The general election, politics and charities

Charities have to be very cautious at the best of times about never being seen to support or oppose a particular political party. While there have been attempts, formal and informal, to restrict the freedom of charities to speak out on issues, these have been resisted.

In normal times it is fine for me to say that a particular policy will have a positive or negative impact on our client group, even if that policy is associated entirely with one political party. It is not acceptable to say: “Those evil (party name), typical of them proposing ….” And equally unacceptable to say: “I love the (party name), they are so wonderful ….”.

During a general election it is all the more restrictive. There is a fine line that can easily be crossed by statements that can be seen supporting or opposing the manifesto of a particular party. There are things I have long called for which might, and I suspect will, be in the manifesto of various parties, but not all.

Therefore, discretion is the better part of valour at these times.

In some elections we have a procession of politicians wishing to be seen visiting BHT or one of its services. The approach we will be taking this year is not to agree to a visit to BHT services by local candidates. I will meet with any of them to brief them on the issues facing our clients and those facing BHT itself.

In one election, three candidates who were due to debate each other on the Sunday Politics South East asked me to brief them. I t was amusing to listen to them, two of them normally at odds with each other, agreeing with each other, the third ignored what I had said and opposed the other two.

So this blog will be more toned down than usual. I will be publishing real life stories of clients but none will be related to the election.

But come 9th June, I might just find my voice again!

Will we have the fifteenth housing minister since 1997 by the end of June?

In July last year I wrote that we now have our fourteenth housing minister since 1997 and concluded that none had got the job done.  I was hoping that Gavin Barwell would be different and I have to say he did make some progress, albeit small.

With the calling of a general election for June, the chances of a fifteenth housing minister is increased.  Mr Barwell is defending a majority of 165 votes and the seat is 47th on Labour’s target list.

Far be for me to make a prediction regarding the overall election results, or the result in his Croydon Central constituency, but whatever the result, Mr. Barwell is unlikely to be the housing minister in seven weeks time. He will either lose his seat, be moved to another job if his party forms the next government, or he will be in opposition.

Discuss.

Actually please don’t!

All I will say is that housing is the issue that impacts more profoundly on the lives of so many people and I hope it takes centre stage in the election. Unless the housing crisis is tackled soon, it will remain with us for generations, long after the changes in our trading arrangements with Europe have been forgotten!

You might wish to discuss that!

What I want to see in the parties’ manifestos

The political parties are yet to publish their manifestos for the June general election. I have three simple requests to all parties for policies to be included in those manifestos:

  1. Make a commitment to building council houses, in massive numbers, as an investment for current and future generations. Abolish the Right to Buy so that these homes remain in public ownership in order that they continue, in perpetuity, to meet housing need, and not investment opportunities.
  2. Make an unequivocal commitment to end rough sleeping by the end of the 2017-2022 parliament. In a country as wealthy as the United Kingdom, it is an outrage that people are living on the streets, and their presence should shame those in a position to end rough sleeping.
  3. Put an end to benefit cuts. More than half of all voters think that benefit cuts have gone too far, according to an Ipsos Mori poll published on Thursday. Denying 18 to 21 year olds the right to claim benefit support to help towards their rents will drive young people into homelessness, into crime, and into sex work. What politician wants that as part of their legacy?

Denying 18-21 year olds the right to claim housing benefit is bad, bad news, and bad, bad policy

At the very time when rough sleeping numbers are rising nationally, the government has announced plans to end the automatic right of 18-21 year olds to claim housing benefit.

In a week with so much else happening (Brexit vote in the House of Lords, Theresa May in Scotland, Northern Ireland elections, Trump) someone must have thought it was the ideal time to bury bad news. This is bad, bad news and bad, bad policy.

If there is one measure that will lead to an increase in rough sleeping amongst young people, it is denying them the automatic right to claim support for their housing costs.

img_4847Of course there will be exceptions made for certain categories of young people allowing them to claim (such as if parents are abroad and the young person can not ‘go home’).

A spokesperson from the Department for Work and Pensions said: “We want to make sure that 18- to 21-year-olds do not slip straight into a life on benefits, which is why we are helping young people get the training, skills and experience they need to move into a job and build a career.”

Desperate times for young people will see them return to unsafe family situations, turn to crime and prostitution, and end up sleeping rough.

What about the finances – we always hear we have to tackle the deficit. 2015 research from Heriot Watt University calculated that once exceptions and costs incurred on other public services were taken into account, the policy could save just £3.3 million a year.

If just 140 young people end up on the streets, the additional cost to other services (ambulance service, NHS, housing departments, police, etc.) then this measure will actually be a drain on public finances!

It makes no sense in economic terms. It makes no sense in human terms. It is the wrong policy and goes totally against recent positive moves by government, now least through the Homelessness Bill, to tackle homelessness.

Housing White Paper: My Reaction

social-housing-4I am a bit late in the day, but here is my response to the Government’s White Paper on housing:

There has been widespread criticism of previous announcements, and this White Paper marks a major shift in government policy. I welcome the new direction of travel, but feel that the destination will be a real disappointment to anyone who was hoping that we were to see major progress in the supply of affordable homes for rent, especially the absence of the much needed commitment to a return to council house building.

It is as if the promise of a beautiful beach holiday ends up being the seafront in Bognor Regis on a wet Tuesday afternoon in September.

I welcome the £3 billion nod in the direction of off-site construction, something I have advocated for several years and have seen working well with BHT’s partners such as QED and KSD.

I am not opposed to developments with greater density, especially in areas such as Brightton and Hove with high demand and limited land. But any increase in the density of developments must, somehow, not merely result in increased profitability of developments. It must lead to greater affordability. Quality design is a must in such developments.

I welcome the decision to abandon the Conservative Party’s manifesto commitment that 20% of all homes in new developments should be Starter Homes. This was a flagship commitment of David Cameron, in the 2015 manifesto, to build 200,000 of Starter Homes by 2020.

The thinking behind dropping this manifesto commitment must be a recognition that if a development has 20% Starter Homes, there would be no capacity for any other form of social housing.

Not to abandon the Right to Buy, and to persevere with extending the scheme (albeit extremely cautiously) to housing associations, are both Bognor Regis moments.  Worse still, the government has indicated it now wishes to extend Right to Buy to councils’ private housing companies.

Bullish statements have been made about forcing local authorities to ensure that there are plans in place, and the bizarre threat of the Chair of the Homes and Communities Agency to “cane” those that do not deliver, all sounds a bit hollow. I had hoped the government would have returned powers to local authorities, backed up by capital investment, to build new council houses.

The Green Belt is being given protection, but developments will be allowed “in exceptional circumstances”. What greater exceptional circumstances are there than a housing crisis on a scale that this country has never known. If it is true that Surrey has more land given over to golf courses than housing, then I won’t weep if some green belt is lost.

On the private rented sector, if powers are given to local authorities to impose banning orders on the worst landlords, such powers must be backed up by resources to allow councils to enforce this and for independent advice agencies to enforce the rights of tenants. Rights are only as good as the ability to enforce them. Otherwise they are hollow threats.

The ambition of the plan, and the fanfare it has been given, is not matched by planned delivery, and even though there are aspirations to build the homes the nation needs, it sounds similar to previous statements and aspirations.

As I wrote at the weekend, the private sector isn’t going to deliver the homes that are needed, social homes for rent. In 30 years I have seen housing white papers come and go. The 2016 white paper, I fear, will not live long in the memory, a bit like a damp Tuesday afternoon in September in Bognor.

What the government’s housing white paper needs to say

This could be a big week for housing, with the government publishing its long-awaited housing strategy. Today (Sunday 5th February) the government has hinted at a new emphasis on people who rent their homes.

imageI welcome what Housing Minister Gavin Barwell has said, that there will be minimum term tenancies and more homes built for rent, signaling a “change of tone” from previous Conservative Party policy. But the key issue is what sort of rental homes they will be? Will tenants have greater security of tenure and, critically, will they be truly affordable?

I have lost count of the number of announcement, housing strategies, policy documents and white papers there have been over the last 25 years. Most have delivered little. Some have been disastrous. And the housing crisis has just got worse.

Will this latest iteration be any different. Yes, if as promised there is a shift from the obsession with home ownership. As I have already said do one of the key issues is whether the promised homes for rent will be truly affordable.

If, as I suspect, the government will be looking for institutional investors (pension funds, for example) to make it happen, then we will be disappointed. Yes, pension funds are keen to invest in property. Unlike governments, pension funds take a long term view, beyond the immediate political cycle. But they are, by their very nature, looking for the best possible return. If there are rent controls, as I believe there should be, the pension funds won’t be interested.

Private landlords already make a valuable contribution to meeting housing need, but with land prices being what they are, they will not be producing any homes in the affordability bracket needed.

The average privately rented one bed flat in Brighton is now £971 per month. The most housing benefit will pay is £612 per month (the Local Housing Allowance – LHA). To make the private rented sector affordable to those on medium, low and no income, the government could either abolish the LHA, but that would cost billions of Pounds, year on year and forever. It could put a cap on the amount a landlord can charge, but then investors in the private rented market would disappear. Anyway, I cannot see any government intervening in the market in this way.

There is another way, which makes financial sense in the long term: invest and build council houses along with housing association homes. This will require upfront capital investment, in the acquisition of land, and the building of homes. A one-off subsidy in capital investment can ensure that there isn’t a need for ongoing rent subsidies through housing benefit.

I have no illusion about local councils, many of whom lack imagination and courage when it comes to modern design and construction methods. They will have to up their game considerably.

What of the right to buy? It must surely be ended. More than a third of the homes sold through the right to buy have ended up in the private rented sector with rents three of four higher than when they were in council ownership. It makes no sense in economic or housing terms, although it has proven to be political popular in spite of the negative impact it has had on the provision of homes for people in the greatest need.

So what of aspiration? Gavin Barwell has said that the government had not given up making home ownership available to all. Most people, when asked, say they would like to own their own home. But for around half the population, that aspiration is unachievable, even with the huge public subsidies on offer. A more achievable aspiration could be the provision a homes for people who need them, at rents that people can afford.

I hope that secure tenancies will be reintroduced. People need that security, as well as the flexibility that renting should offer. I disagree with Jeremy Corbyn who has been quoted as saying that the rental market was “incapable of giving people the security they need”. I disagree. People used to have much greater security of tenure, and there is no reason why that can’t happen again for those who pay their rent and don’t cause anti-social behaviour. It requires a change in the law and investment in services offering advice and representation so that tenants’ rights can be enforced. That is something the government can deliver on, and quickly.

New_Prime_Minister_Theresa_May_makes_a_speech_outside_10_Downing_Street_London_after_meeti-xlarge_trans++uWljxTX2ToqwW26CTqWzx8B_jeBzq4FpvJVTUwJgaqgTheresa May said on the steps of Downing Street that her government will help those who are “just about managing”. This housing strategy needs to go beyond that. It needs to help those who already aren’t managing. Her housing strategy will be judged on whether it addresses the issue of affordability and supply.

I am not holding my breath, but hope to be pleasantly surprised.

You could blow me down with a feather – a decrease in social housing leads to lengthening housing waiting lists!

There is a report out today that shows the obvious: that those areas that those areas with disproportionate decreases in social housing have the fastest growing housing waiting lists.

The report by Inside Housing is based on an analysis of figures provided by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

In many areas waiting lists have reduced. Surely this must be good news.  The government think so, even suggesting it is evidence of the success of the Bedroom Tax.

The DCLG said: “Council housing waiting lists have dropped by more than a third across England since 2012. With council housing starts now at the highest level for more than 20 years and local authorities having nearly £6bn of housing reserves and borrowing headroom, they’re well placed to build the homes their communities need.”

It would, indeed, be good news if more homes had been built, if people had been housed, and if there was less need. Of course the opposite is true.  Fewer homes have been built, fewer people have been housed, and need has increased.

So how can waiting lists have reduced? By a slight of hand. Waiting lists have been reduced by removing people from the lists.  The Localism Act 2011 gives councils powers to remove applicants. An Inside Housing investigation in 2014 showed more than 100,000 had been struck off.

Thank goodness we have a magazine like Inside Housing to dig, question, research and analyse.  Afterall we wouldn’t want to become like the United States has become since Friday, where government relies of “different facts” or as some people might call it, “lies”.