Cameron fails the empathy test

David Cameron was totally thrown in the TV interview with Jeremy Paxman by the first question about people using food banks. He failed the empathy test, showed no interest in the people affected and resorted immediately to his learned statistics about the number of jobs the Government has created and so on.

Cameron is plainly uncomfortable dealing with the reality of poverty in Britain, some of it long lasting and much of it created by his policies – notably, in the case of food banks, his capricious and punitive removal of benefits under the ‘sanctions’ regime and the bedroom tax.

His discomfort arises from two things: first, he does not want to be exposed as the heartless and cruel person he is, willing to inflict such harsh policies; and secondly, he does not seem to have the first idea or any experience at all about the lives of poor people on which to base his response.

In the interviews, housing was once again the dog that didn’t bark. It plainly wasn’t on Paxman’s radar. Which is a pity because I would have liked the next question after food banks to have been about homelessness. I think Cameron would have been equally at a loss to understand what it is and how brutal it has become.

Of course the discourse of homelessness presupposes the concept of a home. Cameron talks about this a lot, but only in the context of people who aspire to own their own home. Then he goes dewy-eyed and waxes lyrical about a ‘home of your own’ and how it underpins everything else: a place of safety, health, family life, self-worth, well-being, prosperity, and community. He never mentions the importance of ‘home’ in the context of tenants paying hopelessly over the odds for a hovel, or having to pay for an ‘extra’ but much needed bedroom, or families dumped in bed and breakfast hotels.

He simply does not understand that it is the very concept of ‘a home’ and its vital importance in our lives that is the moral driver behind ending homelessness.

Labour’s record on homelessness can best be described as mixed. Important rights were restored and then gradually whittled away again as councils came under increasing pressure from the shortage of supply and rising demand of all kinds. All councils learned about ‘gatekeeping’ although some went much further than others and others strayed well into illegality.

But since 2010 the policies of the Coalition – the Tories do not surprise me, but the complicity of the LibDems is genuinely shocking – have had appalling consequences. The numbers of households applying to councils and being accepted has kept going up since the Coalition came in despite the most draconian policies and bureaucratic barriers being imposed.

The trends are clear and the records of the different Governments are there to be seen. It took Labour some years after 1997 to get rising homelessness under control, but there was then an unbroken period of 6 years when both the number of households accepted as homeless and the number in temporary accommodation fell. The numbers in TA fell by more than two-thirds between 2003 and 2010.

Since 2011 the number of ‘acceptances’ (around 48% of applications under the Act are ‘accepted’) has risen steeply again as have the numbers in temporary accommodation (although the latter has seemingly plateaued).

Cameron’s warm words about the importance of family life and of children getting a good start is empty rhetoric for homeless people. Of the 61,970 households in TA at the end of 2014, 46,700 included 90,450 children. Worse, 2,030 of these households were in bed and breakfast accommodation, an increase of 31% on the previous year. Scandalously, 780 had been in B&B for more than the legal limit of 6 weeks, an increase of 55% from the previous year end.

It is no surprise that the largest numbers are in London. But the London-specific feature that is most noteworthy is households located in TA in a different district frm their own.  Nationally there were 16,000 such households , of which 93% (14,830) were from London, a 29% increase on the previous year. In the global scheme of things these numbers may seem small, but each one involves a household facing total dislocation in their lives, a change of schools, a loss of family support and community. It is always particularly worrying when families are in contact with children’s social work services; some of the worst abuse cases in recent years have involved families who became lost between different districts.

All statistics are taken from the latest official ‘Statutory Homelessness’ statistics released by DCLG on 26 March 2015. The statistical release contains a lot of useful background information concerning homelessness, including a summary explanation of the law and links to detailed tables.

On a side note: my friend Chris Holmes used to object to the use of the term ‘statutory homelessness’ on the grounds that there is no such thing as ‘non-statutory homelessness’ – all homeless people have rights under the law, even if it is limited to advice and assistance rather than a duty to secure accommodation. This is not just a semantic point: the DCLG report is shocking enough, but it is important to note that ‘acceptances’ are those who have been able to make a formal application under the Act and meet all of the criteria (priority group, unintentionally homeless). Many more are ‘discouraged’ from applying, simply do not know their rights, or do not qualify. Other information suggests that the numbers of single homeless people, whether sofa-surfing or living on the streets or in hostels, are also increasing steadily.

 

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City Villages or ghettoes for the rich?

I have a bright idea. London has a terrible housing crisis. There is a general shortage of homes of all kinds and a specific shortage of genuinely affordable housing. So let’s sell off the only genuinely affordable homes we already have and ‘redevelop’ large estates containing concentrations of the only genuinely affordable homes we have, replacing them with a mixture of much less affordable and downright unaffordable homes.

Doesn’t work for you? Well actually, it doesn’t work for me either. But this is exactly what a large number of housing people are doing in London today. And they want more. With developers all around London eyeing up estates for their next big killing, egged on by the mayor and councils like Barnet, it is a good time to have a hard think about what public policy should be.

A timely set of essays published this week by the Institute of Public Policy Research looks at the possibilities of transforming London’s, and especially Inner London’s, council estates into ‘City Villages’, with higher densities providing many more homes. There are lots of good ideas here, and a brilliant historical piece by the late Peter Hall, summing up in a few pages the successes and failures of London planning over 70 years. There are several interesting case studies from around the London boroughs. But two things got my goat.

First, in what at first I thought was a joke, they have a chapter by a representative of Capco about their Earls Court development. A city village (if 7,500 homes is a village) of rich people replacing long-standing social tenants with virtually no new social housing is not my idea of progress and has no place in such a report. People would be better off reading Dave Hill’s many reports on the development.

Tenants from West Ken and Gibbs Green estates demonstrate against the former Tory Council's plans for Earls Court.

Tenants from West Ken and Gibbs Green estates demonstrate against the former Tory Council’s plans for Earls Court.

And secondly, some of the essays are littered with casual prejudicial statements and phrases. Council housing estates are ‘mono-tenure’ (no such thing exists in London anymore, if anywhere) and lazy descriptions like ‘dysfunctional’ are used. The worst examples are exploited to generalise and condemn all estates. London’s housing market is indeed dysfunctional, but council estates are not top of my list for reform. Some authors seem to operate on the assumption that there is no community on estates because the people are poor; I wish they would look around at some of the campaigns going on in London now (for example in Barnet). Amazingly, when the surface is scratched you find estates are full of gifted people doing all kinds of great things in their communities. And when it comes to it, they can fight and organise!

The chapters in IPPR’s book are diverse and come from different standpoints. In some of the chapters there is recognition that a clear aim of regeneration should be to protect the existing residents and to replace the social rented housing like for like. In their  case study, Jules Pipe and Philip Glanville, writing about Hackney’s Woodberry Down, make it clear that this was an explicit objective that seems to be being achieved. But in others there is the usual lack of definition of ‘social housing’ and what is being discussed is the ‘Affordable Rent’ model, which is often not affordable at all. If people like Capco are not to be trusted, then neither are some of London’s biggest housing associations, who are switching as fast as they can from traditional social rent to ‘Affordable Rent’ at much higher rents. It is the central nonsense of housing policy: cut the upfront investment that would keep rents low, creating a commitment to pay higher housing benefit for ever.

Stephen Howlett of Peabody goes with the grain of the National Housing Federation’s calls for more ‘freedoms’ for housing associations by proposing ‘more flexible rents’. He says: ‘To increase affordability in London, a new, more flexible rent model that is based on a combination of the market rent and the tenant’s ability to pay, including the ability to move to shared ownership and/or outright ownership when appropriate, might offer an affordable solution for Londoners.’ Of course, the model is one thing: what matters is how many £££s people are going to be charged. To my mind, the only likely outcome from such new formulations would be rents that are significantly higher than social rents; landlords would have a direct incentive to find higher income tenants to get more rent (as is already happening with ‘Affordable Rent’). It is only social rents that produce quality homes that people on low incomes can afford.

Lord Andrew Adonis, who put the book together with IPPR’s Bill Davies, has proved to be a radical influence on the London scene recently, especially around transport. Here, he describes the need to more than double the rate of housebuilding in the capital. He has a nice vision of ‘hundreds’ of properly planned, mixed-tenure, socially mixed City Villages replacing existing estates. No-one doubts that there is a lot of potential to build extra homes on local authority land within estates, and that long-term comprehensive regeneration is the best answer in some cases, but I find the overly-grandiose vision unconvincing; the existing estates also had beautiful masterplans published before they were built with famous architects pointing to the parks and community facilities. The problem is that so much gets lost in the delivery, and these days social housing is the first to go when costs rise as they invariably do. My instinct is to prefer the approach of Islington Council, looking estate by estate for development opportunities to add vital social rented homes to the stock. I do not share the authors’ view that it is somehow wrong for Islington to have so many council housing estates using up some of the most valuable land in the country.

Adonis tries to contradict the ‘assumption’ that existing residents will be displaced by wealthier incomers. ‘This need not, nor should it be, the case, since redevelopment will usually mean a much better use of land with typically around twice the density of the existing estate’. But the proof of the pudding is in the evidence. A recent well-researched report by the London Assembly on regeneration in London discovered the huge scale of losses of social rented homes over the past decade – more than 8,000 in a relatively small number of comprehensive schemes. When you look around London now, things are getting worse: the political and financial drive behind development is to create ghettoes for the rich and profits for the developer. If that doesn’t change, City Villages will not become the cohesive mixed communities that Adonis dreams about.

The other issue that is critical to the regeneration of large estates is the problem known by the unpleasant name of ‘decanting’. Even if genuine commitments are made to existing tenants that they will be rehoused back in the new development on like for like terms, they often have to be rehoused elsewhere for a number of years. The normal solution is an alternative social rented unit provide by the council or a housing association – and ‘decants’ often have power to get what they want. Flats let to decants are not available to rehouse others on the waiting list or parked in temporary accommodation. In some boroughs the opportunity cost of the decanting programme has been huge. The impact of a major redevelopment on the flow of homes for new lettings is rarely recognised, and the IPPR report envisages redevelopment on a huge scale.

The issue of tenure is central to the consideration of major regeneration or redevelopment of existing estates. It is not just a matter of crude numbers of new homes – what is built at what rent and for whom matters just as much.

Social housing is our most important housing asset. Losses through regeneration and continuing losses though right to buy, ‘conversions’ to unaffordable ‘Affordable Rent’ and market sales to bring in the cash to pay for new build, create major questions which those in favour of the new City Villages need to answer – and don’t in these essays. If these questions can be answered and the provision of rented homes at genuinely affordable social rents becomes a primary objective in such schemes, then the proposed intensification and better optimisation of land use might be more of a runner.

 

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Throwing money at the housing market

What’s the best way of spending an extra £2bn to boost housing output? Is it really to give every first-time buyer couple a lump sum of up to £6,000?

George Osborne has committed future governments to spend £2,165 millions over the next five years to subsidise first-time buyers towards building their deposits. This is a new spending commitment: the Office of Budget Responsibility has already flagged it up as one of only five ‘very high risk’ Budget proposals, and it’s the most expensive of the five. The cost estimate is little more than a shot in the dark – if you’re giving money away from a supposedly bottomless pot, how can you possibly know how many people will want to dip into it?

It’s not as if this is the only ruse by the Chancellor which is stacking up commitments for future governments. As the UK Housing Review 2015 shows for the first time, the measures to boost the house market or subsidise developers were already due to clock up a massive figure over the period to 2020. The Budget give-away (sorry, ‘Help to Buy ISA’) brings the total commitment in terms of grants, loans and guarantees to a staggering £33bn. As Jules Birch asked in his live blog on the Budget, what would the reaction have been when the government first proposed equity loans (Help to Buy 1) and mortgage guarantees (Help to Buy 2), if it had said the next stage would be to give people free money?

It so happens that the sums now being allocated towards boosting the market are precisely double the total of grants, loans and guarantees for building affordable homes (£16.5bn). Furthermore, just looking at grants alone, the ISA scheme means that the government is now committed to direct spending over £2.7bn on the private market. To put this in perspective, this is equal to 58% of the commitment in grant over the same period to the Affordable Homes Programme (£4.7bn). Is Osborne really saying that handing over dollops of cash to first-time buyers can be justified, while the supposed need to tackle the deficit is forcing down direct investment in affordable house building to its lowest level for more than a decade?

This not only makes nonsense of government arguments about austerity, it also shows yet again that the government favours the better-off, as of course the scheme will dispense money in inverse proportion to need. Why? – because the lucky couples who have the incomes (or the bank of mum and dad) that enable them to save the maximum of £24,000 will hit the jackpot – £6,000 – in terms of government subsidy towards their deposit. It is not difficult to see that the scheme might be so attractive that it costs much more than the amount budgeted for it, perhaps forcing a cut in the already depleted Affordable Homes Programme.

And to make the most obvious point last, if a tranche of first-time buyers suddenly has access to bigger deposits, while supply of new housing continues to stagnate, the likely effect is a boost in house prices. In other words, while some lucky ISA holders will now get onto the property ladder, for those who can’t save as much it will be even more difficult than before to buy their first home. Given evidence from Zoopla that the current Help to Buy scheme is already feeding higher prices while having little effect on supply, this outcome seems inevitable. But perhaps this is just what Osborne quietly wants to achieve?

It’s perhaps not surprising in an election period that the government has given up on rational attempts to increase house building in favour of making promises of free money. But as Jan Crosby of accountants KPMG cryptically commented: “It would be better to have an ISA to help fund the building of new homes – not the buying of them.” Indeed. However, a future Labour government could do even better, it could put this money towards bringing housing investment back up to the levels achieved in 2010, as Red Brick has just argued. Someone has to call a halt to this housing market madness, who will have the guts to at least describe it as what it is?

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After Osborne’s Budget, social housing can win the Election for Labour

There has been so much commentary on the Budget that it seemed pointless to add to the noise already generated. But there is a truism about Budgets – the first day’s assessment is almost pointless, it is the second day that really matters, when all of the experts have had a good go over the figures and the Chancellor’s initial spin has been discounted. And the best place to turn is usually Paul Mason on Channel 4 and the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

It is become clearer as the Election approaches that the key moment in George Osborne’s Chancellorship was when he realised that his extremely tight fiscal policy was stopping the economy from recovering, and he relaxed his demands for cuts. By reverting to what was in effect Alastair Darling’s deficit reduction plan, set out before the 2010 Election, Osborne abandoned his own suicidal plan to remove the deficit entirely by 2015. Instead he has achieved a reduction of about one-third in money terms, dressing the whole thing up as a cut in half through a re-presentation of the statistics (talking about the deficit as a share of growing GDP).

Having got away with it once, he is now trying to play the same trick again. By presenting huge cuts in the first 2-3 years of the new Parliament, and by selling off nationalised banking assets (probably cheaply) earlier, Osborne can make it look like the deficit reduction objective is being achieved more quickly, that total national debt is starting to come down, and that the good times will then return. Jam tomorrow! It has nothing to do with economics, it is entirely a matter of political calculation.

The IFS point out that the cuts now proposed in the next 2 years are so large as to be unachievable – 5% in each year, twice the size of any cuts achieved in any one year of the 2010-2015 Parliament. Once you have taken into account the ‘protected’ departments, the cuts required in the remainder – including the Tory touchstone department of Defence – are unmanageable in such a short time frame. That is why Ed Balls is now speculating that Osborne would have to raise VAT again or remove the protection to departments like Health.

After the first 2 years, Osborne’s rollercoaster, as the Office for Budget Responsibility dubbed it, comes into play. It was only in December that Osborne set out a projection for a budget surplus of £23 billion for 2019-20. He has now revised that to a mere £7 billion – as the IFS notes, this is the biggest single change in the budget, and it transforms the prospects for public spending. Paul Johnson of the IFS called this ‘a pretty remarkable‘apparent change in economic philosophy’. Paul Mason described it this way: ‘George Osborne simply blinked: he looked at the scale of austerity he promised in December and realised it wasn’t politically going to be that popular’.

Even now Osborne’s figures rely heavily on the long-promised but never specified £12 billion cut in welfare spending. Even Duncan Smith at his most rabid will struggle to achieve that without touching pensioner benefits. That’s why IFS have challenged the Tories to put forward their welfare plans before rather than after the Election.

It is much more rational, and far less disruptive, to adopt a more gradual profile to end up in the same place, and to mix the burden of deficit reduction with tax rises and not rely entirely on public spending cuts as the Tories will do. A new Labour Government from May 7 would inherit a very bad year of cuts already underway, but could then take a much more sensible and planned approach to public spending in 2016.

The IFS also point to other factors that make the outlook for public spending more benign – notably inflation and the cost of debt interest. And the value of a new approach was reinforced by Stephanie Flanders, once of the BBC but now at JP Morgan, speaking on the Daily Politics, when she said that although the deficit figures look big they are of little interest to international financiers because their focus is on the prospects for growth. Growth is the mechanism that reduces the deficit without swingeing cuts – a lesson Osborne has partially but not fully learned.

The economic and political opportunity for Labour lies in the IFS conclusion that ‘our latest estimates suggest that Labour would be able to meet its fiscal targets with no cuts at all after 2015-16’. And going one step further on Channel 4 News, the aptly-named Soumaya Keynes of IFS said ‘If you take Labour’s plans, they might not need to cut spending at all by departments, in fact they could maybe increase departments spending by about £9 billion.’  Paul Mason summarised: ‘Ed Balls could, if he wished, do no cuts at all over the next 5 years and we could end up with Labour spending more over the next parliament; in other words, austerity ends on May 7th. This is a new situation created by George Osborne.

It is not too late for Labour to make a game-changing proposal which fits the emerging public mood against austerity and the new public understanding that it damages the wider economy if the Government stops spending, especially on investment. It will surprise no-one to learn that I would favour a plan to increase housing investment back to 2010 levels by 2016 (it will take some time to gear up anyway).

A big increase in grant for social rented homes would have a multiplier effect through the supply chain. Grant at 40% (rather than the current less than 20%) would generate matching private borrowing by housing associations, increase construction output and employment, generate tax revenues, and hold out the prospect of permanent year-on-year savings in housing benefit as the ‘benefits to bricks’ effect of lower rents works through. The preparatory year could be spent setting up public sector sites and challenging private developers to ‘use it or lose it’. A return to a robust s106 planning gain policy would maximise the benefit on mixed development sites.

If IFS are right, we would get all of these benefits without preventing Labour from meeting its aim to balance current spending as early as possible in the next parliament.

Housing has been rising up the political agenda. The Tories only have ultimately self-defeating demand-side plans which will eventually work through into prices. These can be left in place for the moment. Instead, Labour could have a bold supply-side policy which breaks through the sterile debate.

In short, social housing can win the Election for Labour.

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UK Housing Review sets out the challenges for all the Parties

The annual compendium of housing facts and figures was published yesterday by the Chartered Institute of Housing*. Now in its 23rd edition, it pulls together all of the key housing data and presents it in a digestible format, with lots of tables and diagrams. The analysis is particularly strong in linking housing activity to broader economic and fiscal trends and to welfare reform.

The added value of the document is the excellent commentary on the data provided by authors Steve Wilcox, John Perry and Peter Williams. I was going to summarise what I thought were the key points to emerge from their articles, but I can’t do better than Jules Birch in his quick fire blog.

Of particular importance is the huge shift that has taken place under the Coalition from financial support for affordable housing to financial support for private sector activity. This is also a shift from grant to loans and guarantees, including schemes such as Help to Buy, Build to Rent, and the PRS Guarantee. As Jules says, “The scale of these financial instruments entails state intervention in the housing market that would have been unimaginable before 2007.”  Not that it seems to have done much good if you look at the other facts and figures in the Review.

As the Election approaches, the most challenging chapter for all of the political parties is John Perry’s ‘Ten unresolved issues for the next government’. What an agenda it is:

  1. How do we double the numbers of homes built each year?
  2. Can we ensure the supply of more land available for housing?
  3. Can we meet the housing needs of different generations and income groups?
  4. Can we recognise the role of housing costs in feeding the growth in working age poverty?
  5. How do we provide additional social housing without making rents unaffordable?
  6. Can the tax and regulatory systems help create a more equitable housing market?
  7. How do we raise the standards of new housing?
  8. Can we address the problems of an ageing housing stock?
  9. How do we stop people falling out of the system into homelessness and destitution?
  10. Can we develop a long-term housing strategy?

On the last point, the Review highlights the ‘come today gone tomorrow’ nature of the Minister of Housing job. It lists all 35 people to hold the role since 1945, contrasted against a chart showing housing output. Of course, some Ministers were members of the Cabinet, others not, and some held the job as part of a much larger portfolio (like Aneurin Bevan).

The abiding question is how a much poorer country managed to produce vastly more homes 60-70 years ago than we do now, and a much larger percentage of it was affordable. If the experience then can’t be repeated, at least the ambition could be. As the chart so neatly shows, the difference lies in the collapse and disappearance of public sector output in the late 1970s and early 1980s that has continued since, a deliberately created shortage in supply that has never been balanced out by an equivalent increase in private and housing association output.

From 1945-54 the Housing Ministry changed hands only once, from Bevan to Harold Macmillan. Their success can be seen in the figures. But less famously, the most productive Housing Minister of them all was Richard Crossman in the 1960s. And he had the collapse of Ronan Point to contend with.

* The 2015 UK Housing Review is available here. Not cheap, but much of the data will be published free online later in the month here. Previous editions are also available on the site.

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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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