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.

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Over-egging the pudding

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on December 14. 

Is a year that has seen a huge shift in the politics of housing ending with a return to business as usual?

The Grenfell fire is the obvious reason for the change in the terms of the housing debate but it is not the only one.

The prime minister’s party conference speech will be remembered for the prankster, the lost voice and the collapsing stage set but it did seem to mark the culmination of a shift from Help to Buy to help for all tenures. But just as her country is not quite working for everyone, so her social housing revolution may not be quite what it seems.

One clue, I think, lies in the way that parliamentary debate has returned to the bad old days of Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps in terms of the selective use of statistics. The first time I noticed this was at last week’s Communities and Local Government questions.

Alok Sharma seems a nice chap and has quietly impressed with his willingness to listen to tenants at consultations ahead of the social housing green paper. But asked about homes built for social rent last week, he boasted that: ‘Since 2010, nearly 128,000 homes for social rent have been built in England, and 118,000 have been built for affordable rent.’

That’s an answer that does not quite compute at first but check the statistics and he is perfectly correct – and totally misleading – at the same time.

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The horrors of temporary housing

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on November 8.

From ‘temporary’ homes that last for 19 years to families with young children living in the middle of an industrial estate, a Commons debate on Tuesday found MPs queuing up to relate horror stories from their constituencies.

Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh opened the debate about temporary accommodation with an eloquent and angry explanation of the situation facing 78,000 families and 120,000 children but she was joined by MPs from all parties in calling for urgent changes.

The stats about temporary accommodation are grimly familiar. Among them are a 66% increase in the number of children affected since 2010, 1,200 families with children housed in B&Bs beyond the six-week legal limit and a five-fold increase in families from London housed outside the capital since 2012.

All this has come at a cost of £3.5 bn over the last five years for accommodation that is stretching the definition of ‘temporary’ to breaking point.

Siobhan McDonagh said three quarters of families in temporary accommodation in London have been there for more than six months and one in 10 for more than five years. There are even cases in Camden and Harrow of families living in ‘temporary’ accommodation for 19 years.

A graphic illustration of that came from David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, later in the debate:

‘One family in my constituency have been living in temporary accommodation for 14 years. Another family have been there for 17 years. That family have seen their children grow up in temporary accommodation—the only home that the children have ever known, from their first day at primary school to their first day at secondary school. Next year, the 18th birthday of the eldest child will be celebrated in this so-called temporary accommodation.’

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Starting with the evidence

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 20. 

Almost everyone agrees there is a housing crisis, that the housing market is broken and dysfunctional and that urgent action is required – but why and what exactly should be done about it?

For most of the last seven years, the answers to these questions seem to been scribbled on the back of a fag packet at Policy Exchange or emerged fully-formed from the brilliant mind of Iain Duncan Smith.

Any idea of evidence-based policy disappeared after 2010, with evaluations of policy published only reluctantly and ignored when their conclusions are inconvenient.

That has begun to change under Theresa May, who became prime minister with a reputation for taking her time over decisions and insisting on looking at the evidence for herself before she took them.

With the Conservatives apparently prepared to consider some ideas that were previously off limits, and even to fund social rent once again, the political consensus about the need to do something about housing is growing.

So the timing could hardly be better for a new initiative dedicated to supplying the evidence to help diagnose the problems with the housing system and come up with solutions.

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Crisis warns of surge in homelessness

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on August 10. 

If the true scale of homelessness revealed in a report for Crisis is shocking enough now, try looking at the projections for the future.

The report by Professor Glen Bramley of Heriot Watt University estimates that what it calls ‘core homelessness’ affected 160,000 households in 2016, an increase of a third since 2011.

That means that at any one time:

  • 9,100 people were sleeping rough
  • 68,300 households were sofa surfing
  • 19,300 households were living in unsuitable temporary accommodation
  • 37,200 households were living in hostels
  • 26,000 households were living in other circumstances, including:
    • 8,900 households sleeping in tents, cars or on public transport
    • 12,100 households living in squats
    • 5,000 households in women’s refuges or winter night shelters.

The report estimates that these include 57,000 families including 82,000 adults and 50,000 children, so that the total core homeless population is 236,000.

However, the total is forecast to rise by 76% in the next decade. After a steady rise to 167,000 households by 2021 the total is expected to accelerate over the to 238,000 by 2031 and 392,000 by 2041.

As the graph shows, the increases are expected to be especially sharp in unsuitable temporary accommodation, which includes bed and breakfast accommodation and out of area placements.

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The day Mrs Thatcher came for tea

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on August 3. 

If the Right to Buy has a birthplace it’s a terraced house at 39 Amersham Road in Harold Hill, near Romford in Essex.

True, the sale was the 12,000th rather than the first and 11 August, 1980 was not the actual birth date of the policy either.

However, both have come to symbolise the Right to Buy because this was the place and that was the day that Margaret Thatcher came for tea.

The former prime minister joined the Patterson family, who had bought their home for £8,315 after 18 years as tenants of the Greater London Council (GLC).

Two things came together to remind me of that photo opportunity this week: first, archive footage used in the film Dispossession (full review to follow soon); and second a good investigation by the local paper of hidden homelessness in the area.

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Housing insecurity takes centre stage

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on July 24.

Two reports over the weekend put housing insecurity firmly under the spotlight.

On Saturday the Local Government Association (LGA) made all the headlines when it highlighted the 120,000 children currently in temporary accommodation.

That’s not a new figure (it comes from homelessness statistics published a month ago) but that does not make it any less shocking. And the LGA puts it into real perspective by pointing out that the increase since 2014 is the equivalent of one secondary school full of children every month.

On Sunday, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) published research looking at where much of that demand for temporary accommodation is coming from: evictions and forced moves from rented homes.

The report found that 40,000 tenants were evicted from their homes by landlords in 2015 and that private landlords are now carrying out more evictions than councils and housing associations.

That may not be much of a claim to fame for ‘social’ landlords but the rise in evictions reflects both the growth of the private rented sector and increasing use of Section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions by private landlords.

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Prospects for real change go backwards

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on June 21.

A scaled down Queen’s Speech with a dressed down monarch still left some room for housing but this is a humbled government with limited ambitions.

Left rudderless by the loss of its majority and the departure of key personnel from Downing Street, this is a legislative programme dominated by Brexit but with the dark shadow of Grenfell Tower looming over it.

There is room for a Draft Bill to end letting agent fees to private tenants and lots of warm words about the Housing White Paper but this is a very different Queen’s Speech to the one that seemed likely before the night of June 8 and the events of June 14.

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Housing in the Conservative manifesto

Originally posted on May 18 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

This is a Conservative manifesto with only two firm targets on housing but lots of interesting hints about future direction and some intriguing omissions.

The first target is to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminate it completely by 2027 by implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act and piloting a Housing First approach.

The 2022 target may seem bold but it would mean that rough sleeping would still be significantly higher than it was in 2010 when the coalition came to power.

The one for 2027 is incredibly ambitious and would mean matching Finland’s incredible record on homelessness within ten years.

Sajid Javid obviously returned fired up from his visit to Helsinki but you wonder if he took on board just how comprehensive and well-funded the Finnish version of Housing First needed to be to work.

The second target is ‘meet our 2015 commitment to deliver a million homes by the end of 2020 and we will deliver half a million more by the end of 2022’.

The first bit is unambitious and should be achievable, especially as the end point has been shifted from May 2020 (the original end of the parliament) to December 2020.

As the National Audit Office pointed out in January, that would actually mean that fewer new homes will be built over the next three years than were achieved last year. This is on the basis of the net additional supply of homes rather than just housebuilding completions.

The second bit is a different matter. A quick look at the net supply figures shows that there have only been three years in the last 25 when we have exceeded 200,000.

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Relegation zone

Originally published on March 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

No wonder Sajid Javid wants to go to Finland: a report out today confirms it as the only country in the European Union where homelessness is falling. The remarkable performance compared to the other 27 EU members is attributed to 20 years of implementing housing policies based on Housing First.

That will only add to the attractions of the approach highlighted in a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice that apparently made the communities secretary so keen to go to Helsinki.

But as his boss gets ready to trigger Article 50, something else in today’s report may also give him pause for thought: the UK has fallen badly behind other EU nations in its performance on housing and homelessness.

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