Is it right and is it possible to ban tenants from smoking in social housing accommodation?

I hate smoking. Always have.  Back in the late 1980s I was regarded as being completely unreasonable if I asked that just one colleague smoked at a time in a staff meeting held in a small room.  It was about individual freedom of choice, I was told, although no consideration was given to my freedom to choose not to work in a smoke-filled environment.

How things have changed.

However, the proposal from Professor John Middleton from the Faculty of Public Health, who has said that tenants moving into social housing should have a no smoking clause in their tenancy agreement. His intentions are very worthy – to protect children from second-hand smoke.

There will, inevitably, be the freedom of choice argument against Prof. Middleton’s proposal. There is also the legality.  Without primary legislation, I cannot see how such a clause in a tenancy agreement can be enforced.  Smoking might be disgusting, it might be anti-social, it might har, the smoker and those around them, it might be inconsiderate.  But it is not illegal to smoke …. Unfortunately.  Policing what a tenant does, beyond the legal terms of the tenancy agreement and the law, is not the role of landlords.

But good on Prof, Middleton for raising the debate.

Two senior leaders in an organisation disagree in public: a divided organisation or healthy debate?

A few years ago a senior colleague within BHT took strong exception to something I had blogged about life time tenancies. He said I shouldn’t have done so without agreeing a BHT line. I said BHT didn’t have line on the issue, nor should it as it was an ethical issue with a range of opinions.

It raised an interesting principle: can people in an organisation, especially senior leaders, take different views in public. Why not, I ask.

Just last week my colleague, Jo Rogers, who runs the South East Fulfilling Lives Project, popped into my office. I asked how she was. “Well I was fine”, she said, “until I read your blog about Housing First!”

She wasn’t happy, and I understand why. She is involved in a Housing First initiative in Eastbourne! She has written a very robust response to the doubts I had expressed. Have a read of both, and please feel free to leave your own views.

For the record, Jo is an extraordinary manager and leader, someone with enormous integrity and vision, a real asset to BHT and the Fulfilling Lives programme, and a very valuable colleague. What is more, she is one of the few members of our management team who laughs at my feeble jokes!

The purpose of this post is not to discuss the pros and cons of Housing First. It is to explore whether and how people in organisations can debate, even disagree, in public.

The first principle is nobody has a monopoly on wisdom. Just because I might have a certain job title doesn’t mean I am infallible. Far from it. I need colleagues and others to point out the errors of my way. I have countless examples of what I have learned from colleagues and, equally, clients.

The second principle is how you debate. If a view is put forward, which might be at odds with conventional wisdom, as long as it is not abusive or discriminatory, should be listened to with respect. By all means disagree. The worst thing that can happen with a robust exchange of views is that minds might be changed and a deeper understanding might emerge. Wouldn’t it be great if most political discourse was less oppositional?

The third principle concerns attributable comments. Yes, whatever I say can be attributed to me, but not necessarily to BHT. A few years ago I temporarily changed my Twitter biography to say that the views expressed were almost certainly not the views of BHT but that all references to Stoke City Football Club were official BHT policy.

Of course that was a nonsense. Yes, very often I do speak on behalf of the organisation, as is appropriate. On other occasions I express strong personal opinions, and have been known to express affection for the Mighty Potters (Stoke City FC).

What I am not always clear about, and this can cause problems, is to be clear whether the views being expressed are BHT policy.

I might have a senior position within BHT, but BHT is mature and strong enough as an organisation to allow me, and others, to speak freely, within reason. I think it was fine to express doubts about Housing First, for example. It would have been another thing to say anyone involved in Housing First was doing the work of the devil! And it is absolutely fine for Jo Rogers to say, as she has and in public, that she thinks I am mistaken. It would be another thing for her to say I was lying, deceitful and dishonourable individual.

Long may we have lively and healthy debate, long may Jo Rogers disagree with me, long may we value each other’s integrity, and long may we agree on most things, as I believe we do.

My doubts about the value of Housing First

There is a growing consensus that Housing First is the way to go in combatting homelessness. Housing First is defined as “an approach that offers permanent, affordable housing as quickly as possible for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, and then provides the supportive services and connections to the community-based supports people need to keep their housing and avoid returning to homelessness”.

The concept of Housing First has been around since 1988 but in recent years it has been championed by Homeless Link and, as a result, has attracted more interest and support.

The concept, as applied in the U.K., is that street homeless people, usually with addictions and chaotic lifestyles, get housing and open-ended support in order to avoid further periods of homelessness. This is not conditional on any change of behaviour or the need to engage with support services.

There is very informative research carried out by Joanne Bretherton and Nicholas Pleace from the Centre for Housing Policy at the University of York that is very positive about the nine pilots that have been run around England, including one in Brighton run by CGL (Change, Grow, Live, formerly CRI – Crime Reduction Initiatives).

I can see the positive aspects and achievements of Housing First, but I don’t think it is the panacea it is sometimes presented, and I think it has some fundamental flaws in principle.

The research found many positive outcomes had been achieved, for example:

  • 74% remained housed for over a year;
  • Bad or very bad health fell from 43% to 28%; and
  • Bad or very bad mental health fell from 52% to 18%.

But while there have been improvements in other areas, the situation remains depressingly poor:

  • Drug use fell only from 66% to 53%;
  • Those who “drank until they felt drunk” reduced only from 71% to 56%; and
  • Anti-social behaviour, compared to the year before entering Housing First, remained at 53% compared to 78%.

I am not sure whether we can regard a scheme as a success when the majority continue to use drugs, drink until they are drunk, and continue to commit anti-social behaviour.

In other areas of their lives, the improvements, while welcome, are not very encouraging. Begging dropped from 71% to 51%. Why, we should ask, are people who are housed, and getting support to claim benefits, still begging? 36% of those housed had been arrested, compared to 53% before they were housed.

For most of us, when we meet someone for the first time, the first two bits of information we share about ourselves are our names and what we do, be it paid or unpaid, work or hobbies. In the Housing First research, there was absolutely no change in the number of clients entering work, remaining stubbornly low at just 3%. Those in Housing First schemes are at risk of continuing to be defined by what they do: drinking until they are drunk, using drug, begging, perpetrating anti-social behaviour. Housing First hardly helps people to achieve their aspirations and their full potential.

My doubts about Housing First are those very principles that its advocates regard as its strengths:

  • It is based on a harm reduction model;
  • It offers open-ended support;
  • It is not conditional on engagement: and
  • Retention is not based on behaviour modification.

At its heart, Housing First lacks ambition, that change is possible, that people can achieve their aspirations and full potential. It embeds dependency, on welfare benefits and support. As one interviewee put it: he gets “help with everything”. At BHT, part of our ethos has seen a move away from staff always doing things for clients, helping with everything, to promoting change so that people can take advantage of the opportunities available to them so that they can combat their homelessness, poverty, mental ill health and addictions.

Economically, can the modest savings be regarded as adequate? The report found that savings were £15,000 per person per annum. While that is not to be dismissed, by being more ambitious, greater savings can be made. Our Addiction Services, for example, will see 60 individuals each year with a history of homelessness and addiction becoming abstinent and housed. Most go on to training and employment. Relationships strengthen, they don’t beg or steal, and their health improves. As a result, crime rates plummet and there are no demands on the police and criminal justice, there are fewer ambulance call outs, fewer attendances at A&E, welfare dependency reduces, people begin paying taxes.

For how long should landlords tolerate rent arrears and damage to property, disturbance to neighbours and the community excused, high levels of public funds be expended?

Housing First is an open-ended commitment. It would be great if we had open-ended resources, if we had plentiful housing, if we had homes with no neighbours being impacted by anti-social behaviour. But even then, I don’t find it acceptable, morally or economically, to leave people in action addiction, committing anti-social behaviour, begging and offending, when better outcomes are possible. Surely we can do better.

The Role of BHT: to do the work we do, and to influence public policy

BHT has a duel role: first and foremost to do the work that we do, day in and day out, combating homelessness, creating opportunities, and promoting change, improving lives and changing the communities we work in for the better.

Secondly, it is BHT’s role to highlight the impact that public policy has on the lives of our clients and tenants, and doing so without fear or favour.

A couple of years ago, the then Minister for the Third Sector, Brooks Newmark, said that charity chief executives should avoid becoming involved in politics.  He said: “stick to your knitting”.  Perhaps he should have done likewise as a few months later he was caught out by a national newspaper sending photographs of himself in a state of undress to a middle aged male reporter posing as a young female research assistant.

There is a fine line to tread between campaigning on public policy that impacts on our tenants and clients, and becoming party political.  Merely praising or criticising a particular policy does not make us party political.  We have a moral obligation to do so, notwithstanding efforts by successive governments to clip our wings.  Politicians love charities at election time.  Less so when we criticise their policies.

BHT has campaigned and commented on, publicly and in private, on many issues during 2016, including:

  • Extending the Right to Buy to housing associations
  • The benefits cap
  • The sanctions regime
  • Cuts to rents in specialist supported housing
  • The high cost of funerals
  • The Homelessness Reduction Bill
  • The closure of courts
  • Cuts to legal aid
  • Housing policy in general
  • The increase in households, including children, in temporary and emergency accommodation
  • Lack of drug rehabilitation services in East Sussex
  • Attempts to silence charities through the Lobbying Act
  • Poverty and the rise in the use of food banks
  • And, incomprehensibly, the awarding of more giant contracts to companies such as G4S!

i see no reason to change our approach in 2017.

The deaths of two rough sleepers is explained away by funding cuts

Two men who were sleeping rough have died on the streets in the Medway Council area over Christmas and local organisations have been calling for the Council to do more. Someone from Medway Council was reported as saying “We provide additional provision when the temperature is zero degrees or below for three consecutive nights. We can only provide what the funding allows.”

I am only too aware of budget pressures, funding cuts, and the real practicalities of arranging emergency shelters, but have we have reached the point where budgets mean more than human life?

The response to someones son/brother/father dying on the streets is about funding.  There has been next to no outcry. Why isn’t this another Cathy Come Home moment?

If an Accident and Emergency Department closed its doors and said “We can only do what our funding allows” and people died as a result, there would be an outcry.

If the police said they were not attending any calls because their budget for the month had run out and people died, there would be an outcry. If the Fire and Rescue services said that they were not attending any fires or turned their hoses off half way through dealing with a fire and left people to die, there would be an outcry.

Homeless people freeze to death on the streets and there is a deathly heart breaking silence.

Medway may be right in that it may not have been zero degrees for three consecutive nights. This is the Governments bear minimum for local authorities to provide emergency shelter. We are lucky in Brighton and Hove that the Council does go beyond the bare minimum allowed by government.

Councils could operate shelters during winter if they wanted to. It would require a budget and would require proper planning. For safety reasons, these can’t be set up at the drop of a hat. Now is the time to begin planning and budgeting for next winter.

Have we really reached the point where a homeless person freezing to death is an acceptable consequence of budget cuts? or that decision makers are more worried about budgets that human life?

Shared Spaces: reaction to my post from people who don’t agree with me.

I seem to have provoked a bit of a reaction from my post yesterday (Shared Public spaces are a complete hoax) when I said that I thought so-called ‘shared spaces’ for vans, cars, cyclists and pedestrians were a complete hoax, and that there is a clear hierarchy of supremacy in any conflict between them.

img_4021Mark Strong asked me what I think of the ‘shared space’ arrangements in New Road? It clearly works better, not least because of the volume of pedestrians, and the only vehicles that tend to use it are taxis and delivery vehicles who appear to have greater respect for pedestrians.

Mark says that Ann Street is “not perfect but it’s a lot better than before, even with the odd idiot”. That may be so, but it might be better still if there wasn’t the pretence of equality in the so-called ‘shared space’. I remain of the view that the concept is a hoax.

Mark does acknowledge that “transport planners do have range of views on ‘shared space’ (or ‘sh… space’ as Joan Dales (@johnstreetdales) calls it”.

Mark also comments that he hadn’t expected me to fall into the “anti expert trap”! He says that the “design of Ann St was done with lots of public engagement”. My experience over the years has given me a bit of a cynical view about transport planning ‘experts’ who say something will be great but turns out to be a disaster, or says something can’t be done when, with a bit of pressure it is readily achievable, such as the pedestrian refuge at the junction of Ditchling Road and Oxford Street which I campaigned for.

I am not opposed to ‘experts’ but often council officers are presented, or present themselves, as experts when they are nothing of the kind. (I’m doing well, upsetting a whole cohort of colleagues in the local authority! There are, of course, experts in areas such as environmental health and trading standards whose expertise and professionalism I applaud).

I was contacted by the Sea of Change who have produced a devastating film on the impact of ‘shared spaces’ on blind people. These people are real experts, and it is well worth watching their film that can be found here.

There is coverage in the film of the ‘shared space’ in Lewes. It is strong stuff.

Sea of Change said that many schemes have u-turned because “people have been killed/injured, and blind people have not been auble to use them (share spaces) independently. I would also add shared space has brought complete chaos to Preston which is trying to be resolved unsuccessfully”.

Simon Bannister disagrees with me with me on ‘shared spaces’. He said: “OK #SharedSpace isn’t universal salve but Ann St has been hugely improved.” He says he will “report back with evidence based findings in a few weeks.”

Oh dear, he has touched on another of my pet hates with the use of the phrase ‘evidence based’. Yes, of course all evidence should be looked at, but too many people use the phrase to exclude and negate anecdotal evidence. It is a phrase that can be disempowering for people whose lived experience says something different to the so-called experts. ‘Evidence based’ arguments can tend to reflect what one ‘expert’ says to another ‘expert’ thereby reenforcing a particular narrow outlook.

Ian Chisnall gets it right when he says that “the issue is that insufficient effort is made to change the culture of the people using the areas. I think the skatepark in Hollingdean is less dominated by male skaters”. Critically, he says that “the Level lacks the level of supervision we were originally promised and it is exposed to all sorts of risks as a result that do not help.”

But I don’t agree with him about expanding the ‘shared space’ to the whole city: “The Ann Street area exists in isolation of most of the rest of the city, perhaps if we could move towards a shared space city (except for the arterial roads) we might see a bit more tolerance?”

We need more enforcement, but then enforcement is not liked. Just look at today’s Argus (3rd January). Perhaps later I will write about the fining of motorists who use bus lanes. Why not really make myself unpopular!

PS In case you are wondering how I have time to engage in this debate on ‘shared space’, I am still on annual leave, due back to work next Monday, so I still have plenty of time to upset even more people!

The myth of home ownership

A report was published by the Resolution Foundation just after Christmas that looked at home ownership.

The report’s authors, Lindsay Judge and Adam Corlett, challenge the myth that home ownership now stands at 64% (well down over the last decade). They say that this figure only reveals the proportion of properties which are owned by an occupier rather than the proportion of the population who do own their own homes.

kemp-street-2They give the following example of a person who buys a house but then takes in three lodgers. “On the standard measure, this siply counts as an owner-occupied household – and the three residents that rent drop out of the picture. Or consider an adult returning to the parental home. That individual also disappears from the statistics. And five unrelated people who share a house? They would be counted as one rented household rather than the five separate renters that most would intuitively regard them to be.”

They say that official statistics have over-estimated home ownership. Official statistics suggest that home ownership peaked at 71 per cent in 2004 and has since fallen back to 64 per cent. Judge and Corlett argue that, from a family perspective, the peak was around 58 per cent in 2002 and that barely half of all families own their own homes today.

The government’s policy is to encourage home ownership. Today the government has made an announcement about starter homes where those aged between 23 and 40 can get a 20% discount on new homes built on brown field sites. As I have argued many times on this blog, in an area like Brighton and Hove, it is unlikely that the majority of local first time buyers will be able to buy even with the opportunities and incentives offered by government.

Private renting is the reality for a growing minority of households. For these households, at the sharp end of the housing crisis, the priority is security of tenure and affordability. There is little coming from government that will ease their situation.

Home ownership is not the answer to the housing crisis. Supply, affordability and security of tenure is needed.