A plan to end homelessness

Originally published on June 12 on my blog for Inside Housing.

At times in the last year it’s seemed that all a politician has to do to end homelessness is say ‘Housing First’ three times, take a trip to Finland and announce a new initiative.

All three do feature in the plan published by Crisis this morning but alongside a 10-year strategy that challenges the politicians to take a harder road to a real destination – if they choose.

Everybody In: How to end homelessness in Great Britain was developed following an international evidence review of what works here and abroad, a consultation with over 1,000 people across Britain and newly-commissioned research to fill gaps in the evidence.

Crisis, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, warns that there are currently 160,000 people facing the worst forms of homelessness in Britain but that if we continue as we are this number will double over the next 25 years.

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Grenfell’s ‘culture of non-compliance’

Originally published on my blog for Inside Housing on June 5.

Yes it was the cladding but expert reports for the public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire find multiple fire safety failures in the building and its refurbishment and management and in the wider regulatory system and construction industry.

The first thing that leaps out of the report by fire engineer Dr Barbara Lane is a timeline that shows that the conditions for ‘Stay Put’ advice to residents had ‘substantially failed’ by 01:26 on the morning of the fire.

This was within half an hour of the fire breaking out in Flat 16 and the London Fire Brigade did not abandon Stay Put until 02:47.

Those conclusions have already made some of the headlines but Dr Lane makes clear that there is a deeper context for them.

The way that high-rise buildings are designed and the way that fires in them are fought in them rely on the fact that multi-storey external envelope fires are not meant to happen.

So the fire at Grenfell rendered invalid all of the basic assumptions about fighting fires from the inside and telling residents of other flats to stay inside them because they will be protected by compartmentation.

That meant there had to be an improvised approach to fighting the fire from the outside on the night but most of the building was always going to out of reach even for aerial appliances – the whole reason why the risk of external fires should be designed out in the first place.

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Remembering Ronan Point

Originally posted on May 14 on my blog for Inside Housing.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of what was seen until recently as the biggest disaster in the history of council housing.

At 5.45 in the morning on May 16, 1968, a cake decorator called Ivy Hodge put the kettle on for a cup of tea. A gas explosion triggered by a faulty connection to her cooker blew out the walls to her flat and triggered the progressive collapse of one corner of the 22-storey Ronan Point tower block in Newham in east London.

Four tenants were killed and several more had miraculous escapes but the fact that the explosion happened so early in the morning prevented an even worse disaster – most people were still asleep in the relative safety of their bedrooms rather than exposed to the collapse in their kitchens.

That aside, the most shocking thing about the disaster was that it happened in a new building and the first tenants had moved in two months before.

A public inquiry quickly established not just the fault in the gas connection but fundamental flaws in the large panel, system-built design. The collapse could have been triggered not just by an explosion but also by high winds and fire

That led to reform of the rules on gas safety and a shake-up of the building regulations to ensure that the structure of tall buildings became more robust.

Over the years, Ronan Point came to be seen as the high water mark of both council housing and modernist architecture.

As time went on the blame was increasingly laid at the door of architects, local authorities and even the whole idea of council housing. It’s certainly true that some designs were flawed and untested and that some councillors arrogant, self-aggrandising and even corrupt.

But some important factors are edited out of that account.

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Red tape and rabbit hutches

Originally posted on May 8 on my blog for Inside Housing.

New rules making it easier to convert offices into residential property have generated more than 30,000 new homes in the last two years – but at what cost?

A report published last week that deserves more attention took a detailed look at what has happened in five areas of England since the system was deregulated in 2013.

The study for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors also compares the experiences of Glasgow and Rotterdam, which have also seen office to residential conversions without the same deregulation.

The English reforms extended the system of permitted development, allowing developers to apply for prior approval rather than planning permission and making it much easier for them to push office to residential conversions through the system.

This is not a total free-for-all – some local authorities have successfully applied for exemptions for some areas and it is still possible to apply for new ones – but it is a significant relaxation that is meant to deliver more homes.

When former communities secretary Eric Pickles first introduced the new system he said that:

‘By unshackling developers from a legacy of bureaucratic planning we can help them turn thousands of vacant commercial properties into enough new homes to jump start housing supply.’

The scheme was first introduced for three years from May 2013, then made permanent from April 2016.

At first glance the results seem to bear out Pickles’s hopes and look impressive in terms the contribution to the government’s plans to move towards 300,000 net additional dwellings a year.

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Seven big questions facing James Brokenshire

Originally posted on May 1 on my blog for Inside Housing.

New housing secretary James Brokenshire takes over at a critical time from Sajid Javid. With little previous experience of housing, he will have to make some crucial decisions in the weeks ahead, set the longer-term direction for policy and tackle what many Conservatives now see as a key political issue for them.

Here are seven big questions for him to address.

  • How will he follow Sajid Javid?

Brokenshire becomes the fourth Conservative secretary of state responsible for housing since 2010, following Eric Pickles, Greg Clark and Sajid Javid.

Javid has to go down as the best of the bunch (admittedly the bar is not set very high here) and he talked such a good game that he even changed the name of his department to include the word ‘housing’.

As Terrie Alafat says, his time in office saw an important shift in the narrative as housing became a top domestic priority.

But how much of it was just talk? Sajid Javid sometimes raised expectations and sometimes left the impression of doing just enough to look like he was doing something – and no more.

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From housing ladder to housing treadmill

Originally posted on April 30 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Once upon a time the image of a ladder was a fair representation of the housing system. Not anymore.

The old days in which the home-owning majority saved for a deposit and got a mortgage, a significant majority put their names down for a council house and got one and the rest used the private rented sector as a temporary transition are long gone.

And a report out today from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) suggests a new image has replaced the ladder for people on low incomes struggling with high housing costs and insecure jobs and tenancies: a housing treadmill, where people ‘were running to stay and were worried about falling off completely’.

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Labour sets out its stall on affordable housing

The green paper published by Labour on Thursday represents the most comprehensive plan for affordable housing put forward by a major party in England in 40 years.

The document launched by Jeremy Corbyn and John Healey does not just reject the market-based and Conservative-led polices of the last eight years, it also goes significantly further than the policies adopted by the last Labour government and in some ways even beyond what the party proposed at the last election.

In broad outline, it is an attempt to reclaim the word ‘affordable’ and spell out what housing ‘for the many’ would mean. And it explicitly rejects the current government’s claim that the only way to make housing affordable is to build as many new homes as possible:

‘Conservative housing policy is the wrong answer, to the wrong question. It is not just how many new homes we build, but what we build and who for that counts. We have to build more affordable homes to make homes more affordable.’

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