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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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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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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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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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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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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