Skills and homes

Originally published on September 23 on Inside Edge 2, my blog for Inside Housing

If ‘Brexit means Brexit’ should it also mean a new programme of investment in social housing?

After a referendum that saw 63% of social tenants vote to leave the European Union, the attractions should be obvious. For ‘left behind’ voters it could mean both homes and jobs. For the government, now apparently edging away from an obsession with home ownership, it could offer a big pay-off from Philip Hammond’s ‘fiscal re-set’. For the purposes of this blog I’ll ignore all the other arguments in favour.

But it could also play into the wider politics of Brexit. Theresa May’s soundbite has yet to be translated into anything substantial but seems to be heading towards a ‘Hard Brexit’ outside the single market on the grounds that the referendum was a vote for controls on immigration.

That has huge implications for the housebuilding sector and the wider construction industry. Berkeley Homes boss Rob Perrins even claimed last weekend that a block on EU immigration could cut new homes by half. That is an exaggeration that could say more about his own workforce in London than the industry as a whole but this is still a huge issue. An alliance of construction organisations warned Brexit secretary David Davis earlier this month of a skills crisis if he does not make it a priority in the negotiations to come.

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Boom at the top

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

On current trends the first £1m a year housing association chief executive will appear by 2025.

It could happen even sooner than that. I’ve based that on the trend in the five years since 2010, which include two years during the recession when many bosses’ pay was frozen. And who knows what will happen if (when?) the first ‘free’ housing associations are launched?

I say this not to single out the highest-paid individual or the organisation involved. Nor do I deny that housing associations are complex organisations (and becoming more complex) that require skilled leaders and need to pay well to attract the right people. Places for People is far more than a housing association and currently styles itself ‘one of the largest property and leisure management, development and regeneration companies in the UK’ (to quote its website). It says that £330,00 of the £481,000 total pay package revealed in Inside Housing’s survey was attributable to social housing and £151,000 to ‘non-social housing’ businesses.

But that £330,000, and the current average of £183,000 for chief executives of the top 100 housing associations, are still huge sums and they are escalating year by year. The latter is double what chief executives got paid in the earliest Inside Housing survey that I can find (2001/02). Median pay for full-time employees has increased by around 35% since then and has been falling for most of the period since 2008.

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The 101st day

The Conservatives must be pinching themselves after 100 days in government. What can possibly go wrong?

For three months they’ve been able to do pretty much as they like. The Liberal Democrats are humiliated, Labour is demoralised and distracted and the opposition that has come from the SNP is a comforting reminder of the Scottish card that won the election. Thanks to all of that, plus expectations formed by inaccurate opinion polls, a government with a tiny majority elected with just over a third of the vote can behave as though it’s won a victory on a par with 1945, 1979 and 1997.

Yet the Tory luck cannot hold for ever. The obvious cloud on the horizon is Europe, with no sign that Brussels will hand David Cameron concessions meaningful enough to sell to his sceptical party ahead of the election. Economically, it’s far easier to start with a recession turn it into a recovery than it is to manage expectations in improving times.

But could the Conservatives turn out to be most immediately vulnerable where they seem strongest: on the ground they’ve staked out since the election to be ‘the real party of working people’? As Cameron put it in an article for the Telegraph on Saturday:

‘On the challenge of delivering an economy that supports working people, it is Conservatives who believe that a free enterprise economy is an ally not an enemy in generating wealth and extending opportunity. By cutting taxes, reforming welfare and increasing minimum wages we are showing we are the real party of working people.’

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Work hard, do the right thing – and get screwed

How has George Osborne got away with a Budget that will hurt the very people he claims it will help most: hardworking families?

The headlines are all about One Nation, National Living Wage and tax cuts but, as the dust settles, the calculations that have emerged so far make clear that the poorest households are going to suffer significant cuts in income. While a series of cuts such as the lower benefit cap will hit out-of-work households hard, people in work face a series of technical changes to tax credits and benefits that will make many of them substantially worse off.

To give some idea, here are the three main cuts:

  • A four-year freeze in working age benefits saving £4 billion by 2020/21. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that this alone means that 13 million families will lose an average of £260 a year. Of those, 7.4 million are in work and will lose £280 a year. The freeze will also hit child benefit, which David Cameron promised to protect.
  • £6 billion worth of cuts to tax credits (and subsequently universal credit) and associated housing allowances from April 2017. The IFS says new claimants will lose credit entitlement for more than two children, losing the average of £3,670 a year that currently goes to 872,000 families (548,000 in work). On top of that, the family element in credits for the first child will be cut for new claimants and housing allowances associated with both will be cut too. Kate Webb of Shelter calculates that just one change – the removal of the family premium, an allowance of earned income before housing benefit starts to be withdrawn for working families with children – could cost a single mother working 20 hours a week at the new national living wage £11 a week. That’s not much less than the bedroom tax.
  • Cuts to work allowances that mean working households will lose tax credits/universal credit much more quickly than now. At the moment, credits start to be withdrawn once family earnings rise above £6,420. That will fall to just £3,850. This will cost 3 million working families just over £1,000 a year each. Credits will also be withdrawn at a faster rate once they hit that threshold.

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Reconstructing Speenhamland

Where do the Conservatives really stand when it comes to supporting workers on low wages?

Are the Tories the One Nation ‘workers party’, cutting tax, increasing the minimum wage and reforming welfare to make sure that work always pays? Or are they the one that’s set to cut spending on tax credits by £5 billion and cost those same workers up to £1,690 per year?

Ahead of Wednesday’s Budget, the rhetoric and the reality simply do not match. In David Cameron’s ‘speech on opportunity’ in Runcorn last month, he contrasted the ‘right track’ of economic opportunity with the ‘wrong track’ of ‘people capable of work, written off to a lifetime on benefits’ and policies that ‘ignore the causes and simply treat the symptoms of the social and economic problems we face’. Rather than redistributing money through the benefits system we have to tackle the ‘real causes’ of child poverty. And our approach to low pay is complacent:

‘There is what I would call a merry-go-round. People working on the minimum wage having that money taxed by the government and then the government giving them that money back – and more – in welfare. Again, it’s dealing with the symptoms of the problem: topping up low pay rather than extending the drivers of opportunity – helping to create well paid jobs in the first place. So this is the change we need. We need to move from a low wage, high tax, high welfare society to a higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare society.’

Needless to say he did not explain how. The key Conservative policy of increasing the income tax threshold to the level of the minimum wage sounds like it benefits low-paid workers most. In fact, anyone paid below the current threshold of £10,600 a year will receive no benefit at all while most of the gains will go to people on higher earnings. It’s the same story with tax credits and housing benefit, both of which are essential to people who are in work but on low pay. All the tax cuts in the world do little to make up for the cuts in the last parliament and the cuts to come in this. As Gavin Kelly argues, the notion that higher wages will somehow fill the gap is fanciful.

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Mirror image

Nobody pretends that reform of housing benefit will be easy but a report out today underlines the scale of the task.

The report by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) does a great job of making the links between policies on housing, welfare and the labour market. The sobering conclusion for the government is that everything it has done so far has only succeeded in reducing the rate of growth of the housing benefit bill rather than reducing it.

So as fast as the government introduces cuts like the bedroom tax the bill keeps rising faster because of inflationary factors built into the system. Between 1997/98 and 2012/13 the total bill rose by 48 per cent in real terms.

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Beyond belief

So is it time to celebrate the rise in housing benefit claims by people in work as a reflection of the government’s success in getting people off benefits?

That was the claim made by Iain Duncan Smith at work and pensions questions yesterday as he answered Labour jibes about the soaring numbers of working households now dependent on state help with their rent.

The work and pensions secretary told Labour’s Emma Lewell-Buck:

‘The figure the hon. Lady did not give is that out-of-work housing benefit claims are falling, and that is because people who were claiming it are now going into work. That means that they are earning more money, which means that the likelihood of their being in poverty is far less. I wonder whether the hon. Lady would like to get up sometime and congratulate us on getting more people back to work and spending less on housing benefit as a result.’

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