It’s time for another peek inside the workings of universal credit. IDS look away now.
The work and pensions secretary told us about his latest triumph two weeks ago: the start of the national roll-out heralded a new benefits era; it was £600 million under budget; and it was helping people find work quicker. The commentariat seemed to agree: in his final Telegraph column Peter Oborne was gushing; and in The Guardian Matthew d’Ancona wondered if IDS might even be ‘the man to save the Tories’.
However, as I’ve blogged before, universal credit exists in two states at once: triumph and not-triumph. It didn’t take long for the other state to be highlighted: Nigel Keohane pointed out that only 0.3 per cent of claimants are on universal credit so far plus a host of other practical problems; and a claimant who advertised it told the BBC he now thought it was a nightmare.
And today’s progress update from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee concludes that ‘very little progress has been achieved on the frontline’.
What do the final housebuilding figures for England before the election have to say about the deficit and the debt – in new homes?
Needless to say, ministers have greeted them with their usual mix of spin and agility in finding the measure that looks best in PR terms. So housing minister Brandon Lewis says ‘housebuilding continues to climb’ on the basis that housing starts in 2014 were 10 per cent up on a year ago. That may be but starts have been falling for the last two quarters: October to December 2014 was down 10 per cent on the previous quarter and 8 per cent on a year ago, suggesting perhaps that the recovery sparked by Help to Buy is petering out.
Lewis also claims that ‘overall 700,000 new homes have been delivered since the end of 2009’ without any acknowledgment that he is talking about completely different figures – additions to the council tax register – or that he has to borrow six months of the last Labour government to come up with the number.
Starts may indicate current activity but you can’t live in a start and completions are a more reliable measure of housebuilding progress. Curiously, Lewis does not mention these even though the news is actually not bad for the government: October to December completions were up 1 per cent on the previous quarter and 8 per cent on a year ago; and the 118,830 new homes built in 2014 represented an 8 per cent increase on 2013.
If the political weather turns out to be even half as good as the winter sunshine at Land’s End today, then Homes for Britain is set fair for success.
A rare national housing event happening up the road from me was too good an opportunity to miss so I was there at lunchtime for an event to mark the start of a baton relay that will make its way through the South West by bus in time for the campaign rally in London on March 17.
Hosted by around 30 different housing associations, progress will be marked in different towns and cities along the way with events including snakes and ladders in Bristol and school children making model houses in Witney (David Cameron’s constituency). Regional events are also happening in the North East, North West and Yorkshire & the Humber.
The relay will reach London for March 17 for what is being billed as ‘the biggest housing rally for a generation’ at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster and that will be followed by a billboard campaign in April.
The housing problems of the South West will be highlighted along the way. As Simon Nunn, assistant director of external affairs at the National Housing Federation, told the Land’s End launch, house prices cost 11 times average earnings in Cornwall. You need earnings of £50,000 to buy an average home on an 80 per cent mortgage and £40,000 to buy a lower quartile home. Mean earnings are below £20,000.
Backing his call for action were representatives from housing associations and other organisations across the region, pictured here with the Betsy, the Routemaster bus that will make the trip to the capital:
-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing
What are the implications of the Dutch housing association debacle for the UK?
Two weeks before Policy Exchange made its controversial call for ‘free’ associations in England on Housing Day in November, a parliamentary inquiry in the Netherlands was publishing a report on a scandal that rocked the country’s social housing sector to its foundations. It concluded that Dutch housing associations strayed ‘too far from home’ after they won their commercial freedom in 1995.
As I report for Inside Housing this week, it’s the details that catch your immediate attention: the prison sentence for fraud, the steamship, the Maserati, the suitcase full of cash and Vestia’s €2.7 billion losses on derivatives deals that went wrong. Those and much more besides are what leap off the page at you in the report of a parliamentary inquiry published at the end of October but barely reported here until now.
Vestia, the largest Dutch association, placed what amounted to multi-billion Euro bets that interest rates would rise. When they fell instead, it led to a scandal that the report compares to those at Barings Bank and Enron. However, the inquiry also investigated problems at least five other associations. It blames the ‘Sun King’ ambitions of directors that were left unchecked by boards and supervisors and sometimes exploited by banks. These went spectacularly wrong when the credit crunch hit and the Dutch property market slumped.
UK housing associations can comfort themselves that we have strong independent regulator, do not have a Dutch-style guarantee fund that makes them jointly liable for each others’ losses and were less affected by the slump in the property market. So far the scandal in the Netherlands has had little effect on credit ratings and willingness to lend here. Yet in the wake of cases like Cosmopolitan, can they afford to be complacent?
Looking at what happened in the Netherlands is like looking in a mirror: the challenge of how to maintain a social heart with a commercial head; a mission to provide homes for priced-out workers as well as the very poorest; and a recognition of the need to regenerate places as well as people. The report credits housing associations as a whole with making ‘an essential contribution to social housing in the Netherlands’ in the last 20 years and they have been so successful that they now owns around 75 per cent of all rented homes.
But if you think values alone are enough to prevent problems, think again. As organisations become more commercial, and expand into private development and private renting, they need to recruit directors and board members with commercial expertise but who may not share the original values. The Dutch example shows that before long the social purpose can get lost in some organisations and unless the right checks and balances are in place things can go spectacularly wrong.
If you need any more convincing look at what’s happened to Dutch associations in the wake of the scandal. This is not just about the prosecution and even imprisonment of individuals. The first of thousands of homes have been sold off to international investors to pay for the losses and many more could go if the Dutch government follows through on pledges to reduce the size of the sector to open up the market to private landlords. Other associations have already paid €700 million as their share of the losses at Vestia. The government has imposed a tax rising to €1.7 billion a year on the sector to help pay for austerity. And English chief executives reading this may care to reflect on the €185,000 (£145,000) maximum salary (including pension contributions) that will apply to their Dutch counterparts. Associations’ ‘private’ status no longer counts for much in what the Dutch call the ‘semi-public’ sector.
The irony is that ‘unfree’ English housing associations seem to have much more scope to act than their ‘free’ Dutch cousins, who gave up purely commerical activities that have no relation with social housing before the inquiry began.
Under changes agreed by the Dutch parliament in the wake of the report, there will be annual tripartite agreements between housing associations, local authorities and tenants. Tenants will have a right to vote on some major policy changes such as mergers. And associations will have to seek the views of tenants on proposals such as regeneration schemes. As well as improvements in governance, regulation and political oversight, the report also recommends that associations should be limited in size and scale, with the eventual demerger of large national organisations.
Ultimately though it is tenants that are paying the price for the debacle. In each of the last two years, they’ve seen the biggest rent increase in the last 20 years. Spending on repairs and maintenance is down. More homes could be sold off. Would the Dutch scandal have happened if tenants had been allowed more say over how what is ultimately their money was used? Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson of all.
Originally posted on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing
Could housing hold the key to the Conservatives’ chances of winning the general election?
I’d assumed till now that the fact David Cameron made housing (or rather home ownership) one of his six priorities for speeches signalled no more than a desire to put aspiration at the heart of the Tory campaign. Mixing a few dubious claims about Help to Buy with some boasts about the Starter Home Initiative might mean some extra votes but housing would remain a secondary issue behind the economy, the NHS and immigration.
But two tweets this week by influential Conservative Tim Montgomerie made me wonder about this. Montgomerie is a Times columnist but that understates his influence in the party as the co-founder of the Centre for Social Justice, creator of the Conservative Home website and speechwriter for two Tory leaders.
-> Read the rest of this post on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing