Marks out of 10 for the housing white paper

Originally published on February 10 on my blog for Inside Housing.

So have Gavin Barwell and Sajid Javid finally grapsed the nettle on the housing crisis?

Critics lined up to call the white paper a damp squib, a white flag and (my personal favourite) like a wet Tuesday in Bognor. Some had even read it first.

Supporters called it a pragmatic shift away from policy under David Cameron and ‘a blueprint for change’. And there was the inevitable ‘cautious welcome’ from housing organisations.

In some ways, the responses of two of the architects of previous Conservative housing policies were the most interesting ones. Former housing minister Grant Shapps said previous plans had not made much difference and this one probably wouldn’t either. Former No 10 adviser Alex Morton revealed the cynical political calculation at the heart of previous policy when he warned that ‘if you get dragged into an argument about renting versus owning, it will quickly become about the need for more council homes’.

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Prevention and cure

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

As the Homelessness Reduction Bill passes its final stages in the House of Commons, it is time to mix celebration with realism.

The cause for celebration is that, once the bill has passed through the Lords, more people facing homelessness are entitled to help and that they will get it earlier. A landmark piece of legislation will make it on to the statute book 40 years after the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977.

Conservative MP Bob Blackmandeserves great credit for leading the way but the bill was backed by Crisis, drew support from the government and MPs of all parties and has also had extensive input from Shelter and local authorities. Poppy Terry has a useful summary of how the bill has evolved on the Shelter policy blog.

Crucially, the bill was not just backed by the all-party Communities and Local Government Committee, it also went through extensive scrutiny. The issues are fiendishly complex but the comparison with the ‘back of a fag packet’ Housing and Planning Act could hardly be more marked.

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10 things about 2016: part two

Originally published on December 29 on my blog for Inside Housing.

The second part of my look back at the year in housing as seen on my blog kicks off with the fallout from the referendum result. We may still not know what Brexit means apart from Brexit but the consequences were profound.

6. New government, new approach

The most immediate impact was political as the departure of David Cameron triggered not just a change of prime minister, but a change of virtually every minister with any say over housing and a real change of political tone. The debate during the brief Conservative leadership campaign and the winner’s rhetoric about “a country that works for everyone” suggested some potentially significant changes in the drivers of policy.

Brandon Lewis was confident Theresa May would stay true to the agenda of Right to Buy and Starter Homes but he was soon moved to a different job. Gavin Barwell quickly proved himself to be a more consensual and thoughtful housing minister and in his first major speech signalled a shift in focus to housing of all tenures rather than just homeownership.

I speculated on what this might mean for crucial elements of the Housing and Planning Act that were still unresolved, including Starter Homes, but that’s still not clear.

Conservative party conference speeches from Theresa May, Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid suggested a new approach with housing as a “number one priority”, but the question was whether the reality would match the rhetoric. However, the Autumn Statement did partially reverse the skewing of investment towards ownership rather than affordable rental.

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Wake-up call

Originally published on December 15 on my blog for Inside Housing

If 2016 proves to be the year that the government finally woke up to the homelessness crisis, official figures released on Thursday show its true scale.

The latest statistics from the Department for Communities and Local Government show 14,930 households were accepted as homeless in the June to September quarter. The good news is that this is down 1% on the previous three months. The bad news is that it’s up 2% on 2015 and 45% on 2010.

Remember this is only the most visible part of the crisis – the families who are accepted as homeless and in priority need by local authorities – and that it is just the start of a wait for permanent accommodation.

That wait goes on for those already accepted as homeless. The figures also show that 74,630 households, including 117,520 children, were in temporary accommodation at the end of September. That’s up 9% on 2015 and 45% on 2010.

And the increases are greatest in the worst and least permanent forms of temporary accommodation. There were 6,680 households in bed and breakfasts, including 3,390 families with children: up 13% on 2015 and more than five times the figure in 2010.

Most shockingly of all, there were 1,300 families with children who had been in bed and breakfasts for more than the six-week legal limit. That’s up 24% on the same quarter in 2015 and is an incredible 13 times higher than in the quarter before the election of the coalition government in 2010.

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The ides of November

Originally posted on October 31 on my blog for Inside Housing

The last four months have seemed to offer a series of new possibilities for housing from Theresa May’s new government. From the prime minister’s rhetoric about ‘a country that works for everyone’ to housing minister Gavin Barwell’s emphasis on the importance of all tenures, the signals have been pointing to a significant shift away from the stance of the previous Tory administration. Friday brought good news when the Homelessness Reduction Bill won a second reading with the support of the government.

But events in the next month or so will go a long way to determining where those signals are really leading us. For all the rhetoric we don’t know much more detail than when the government went back to work at the beginning of September. While the dates of some events are already set, others are expected “shortly”. Here’s a selected list:

November 7

A week today sees the start of the reduction in the overall household benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere.

An updated impact assessment published in August estimates that 88,000 households (107,000 adults and 244,000 children) will be affected by the lower cap, including 64,000 who would not have been covered by the original cap.

That is much less than in the original impact assessment, one reason being that the government has introduced new exemptions for guardians and carers in response to defeat in the courts. It also seems on the low side given that it means housing benefit will not cover the rent for families in more expensive areas and with higher rents and for larger families everywhere, even in social housing. And it will only encourage more landlords to restrict their lettings of ‘affordable’ homes to ‘working families’.

To borrow a line from Steve Hilditch, if October ended with the Homelessness Reduction Bill’s second reading, then November will kick off what can only be a homelessness expansion policy.

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Is the customer always right?

Originally published on October 24 on my blog for Inside Housing 

Whether we are talking about benefits or housing, a new Ken Loach film and a BBC documentary expose a system that’s failing. In the face of growing demand and shrinking provision, the safety net has gaping holes. Rising homelessness and the queues at foodbanks are the symbols of this. The basics of life – shelter, food and warmth – can no longer be taken for granted.

Seen from the outside this is obvious and so are the answers. Return to provision based on need. Build more social housing. Abandon the divisive rhetoric of strivers and scroungers. Follow the founding principles of the welfare state.

Most people working on the inside will agree with this. But they also have to work within the system as it is and they know that there is little chance of real political change any time soon. This dual reality is perhaps most obvious in the social/business divide within housing associations but it exists right across the public and voluntary sectors too.

Watching I, Daniel Blake and No Place to Call Home over the last few days, these divides were obvious. One is a documentary, the other a film, but both would claim to be revealing truths about life when the safety net fails. But they also beg a less obvious question for people working within the system: how do you know when you’ve crossed the line between doing your best in an impossible situation and making that situation worse? One answer, I’d suggest, lies in the language we use.

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Ten steps to a housing crisis

Originally posted on October 14 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

How does somewhere that was built to solve the housing shortage end up being in the middle of one?

The place in question is Peterborough in Cambridgshire but events there in the last month resonate well beyond the city. Seen admittedly from the outside, this is the UK housing crisis in ten steps.

1) Build a new town

Peterborough was designated as a new town in 1967 to accommodate population overspill from London. Four new townships were added to what was already a Cathedral city, boosting the population from 83,000 to 190,000 over the last 40 years. The key, according to the former head of the development corporation Wyndham Thomas, was the acquisition of land at existing use values with debt repaid from finance generated by increased land values.

2) Watch the population grow

Housebuilding has failed to keep pace with a rising population in the south and east of England in general. In the case of Peterborough in particular add high levels of immigration. Cities Outlook 16, the regular survey by the Centre for Cities, shows that Peterborough was the third fastest-growing city in the UK for population with an annual growth rate of 1.5% a year between 2004 and 2014. The housing stock grew by the fourth fastest rate in the country between 2013 and 2014 but the rate was 1.1%.

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