Warehousing poverty

Monday night’s Panorama provided a shocking window on the world of temporary accommodation and permitted development – but it also made me think back to an influential think-tank report from a decade ago.

The programme centred on Templefields House, a converted office block in Harlow run by property company Caridon. It provides temporary accommodation for local authorities across the South East but, according to the programme, also has a contract with an ex-offender re-housing charity.

There is no public transport and it’s 40 minutes’ walk from the town centre and, according to residents, the building is also rife with crime, anti-social behaviour and drugs and the police have been called out 600 times in three years.

The building, the company and another converted block it runs in Harlow, Terminus House, have featured in several previous media investigations of temporary accommodation and permitted development. See here, here and here for more details.

What was new in last night’s Panorama was the level of detail from residents and revelations from an undercover reporter.

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‘A striking and complete disconnect’

Originally posted as a blog for Inside Housing on May 22.

Not much in today’s report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty will surprise anyone who has worked in housing over the last decade.

The coruscating criticism of universal credit, the benefit cap, the benefits freeze, the under-occupation penalty and all the other welfare ‘reforms’ seen since 2010 arrives at a time when we have almost become immured to their impact on tenants in general and lone parents and disabled people in particular.

And it was only last week that the latest Homelessness Monitor from Crisis showed the effect of all that on the wider housing system, giving social landlords an incentive not to rent to the poorest people and driving them into a private rented sector in which housing benefit no longer covers their rent.

Yet the final report from Professor Philip Alston is still a shocking reminder of dire consequences that he says are ‘obvious to anyone who opens their eyes’ and of a government response that hovers between hostility, indifference and complacency.

Part of this is due to the Special Rapporteur’s vivid turn of phrase about what he calls ‘the systematic immiseration of millions’. Some choice examples include:

  • ‘Much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.’
  • ‘The driving force has not been economic but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering – a dramatic restructuring of the relationship between people and the State.’
  • ‘The British welfare state is gradually disappearing behind a webpage and an algorithm, with significant implications for those living in poverty.’
  • ‘It might seem to some observers that the Department of Work and Pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitized version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens.’

But what really struck me reading this final report was how completely he skewers the government’s response to criticism.

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DWP denies it’s in denial on poverty

Originally posted on November 19 on my blog for Inside Housing.

With unintended irony the government has responded to a United Nations report accusing it of being ‘in denial’ about extreme poverty by denying that there is a problem.

The last time a UN official visited Britain and had the temerity to criticise government policy it sparked a furious row on the Today programme.

Ministers dismissed Raquel Rolnik, the special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, as ‘the woman from Brazil’ and ‘an absolute disgrace’ ad accused her of producing ‘a misleading Marxist diatribe’.

This time around there was no real row about ‘the man from Australia’, no formal complaint to the UN secretary-general and the Today programme ignored Professor Philip Alston, special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

Whether that reflects changed editorial priorities at the BBC, a ministerial determination not to rise to the bait or simply the way that Brexit sucks away all the oxygen from other news remains to be seen.

However, Professor Alston’s report published in London on Friday is if anything even more damning that the one produced by Ms Rolnik.

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The rise of working homelessness

Originally posted on my blog for Inside Housing on July 23.

Ever since 2010 the government has assumed that work is the solution to poverty and problems with housing.

It’s an assumption that underpins universal credit and it’s been nourished by a steady drip of propaganda from right-wing think tanks and newspapers about the alleged role of social housing in encouraging worklessness.

Anyone with experience of the benefits system knows that this is at best a simplistic and at worst a dangerously inaccurate interpretation of what is going on.

For all the government’s proclamations of a ‘jobs miracle’, work alone is not a guaranteed route out of poverty or poor housing or even, it now seems, homelessness.

A report out today from Shelter shows a 73% rise in the number of families who are in work but homeless and in temporary accommodation over the last five years: from 19,000 in 2013 to 33,000 in 2017.

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From housing ladder to housing treadmill

Originally posted on April 30 on my blog for Inside Housing.

Once upon a time the image of a ladder was a fair representation of the housing system. Not anymore.

The old days in which the home-owning majority saved for a deposit and got a mortgage, a significant majority put their names down for a council house and got one and the rest used the private rented sector as a temporary transition are long gone.

And a report out today from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) suggests a new image has replaced the ladder for people on low incomes struggling with high housing costs and insecure jobs and tenancies: a housing treadmill, where people ‘were running to stay and were worried about falling off completely’.

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Farewell social mobility

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on December 4.

One instinctive reaction to the news over the weekend that Alan Milburn and his fellow Social Mobility Commissioners have resigned is a simple question: what took you so long?

After all, what was then the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission was the creation of Nick Clegg, with the idea that they would hold the current and future future governments to account.

It always looked a tough job when the former deputy prime minister’s coalition chums seemed hell-bent on increasing child poverty and reducing social mobility after 2010.

After the 2015 election, when Clegg and most of his Lib Dem colleagues lost their seats, the child poverty bit was taken out so that the commission could concentrate on the more Conservative-sounding and more convenient part of its brief.

That is just as well for them as child poverty is now rising again in the face of stagnant wages, rising rents and frozen benefits but it seemed there was still a job to be done in ensuring that government paid attention to wider social concerns.

And when Theresa May became prime minister in 2016 her themes of correcting ‘burning injustices’ and ‘a country that works for everyone’ it seemed that it might be worth the commissioners hanging around to help.

That came to an end on Saturday night when Milburn and three other commissioners, including former Tory Cabinet minister Gillian Shepherd, tendered their resignations (Downing Street claims he jumped before he was pushed).

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Look beyond the rate rise for the real housing squeeze

Originally posted as a column for Inside Housing on November 2.

Today’s first rise in interest rates for a decade is an important symbolic moment but it will make little or no immediate difference to the housing costs of millions of home owners with a mortgage.

The increase from 0.25% to 0.5% could see average mortgage payments rise by around £15 a month but it will not apply straight away to people with fixed rate mortgages and in any case it only restores the base rate to what was a record low between 2009 and the aftermath of the referendum.

Compare that with the continuing squeeze on benefits and tax credits/universal credit that the Institute for Fiscal Studies forecasts today will help to increase the percentage of children in relative poverty after housing costs from 30% now to 37% by 2022.

And contrast it with the latest overall benefit cap statistics also published today: as at August 68,000 families were hit by the lower cap that came into effect a year ago and nearly a third of them are losing between £50 and £100 a week. The cap is now £26,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere.

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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 election, housing and poverty

Originally published on June 6 on my blog for Inside Housing.

What will the main political parties do to improve the housing system for the poorest people?

The answer ranges from something to not much at all, according to a study of their manifestos launched by a group of experts this week.

Academics Stand Against Poverty conducted a poverty audit of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat plans on their policies on everything from disability to international development and education to health. Each of these was marked out of five, with 5 representing very high confidence that the policies on offer would tackle poverty and 1 very low confidence.

As the graphic shows, Labour came out best overall with an average score of 3.6, including 5 for its plans for disability and 4 for other areas including health, education and social security.

The Lib Dems came a close second with 3.2, matching Labour on education and ranked as the best party on the environment and sustainability.

The Conservatives scored worst on every topic, with no individual mark higher than 2 and an overall mark of 1.5.

That represents a significant improvement for Labour on its score in 2015, when more parties were assessed. Back then the Greens led the way with 3.9, followed by the Lib Dems with 3.2, Labour in third with 2.6, the Conservatives in fourth on 1.7 and UKIP trailing in last with 1.4.

Looking at housing specifically in the 2017 audit, Labour leads with 3, followed by the Lib Dems with 2 and the Tories with 1. That mostly applies to England given that housing policy is largely devolved but the combined score of 6 out of 15 is the lowest for the 11 different policy areas assessed.

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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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