Originally published on January 30 on my blog for Inside Housing.
It is very easy to be cynical about this week’s final report from the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report.
From the references to Kant to the plans for a fruit tree with every new house, Living with Beauty is full of the thinking you might expect from a group that was chaired by the late Sir Roger Scruton.
And it’s not hard to see how a system based on asking for beauty and refusing ugliness could result in the word ‘beautiful’ becoming as debased as ‘sustainable’ and ‘affordable’ by the time developers have worked out how to exploit it.
To cite one example that jars, the recommendations chapter of the report opens with a picture of Elephant Park in London, which may be an example of good design and greenery but is also the archetypal one of a community displaced in the name of ‘regeneration’ and social housing replaced by highly profitable market sale.
Yet for all that this is an important report that offers fresh support for attempts to move away from the speculative housebuilder model of development and replace it with a longer-term model that could put the meaning back into all three terms.
Originally published on December 27 on my blog for Inside Housing.
The second part of my look back at 2019 runs from welfare homelessness to decarbonisation via housebuilding and permitted development.
5) ‘The systematic immiseration of millions’
The election result means that universal credit, the benefit cap, the bedroom tax and all the other welfare ‘reforms’ of the last decade are set to continue into the 2020s.
Chancellor Sajid Javid told us in the September spending round that austerity is over but the only hard evidence of this was an extra £40m for discretionary housing payments and previous cuts are still baked in to the system.
The election had delayed a full spending review until 2020 but better news came in November as the Conservative manifesto confirmed an end to the four-year freeze in most working age benefits, including the local housing allowance.
It remains to be seen, though, whether the government will restore the broken link with rents. It’s also worth noting that Esther McVey, the self-styled architect of Blue Collar Conservatism, called for part of housing benefit to be diverted into Help to Buy during her brief tilt at the Tory leadership.
I blogged about the deeper impacts on the housing system in a post from the Housing Studies Association conference in May that highlighted research on the ‘housing trilemma’ facing social landlords between their social mission, business imperatives and the impacts on tenants.
And the same month brought a damning external review from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty that warned of ‘the systematic immiseration of millions’.
Professor Philip Alston noted ‘a striking and complete disconnect’ between the picture painted by ministers and what he had heard and seen from people across the UK.
As for the chief architect of it all, the year finished with the decade summed up in four words: Sir Iain Duncan Smith.
Originally published on August 21 on my blog for Inside Housing.
Today’s report by the Children’s Commissioner on families in temporary accommodation is a shocking indictment of a system that has become institutionalised into permanence.
If you judge it by the types of building involved – the shipping containers and converted office blocks that make most of this morning’s press coverage – and you have the physical manifestation of what are almost the opposite of ‘homes’.
For all the effort put into finding ‘meanwhile’ sites for containers and despite the fact that some schemes are well designed and that many other forms of temporary accommodation are much worse, just look at the headlines for what the media makes of it.
Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield speaks of containers that are ‘blisteringly hot in summer and freezing in the winter months’ and of ‘homes’ in office blocks converted under permitted development that are barely bigger than a parking space.
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.
Originally published as a column for Inside Housing on December 21.
It was the year of three housing ministers and two secretaries of states (so far), the year that the department went back to being a ministry and a new government agency promised to ‘disrupt’ the housing market.
It was also the year of the social housing green paper and the end of the borrowing cap, of Sir Oliver Letwin and Lord Porter and of some significant anniversaries.
Above all, it was the year after Grenfell and the year before Brexit. Here is the first of my two-part review of what I was writing about in 2018.
1. New names, new ministers
January had barely begun when the Department for Communities and Local Government became the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government. The name harked back to the glory days when housing was ‘our first social service’ and housing secretary Sajid Javid became the first full member of the cabinet with housing in his title since 1970.
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.
Originally published on March 29 on my blog for Inside Housing.
Sometimes it feels like I’ve written a blog at this time every year with the headline ‘April is the cruellest month’.
It’s not that I have a TS Eliot fixation nor (I hope) that I endlessly repeat myself but because ever since 2010 the start of the financial year seems to have meant yet another benefit cut or housing policy change to cope with.
This year is a bit different not so much because there is no bad news but because there is some good news as well. Here are some examples:
- The u-turn on the withdrawal of support for housing costs for 18-21 year olds under universal credit announced on Thursday. This was a cumbersome policy that required significant exemptions and barely saved any money but it’s still a significant change to the original pledge to make young people ‘earn or learn’.
- The Homelessness Reduction Act passed in 2017 applies from April 3. The legislation should be a big step forward in ensuring that more people get help earlier but despite a recent announcement on funding there are still well-founded concerns about whether councils have the money to implement it.
- Claimants already getting housing benefit who move on to universal credit will from April be paid an additional two weeks of housing benefit. That may not be much consolation for the (in theory) five-week wait for their first universal credit but the payment (worth an average of £233) should ease the transition a bit –and it is not recoverable.
- It will be unlawful for landlords to give new tenancies on the least energy efficient property from April 1 – all rented property will have to qualify for at least an Energy Performance Certificate rating of E so (in theory) tenants will no longer be stuck paying high heating bills for the worst F and G property.
- More measures introduced against rogue landlords in the Housing and Planning Act 2016 come into force, including powers for councils to issue banning orders against the worst offenders and implementation of a database of landlords and letting agents convicted of some offences.
Bear in mind too that it’s not so long ago that I would have been writing about plans to apply a Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap to social and supported housing from…April 2018.
For all that good news, though, the suspicion remains that it will at best mitigate the impact of policies already implemented and still in the pipeline.