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Call off the pay-to-stay catastrophe

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>by Monimbo</strong></span>
by Monimbo

Senior housing policy expert writing under a pseudonym.

Spot the lies in this justification by the government of its pay-to-stay plans: ‘It’s simply not fair that hard-working people are subsidising the lifestyles of those on higher than average incomes’. Aside from the fact that it implies that social tenants aren’t hard-working (how else would they be earning more?), the two outright lies are that they receive taxpayer subsidies and that it is only those on above-average incomes who will pay more. In fact, all but the lowest ten per cent of earners will be within or very close to the pay-to-stay threshold, because DCLG have been forced to set a very low starting point (£31,000 outside London, £40,000 within) in order to increase the projected income from the scheme. And of course, the government never misses a chance to refer to social tenants as ‘subsidised’, even though those on slightly higher incomes with little or no dependence on housing benefit are among the least subsidised householders in the whole housing market.
Red Brick makes no apology for saying ‘we told you so’ on pay-to-stay since we were among the first to draw attention to the risks. Back in 2011, when first mooted by Grant Shapps, it would have applied only to so-called wealthy people who choose to live in council houses and whose combined earnings came to over £100,000. It was of course aimed at people like the late Bob Crow, who earned £145,000 and had the temerity to live in a housing association flat. In response to widespread criticism that, if set at that threshold, the scheme would cost far more than it would generate, DCLG shifted the starting point downwards. Red Brick predicted four years ago that this would be even more of a bureaucratic nightmare, since it would draw all tenants into having to declare their incomes and any changes to them. This point is now confirmed by Southwark council, who say that means testing tenants is an ‘expensive exercise in futility’ that could cost authorities millions to administer. If it has to be done, they want HM Revenue and Customs to do it for them.
And in any case, the extra red tape could now generate only £75 million annually, according to the LGA, rather than the £365 million that the government projects. This would add less than a paltry 0.8% to rental income, before admin costs are deducted, meaning the scheme could potentially produce no net income at all. As Jules Birch has pointed out, the government’s own assessment indicated that (at least in the first year) admin costs could be as high as £65 million, and Southwark’s warning shows that in practice this is very likely an underestimate, especially given the increasing variability of household earnings among those on modest incomes.
Even if the scheme does produce a small surplus, in a travesty of the principle that council housing is now self-financing, the money will have to be repaid to government. When council housing bought its financial independence in April 2012 by paying £7 billion to the Treasury, the government said this meant councils would ‘keep all the money they receive from rent’ and for tenants that ‘the level of rent you pay will continue to be a decision for your council’. It took barely a year for the government to issue the consultation paper which broke both these promises.
There are plenty more arguments against pay-to-stay too. It will be a disincentive to precisely those people who have jobs that pay modest salaries and who might want to try to earn more. It will encourage more tenants to exercise their right to buy, at which point of course they really will get a massive subsidy to help them buy their house, of a size unavailable to other first-time buyers. And it will lead to the further residualisation of social housing, eroding the mixed communities which were until recently an important aim of housing policy. As Natalie Bloomer commented on politics.co.uk, social tenants are now penalised for having too many bedrooms, penalised (by the benefits cap) if they don’t have jobs, and will soon be penalised if they do. The message to social housing tenants is: ‘If you don’t work, we’ll punish you. If you do work, we’ll punish you’. And as evidence of how struggling households will suffer, the Guardian has helpfully compiled some tenant stories of what the scheme’s consequences might be.
Fortunately, opponents of this daft policy appear to have an ally, someone who says that ‘while we continue to help the worst off we will also be focused on the millions of people for whom life is a struggle and who work all hours to keep their heads above water.’ She (and that’s a clue) has set up a powerful working group that will aim to make ‘life easier for the majority of people in this country who just about manage’. Yes, it’s Theresa May, whose newly stated policy aims appear to run counter to those of the pay-to-stay scheme, and it’s Sajid Javid, the communities secretary, who joins her on the new working group. Ditching pay-to-stay would be an excellent no-brainer for the group when it first meets. After all, ending it would cost practically nothing while saving the government from a potentially embarrassing policy failure.

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More home ownership is progressive

<strong>by Tony Clements</strong>
by Tony Clements

Former policy advisor to Rt Hon John Healey MP during his tenure as Minister of State for Housing and Planning. Executive Director of Place for Ealing Council.

This post also appeared on Progress Online.
Labour has gone big on helping private renters in recent months. And we’re right to. With ever more people forced to rent from private landlords, including 1 million families, we need to improve standards and give people greater security in their home.
However, we should remember that ‘Generation Rent’ still aspires to join our nation of homeowners. 77% of renters under 40 want to own their own home, but 64% believe they have no prospect of ever doing so.
Traditionally in Britain even those on moderate and low incomes have been able to buy their own home. That is less and less the case. Homeownership is increasingly restricted to older people and people with access to the bank of mum and dad. The rest are locked out. That is a cause and a consequence of greater inequality.
Helping people on moderate incomes buy their own home is a progressive policy. Financially, it means more people can own a valuable asset. Socially, it means more people have security and independence in the place where they live, can put down roots and be part of a community. These are hardly luxuries that should be confined to a shrinking number.
To expand the number of homeowners again we need to build more homes. People cannot buy because prices are too high and prices are too high because we have too few homes. No policy will succeed in the long-term if it doesn’t build more homes.
That’s where the Conservatives have failed. Their Help-to-Buy policy has made mortgages more available, but they’ve failed to build so prices are being driven upwards again – raising the bar ever higher for people on normal incomes.
So, what could an incoming Labour government do to support people into homeownership?
1) We could lift the artificial restrictions on local authorities from building their own homes. Council housing doesn’t just need to be for social rent; there’s no reason why it can’t be shared ownership or for sale. After more than two decades of restrictions, councils now have built-up capacity that they can put to use in economically difficult times.
2) We must change the rules of the game for the private development industry. At present developers benefit more from a lack of supply and high prices than they do from building more homes. Public policy needs to change those incentives; penalising those developers who hold on to land without developing it and making the market more competitive by supporting new firms to enter the market.
3) Councils, housing associations and the private sector could build more for rent now on long-term secure tenancies and give tenants the right to buy those homes or convert them into shared ownership when they are able. Tenants get the benefits security in their home right away and then build up their ownership over time.
Homeownership isn’t the only way to have a secure and good quality home and Labour’s right to improve the lot of Britain’s renters, private and social. However, to meet the aspirations of the majority of people we need a new model of homeownership and one that doesn’t fuel the inexorable house price rises of the past.
– For a different and far more intelligent version of “having more ordinary home owners is progressive”, try Toby Lloyd here.
 

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London Labour Housing off to a flying start

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

Last night’s launch of the London Labour Housing Group was an astonishing event.  Getting on for 200 people packed the Grand Committee Room in Parliament, full to overflowing.  Chaired by Nicky Gavron AM, guest speakers were Ken Livingstone, Karen Buck MP, and Linda Perks from Unison.  Alison Seabeck MP, Labour’s shadow housing minister, popped in from the Committee on the Localism Bill to wish us well.  The audience included MPs, councillors, unionists, tenants and Labour members from all over the capital, with outer London as well represented as inner.

Ken’s speech ranged over 4 decades of housing policy in London, the peaks when boroughs like Camden were producing 2,000 homes a year and the GLC had a target of producing 10,000 a year on top of the boroughs’ efforts, and the troughs when Thatcher was in power and the Tories held County Hall and all programmes were cut back.  If Labour policies had continued through the 1980s, it can confidently be said that London’s post-war housing crisis would have been overcome and the city would be totally different today.  Councils need to build again and we need to find ways of bringing private rents under control.  But our policies must also meet the needs not just of the poorest but of the many Londoners, people earning up to £70K a year, who can no longer afford to buy and also have limited housing options.  As London’s population continues to grow, genuinely radical policies are needed if the capital is not to resemble Paris, with the centre of the city occupied by the rich and the poor consigned to the outskirts.

Karen Buck MP

Karen focused on the changes to housing benefit and the local housing allowance.  She contrasted the number of people predicted to have to move from their local areas under this policy with the furore over Lady Porter in the 1980s; her attempts to remove the poor from Westminster were miniscule compared to what will happen now.  The danger lies in the range of changes combining together to force people on low incomes to move, but increasingly it was being realised that there is nowhere for them to move to.  If people attempt to move from expensive to cheaper areas the impact of the increased demand will be to raise rents at the lower end of the market – which would be catastrophic.  Rising homelessness, growing unemployment, increasing rents, growing dependence on private rented accommodation, all of these pressures would increase the HB bill; the policy would be devastating in effect but counter-productive in saving money. 

Linda emphasised the impact of the cuts on local government in London, and the fact that councils would be cutting back on front line services at just the time that people need them most.  It was important to link what was happening in housing to other sectors, especially health, because it was all part of a single policy to roll back the state.  She stressed the importance of getting maximum support for the TUC national demonstration against the cuts on Saturday 26 March in Hyde Park and pledged Unison’s support for housing campaigns in the coming months. 

There were around 30 contributions from the floor, identifying weaknesses in previous Labour housing policies, the issues being faced in the boroughs, the links between housing, employment, health and education, and ideas for future campaigns.  There was a strong focus on the need to win the Mayoralty in 2012 with a strong and radical housing policy.  The new London LHG will help develop those policies but also support a range of housing campaigns because the issues will not be properly addressed until we have a Labour Mayor in 2012, more Labour boroughs in 2014, and a Labour government whenever the General Election comes.

You can join Labour Housing Group at http://www.labourhousing.co.uk/join-lhg and contact London Labour Housing Group through steve@hilditchonline.com

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Lords debate on HB: the progressive majority speaks

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

I’ve never been much of a fan of the House of Lords.  But you have to doff your cap occasionally when they have a debate of real interest based on a real knowledge of an issue.  So it was with the rather uninspiringly-titled debate Motion to Annul – Housing Benefit (Amendment) Regulations 2010 held on 24 January.  The debate, which resulted in government Minister Lord Freud promising to undertake a review of the housing benefit changes after a year or so, can be found in full here

There were exceptional speeches from Richard Best, Victor Adebowale and Patricia Hollis, amongst others.  It was notable that there were no speeches in favour of the government’s position, apart from the Minister – you could say there was a progressive majority.  It’s worth a read, but here is a selection of a few quotable quotes.

Lord Best (Crossbench):  The charities working in this field ……… all note the likelihood of several thousand tenants facing homelessness. Apart from this wrecking the life chances of the families concerned, the charities point out that the extra costs of homelessness could more than outweigh the housing benefit savings. Homeless Link notes that, on conservative estimates, if even one quarter of those identified as at severe risk were to become homeless, then all the gains from the housing benefit cuts would be lost. 

Lord Adebowale (Crossbench):  We have not thought through the impact on families and on the societies in which they live-on social services, on health, on mental health and on employment…..   we know that the poor will suffer. We know where they will suffer, we know how they will suffer and we know what the impact on public services will be, but we do not have a clear plan B.

Baroness Thomas of Winchester (Liberal Democrat):  The $64,000 question remains…….. will these housing benefit regulations mean that landlords will reduce their rents, thus bringing the huge housing benefit bill down, to general rejoicing by taxpayers and the Government, or will it mean that not enough landlords will, or can afford to, reduce their rents low enough for LHA claimants, that the discretionary housing payments will be spread too thin to make much difference and that therefore thousands of people will face eviction, child poverty will increase and local authorities will eventually have to pick up a very large bill?

Baroness Hollis of Heigham (Labour):  …… the DWP‘s own figures show that the increase in housing benefit has been caused not by increased rents but by increased demand for HB from more tenants in both the private and public sectors. Only 13 per cent of the increase in HB can be attributed to private sector rent increases. In other words, the increase in the HB bill has not come about because HB has driven up rents and, therefore, has sought to catch up with the rents that it has inflated. Instead, the HB bill has risen because more and poorer people are claiming HB, including those in low-paid work. That is a fact.

……. the Government do not control, as they believe they do, the rents of the private rented sector. It is a fallacy. Indeed, preliminary findings from current research suggest that, whether housing benefit claimants account for 20 per cent or 70 per cent of the private rental market, it makes no difference at all to local rent levels. HB levels, and therefore the Government, do not shape the market, full stop.

Why is that? It is because it is a landlords’ market and not a tenants’ market; it is, therefore, not a Government’s market and not a HB market. Surveyors, letting agents and estate agents are reporting gazumping, six to eight tenants after every property and sealed-bid rent offers. The British Property Federation tells us that 150,000 extra tenants will enter the private rental sector next year, pushing up rents even further. Even where landlords in the past might have accepted some limitation of their rents if they were gaining capital growth, this, too, is no longer the case. Those on current HB levels struggle to find a home. What will happen?

Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope (Liberal Democrat):  The private rented sector is not a place for long-term, low-income households’ housing needs to be met. It is a device that should be for another segment of our society altogether. We have let it get out of control in a way that is difficult to justify.

Lord Freud (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Welfare Reform), Work and Pensions; Conservative):  I make a firm commitment to the House that we intend to commission independent, external research to help us evaluate the impact of the reforms ……. (It will cover) homelessness and moves; the shared room rate and houses in multiple occupation; what is happening in Greater London; what is happening in rural communities; what is happening in black and minority ethnic households; large families; older people; people with disabilities and working claimants.

Many housing benefit recipients will not be affected by the changes until well into 2012. We will therefore make the findings available in early 2013, with initial findings available in the spring of 2012 and an interim report in the summer of 2012.

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McDonalds write health policies; house builders set design standards

<strong>by Tony Clements</strong>
by Tony Clements

Former policy advisor to Rt Hon John Healey MP during his tenure as Minister of State for Housing and Planning. Executive Director of Place for Ealing Council.

When the government announced that it was inviting businesses to play a greater role in Britain’s health policy, it made the front page, because of the obvious clash of interests. Pepsi and McDonalds want to sell more of the products which cause obesity and poor health.

Last week the government did something similar in housing. It abolished the higher space and sustainability standards which were set to apply to new publicly funded homes. Instead, the Housing Minister is putting house builders ‘in charge of developing a new framework for local building standards.’

Now there is a fundamental clash of interest between house builders and people who want spacious, well designed and environmentally sustainable homes. These homes are more expensive for developers to build, no getting away from it. There is also a conflict within government; government (should) want good quality homes and all recent governments have wanted more homes. Higher standards hit your housing numbers.

The approach of the last government was to try to increase standards gradually, with public housing leading the way. That meant government shared in the increased cost of better homes and helped industry build capacity and expertise to build better homes elsewhere as cheaply as possible.

And to state the obvious, public cash is often on the line to mop-up the problems of poorly designed and built homes. Part of the problem of some of the ‘sink estates’ the Tories love to quote is that they were built poorly in the rush for numbers in the post-war period. Billions have gone into estate regeneration schemes in recent years, to demolish and rebuild the substandard and poorly built homes of the past,

So when the Housing Minister says: ‘There’s no good reason why homes built on public land should be built any differently to those of high quality on private land.’ The good reason is that private homes are often not very well built as the Royal Institute of British Architects  and the soon to be abolished CABE point out.

This move is simply a leveling down, which will help the Housing Minister meet his numbers in the short term, but will build in longer term problems, for which the tax payer is likely to have to pick up the bill. The public sector has abdicated its role in trying to provide better and bigger homes for its citizens.

It’s worth saying that I’m not unsympathetic to the Housing Minister’s bind. There is a housing crisis and a desperate need for new homes. All those homeless families, overcrowded families, those on waiting lists, in temporary accommodation or sleeping on the sofas of friends and family, don’t they just need any serviceable home and quickly? And following the advice of architects has not always led to untrammelled success: tower blocks were once the cutting edge of design.

Rather than peddle nonsense about red tape however, the Housing Minister could say that after weighing up the balance he’d decided to go for homes now and lifting housing standards would have to wait for less straightened times. That would be an honest response.

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Empty homes and empty gestures

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

One of the curious things about the Ministry of Justice’s advice on dealing with squatters in your home, published yesterday, is that it has a section called “How can I evict a tenant who won’t leave?”  It then offers advice on the “difficult procedural requirements to be followed”. 

Another is the starting point: “If you return from holiday or walking the dog to find squatters in your home and they refuse to leave, you can call the police and report a criminal offence”.   Of course, this stirred the media juices and Grant Shapps got himself on the telly, where he denounced the Advisory Service for Squatters as a fully staffed organisation, whereas ASS say they are run entirely by unpaid volunteers and therefore must be part of the ‘Big Society’.  ASS are adamant that they do not promote lawlessness.  I suspect they will welcome the publicity and free advertising for what they do.  

You may not like it but squatting, in defined circumstances, is still a legal activity.  I suspect that the number of cases of people squatting other people’s homes while they are walking the dog is really quite small, and insignificant compared to the number of squatters in the country.  It’s also insignificant compared to the number of homeless people and the number of empty properties, and there is the real issue. 

That some squatters do some bad things is beyond doubt, and there has been an amount of difficult-to-justify squatter tourism in the past, but history tells us that squatting in this country has had a big impact on housing policy and pushing public authorities into tackling the waste of homes being kept empty.  Historically, the occupation of the Centrepoint tower block, a political squat, raised awareness of homelessness more than any other single act, apart possibly from the screening of Cathy Come Home. 

Big landlords and councils who kept homes empty deliberately awaiting development or sale, smashing facilities to make them uninhabitable, found themselves challenged by squatters who made them habitable again and showed that they could provide acceptable accommodation for people who needed it in the meanwhile.  Many sought to come to an arrangement with the property owners, seeking licenses and agreements to occupy, leading to the creation of a self-help housing movement in short-life housing.  In one of the biggest and longest squats, Elgin Avenue in West London, a terrace of large houses would have been left empty by the GLC for many years; instead an extraordinary community was formed and the GLC mended its ways, to the benefit of all concerned including the neighbours.

Attacking squatters for a cheap bit of publicity is one thing.  But all of the political parties in the Election highlighted new initiatives to deal with empty homes, and they all denounced it as a scandal.  Yet none acknowledged that it is down to the squatters of the past that this issue strikes such a chord with the public today.    

http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/housing/advicesquatters

http://www.squatter.org.uk

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Winning the political argument on HB

<strong>by Tony Clements</strong>
by Tony Clements

Former policy advisor to Rt Hon John Healey MP during his tenure as Minister of State for Housing and Planning. Executive Director of Place for Ealing Council.

I was unsurprised to see that a large majority of people support the cap on housing benefit, including over half of Labour voters.

I’m not really surprised by that. The argument on ‘fairness’ is compelling; why should those out of work be able to afford more expensive housing than those on work?

The cap, reduction of benefit to the level of the 30th percentile and the move from pegging benefits to CPI rather than RPI (meaning benefit rise at a slower rate than rents) will cause many poorer people to lose their home and force people out of communities where they’ve lived for years and have roots and family support.

So when Ed Miliband and others make this argument they are rightly defending people who will really suffer as a result of these reforms. But I do worry that it makes us look like, beyond the housing and policy world, as if Labour is defending high benefit budgets and only defends those on the lowest incomes who claim benefit (nevermind that around 40% of benefit claimants are in work).

This is not a good strategy for winning back the marginal seats in the south and midlands that we need to return to government.

So how should we oppose these moves?

We need to argue back from a vision of what communities should be like and then use that as the yardstick to measure and oppose these policies. In doing so, we present an alternative vision of a Labour future and argue for something beyond opposing particular measures.

Central to any vision of a sustainable community is that they are mixed. People accept and strongly support the idea that communities and neighbourhoods should be mixed – with no one segregated by wealth and race. Such segregation as exists in the USA and France rightly draws disaaproval. In London, the fact that the rich and poor have always lived ‘cheak by jowl’ is part of the city’s identity. On a policy front, let’s use the Tory rhetoric against them: both Cameron and IDS have spoken about the problems of concentrated poverty. They are right.

These HB reforms are a fundamental attack on the notion that people should live together in mixed income communities. And it is on that ground that we should oppose government measures, in a way that has wider appeal to even those who will not be affected by these changes.

What we would do instead to reduce the HB bill and maintain mixed communities is another question. Building more affordable homes in wealthier areas is part of the answer, but not the whole answer.

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Mean and nasty

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

The Conservative Party never apologised for the corruption and gerrymandering practised by Dame Shirley Porter at the expense of the homeless and badly housed people of Westminster.  John Major once promised to do so when the legal process was complete and if the case was finally found against her, but it has never been forthcoming.  There is a deep and abiding suspicion that the Tories have never forgiven the Audit Commission for its role in bringing her to book and the constant embarrassment that the case caused them.  Some even think that the decision to abolish the Audit Commission could be some macabre form of revenge.

More important however is the strain of thought that has survived down the years: poor people should not be allowed to live in places like Westminster and, in Porter’s words, you have to be ‘mean and nasty’ to homeless people. 

One of the clear impediments in the way of the Government’s housing benefit reforms – the 21st century clearances – is the homelessness legislation.  Many of the people who will not be able to afford their homes after the HB changes will have rights under the 2002 Homelessness Act.  And Westminster Council is very alive to this.

An exchange of letters between the Westminster Cabinet Member for Housing, Cllr Philippa Roe, and Grant Shapps, disclosed in Dave Hill’s London Blog yesterday and also seen by Red Brick, couldn’t be clearer. 

Roe essentially has 3 demands, which taken together would gut the legislative safety net for homeless people.

First, she wants to tighten the local connection rules.  Currently, an applicant with 6 months residency in the borough could claim a local connection if they became homeless, and she wants this extended to 3 years.  6 months happens to be the length of the typical assured shorthold tenancy, and Westminster has long believed that the masses move into Westminster on a short tenancy just so they can make a homelessness claim on the City at the end of it.  In fact anyone with any knowledge of Westminster’s approach to temporary accommodation and the extraordinary length of time people have to wait for a home would avoid them like the plague if they had the choice.

Secondly, and more worrying, is her demand that the main homelessness duty under s.193 should be discharged by finding someone an assured shorthold tenancy in the private rented sector.  This would effectively remove the safety net that has been in place since 1977.  This is a possible outcome under the current Act and Guidance, but only if the tenancy meets conditions and the applicant signs a statement accepting the offer and saying that they understand it discharges the s.193 duty. 

Thirdly, she wants to end the requirement in most cases to offer temporary accommodation in borough.  The guidance seems to be widely ignored already and most of Westminster’s TA is out of borough and often the other side of London, but the change would give them more freedom to dump people far from their support networks, schools and jobs.

Shapps’ reply is non-committal although his promise to give the points ‘careful consideration’ is not as comforting as a rejection would be.  Even giving them ‘consideration’ risks undermining his carefully created reputation for being ok on homelessness.  

The wheels are starting to come off the HB proposals.  First, because even this Government might baulk at the prospect of having to tackle the homelessness safety net to make them work.  Secondly because they simply have not thought through the parallel policies of cutting HB at the same time as increasing rents rapidly.  And thirdly, because councils are beginning to get nervous about the unintended consequences that a rapid churn of poorer tenants might have for their budgets.  It’s not over yet.

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Housing disbenefit

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Steve Hilditch</span></strong>
Steve Hilditch

Editor and Founder of Red Brick. Former Head of Policy for Shelter. Select Committee Advisor for Housing and Homelessness. Drafted the first London Mayor’s Housing Strategy under Ken Livingstone.

I can’t recall a time when housing issues have dominated the headlines in the national press like they have in the last week.  Having spent the best part of 40 years, off and on, trying to get newspapers to take housing stories seriously, all my Christmases have come at once.  Only Lady Porter and mortgage repossessions broke through onto the front pages like this.  It’s been hard to keep up.  The increasingly ridiculous Mayor of London managed to stir the pot beautifully.  Cameron’s pomposity and arrogance became ever more obvious at PMQs, further exposing his absolute lack of understanding of what it is to be poor. 

Nick Clegg’s synthetic anger about Chris Bryant and Boris Johnson comparing the housing benefit policies to social cleansing was clearly an attempted diversion that only succeeded in demonstrating how threadbare the government’s position is.  I am sure he has never engaged in hyperbole before.  Of course there are no armies and no machine guns just as many workplaces are not really run by ‘a little Hitler’ despite the protestations of the staff.  It is undoubtedly the case that many extremely poor people will be forced, by economic compulsion rather than armies, to move against their will, often out of areas where they were born and bred and where all their community connections and family support services are.  It will ruin many of the country’s most vibrant and genuinely mixed neighbourhoods, where rich and poor and all ethnicities live cheek by jowl and have done so for generations.  The imagery is therefore relevant: in truth it’s the power these images have to communicate the story that rattles Clegg.    

 Apart from attack being the best form of defence, the government’s strategy has been to keep the story focused on the few extreme central London examples rather than the many inner London, outer London, Home Counties, and the rest of the country cases where the HB reforms will hit people hard.  There are several reforms not just the cap; they will hit poor private tenants, they will hit poor social tenants, they will hit poor homeless people living in private leased accommodation, they will hit tenants everywhere not just in London, crucially they will hit people in work as much as they will hit jobseekers and other people who do not work, and the numbers affected will be in the many hundreds of thousands.

 The coverage has also revealed a basic ignorance in much of the media about the core story.  The Guardian started its front page story by referring to ‘council home associations’, whatever they are, and a presenter on News 24 asked a guest about social tenants living in rich areas of London despite the story being about Local Housing Allowance caps.  HB as an in-work benefit could be a feature in Stephen Fry’s General Ignorance round in QI.

 They say that no-one understands the entirety of how the housing revenue account subsidy system works.  In truth it’s a doddle compared to HB and the relationship between rents, HB and other benefits.  That’s why this story is about an emotional response and a feeling as to whether the government is right or wrong, and that’s why the imagery is so powerful and important.  So far, I’m delighted to say, it’s Government 0 Humanity 1.

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A long term increase in the benefit bill…

<strong>by Tony Clements</strong>
by Tony Clements

Former policy advisor to Rt Hon John Healey MP during his tenure as Minister of State for Housing and Planning. Executive Director of Place for Ealing Council.

So what would Labour do instead? It’s the standard question to us at the moment and indeed of any opposition.

It’s a difficult one to answer for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is that whatever you do, you have to graft it on to what the other lot have done during their time in power.

One of the things Labour is likely to face coming into office again in the future is a considerably higher housing benefit bill. Yes, really – despite the caps and restrictions that will do real damage to mixed communities, the CSR paved the way for a rising bill in the long-term. Here’s why:

George Osborne announced two weeks ago that capital funding for ‘social’ or affordable housing would be cut. He says by 50%, in truth it’s more like 75%, but that’s a different issue. So how will the Tories justify their claims that they will build more affordable homes? By increasing ‘social’ rents to 80% of market rents and then allowing housing associations to borrow against these new higher revenue streams to build more homes. OK, well that could stack up. But how will people on the waiting lists be able to afford near market rents? They are often often workers on very low incomes, carers, disabled, workless etc? Well Nick Clegg has the answer here:

“People on low pay on those new rents will be compensated in full through housing benefit.”

So, in a nutshell, it’s a shift in the cost of subsidising housing from up-front capital to build homes to putting more people on higher levels of benefit, so they can afford near-market rents.

They’ve moved the bill from the Department of Communities and Local Government to the Department of Work and Pensions – nifty footwork from Eric Pickles.

That’s great for cutting big capital budgets now in order for the Chancellor to say he’s wiped out the deficit before the next election: it’s rubbish for the taxpayer in the future who has to shoulder the long-term costs. 

It’s like a great big housing PFI: avoid the capital investment up-front, pay more in the long-term.

p.s. I think there’s good reason to think that the benefits system won’t cover these costs ‘in full’ as Nick Clegg says, but that’s for another post.