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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Housing an ageing population

Originally published on February 24 on my blog for Inside Housing.

There is arguably no more important housing issue facing the UK than how we accommodate our ageing population but are we ready to face up to it?

The question is prompted by a combination of recent events including publication of the Housing White Paper, the crisis in social care and the NHS and the consultation on funding for supported housing.

Lurking further in the background than it should be is the mismatch between the stock of homes and likely future demand for them. We will need homes that we don’t currently have for people who are living longer and will need more manageable accommodation with access to more care. Because we don’t have those homes, older people will continue to live in homes that are too big and inflexible for them but would be perfect for young families.

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Two-way street

Originally published on December 7 on my blog for Inside Housing

The minister announces more investment in social housing – social, not affordable – and signs a pact with housing associations and local authorities.

This is not a fantasy or a trip down memory lane but something that happened last week in Wales, a country where the government and the housing sector are very much in sync.

Carl Sargeant, communities and children secretary, told the Community Housing Cymru (CHC) annual conference that Social Housing Grant (SHG) will be increased by £30m this year, or 44% on previous plans. He also signed a pact with CHC and the Welsh Local Government Association to deliver 13,500 affordable homes by 2021.

Though CHC is the Welsh counterpart of the National Housing Federation, the pact is not a deal that requires forced conversion to the merits of homeownership or that turns a blind eye to forced sales of council homes.The Right to Buy is being scrapped rather than extended and the pact sets out a series of other aspirations on everything from jobs and training to energy efficiency and rents to homelessness.

Housing in Wales works very differently to England thanks to devolution and a political culture that works on consensus.While London and Manchester are blazing a trail with new investment powers, Wales can make its own legislation. Greater regulation of the private rented sector and homelessness prevention are already in force, the end is nigh for the Right to Buy and stamp duty is being replaced with the first Welsh tax for almost 800 years.

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