10 things about 2017: part one

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on December 22.

As in 2016, it seemed like nothing would ever be the same again after a momentous event halfway through the year.

The horrific Grenfell Tower fire on June 14 means that the headline on this column should really have read ‘nine other things about 2017’. Just as the Brexit voted has changed everything in politics, so it is almost impossible to see anything in housing except through the prism of that awful night.

That said, 2017 was another year of momentous change for housing, one that brought a few signs of hope too. Here’s the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about.

1) An unambitious ambition

The year began with the government’s own financial watchdog pouring a bucket of cold water over its supposedly bold target of building a million new homes by the end of the parliament in 2020.

The government had moved the goalposts twice, found the National Audit Office, and a million was perfectly achievable by building fewer homes per year that the 190,000 delivered in 2015/16.

An answer of sorts came in the Housing White Paper in February that set out plans to fix the ‘broken’ housing market. While it was an improvement on what went before, I found that it was more of a sticking plaster than a fix for the market and would do even less for affordable homes.

All of it seemed a bit academic when Theresa May ended the parliament in April by calling a snap election and the Public Accounts Committee pointed out the contradiction between calling the market ‘broken’ at the same time as you are relying on it to deliver the solution.

The Conservatives retained power but were anything but strong and stable. But to their credit ministers stuck to and then raised their ambitions and by the end of the year they were rewarded with stats showing that 2016/17 saw the highest number of net additional homes since before the financial crisis.

However, the suspicion was growing that fixing the housing crisis might require a little more than ‘simple solutions’ like building more homes.

2) Changing the culture

The year began on an optimistic note for families facing homelessness as parliament passed the Homelessness Reduction Act.

The landmark legislation to be implemented from April 2018 means that more people will be entitled to help and they will get it earlier. However, doubts persist about whether the funding will be enough and whether England can develop the same prevention culture as Wales.

The scale of the challenge was highlighted as the year ended with yet another rise in homelessness and temporary accommodation and ministers being accused of being ‘unacceptably complacent’ by the Public Accounts Committee. As MPs described in a revealing debate in November, ‘accommodation’ can mean a block in the middle of an industrial estate and ‘temporary’ that can mean up to 19 years.

The scale of the problem was illustrated in a report from Crisis in August estimated that 160,000 households were affected by core homelessness in 2016, a third more than 2011, but that this could double over the next 25 years.

3) A roll-out and a u-turn

Much of that increase in homelessness was fuelled by another year of benefit cuts disguised as ‘welfare reform’. But 2017 also brought a rare and welcome u-turn from the government.

The staggered introduction of full service universal credit brought tales of rent arrears for landlords and destitution for tenants. The pressure on ministers eventually told with limited concessions in the Budget and a further slowdown in its introduction (or ‘roll-out’ in the awful jargon of universal credit).

The u-turn came on the other big welfare issue looming on the horizon when Theresa May herself bowed to all-party pressure to scrap the local housing allowance (LHA) cap on supported and social housing. That was great news for providers of long-term supported and sheltered housing and social housing (especially in Wales where the cap would have been devastating in areas with low LHA rates).

However, short-term supported accommodation in England faces an uncertain future. The system could not have worked under universal credit because of the wait period but the proposal to devolve grant funding to local authorities revived bitter memories of what happened to Supporting People when the ring fence was removed.

While the government has changed tack before on some benefit cuts it’s hard to think of a bigger u-turn than this.

4) A country that works for everyone?

Theresa May repeated her political slogan so many times that by October even the set of the Conservative conference was rebelling against it. No matter how sincere she sounded the reality was different.

Two case in point came in March: first, with the cut in housing support for 18-21 year olds about to coincide with implementation of two other measures that would dramatically increase it for others; then with the contrast between those lucky enough to have an account at the Bank of Mum and Dad and people experiencing ‘residential transience’.

In November a small rise in interest rates grabbed all the headlines. Behind them, the bedroom tax, benefits freeze and benefit cap continued to work their misery.

5) How could it happen?

All of the above – and everything that followed- was put into perspective by the fire that broke out at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington just a week later.

That the tower burned so quickly with such horrific loss of life screamed out begged all sorts of questions in the light of previous fires and near misses.

That it could happen in Britain in the 21st century beggared belief. That it could happen so close to the richest part of London made even ministers wonder about inequality and the kind of country they were living in.

Despite the hasty promises made by Theresa May about rehousing the families from the tower and surrounding blocks, progress has been painfully slow. Meanwhile the timetables for the public inquiry and police investigation have already slipped.

The interim findings of the independent inquiry into the building regulations what had always seemed like the obvious conclusion: that they are not fit for purpose.

Part 2 of my review of the year follows soon.

 

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