A massive relief to social landlords and tenants, but what now?

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on October 26.

So finally even the prime minister accepts that plans to impose a local housing allowance (LHA) cap on supported and social housing are unworkable.

Theresa May’s announcement at prime minister’s questions that the cap will not be implemented represents a massive u-turn that will be an equally massive relief to social landlords and tenants.

Statements from a succession of different ministers over the last few weeks had signalled the move for supported housing in the face of overwhelming evidence of postponed investment and knock-on costs for the health and social care sectors.

The decision to scrap it for social housing too was more of a surprise, though it may have been influenced by the difficulty of distinguishing social from supported homes.

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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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The turn of the screw

Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on October 13.

As universal credit understandably took all the headlines, the scale of the threat posed by restrictions on the local housing allowance (LHA) has come into even sharper focus.

The mood music this week suggested that ministers are set to make concessions over their plans to apply LHA caps to supported housing but the rest of social housing is still right in the firing line.

In a packed Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday and at the Communities and Local Government committee, ministers gave strong hints of flexibility to come.

The debate was called by Tory MP Peter Aldous, who called on the government to give ‘full sand serious consideration’ to recommendations made by two select committees for a supported housing allowance rather than LHA plus local top-ups.

Communities minister Marcus Jones said:

‘This matter is a priority for the Government, and we will announce the next steps shortly—later this autumn. I believe that when those proposals are introduced, they will show that we have listened and have understood the important issues at hand and the important situation. What is at stake is helping and supporting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.’

It remains to be seen exactly how much ministers have listened and understood about a system that would create a postcode lottery and has already halted development plans.

But at stake too is the government’s attempt to impose a flawed system originally designed to reflect private rents to control a very different combination of rent and care costs in supported and social housing.

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Time for cross-party co-operation on housing?

Originally published on July 11 as a column for Inside Housing.

If we need to ‘invest in good work’ what about good homes?

Theresa May was speaking at the launch of the Taylor review of the gig economy on Tuesday exactly a year after she became prime minister.

In the wake of her failed election gamble, she needs non-Tory support to address the challenges identified in the report.

And her plea to the other parties to ‘come forward with your own views and ideas about how we can tackle these challenges as a country’ is being interpreted as being about more than just the labour market.

So if the challenge of precarious work requires cross-party co-operation what about that of precarious housing?

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Time for ministers to listen on the LHA cap

Originally posted on May 2 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

When not one but two all-party committees of MPs call on ministers to think again about a controversial policy you might think they would listen – but will they?

The Work and Pensions and Communities and Local Government Committees say the government should scrap its plan to impose a Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap on supported housing and pay top-up funding via local authorities and devolved administrations.

Ministers claim the intention is not to save money but to ensure better value for money and monitoring of the quality of services.

But the MPs conclude that ‘the funding proposals, as they stand, are unlikely to achieve these objectives’ and that LHA is ‘an inappropriate starting point for a new funding mechanism’.

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How the LHA cap will target the poorest communities

Originally posted on April 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.

If you were looking to design a policy to penalise the poorest families paying the cheapest rents, it would be very hard to come up with something better than the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap.

My feature in Inside Housing looks at the situation in Wales. I already knew that the impact would be severe in deprived areas like the South Wales Valleys because of their very low LHA rates but the more people I talked to the worse the implications seemed to be.

Even in areas with higher LHA rates there are growing worries about the long-term impact. Ask people what the number one threat to their business plan is and everyone will say welfare reform: for some universal credit is the biggest worry but others say the LHA cap because of its effect not just on tenants and business plans but also future development.

I’m talking here about the cap as it applies to general needs housing when the cap is introduced in 2019. There are three main problems: the impact on the under-35s who are single with no children; areas where social rents are already above or close to LHA rates; and the effect on pensioners.

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LHA: a reverse supermarket sweep

Originally published on April 3 on my blog for Inside Housing.

It’s easy to forget now but the original idea behind the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) was that it would give tenants an incentive to ‘shop around’ for a cheaper rent.

Rather than get their actual rent paid, tenants would get an allowance based on the median rent for the area and if they found somewhere cheaper they could keep what they saved. In effect they could be rewarded for shopping at Lidl’s rather than Tesco’s or Sainsbury’s.

The ‘shopping incentive’ was a key feature of a new system that was designed to be fairer and more transparent than the one it replaced. The (then Labour) government said it would give tenants more choice and a greater sense of personal responsibility, administration would be easier and there would be reduced barriers to work.

Fears about the impact of moving to direct payment to tenants were allayed in local pilot schemes and for a time it seemed like the new system really was working as intended.

Nine years on and that early optimism has disappeared along with the original idea. Labour restricted the shopping incentive to £15 a week in 2009 and the coalition eventually removed it completely in 2010.

And that was just the start of a series of cuts in the allowance justified by constant references to a handful of very large claims in London, inferring that some tenants were choosing to shop at Harrods and Harvey Nicholls.

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