, although the Tories like to play definitional games with the figures. The biggest losers in this period have been working-age adults without children, with the proportion living in poverty rising over the same period from 12% to touching 20%. It should never be forgotten in a society that believes that everyone on benefits is a scrounger that half the people in poverty live in a working household.

Pensioners did well under Labour, not just in basic pension but also in new additional benefits. Labour did not gain much from this politically: all anyone remembers is Gordon Brown’s disastrous award of a 75p increase at a time when inflation was very low (therefore anything that was index-linked would also increase by a small amount). The Tories, with characteristic bravura when they have a policy that benefits people who might vote for them, have reaped a large political dividend from the triple lock.

But my main point is that it is simply wrong to pit one group in poverty against another. Slowing the reduction in pensioner poverty does not mean one penny extra for children, Osborne would just give it to some other grouping that he hopes might be seduced into voting Tory.

Despite the triple lock and the protection of other benefits like bus passes, pensioners have not been immune from austerity. Far from it. Pension entitlement dates have been pushed back and back, women in their fifties now will retire at 66 when their expectation a decade ago was that they would retire at 60. In addition, two of the most important services for older people are in crisis. The care system is facing collapse, and most older people cannot afford to pay for it. Most require some care and some require a lot of care. The triple lock does not enable a pensioner to leave their home if they have mobility problems or to leave hospital if their home environment is not adequate to their needs. Supported housing is also in disarray, with Government changes to funding threatening to cut off future supply. Previous changes to the ‘supporting people’ regime have already undermined the very popular sheltered housing model which enabled many poorer pensioners to continue to live in their own homes with on-site support.

Austerity must never be used to pit the interests of one group of poor people against another. If there is an issue to be addressed, it is whether richer pensioners should be taxed on the universal benefits they receive and have their higher rate tax reliefs removed. Recent work has shown that better-off people generally get more out of the tax relief and benefits system than poorer people. That is where the distribution challenge lies, not in setting up an artificial inter-generational conflict which simply does not exist.

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The Rent Trap: exactly how do we get out of it?

rent trap cover

Steve Hilditch reads and enjoys a new book on the private rented sector, but thinks the ‘what should we do about it’? question remains to be answered.

 

What to do about private rents has been a perennial debate over many years. There are several issues that have to be addressed.

First, there is now huge evidence that extremely high rents are a fundamental cause of poverty, especially in London and other high demand areas, as shown by the recent London Fairness Commission report. Even for those who are better off, many now pay half, sometimes well over half, of their income to their landlord. It has a major impact on their standard of living and the reward they receive from working.

Secondly, because there is major shortage of social housing, many more people on low incomes, families with children, and vulnerable people are living in the sector and need (even with IDS-inspired cuts) increasing amounts of housing benefit to be able to afford somewhere to live. This is unproductive public spending which does not create an asset, except for the landlord, or any long term social benefit.

Thirdly, the growth of private landlordism has been fuelled by demographic change, easy buy to let mortgages, and the dearth of options in low cost home ownership and social renting. For a decade private renting has produced a much better return than other forms of investment, and a double return at that – a good yield on money invested and seemingly guaranteed capital growth at the same time. No wonder it has come to be seen as an alternative pension scheme. But it is often forgotten that the finances of many landlords, especially those with big mortgages, are vulnerable to economic and tax changes and especially to a change in interest rates should it come.

Fourthly, there is the question of what to do about a market that has many dysfunctional features and especially the often poor behaviour of the intermediaries between landlords and tenants, the letting agents. Many do a good job, but others make money by encouraging rapid tenant turnover and by charging exorbitant fees.

Fifthly, it remains largely an amateur industry in which many landlords do not know their statutory responsibilities, and some who know their responsibilities breach them daily. Value for money does not feature highly amongst the comments made about the sector.

One of my concerns is that the whole debate has become confused by a lack of definition of what is meant by ‘rent control’. Many people are now in favour but they are often talking about very different ideas. If rents are not set by the (highly imperfect) market, what should they be linked to? Incomes? Costs? Inflation? Property values? Every option is problematic in its own way. Some advocate the setting of all rents by a Government body, others using the same term have in fact being arguing for some form of ‘rent calming’ or ‘rent increase control’, on a model similar to that advocated by Labour and the Greens before the General Election or as recently agreed by the Scottish parliament. 

These issues, and others, deserve proper debate but that is a rare commodity amongst the accusations and counter-accusations about bad landlords and bad tenants and the pervasive view that ‘private markets work’. An excellent new book on ‘The Rent Trap’, (purchase here ) written by Samir Jeraj and Rosie Walker for the Left Book Club,  published by Pluto Press, is a well-researched and well-written attempt to provide the evidence on which the debate can be based. The authors take us through the history of private renting and the various attempts to regulate rents, managing to separate fact from fiction about the legislative regimes we have experienced over the last 100 years. They provide a wealth of material about what happens in other countries and how other societies manage to have a more mature market with sensible regulation: longer tenancies, greater security, and more moderate rents. Private renting in the UK is part and parcel of the culture of short-termism and making a quick buck that is the UK’s problem. Other countries tend to look at investment for the long term.

There is also an excellent infographic based on the book, which is worth a look.

Good features of the book are the effective use of case examples to illustrate points and the inclusion of extensive comments from interviews with both landlords and tenants. I like the way they consider the point that ultimately private renting is a moral question as well as an economic question: is private landlordism just an honest investment in bricks and mortar or a mechanism to ‘trap and tap’ people with no choice. Why have we allowed so much public (landlord tax relief and housing benefit) as well as private money to be spent on a system designed to make profit by exploiting the most basic need, for a home, when there are far cheaper and better alternatives available? Social renting is an obvious alternative and the growth in private renting highlights the disastrous failure of Governments to deliver that which they say they hold most dear, the aspiration of home ownership.

Ultimately, the authors say, it is the growing gulf in housing wealth between the haves and have nots that is creating increasing discomfort and unease, even amongst landlords. The degree of disquiet, amplified by increasingly loud campaigns, holds out the prospect of a movement for change. But, they say, it will take a brave politician to bring that change about because it runs counter to the prevailing narrative on the efficacy of private markets.

The book is a good and thought-provoking read, more enjoyable than most housing policy texts, packed with helpful information and interesting perspectives. But I felt it had the final chapter missing. It is sub-titled ‘The Rent Trap: how we fell into it and how we get out of it’ but I don’t really think it achieved the latter. It alludes to what should be done, it indicates a direction, it says what is wrong, but it doesn’t set out a plan for examination. This matters because it is vital that we try to understand what further interventions might do to the sector and whether seemingly good policies might have unplanned and damaging consequences.

Here are a few of the questions that need to be answered:

  1. Rents are too high, but they reflect the high value of property in our housing shortage. By how much do we want them to come down and how quickly?
  2. If effective rent control led to a flight from the market by landlords, does the assumption that the resulting fall in property prices would be good for first time buyers hold up? How would we avoid a repeat of the negative equity disaster of the 1990s?
  3. If landlords removed tenants in even larger numbers than they do now, what would happen to the homeless people that would result?
  4. What precise form should rent control take? On what factors should rents be based? Should there be a formula calculation with a range of elements, and what should they be? Or should it really be a rent increase modification policy designed to dampen inflation?
  5. It’s fair enough to say rents are unaffordable but how exactly should they relate to incomes?
  6. Even in the best scenario, private landlords will be with us for many decades to come. What level of profit is it fair for a landlord to make?
  7. How should Government support the sector? What should be the tax and tax relief regime? What should we do about housing benefit, what is the right course to drive between providing HB to enable tenants to pay market rents and having policies that help deflate the market?
  8. Some politicians have already been brave enough to propose policies to start to tackle the sector. At the 2015 General Election Labour and the Greens both went for a rent dampening mechanism. Would these policies have helped? And what should we make of the recent legislative effort in Scotland?

There will be a discussion opportunity with the authors at an event in May.  Details on Eventbrite.

 

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Government support for the private market is more than double its spending on affordable homes

Inside Housing's 'subsidy sandwich' for starter homes

Inside Housing’s ‘subsidy sandwich’ for starter homes

The new UK Housing Review 2016 puts together figures you won’t find anywhere else: the government’s investment plans for housing and how they split between supporting the private market and building affordable homes. They show that the different market-support packages like Help to Buy and starter homes now total £43 billion, whereas affordable investment totals only £18 billion. The CIH concludes that, as a result, investment in affordable renting ‘will fall to its lowest levels since the Second World War’.

Red Brick has already picked holes in the Chancellor’s ‘long-term economic plan’. Insofar as he has one, it seems to be unravelling before our eyes. But if at last he’s being criticised for robbing the poor to pay the rich, the criticism hasn’t yet affected his housing plans, where the shift away from affordable renting towards helping builders and would-be home owners becomes more marked each time one of his ‘long-term plans’ is scrapped and another put in its place. As the UK Housing Review reveals, whereas the current Affordable Homes Programme, that began last April and extends to 2018, was originally to have invested £2.9 billion, this has now been cut back to just £1.8 billion. The promises made in the 2013 Spending Review (another one of Osborne’s ‘long-term plans’) have been ditched, and what’s left of the programme is confined to schemes already committed by the HCA and GLA. The rest of the money has been scooped into the Chancellor’s pot for supporting home ownership (unless Boris Johnson succeeds in his apparent bid to keep some of it for ‘affordable’ renting).

One effect of past policies has, of course, been a remarkable shift towards homes let at so-called Affordable Rents. By April last year there were 123,264 of them, almost five per cent of housing association stock, of which less than a third were newly built and the rest were conversions or acquisitions. This has inevitably produced a big shift away from building homes to let at social rents. The result is that while in England there were 4,063,000 social rented homes in 2012, by 2015 this had dropped to 3,967,000, a fall of two per cent. CIH projects that by 2020 the loss will have reached 350,000, a nine per cent fall since 2012. This will be a result of further conversions, right to buy sales, demolitions (due to be ramped up if estate regeneration plans come to fruition) and sales of ‘high-value’ stock. Of course, the scale of some of these changes can, as yet, only be guessed at, and the figures will be refined as more details are revealed.

The odd thing is that, if Affordable Rent was a key part of an earlier ‘long-term plan’, it’s now been ditched. With the curtailing of the current Affordable Homes Programme, there is likely to be a drastic fall in output of sub-market rented homes over the next couple of years: Affordable Rent is due to follow social rent into the housing policy dustbin. The main replacement policy is, of course, the promotion of starter homes. The image of the ‘subsidy sandwich’ provided by Inside Housing earlier this month nicely captures how various layers of government money are being put together to construct this huge stimulus to developers and to house prices, all justified by labelling £450,000 starter homes as ‘affordable’. As Nicky Gavron commented recently, the Tories have made ‘affordable housing’ a meaningless term.

Unfortunately, the effects are not just rhetorical: starter homes and shared ownership properties can be substituted by developers for social and Affordable Rent dwellings when negotiating ‘section 106’ agreements as part of planning permissions. It so happens that section 106 is one of the last remaining sources of funding for new homes at social rents: even that source is now to be cut off. Although 2,410 social rented homes were started on site in 2014/15, it’s likely that starts in the year now ending will be lower and in the next year lower still. Soon, any production of homes let at social rent will depend on social landlords’ own funding – which is just being reduced as a result of the one per cent cut in rents that starts next month. If Osborne stays in charge, it seems his latest ‘long-term plan’ is not only to stop providing sub-market rented homes, but to get rid of those we still have as quickly as possible. As the UK Housing Review’s analysis and projections show, a dramatic shift in housing policy is about to begin.

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More shattered dreams

By Councillor Marc Francis

Marc has been one of the Labour councillors for Bow East ward in Tower Hamlets for the past ten years, serving as the borough’s Lead Member for Housing & Development between 2008 and 2010.

marc francis

Three years ago I wrote a piece for Red Brick about how one of London’s big G15 housing associations, One Housing Group, had betrayed the promises made to tenants on four Isle of Dogs estates transferred from Tower Hamlets Council, and dissolved their local resident-led subsidiary, Island Homes – ending any meaningful local accountability.  Last year, it was revealed that One Housing Group had drawn up “Project Stone” – secret plans to demolish most of the existing 2,000 homes on these riverside estates and replace them with up to 10,000 new flats, only a fraction of which would be genuinely affordable.

When I wrote that piece I already had fears another of the G15, Circle Housing Group, had similar plans for its subsidiary, Old Ford Housing Association.  Old Ford was born in the late-1990s out of the Housing Action Trust in Bow, and in its early years, it was one of the best housing associations in Tower Hamlets.  Technically, it was a subsidiary of Circle 33 Housing Trust, but had wide-ranging autonomy.  With residents at the heart of decision-making, it had transformed three of the borough’s most neglected estates into fantastic neighbourhoods.

As a result, Tower Hamlets Council felt confident in backing the transfer of four more Bow estates in 2005.  However, Defend Council Housing set its sights on persuading tenants on these “Parkside” estates to vote against the transfer, and the ballot was only won by the narrowest of margins.  It was then challenged vigorously in the courts and the transfer only finally went ahead nearly two years later.  As a local councillor, I was determined to ensure Old Ford delivered on the promises it had made, and so I started attending its Board meetings as an observer.  Later I joined the Board.

What I didn’t clock at the time of the transfer was that, just as Toynbee Housing had merged with Community to form One Housing Group, at the time the Isle of Dogs estates were being transferred, so Circle 33 had merged with Anglia Housing while the long drawn-out decision to transfer the Parkside estates was being made.  To be fair, the potential merger is mentioned in the “Offer Document”.  But there was no objective analysis about what that merger might mean or extra safeguards.  It was simply assumed Circle Housing Group would take the same approach as Circle 33’s Directors had done – allowing Old Ford to continue as a community-based housing association

That very quickly turned out to be wildly optimistic assumption.  And over the past eight years, Old Ford’s Board has been engaged in a constant rear-guard action as Circle has sought to take more and more of Old Ford’s powers to itself.  Many battles were eventually lost, but some were won.

In 2013, this centralising agenda forced Old Ford to drop its pretty good repairs contract with Mears and bring in Kier instead.  No longer would Old Ford determine the contract and manage it.  Circle would do all that.  And its own Management Board had responsibility for overseeing it.  The contract was an absolute disaster right from the outset.  Kier were hopeless.  But if anything, Circle’s own team were even worse.  Old Ford’s Board rang alarm bells about the appalling service for more than a year, without Circle taking the action necessary to fix it.  Eventually, the Homes & Communities Agency regulator investigated and found widespread evidence of “serious detriment” to tenants.  As a result, it downgraded Circle’s governance-rating to G3 – one step up from the dustbin.

Circle was required to draw up an action plan to improve its governance.  Almost inevitably, Circle chose to identify its current group structure as the problem.  Despite the fact that the regulator had not cast any doubt upon the effectiveness of the Board of either Old Ford or Circle 33 (whose residents experienced similar problems), Circle plans now to dissolve all its subsidiaries into a single centralised housing association.  It is also lining up a merger with another G15 player to “create the biggest housing association in Europe”, while laying off hundreds of staff and moving others either to its swanky new St Pancras HQ or a call centre in Kent.

Meanwhile in Bow, half the promised Parkside estate improvements remain outstanding three years after the date they were supposed to be completed, and many of our constituents have been left without heating and hot water for weeks on end because Circle still can’t properly manage its gas repairs contract.  (In a nice touch, Old Ford residents are themselves having to cover the thousands of pounds being shelled out in compensation payments to those who struggle through the formal complaint’s process, as well as the extra cost of the premium rates being charged by Circle’s interim responsive repairs contractor.)

We still have a two or three good housing associations in Tower Hamlets – organisations that prioritise delivering an efficient, sympathetic and value for money service to existing residents first and think about development opportunities second.  But this experience with One Housing Group and now Circle, as well as evidence of the poor quality service provided by other members of the G15 to tenants in Bow, has shaken my faith in the housing association movement to its core.  There is no way I would support a stock transfer again.  The truth is that the central concerns raised by Defend Council Housing have in these instances been proved to be absolutely right.

That, of course, is scant consolation to Parkside estate residents.  Councillors in Tower Hamlets that got our residents into this mess, must now do everything we can to help get them out of it.  Fortunately, back in 1998 wise heads insisted on a clause in Old Ford’s founding articles giving it the power to leave Circle 33 if it wanted to.  We don’t imagine this Old Ford-exit will be easy.  But with the right support or partnership, it is possible.  And at a packed public meeting over the weekend we kicked off a campaign to persuade the regulator to allow Old Ford’s Board to properly explore this option without fear of their being removed by Circle, and for residents to be given the final say.

marc francis 2

Local coverage of the public meeting

Three years ago, both the regulator and Housing Minister turned a blind eye to One Housing Group’s betrayal on the Isle of Dogs.  We are determined to ensure that they don’t let Circle do the same with Old Ford.

 

Marc Francis

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Harold Wilson – a housing hero.

Today is the centenary of the birth of Harold Wilson, winner of four General Elections  and Prime Minister for eight years in the 1960s and 1970s.

So why would we celebrate Harold Wilson on a housing blog?

The answer is simple: as PM in the 1960s he achieved the best housebuilding figures in the last century. The chart below doesn’t lie. And as the second chart below shows, he achieved that rare double: hitting a peak in both public and private housebuilding at the same time. The outcome – over 400,000 new homes in one year – is enough to make the modern housing enthusiast’s eyes water.

Housing was a big deal in Wilson’s 1964 and 1966 administrations.  The 1964 Manifesto was replete with housing proposals. Development land would be publicly owned and profits retained by the community. Interest rates for housing borrowers would be subsidised and councils would be able to make 100% mortgages available. The Rent Acts would be repealed, old houses would be modernised, and if landlords failed to do so they would be purchased by the council. The 1966 Manifesto set the target of 500,000 houses a year – sadly ‘only’ 400,000 was attained.

It was not just about housebuilding: the Government was committed to encouraging home ownership, and introduced the Option Mortgage Scheme to enable low income households to benefit from the tax relief policy that benefitted other home owners. There was a new departure in terms of area improvement of older housing: the introduction of General Improvement Areas. One policy that I would see as an error in the subsequent highly inflationary era is that an attempt was made to stimulate the housebuilding industry by exempting house owners from capital gains tax.

Harold Wilson Speech to party Conference 1965 

We had promised to repeal the Tory Rent Act, to provide new machinery for fixing fair rents, and to give Government and all others who required them, the powers they needed to fight the evils of Rachmanism. That Bill is through the Commons despite Tory obstruc­tion. It is in the Lords – within a week of Parliament meeting again, we intend it to become law.

It was on the Bill to restore security of tenure, and it was on the Rent Bill that our new Members, not I imagine to their surprise, saw the full virulence of Tory Opposition tactics when the Tories were fighting for something near and dear to them, the rights of landlords and property interests.

By 1974, when two elections were won in a year, the economic prospects were much reduced. The February Manifesto however repeated the radical approach to housing:  promising to repeal the Tory Housing Finance Act (which had led to rent strikes), to control rents and introduce protection from eviction for furnished private tenants, to start the ‘municipalisation’ of private renting, and to significantly increase subsidies to all housebuilding.

At the time I was working with tenants in Paddington, and I recall the short minority administration in 1974 for being remarkably radical: it felt that the Government was really taking the issue seriously. For example in that one year it increased subsidy for council housebuilding by £350million – curiously the same cash figure suggested this week – more than forty years later – by the Kerslake Commission on housing in London (how small our ambitions are these days!). It also introduced a rent freeze and created Housing Action Areas – thereby keeping me busy for the following few years!

The Manifesto for the October 1974 election contained the commitment to give security of tenure to council tenants – a huge advance but not actually enacted until after Labour went out of office in 1979 when the Tories found that a stronger definition of a council tenancy was a helpful platform for the introduction of the right to buy. It also repeated the promise to introduce land reform, essentially the ‘nationalisation’ of development land, and this time it was enacted, in 1976 along with the Development Land Tax legislation,  but critically, by the time it was on the statute books it was much watered down and we had entered the more austere late 70s economic climate, and it was never really implemented.

Wilson’s resignation in 1975 came before the 1976 ‘IMF crisis’ which put many progressive policies, including housing, into reverse. I see 1976 and not the usual 1979 as the watershed year in the UK when sound progress on most fronts was no longer to be achieved.

Of course Wilson should not get all of the credit for the good things or all the brickbats for the bad – there were a succession of Ministers who did the detail. But he set a tone for Government, he oversaw radical commitments in manifestoes and he worked diligently to deliver them. Both the commitments and the delivery put our current politics to shame.

Wilson died in 1995 suffering from both cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. He was the iconic figure for me growing up and developing an interest in Labour politics and housing – indeed I joined the Labour Party in response to his defeat by Heath in 1970, which was a devastating blow.

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Homes for Londoners – Sadiq Khan Housing Manifesto

Below we are posting the entirety of Sadiq Khan’s Housing Manifesto for the vitally important election of London mayor. It is a hugely progressive step forward from the nighmare of Johnson and contrasts strongly with the policies of the Government apologist Zac Goldsmith. Anyone wanting the full Manifesto – a good read – please go here.

If I am elected Mayor, my single biggest priority will be to build thousands more homes

HOMES FOR LONDONERS

sadiq1

The housing crisis is the single biggest barrier to prosperity, growth and fairness facing Londoners today. I’ve found that, both as a MP, and throughout my campaign to be Mayor of London, it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking to business leaders, local residents, charities or community groups: far and away the biggest issue across the board is London’s housing crisis. The city’s shortage of decent and affordable homes is causing real misery to millions of Londoners, and damaging London’s competitiveness.

The effects are well known. People who grew up in London unable to rent or buy, parents forced to raise children in homes that are too small, and rents taking up more and more of people’s income. Homeownership is slipping increasingly out of reach for more and more Londoners, and homelessness is rising for the first time in a generation. Many Londoners now face far longer and more expensive commutes, and businesses struggle to recruit and retain the people they need to grow and prosper.

That’s why, if I am elected Mayor, my single biggest priority will be to build thousands more homes every year, for you, your family and your friends – and to give first dibs to Londoners on new homes. Our capital needs more than 50,000 new homes a year – yet the current Mayor has built barely half that number. And when they are built, too often they are not the properties that London needs. Too many are sold off-plan to overseas investors, only to sit empty, and too many are simply not affordable – a consequence of the Mayor’s failure to set a clearer target for affordable housing. Yet, rather than taking action, the Government has shifted the definition of affordable housing to include homes that cost up to £450,000 to buy, or 80 per cent of market rent.

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Homes for Londoners to rent and buy

My housing priority is to get London building the homes and communities we need, with a target of half of all the new homes that are built across London being genuinely affordable to rent or buy. I’ll break the homebuilding logjam by setting up Homes for Londoners – a new and powerful team at the heart of City Hall – and building an alliance of all those with a stake in building new homes for Londoners. This will include councils, housing associations, developers, home-builders, investors, businesses, residents’ organisations – and together we will set out what we need from central government to enable us to build more homes.

Homes for Londoners will bring together all the Mayor’s housing, planning, funding, and land powers alongside new experts to raise investment, assemble land, make sure Londoners get a fair deal from developers, and commission and construct new homes.
Homes for Londoners will build the genuinely affordable homes we need, including:

  • Homes for social rent, supporting councils and housing associations to build.
  • Homes for London Living Rent – a new type of home for people struggling to rent privately, where rents are based on one-third of average local wages.
  • Homes for first-time buyers to ‘part-buy part-rent’, where on mayoral and other public land my aim is to cut their cost and give first dibs to Londoners who have been stuck renting for over five years – especially in outer London where the biggest falls in homeownership have been seen.
  • Homes to buy where we can give Londoners first dibs – building on brownfield public land and using the Mayor’s planning powers to their fullest extent.

This stands in contrast to the Conservative Government’s definition of affordable housing, which includes:

  • So-called ‘Affordable Rent’ homes in which tenants pay up to 80 per cent of private market rent.
  • ‘Starter homes’ to buy costing up to £450,000.

Homes for Londoners will drive up homebuilding by:

  • Building new homes on land owned by the Mayor, including Transport for London land, and bidding to develop other public sector land – with a proportion of homes on the capital’s NHS sites aimed at health service workers.
  • Supporting housing associations, who build 40 per cent of all London’s new homes, and who have committed to double their construction pipelines from 90,000 to 180,000 homes.
  • Long-term planning for new and affordable homes tied in with new transport infrastructure, including proposals such as Docklands Light Railway extensions, the Bakerloo Line extension, and Crossrail 2.

I’ll work with boroughs to deliver on my target of half of all new homes being genuinely affordable – a target that many Labour boroughs have met in recent years despite being undermined by the Mayor. I’ll seek out new sources of investment and use planning powers effectively to raise the number of new and affordable homes London builds. I will:

  • Set clear guidelines for which developments the Mayor will ‘call in’, including where planning has stalled, and where opportunities to deliver more new or affordable homes are being missed.
  • Support councils to enforce clear, new rules to maximise the affordable housing in new developments, with greater transparency around viability assessments, and the option to set local affordable housing targets.
  • Work with councils, housing associations and co-operatives to help them invest their land and resources effectively, including right-to-buy receipts and resources from smaller organisations.
  • Using public land creatively to generate future income.
  • Use City Hall as a platform to attract institutional investors, pension and other investment funds to finance homes for long-term, secure rent.
  • Explore incentives for businesses to provide investment in new homes which could benefit their workforce.

I will fight Londoners’ corner, working with anyone who puts the capital first. I’ll work with the alliance of all those who want to get London building to secure the best deal for London from the national government, arguing for more devolution to London, including powers to:

  • Invest more in new homes for Londoners, with prudential borrowing powers for councils to invest in new affordable housing, and the Mayor taking the lead developing public land.
  • Exercise ‘use it or lose it’ powers to make sure developers who have planning permission build homes and do not land-bank.

Supporting renters and homeowners

Many Londoners want to buy a home of their own. Many others want and need social rent to live in London affordably. I will do what I can to help Londoners fulfil their aspirations. But it is also the case that more than one in four Londoners rent privately, and that the private rented sector will continue to grow.

I know from my visits across the city that more and more of Londoners are finding it increasingly difficult to find somewhere to rent that is affordable. Many face letting agency fees that are too high and property standards that are too low. Most landlords treat their tenants well – but I’m determined we will improve Londoners’ experience of private renting.

I will fight for the Mayor and London councils to have a greater say in strengthening renters’ rights over tenancy lengths, rent rises, and the quality of accommodation. I’ll work with councils, landlords, tenants, and business to improve the private rented sector for both renters and for good landlords by:

  • Setting up a London-wide not-for-profit lettings agency for good landlords, building on the work that councils have started, and ending rip-off fees for renters.
  • Working alongside boroughs to promote landlord licensing schemes to drive up standards, and make the case to government for London-wide landlord licensing.
  • Naming and shaming rogue landlords and ensure tenants have access to this information online.

Alongside a modernised private rented sector, London needs to protect its social housing as a vital asset. I am opposed to the Government’s plans to raise rents for working families and to force the sell off of council homes to highest bidder, which will lead to a hollowing out of the capital, damaging our social mix. London boroughs and housing associations should be investing money from the right-to-buy and other sources in new social housing in the local area and other genuinely affordable homes in London. That’s why I oppose the Government’s plans and why I’ll fight to protect Londoners from the worst effects of their policies. I will:

  • Work with housing associations to keep their rents down, and help councils to protect tenants unable to afford rents up to market rates under ‘pay-to-stay’ rules if they go ahead.
  • Require that estate regeneration only takes place where there is resident support, based on full and transparent consultation, and that demolition is only permitted where it does not result in a loss of social housing, or where other all options have been exhausted, with full rights to return for displaced tenants and a fair deal for leaseholders.

Many Londoners already own their own homes but some struggle to meet their housing costs and maintain their property as they would wish. I want to support existing homeowners through measures including:

  • Investment in older homes to make them more energy-efficient as part of the ‘100 per cent London’ campaign to switch London over to clean energy.
  • Working with London boroughs to ensure leaseholders can access high-quality advice on service charges and leasehold extension.

Homelessness

Rough-sleeping has doubled in the last five years, and the number of homeless children living in temporary accommodation has risen by a quarter in the last three years. I’m determined to tackle the scourge of homelessness. I will:

  • Set up a ‘No Nights Sleeping Rough’ initiative – a London-wide taskforce to oversee the implementation of the Mayor’s rough sleeping work and funding priorities.
  • Focus on help for young people facing homelessness, who are increasingly caught in a trap as they struggle to find somewhere to move on to, including prevention measures such as family mediation and steps to help young people into work.
  • Co-ordinate councils’ efforts to find stable private rented housing for those in need who are not able to move into social housing, instead of desperate boroughs being forced to outbid each other for homes from landlords.

Planning for the Future

As London’s population grows it is vital that we look at developing new forms of housing to meet the future needs of the capital, such as community land trusts, co-housing, and housing which allows older Londoners to downsize. It is important that we do more to protect the character of London’s communities while delivering the new and affordable homes we need to cope with a rising population. I will put good design and sustainability at the heart of the London Plan. I will:

  • Amend the London Plan to give greater protection for residents affected by large-scale basement excavation works, and include stronger policies to ensure tall buildings respect the character of existing neighbourhoods.
  • Support ‘tenure-blind’ development, avoiding the use of ‘poor doors’, so that the access and communal areas for affordable housing are indistinguishable from those serving other homes.
  • Protect the greenbelt, green spaces and play spaces, prioritising development on brownfield sites, and developing appropriate design principles to build up areas around town centres across the capital.
  • Support councils in bringing empty homes back into use, using compulsory purchase orders where necessary, and developing planning rules to control ‘buy-to-leave’.
  • Retain in the London Plan targets for all new homes to meet Lifetime Homes standards and 10 per cent of new homes to be wheelchair accessible.
  • Improve planning and design policies to offer older Londoners more choice, whether they are active older people, downsizers or in need of specialist and extra care homes, and by making it easier for owner-occupiers to adapt their homes when they want others, including carers and lodgers, to live with them.

 

 

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More London solutions for the Government to ignore

This week’s report by the IPPR Commission on housing in London, chaired by Lord Bob Kerslake, is another worthy contribution to the development of a real strategy capable of tackling the capital’s housing crisis. After treading the familiar territory of terrifying descriptions of the scale and intensity of the crisis, it endorses the conclusion that the housing requirement in London is 50,000 extra homes a year to deal with household growth (a doubling of recent performance) and over 60,000 a year to also deal with the existing backlog.

Building more homes is therefore the only way to create the step-change in supply needed to improve affordability in the capital for the long term.

IPPR report

The report calls for a new deal for housing in London including

  • Exempting London from the National Planning Policy Framework so the London Plan is paramount and the mayor more able to drive housebuilding
  • Introducing fees for planning to cover the costs of ensuring that planning has the resources and expertise to do the job – developers would make more money from faster planning than the cost of the fees
  • Allowing the mayor and boroughs to borrow more for infrastructure and housebuilding
  • Devolving taxes including stamp duty, offset by a reduction in grants, to allow local policies to develop
  • Allowing higher council tax to be charged on empty homes and second homes and on some undeveloped land
  • Increasing Government grant to London by at least £350 million a year
  • Fully funding from central budgets the cost of the housing association right to buy
  • Moving towards greater flexibility in social housing rent setting
  • Improving private renting through more flexible licensing schemes, a 10 year target that all property should meet decent homes standard, longer tenancies, and by relinking local housing allowance to local rent levels.

A number of challenges are set for the next mayor:

  • To negotiate a new deal for London housing with the Government
  • To identify all brownfield land opportunities
  • To review greenbelt policy especially near transport and develop a new policy on ‘densification’ across London
  • To create a dynamic ‘placemaking’ team in city hall encompassing all the skills
  • To offer housing associations a deal to double output by 2020 in exchange for better access to public land
  • To establish new and much simpler guidance on negotiating affordable housing with developers
  • To establish a London lettings hub for private lettings

Despite its polite language, the Commission is not impressed by what the Government has done so far. Indeed, the report calls for an almost complete reversal of policy, especially on affordable homes:

Even in the best possible scenario, it will take time for housing supply to catch up fully with population growth. In the meantime, market prices will continue to rise – which, other things being equal, means a further squeeze on household finances, rising homelessness, and growing complaints from businesses that their workers cannot afford to live in London. We also risk continuing to see many private renters living in substandard conditions.
To mitigate these consequences, we need continued intervention by government – at national, city and borough level – to ensure that a significant proportion of housing is genuinely affordable and that the standard of rental property is improved.

IPPR report

So far so good. Lots of good ideas and positive proposals, things that would make a difference if they were ever done. But but but…. The report reminds me very strongly of other worthy reviews – the Lyons Housing Review and report done for the Labour Party before the Election and the report of the London Finance Commission chaired by Professor Tony Travers which reported in 2013.  These also contained lots of good proposals – but many were total anathema to this Government.

The Kerslake report acknowledges that the Government may not come forward with the extra powers rapidly (if at all) so, as listed above, it has plenty of advice for the new London mayor. To be frank, its conclusions go with the grain of Sadiq Khan’s policy position, and are certainly much closer him than to the supine mouthpiece for Lynton Crosby that is Zac Goldsmith.

‘The London Housing Commission does not claim to have all of the answers, but it is clear that the status quo will not do. The housing crisis will not solve itself, and radical measures of the sort we outline in this report will go a long way to delivering the volume of quality, affordable homes that the capital desperately needs.’
Lord Bob Kerslake, chair

The report could have said more about the business model of the big developers – which puts profit maximisation above maximising building. They are still living with the backwash from the financial crisis but a clearer and more demanding strategy and a more robust but responsive approach could modify their practices, as was achieved by Ken Livingstone a decade ago. The Commission seem to be misled by their own description that ‘developers will only build as many homes as they think they can sell’. It should say ‘that they can sell at an acceptably high rate of profit’. Despite demand, developers are holding land back because scarcity benefits their bottom line. The Commission is right to mention the importance of cash flow to developers – an issue the new mayor should discuss with them – and it is also right to say that part of the solution would be to facilitate more mixed tenure developments that spread the sources of investment.

The Commission is hugely optimistic that the mayor and boroughs can negotiate a ‘new deal’ with Government of the type suggested or even that they can work closely together – Government is pulling in the opposite direction and is no longer interested in housing people on below average incomes. Their real attitudes were revealed by Nick Clegg recently when he claimed that Cameron and Osborne blocked plans to build more social housing during the colition because it would “produce more Labour voters“. The Party of Dame Shirley Porter is alive and well.

Even if the Government were to agree to some of the big changes (which seems unlikely) they would take years to come about. In addition to its long term ‘new deal’ for London, the Commission’s ‘Immediate Actions’ seems to lack urgency. The report has a good discussion about the vital role of Government grant in the London context but it does not make an increase in grant funding a headline recommendation. Finding new ways of borrowing to build is one thing, finding the subsidy required to keep rents down to affordable levels is another.

A short term increase in Government grant could make a huge difference and should be a central demand. The current London capital grants programme, largely squandered on high rent properties by the current mayor in a desperate attempt to keep the numbers up, is around £550 million a year. It is peanuts and, given the huge economic benefit that capital expenditure brings, could be increased with no economic detriment. The Commission suggest an extra £350m but in reality that is a drop in the bucket. Even a figure of £1 billion would be unnoticeable in national accounts terms and within the margin of error in next week’s budget. It would triple the London programme. If deployed strategically, providing grant to make schemes viable but relying on developers and housing associations and councils to do the heavy borrowing, a number of things could be achieved:

  • First, rents in the current (unaffordable) ‘affordable rent’ programme could be dropped towards social rent levels, generating a permanent saving every year in housing benefit and making homes genuinely affordable.
  • Secondly, extra grant could be put into schemes that are currently on the margins of viability, making it possible to negotiate a larger share of social rented homes.
  • Thirdly, it could fund an emergency acquisition programme of existing homes to take more families out of temporary accommodation – again generating a large revenue saving.
  • Fourthly, it could fund councils to proceed with schemes on their own land, especially those that are being mothballed due to the uncertainty caused by the Government’s imposed rent reduction and fears around the forced sale of valuable council stock.

An emergency programme using additional grant would also act as a statement of intent and would be the thin end of the wedge of the more strategic changes down the line. Given that the Government is currently stripping out even the (unaffordable) ‘affordable rent’ programme and getting rid of social rented housing, stuffing everything it can into new subsidies for home ownership, the impact of the report is likely to be minimal. The Government will not put more money into genuinely affordable rented homes. It is using planning to get more home ownership, it will not reverse that to get more social renting.  It will not agree to devolve tax raising powers if the aim is to produce lots of extra social rented homes. The report is right to say:

Promoting homeownership, if it comes at the price of fewer affordable rented properties, will add to London’s housing challenges.

IPPR report

So another good read, another volume for the ‘London Housing’ bookshelf. But only a thumping victory for Sadiq Khan is likely to make it influential.

 

 

 

 

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Select Committee publishes evidence on homelessness: no surprises, things are bad

Last week the Select Committee for the Communities and Local Government Department published the evidence submitted to its inquiry into homelessness.

Many of the submissions are worth reading and they provide testimony to the housing crisis, the impact it has on homeless people, and the strain that all services to homeless people are under. The only missing player would appear to be the department responsible for it all. That is hardly surprising as the one thing that is stunningly clear from the evidence is that Government policy is failing to meet the housing and other needs of homeless people.

There are many local authority submissions, and some interesting contrasts – from some councils lauding their ‘options’ schemes and former Government adviser Andy Gale seemingly denying there is such a thing as ‘gatekeeping’, to the Housing Law Practitioners Association (HLPA) showing that there may be some good practice but there is also a large amount of illegal gatekeeping going on. (For anyone particularly interested in the technical issues around homelessness law and practice, the HPLA submission is a key source.) There is a lot of debate in the evidence about the ‘prevention’ model adopted in Wales but, if that policy is adopted in England, it will have to be carefully designed to ensure that ‘prevention’ does not join ‘housing options’ as another synonym for gatekeeping.

Unsurprisingly, the evidence from CIH, JRF and Shelter is comprehensive and they all link the rising trend in homelessness to the lack of availability of social housing, the rise of insecure private renting, and the impact of welfare reform. Organisations providing specialist support services and assisting single people (and especially young people) show how bad things are getting, especially in London. Also noteworthy is the evidence from Women at the Well, a Kings Cross organisation working with homeless women, about the whole issue of ‘hidden populations’ of homeless people.

I found the evidence from Westminster City Council hard to take. Like most London councils, they face a serious homelessness problem, a shortage of social homes, an impossibly expensive private sector, and a growing problem securing temporary accommodation. But having observed that council’s housing policies for forty years, I know that they have always complained about their special position in the centre of London and tried to dismiss the problem as being largely to do with transient people, despite the fact that homelessness in the borough is predominantly home grown. Throughout that time – and not just during the era of Lady Porter’s ‘Homes for Votes’ – they have constantly failed to take opportunities to build additional social rented homes for their population through their own building programme and by failing to make the most of the section 106 provisions. Even now, with the crisis in homelessness that they describe in their submission, they are promoting private development on key sites like the Jubilee sports centre in north Paddington with scarcely any affordable homes. They have made long term political choices and their proposed solution, that they should more easily be able to provide homes outside the borough, both permanently and for temporary accommodation, should be seen in that context. It is no surprise that other boroughs and districts outside London give them a hard time when they have patently failed to provide as many homes as they could.

Reading through some of the evidence reminded me of the last comprehensive select committee review of homelessness, 12 years ago when I was specialist adviser to the then ODPM Committee. One task was to read and comment on a huge array of submissions. Looking back at the Committee’s 2004 report it is fascinating how much has changed, largely for the worse. It will provide a stark contrast to the new report when it is produced. For example, I doubt very much if the Committee in 2016 will be able to start its report in the same way as the 2004 Committee did:

There is no question that the Government has taken on the problem of homelessness. The Homelessness Act 2002 represented a breakthrough in strategic thinking, and the extension of the Priority Need categories has brought large numbers under the protection of legislation. New obligations have been imposed on local authorities to help more people than ever before. We are glad that the Government recognised the scale of the homelessness problem.

The next paragraph of the report however foretold of the problems to come:

Having reduced the number of rough sleepers, and families forced to live long term in bed and breakfast accommodation, ODPM now faces a new crisis. The growing pressure in temporary accommodation needs urgent attention, and investment. New housing is not being built quickly enough, and too much of it is destined not to be used as much needed social housing. We regard the provision of new social housing as an absolute priority for the Government. This problem will not go away; indeed, it may get much worse.

At that more optimistic time, along with the Committee and most in the housing world, I saw the 2002 Homelessness Act as a great step forward. But the ambition was always undermined by inadequate housing supply. Too many councils, having been pushed by the Act into undertaking a comprehensive review and adopting a strategy, looked for ways of simultaneously preventing homelessness and reducing their exposure to homeless acceptances. In my view the latter became the dominant motivation. To compound matters, the law of unintended consequences was applied to an apparently progressive Government target, to halve the numbers in temporary accommodation. This also encouraged too many councils into a heavy gatekeeping policy, trying to stem demand because it was much harder to improve supply.

The evidence submitted to this 2016 review is pointedly less positive than that submitted in 2004. Shortage of social housing is intensifying and there is much more emphasis in the submissions on the role of the private rented sector in generating homelessness – in 2004 the great expansion was not really underway. Rough sleeping then was declining, now it is rising rapidly. Providing more social housing was seen as the key way forward, now it is simply not on the Government’s agenda. Then the use of temporary accommodation was in decline, now it is rising steeply again.

And as we wait for the next Osborne budget and another round of cuts, it is worth remembering that total expenditure on homelessness by London boroughs has now topped £600 million a year.

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