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.

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.

Charging housing associations for government regulation

The Homes and Communities Agency is consulting on a proposal to charge a fee to housing associations for its regulatory activities. The charges to be introduced from April 2017 are as follows:

  • £5 per home for registered providers with 1000 or more units of social housing (yes, homes are still referred to as ‘units’)
  • A fixed fee of £300 for providers with fewer than 1000 social housing units
  • A one off fixed rate fee of £2,500 for successful new registrations with the regulator.

For large associations such as Clarion, recently formed from the merger of Affinity Homes and Circle, with 125,000 homes, this will cost £625,000 a year, money that otherwise could have been spent on the development of new homes.

For BHT, we will have to pay the £300 fixed fee.

I was interested in the comment from David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation regarding the short consultation period. The deadline for submissions was Monday (9th January). AT the time the consultation was launched he said: “We will not have the opportunity of holding events across the country. However, we will hold open meetings to discuss the proposals in Manchester and London.”

This consultation period contrasted favourably to the seven day notice given for housing associations to respond to the proposal that the Right to Buy be extended to housing associations. The National Housing Federation was complicit in this travesty of a consultation period which made it extremely difficult to get an agreement from our boards (which BHT did manage to do – we objected to the proposal) but impossible to consult with tenants.

We have seen the shambles that the extension of the Right to Buy has become and it is the National Housing Federation’s on-going shame that it was so complicit in this shocking policy and the way it was foisted upon us.

The solution to the housing crisis isn’t rocket science, and it will save the government money!

img_4787A report by Lloyds Bank has been published that says half of England’s 2,000 housing associations are considering mergers. Whether this is true or not, there has been a great deal of pressure placed on housing associations to merge, the argument often being that mergers produce efficiencies and improves value for money, and that as a result more homes can be built.

For the last ten years there has been merger mania, with supergroups emerging including, most recently, Clarion with 125,000 homes. Clarion’s family tree shows at least twelve former housing associations including William Sutton, Downland, Circle, Broomley, and Ridgehill. The mighty BHT could have been part of this by adding our … 318 homes had we not demerged from Affinity Sutton a few years ago, a recognition of the specialist nature of BHT.

New homes are needed. According to the government, the number of ‘affordable homes’ is at a 24 year low. This is in spite of merger mania. And ‘affordable’ they are not as affordable in this context refers to rents at 80% of the market locally. In Brighton the average one bed flat in the private rented sector is now £983 a month, making the ‘affordable’ rent around £785 per month. Housing benefit will pay £612 per month for accommodation in the private rented sector.

The low rate of development is due to massive reductions in capital investment by government, hugely inflated land prices, and uncertainty resulting from government policies (including the 1% year on year reduction in rents and the forthcoming cap on the amounts claimants can receive towards their rent).

The market has failed people and will only make matters worse unless government intervenes.

The solution isn’t rocket science. The government needs to give greater freedoms to local councils to build homes with social rents, invest in the cost of building these homes and those being built by housing associations so that rents can remain low rather than in subsidising rents through housing benefit, and restrict the use of land so that housing need can be met rather than developments being for speculative gain.

This would also need an end to the Right to Buy so that the homes remain for those in need rather than being recycled into the private rented sector with rents three or four times greater than the social rents.

Over the lifetime of each house, the government will save far more by not shelling out, year after year, higher rates of housing benefit.

It has been said often enough, but can’t be repeated enough: housing should not be an investment opportunity but where people live.

Has the extension of the Right to Buy to housing associations hit the buffers?

I have been, and remain, highly critical of the government’s intention to extend the Right to Buy to housing associations. I felt that not only was it ethically wrong and economically flawed, I felt it had been a policy worked out on the back of an envelope. The pledge for a one-for-one replacement has never really been credible and, especially for small associations like BHT, deliverable. The government had clearly not worked out how much it would cost and how it would be paid for.

It is an expensive policy that helps those who are already adequately housed. It has nothing to do with tackling the housing crisis and everything to do with appealing to an electoral demographic.

The funding plan (“I have a cunning plan” said Baldrick) was to get councils to sell off high-value council homes and to pay a levy to the Treasury.

I feel sorry for the Housing Minister, Gavin Barwell, who has had to pick up this flawed policy from his predecessor. It is a shame the National Housing Federation has hitched its wagon so clearly to this runaway train.

As part of the Autumn Statement the government has pushed back implementation for a year and the Minister has announced the launch next year of a five year regional pilot. This can be viewed in two ways: first that the government is being cautious, wanting to get the detail right, or second, that it is quietly trying to kill off this ridiculous policy and pushing it into the long grass might be a quiet way of doing just that.

Mr Barwell would gain lots of plaudits if he was to put the policy out of its misery. He has nothing to lose and plenty to gain. The National Housing Federation, however, might end up with egg on its face.

Public policy can be designed to attack poor people rather than to attack poverty itself

The other day I was sent a copy of a poster which read: “Homeless people are not the problem. They are the result of the problem”.

Apart from an unfortunate photograph on the poster which offers a stereotype view of a homeless person the message was spot on.

I read somewhere over the weekend (for the life of me I can’t remember where) that public policy can be designed to attack poor people rather than to attack poverty itself.

There are many aspects of welfare reform but I agree with, not least simplifying the system. However, there seems to be some in-built features that seem unnecessarily cruel. A similar view has been expressed by Frank Field, the chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee who said that the minimum six week payment period face by people claiming Universal Credit for the first time have become a “recruiting sergeant for food banks”.

Such delays are unnecessary and, in my mind, cruel. Frank Field has said that this measure alone leads to reliance on emergency food parcels, triggered debt and rent arrears, and caused health problems.

The welfare system is there to be a safety net. Sadly it has become punitive.

I agree with Field when he says: “This is an unbelievably long time for people at the bottom to survive with no money, and I have received evidence to suggest people have been exposed to hunger and homelessness during this 42 day period”.

The all-party Work and Pensions Select Committee concluded in a report published last December that it was “concerned that the DWP has not properly considered households who have no savings or a final paycheque to fall back on”.

dwp_logoI don’t agree absolutely with the Committee. I think there is ample evidence which the DWP has chosen to ignore. Food banks, housing associations and welfare advisers have reported that they are seeing growing evidence of claimants hit detrimentally by payment delays.

That is why I think that public policy, in this case delays in payment, can sometimes be designed to attack poor people rather than to attack poverty itself.

The government should pull the plug on its Right to Buy policy as it fails to meet its pledge for a one for one replacement target

(This item first appeared in my Opinion column in the Brighton Argus on 10th August 2016)

When the government extended the subsidies available for tenants to buy their council homes, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised that all the homes sold as a result would be replaced within three years.

Analysis by the magazine Inside Housing has revealed that this pledge is almost certain to be missed.

Had discounts not been increased, expected sales for the period between 2012/13 and 2015/16 were 14,336. After the subsidies had been raised to £75,000 outside London and £100,000 in the capital, 41,755 were actually sold.

This meant that an additional 27,419 homes are needed to be built to meet the pledge. The actual number of new homes started in that period was just 6,526, a deficit of 20,893.

The Right to Buy makes no sense whatsoever from an economic or housing perspective. For a while it made electoral sense, as witnessed by the success of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, but now it defies all logic as the housing crisis deepens.

The Right to Buy is great news for those who already are housed, but does nothing for those on waiting lists, in overcrowded or temporary accommodation, or those who are homeless.

Rather than proceeding with their plans to extend the Right to Buy to housing associations, Theresa May and her new housing minister Gavin Barwell should pull the plug on this ridiculous policy and invest Right to Buy subsidies into new social homes for rent, built by councils or housing associations.