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!

Sex-for-accommodation and denying housing benefit to 18-21 year olds

BBC South East has done a great public service by uncovering the sex-for-rent scandal where young people are asked to provide sexual ‘favours’ in return for accommodation. The report on tonight’s programme (13th April) shows the need for a change in the law as this arrangement is not illegal.

Demanding sex for accommodation has not been an uncommon reality for homeless people for many years.

Earlier this month the government withdrew the automatic right of young people aged 18 to 21 to claim housing benefit. While there are some exemptions, up to 11,000 are expected to be affected over the next few years.

That seems like a sensible policy in light of tonight’s exposure ….! What do politicians think young people will do if they can’t get help towards their housing costs?

My immediate reaction to the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement

The Chancellor in his Autumn Statement said that politics is about choice, and said that it is the government’s choice is to “build homes for people to buy”. He announced a range of spending measures to resolve what he described as a “home ownership crisis”, but almost totally ignored the crisis in affordability and in renting.

The devil is in the detail and Hometrack (a property analytics business) has estimated that Starter Homes will not be viable in 57 local authorities in London and the South East. Shelter has a more pessimistic evaluation.

This new ‘affordable homes programme’ is anything but. It does nothing to help the 21,000 on the housing waiting list in Brighton and Hove. It does nothing to help those in the private rented sector. It does nothing to address the crisis of housing affordability.

He committed an additional £10 million to tackle homelessness, less than £30,000 for each local authority. Compare that to the £2 billion per annum he has committed to shared ownership, starter homes (now classified ‘social housing’!) and rent to buy. And then there was the Zero Millions committed to homes just for rent!

There were a number of items to be welcomed, including:

  • the £600 million for mental health services to improve access to talking therapies,
  • £1.5 billion for the Better Care Fund, and
  • the decision not to raid the Big Lottery Fund is excellent news to charities, large and small.

The allocation of £15 million from the Tampon Tax is an interesting one. Great news that it will go to fund women’s services, but George Osborne drew a very odd comparison to how Libor fines have been used. Libor fines have been levied against institutions who rigged lending rates. Some brokers did terrible things, driven by avarice, and should have gone to gl. I don’t think the comparison with periods quite works!

In summary, for those who need housing that they can afford to rent, there was nothing.  Will 400,000 new homes for shared ownership fill the void? I won’t hold my breath if you don’t hold yours.

What we are doing for Generation Rent: Mike Weatherley MP, Conservative, Hove and Portslade

I recently wrote to the representatives of the main political parties in Brighton and Hove regarding Generation Rent, asking what they and their political parties would be offering renters after 2015 on issues including high rents, insecure tenancies, and poor practice by some landlords and, in particular, letting agencies. I am posting all responses received, in the order I have received them. Today, the response from Mike Weatherley MP, Conservative, Hove and Portslade.

Please (see below) a copy of the response that I have received from my colleague Kris Hopkins MP, Minister for Housing, which answers some of your housing concerns.

As you can see, Kris has highlighted a number of important points with regard the housing market. Nevertheless, I appreciate that Brighton & Hove has a larger than average private rented sector and that many tenants are unhappy with the high costs of property in the city.

Commenting on this issue generally, I certainly see merit in calling for a ban on letting agents charging fees to tenants. At present, there is little competition when it comes to fees as landlords – who pick their agents – are hardly affected by the level of the fees which are imposed on their tenants. For the system to work properly, a much clearer link needs to exist between quality of service and level of fee.

It is probably the case that rents would rise if fees were banned. This may be deemed acceptable but, in any case, would need to be properly investigated before any snap decision is made. A last-minute amendment from Labour on such a far-reaching issue that really does require more debate was certainly unhelpful. The matter requires careful discussion if tenants are to be served properly. As such, Ministers have agreed to review the matter after one year.

The Government has made clear that more needs to be done to tackle rogue landlords and has also announced that letting agents will be required to publish full details of the fees that they charge. At present, letting agents only have to list compulsory charges to the tenant upfront and do not face severe enough consequences when found to have imposed hidden charges. This will change as letting agents will face a fine if they do not publish a full tariff of their fees on their website and prominently in their offices.

Furthermore, all letting and property management agents will be required to join a compulsory redress scheme, which ensures that tenants and leaseholders have a straightforward option to hold their agents to account.

As you know, the South East – and particularly Brighton & Hove – has a very high cost of living, but unfortunately it is very much a case of huge demand placed upon on a resource that has very limited availability.

I do congratulate you and your team for highlighting the issue of problems in the private rented sector. Debate should be welcomed by all.

Thanks again for taking the trouble to get in touch about this important issue.

Letter from Kris Hopkins to Mike Weatherley MP

Thank you for your letter of 1 May on behalf of your constituent Mr Andy Winter of Brighton Housing Trust, 144 London Road, Brighton, BN1 4PH, about the private rented sector.

The Government wants to see a bigger, better private rented sector. The sector has grown and improved enormously in recent years but I know that there is more to do. We believe that the most effective way to make rents more affordable is to increase the supply of new homes, which is why we are investing £1 billion in a build to rent fund, providing equity finance for purpose-built private rented housing, alongside a £10 billion debt guarantee scheme to support the delivery of new homes purpose built for private rent, and up to 30,000 additional affordable homes.

In addition, on Wednesday 16th October, we published our response to a recent select committee report on the private rented sector. Our response sets out an ambitious package of proposals that will ensure all private tenants get proper protection from their landlords, raise standards on the condition of their rented property, provide greater protection against hidden agency fees and improve tenants’ access to longer-term, family friendly tenancies.

As part of this, a new model tenancy agreement is being developed. It will provide tenants with a clear guide to rental contracts and tenants will now be able to identify which clauses in their agreement are optional or unique to that property. We believe this will help tenants negotiate longer fixed-term tenancies, and demand greater certainty over future rent rises.

The full report can be found here.