Repairing the safety net

Originally published on August 18 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Today’s report by the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee recommending significant improvements to the homelessness safety net is getting a warm welcome – and no wonder.

The first select committee inquiry on homelessness since 2005 uncovers evidence of a system at breaking point as social housing provision declines, insecure private renting expands and welfare is ‘reformed’.

The report aims to help families falling through the gaps in the existing legislation as well as single people not covered by it, calls for a cross-government approach to homelessness and also makes specific recommendations to help vulnerable groups such as people with mental health problems, care leavers and ex-prisoners.

And in case you’re thinking this is just another select committee report whose recommendations will be ignored by the government, this one comes complete with legislation attached: a private members’ bill promoted by one of its members.

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Remembering Cathy

Originally posted on August 15 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Cathy Come Home has lost none of its power as it nears its 50th anniversary. As everyone in housing knows, the classic BBC play brought homelessness to national attention. Shelter was founded a few days after its first transmission, Crisis a year later and many housing associations at around the same time.

There are currently three different ways to watch again: the original BBC play by Jeremy Sandford and Ken Loach is on iPlayer, a stage version by Cardboard Citizens will be on tour over the Autumn and Winter and its production is also available on YouTube). Housing associations with a connection have also formed the Homes for Cathy group to raise awareness.

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Watching the original for the first time in years, it was obvious that Cathy is still just as hard hitting as an exposé of what happens when a family slip through the safety net. Her harrowing descent from flat to squat to traveller camp to hostel was watched by 12m people in 1966 (a quarter of the population) and they got the message that housing matters.

In that final scene at Liverpool Street station, Cathy’s kids join the other 4,000 that the commentary tells us are taken into care each year because their parents are homeless.

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Going lower

Originally posted on August 4 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Record low interest rates have been great for people with mortgages but terrible for the housing system as a whole.

Like the Bank of England’s decision in March 2009 to cut the base rate to 0.5%, Thursday’s further reduction to 0.25% is motivated by concern about the economy as a whole. But nobody imagined in 2009 that seven and a half years later interest rates would still be as low, still less even lower.

The result has been severe distortion in the housing market. What was only meant to be a temporary fix has instead become a semi-permanent feature of the system that has benefitted home owners and landlords at the expense of everyone else. The effect of Thursday’s small cut will be limited in itself but it means that effects of the low rate regime will be with us for much longer.

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Home thoughts

Originally published on July 28 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

A housebuilding slump? Rising homelessness? Unaffordable house prices and rents? The housing crisis faced by the new government in Ireland is every bit as serious as the one confronting the new administration on this side of the Irish Sea – but then the similarities start to break down.

Just 75 days after coming to power, the coalition government in Dublin has published a comprehensive plan and a Cabinet-level housing minister is in charge of delivery. If that’s some indication of the priority it gives to housing, then the housing, planning and local government minister Simon Coveney compares the task of proving affordable and accessible homes for all to the introduction of free education 50 years ago.

Allowances have to be made for political hype and the plan has also been criticised for its failure to be more radical, but the contrast with England is still glaring even though the government is led by the closest equivalent Ireland has to the Conservatives. One reason could be that it took two months after a stalemate election In Ireland to form a government: the plan has been developed with the help of an all-party parliamentary committee; and Fine Gael depends not just on independents for support but also the rival Fianna Fail not to vote against its plans.

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Looking for clues

Originally published on July 26 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

After a month of turmoil and political change, suddenly everything is on hold.

I was on holiday for the week that saw yet another new housing minister and a concerted effort by housing organisations to persuade Theresa May’s new government to change course but also the non-appearance of crucial details of previous policies.

The delays obviously reflect the political fall-out from the Brexit vote followed by the appointment of a new prime minister and an almost entirely new Cabinet. Old certainties have gone, apparently including the entire economic framework for policy, but the outlines of the new approach remain unclear.

As I blogged before I went away, Theresa May’s speeches during the brief Conservative leadership campaign can be read in two different ways. Signs of change on, for example, workers on company boards do not necessarily mean change everywhere.

Do her comments on housing signal a new ‘One Nation’ approach or one that continues to see the housing crisis solely in terms of home ownership? Is it to be business as usual or will the government listen to the critique of the previous Tory government published by an influential House of Lords committee?

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Peer review

Originally published on July 15 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Take your pick: targets for new homes are much too low; the private sector cannot deliver them; and policy is too focussed on home ownership.

A report published on Friday by the all-party economic affairs select committee of the House of Lords does not so much criticise the government’s approach to building more homes as skewer it.

And one of the clearest explanations I’ve yet read of why current policy cannot, and will not, work does not come from just any old committee. The group of Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem and Crossbench peers includes two former chancellors of the exchequer (Lords Lamont and Darling) and two former permanent secretaries of the Treasury (Lord Burns and Lord Turnbull) with more cabinet ministers, senior mandarins, special advisors and business people also in the mix. They are drawing on decades of experience of previous failures in housing policy.

The report is also brilliantly timed, just at the point when Theresa May’s new government is getting down to work and preparing for life after the referendum and George Osborne’s budget surplus targets.

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May day

Originally published on July 12 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

Where does housing fit into Theresa May’s vision of ‘a country that works for everyone’.

The home secretary launched her campaign for the Conservative leadership with a speech in Birmingham on Monday. Within two hours she was certain to be prime minister. And by Wednesday night she will be in Downing Street.

Whether Monday’s events were choreographed with Andrea Leadsom or not, May’s speech sounded like one made by a leader in waiting. So much so that, as many people have noted, the bits about predatory capitalism and the cost of living read like they were lifted from one of Ed Miliband’s speeches before the 2015 general election.

After six years at the Home Office, May is still something of an unknown quantity on housing. A speech from 2013 that was widely seen as positioning herself to run for leader did not even mention the word.

The Birmingham speech fills in some but not all of the blanks – and once you strip away the rhetoric it begs all sorts of questions about how much she will really change.
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