10 things about 2013: part 1

The first of a two-part look back about the issues and people that I’ve been blogging about this year.

1) The year of the bedroom tax

Thinking back to the beginning of January it was obvious that the under-occupation penalty would be a huge issue for housing in 2013. What soon became clear was that it would go mainstream in the national media and parliament too. The closer we got to implementation in April, the more scrutiny it received, and the more that happened the clearer the unfairness and the contradictions at the heart of the policy came into focus. All the attention seemed at first to take the government by surprise too. It wasn’t until February that Grant Shapps came up with the government’s preferred term: the spare room subsidy. That prompted me to blog about the battle of language on the issue and in the wider debate about welfare/social security.

The first cracks in the bedroom ceiling began to appear even before implementation. The Northern Ireland government used its greater control over welfare policy to delay implementation and currently seems set to apply it only to existing tenants. By the end of the year the Labour Party was pledging repeal in England and the SNP government in Scotland was making repeal a key part of its case for independence in the 2014 referendum. For all that though, all attempts to change the policy at Westminster failed as most Lib Dems supported the government.

The unfairness issue would continue to dog the government, not helped by the fact that it was introducing the bedroom tax at the same time as it was cutting the top rate of income tax. In Manchester the combination amounted to a £9 million transfer between social housing tenants and the footballers of United and City. The bedroom tax even sparked an international diplomatic row, with Shapps complaining to the United Nations after its special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik called for the policy to be suspended

As the evidence of the human impact began to mount up, responses from the government usually followed one of three paths: dubious arguments (such as it only being fair to private tenants); outright denial of the facts (such as David Cameron’s repeated claims that disabled people are exempt); and bluster (if research questions your policy, attack the researchers)..

A series of legal challenges made their way through the system too. The government lost on the issue of disabled children who could not share a bedroom in the High Court in July but managed to convince the judges that discretionary housing payments were enough for disabled adults. That case goes to appeal in January with evidence mounting that DHPs are not up to the job. In the meantime, the number of First Tier Tribunals ruling in favour of tenants is beginning to mount.

2) Food banks, IT problems and sanctions

The bedroom tax was only the most visible welfare reform in a year that also saw the introduction of the benefit cap, reductions in council tax benefit and a series of cuts in disability benefits.

According to the original plan, 2013 should also have been the year of universal credit, the reform that is meant to make all the other cuts worthwhile. The launch in one job centre in April was so low key that nobody turned up for help on the first day. However, behind the scenes there were furious rows within Whitehall about delays to the IT system. According to one report, things got so bad that Iain Duncan Smith told a startled member of the Treasury: ‘If you ever speak to my officials like that again I’ll bite your balls off and send them to you in a box.’ How he felt about later scathing criticism from the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee is sadly not recorded. IDS spent most of the year claiming that his pet project was ‘on time and on budget’ before announcing on the day of the Autumn Statement that actually it wasn’t.

In the meantime, despite his denials, the impact of welfare reform was being felt in soaring numbers of people relying on food banks and losing their benefits because of tough new sanctions and in rising homelessness.

3) The past, present and future of council housing

The role of council housing and its relationship to the welfare state got the Channel Four treatment in two prime time documentaries. The results were revealing, with the first episode of How to Get a Council House showing housing staff doing their best in impossible circumstances or scroungers and immigrants jumping the queue, depending on who was watching. The second episode broke free of the Reality TV format to show the impact of the bedroom tax on tenants and staff in Manchester.

However, other debates about council housing were happening too. Southwark’s decision to sell what was dubbed Britain’s most expensive council house prompted a blog from me about where you draw the line between regeneration and social cleansing. The long-running campaign for a change in the public borrowing rules to allow councils to build new homes was beginning to make headway at last as all parties began to challenge the Treasury orthodoxy. December’s Autumn Statement finally some tangible progress as George Osborne agreed to raise the self-financing borrowing caps by £300 million. However, this was the Lib Dem part of a deal that saw the Conservatives invest £100 million in boosting right to buy sales and it also came with strings attached: any new homes would be for affordable rent and they would be part financed by the sale of high-value social housing as it became vacant.

4) The Policy Exchange agenda

That sounded very much like the agenda promoted by the influential right-of-centre think tank Policy Exchange, which had first advocated the sale of expensive council housing in 2012. The year began with a report calling for the demolition of high-rise social housing in London, continued with a call for large-scale construction of bungalows and ended with the appointment of its head of housing Alex Morton to the policy unit as 10 Downing Street. As I blogged in December, the appointment could be seen in several different ways. On one level, it was a sign that housing will move up the agenda within government: the combination of Morton plus former Policy Exchange director Nick Boles could put a housing ‘dream team’ in place. On another, it could be housing’s worst nightmare and herald an acceleration of the marketisation and slow death of social housing.

5) How are we doing so far?

It was also perhaps represented an indication that all the housing strategies so far have failed and of a determination to prevent Labour from monopolising housing as a political issue. January saw the launch of the coalition’s mid-term report, prompting an evaluation from me of its record so far. March brought the first news of yet another new strategy and then Help to Buy (which features in Part 2 of this blog) but it also saw a centrepiece of the original one, New Homes Bonus, lambasted by the National Audit Office.

All of this was forgotten in the government’s wider narrative about an economy that George Osborne claimed in September was ‘turning the corner’. With neat symbolism, he gave his speech against the backdrop of a housing development in London where work that had stalled during the recession had just restarted. However, there was another kind of symbolism too: over 40 per cent of the private apartments in the scheme had been pre-sold to foreign investors and they would be saved from mixing with any ordinary Londoners by the fact the social housing would have a separate entrance around the back.

October saw the departure of Mark Prisk as housing minister and the downgrading of the job to junior minister level. At the same time, Emma Reynolds replaced Jack Dromey as Labour’s shadow housing minister with ‘attending Cabinet’ status. Prisk had made progress behind the scenes, especially on private rented sector investment, but was supposedly a victim of his low media profile as housing became more politically important.  However, his replacement, self-styled ‘gobby Northerner’ Kris Hopkins, left me unimpressed after a first TV interview in which he attempted to deny there is a housing crisis.

Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge, my blog for Inside Housing


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