Labour doesn't need a housing policy yet

There seem to be some calls for Labour to have a worked out housing policy as an alternative to the government’s now.
That would be a daft move.
It’s four and a half years to the next election and the government is starting the most radical process of reform to housing in a generation. Whether these reforms are successful in their own terms or not, the housing system will be very different when Labour next has a chance to implement an alternative (I assume that the Coalition will run the course).
Writing a housing policy that’s credible now is unlikely to work five years on. And trying to write a policy for five years’ time requires too much guess-work and will sounds out of touch now.
Ed Miliband and Alison Seabeck are absolutely right to wait, think and develop their ideas.
So, in the long meantime, how do we oppose the government? Here’s what I think:

  • Firstly, we take the government at their word and hold them to it.

The government has some laudable rhetoric: to build more mixed communities, to build more homes and more affordable homes, to tackle worklessness in social housing, to make it easier to move within social housing. Let’s exploit the differences between their words and the effects of their policies.

  • Secondly, avoid falling into any elephant traps that we live to regret, especially promises to reverse particular measures.

Reinstate security of tenure? Cut rents back to ‘traditional’ social rent? Restore the duty to house the homeless in the social sector? They might sound great ideas now, but on entering office, they probably won’t be so attractive. The future businesses of housing associations are likely to be built on these measures, as will housing provision by local authorities.
Do we want to re-enter office with pledges that immediately threaten the basis of our main housing providers? No, we don’t.  And this path leaves us the defenders of a status quo which had some pretty serious faults. Needless to say that’s not a winning position.

  • Set out the principles of a Labour housing policy, and one which is not beholden to what we have done in the past.

That’s the hardest task. I’ll give my starter for 10 in my next post.


Odd effects

It’s no exaggeration to say that the changes that the government are introducing to affordable housing are the most extensive and far-reaching since 1945. They’re also implementing them at real pace.
That means they can’t really work through the impacts of what will happen on the ground when all these reforms start working together. Some of the effects are going to be pretty perverse, from what I hear from housing people. Here’s one:
In the private rented sector, families are going to be forced out of family-sized homes, and these same homes will become the preserve of single people.
1. The cap on housing benefit and the cap on overall benefits to £26,000, are likely to force larger families into smaller homes as family homes for them become unaffordable. There’s a strong chance that this measure will considerably increase overcrowding.  
2. The government’s reforms to single people’s benefits will give people under-35 enough housing benefit to afford a room is a shared home. So, as families stop being able to afford to live in family homes, private landlords will find it easier to let larger homes to several single people.
So, it would seem to the centre that these are consistent policies to reducing the benefits bill – imposing benefit limits on families and single people. On the ground, it creates the perverse situation where poorer families get forced out of family homes which are then colonised by poorer single people.
The Mayor of London and the government have said it’s a problem that there are not enough family homes for families and we don’t build enough of them. It’s true. But, family homes in the private sector for poorer people are going to become more scarce.

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In praise of Ken (and maybe Boris)

<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.

Feeling (uncharacteristically since May) in a positive frame of mind, I had planned three posts this week all of which intended to say something good about government policy.  It was only after some cogitation that I realised all three of the ideas I liked were leftovers from Labour administrations but I am willing to give credit where it is due if the coalition picks up and implements sensible reforms.  Unfortunately, of the three – Boris Johnson’s plans for social housing mobility in London, the council housing finance proposals, and strong steps towards encouraging mutualisation in housing – the latter two announcements have been deferred with the Localism Bill from this week until a point in the future.  I certainly don’t feel able to commend the coalition until I’ve seen confirmation of the plans in writing.

So, for the moment, that leaves Mayor Johnson and mobility for social tenants, which will hopefully be a precursor to improvements in mobility for tenants nationally as well.  His consultation paper, introduced in the Mayor’s usual combative style, can in fact be sourced back to Mayor Livingstone’s housing strategy.  Of course, Johnson eschews the opportunity to highlight a bipartisan measure in favour of trying to take all the credit for himself.

Livingstone’s approach to mobility had two drivers in addition to the principle that more mobility for social tenants was a good thing in itself.  First, The London Plan had a major focus on redeveloping swathes of east London where very large housing sites were available and there were huge opportunities to create sustainable new communities (including the Olympic sites).  But if a large and increasing share of London’s available capital resources went to support new affordable homes in only a few boroughs, a mechanism had to found to ensure that the benefits of new development were more widely shared amongst Londoners as a whole.  

Existing sub-regional arrangements, good in themselves, were not enough and a pan-London mobility scheme, starting with a share of new development and growing gradually to take in a share of re-lets across the capital, became an essential element of the Plan.  Secondly, Livingstone identified a particular problem with wheelchair standard and other homes adapted for disabled people.  Frequently such homes were being let to people not in need of them whilst others in dire need were not eligible because they did not live in the same borough.  A wider geographic system and pan-London register of dwellings and households was needed to make best use of these scarce resources.  

These are good examples of circumstances where localism is not enough and a wider area or regional approach is essential for good policy.  Anyone reading the consultation paper will be struck by how complex it can be to achieve a balance between local, sub-regional, regional and cross-regional needs. 

The consultation paper shows some concern that the government’s proposals on tenure (with much more flexibility given to landlords to vary the length and terms of some tenancies) will make mobility schemes harder to operate: users are already often bewildered by the complexity of existing schemes.  And it is also sensible in arguing that the scheme should not incorporate much by way of ‘conditionality’ – such as a requirement that tenants moving must be in or accessing work or training.  

Overall, it must be said, the consultation paper shows little actual progress since Johnson took over, now 2 ½ years ago.  Livingstone had put in place the necessary requirements on landlords as part of the 2008-11 London affordable housing programme.  We should be well beyond the stage of a consultation paper.  The paper itself is still aspirational in tone and a long way from real fruition.  It may be that it will not be implemented until Mayor Livingstone is back on the throne in 2012.

Mobility for London’s social tenants: An HCA London Board Consultation, December 2010.

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Housing benefit: the truth will out

<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.

In a recent post I made the observation that government impact assessments, and especially equality impact assessments, tended to reveal more about a policy than all the other official documents put together, and that looking at any policy from the point of view of those most likely to be worst affected tends to expose the downside or weak links in the argument. 

The point is well supported by the DWP impact assessments on the housing benefit changes, or more correctly the Local Housing Allowance changes, published last week. 

At constant prices, and taking account of the recent minor concessions in the proposals, the LHA savings will start in 2012/13 and build up to £1040m in 2014/15, slightly offset by piddling amounts for increased discretionary payments and an (extremely welcome) allowance for an extra room for a carer.  In 2014/15:

– removing the £15 bonus for people achieving a rent below the LHA rate (the shopping around incentive) will save £550m

– setting Local Housing Allowance at the 30th percentile of local rents will save £425m, and

– capping LHA rates will save £65m.  

The first point to note is the relatively small saving from the ‘cap’, given that virtually all government comment on the LHA issue has focused on excessive benefit payments to people in high rent areas, especially in central London.   17,400 households are affected – often very severely – by the caps.   The much higher saving from the ‘30th percentile’ change will have far more impact.  It will affect more than three-quarters of a million households in all parts of the country.

Nearly everyone will lose: over 900,000 households, a stunning figure.  The national average loss is £12 per week, from an average benefit of £126, but the hardest-hit group, households needing a 5 bedroom property, will lose an average of £57 per week as the 5 bed rate is withdrawn entirely.  All the regions/nations are hit, with London top with an average loss of £22 per week.  The biggest groups numerically are those in the 1 and 2 bedroom categories, who will face average losses of £11 and £15 respectively.   The lack of grip on the reality of what it is like to live on a very low income is illustrated by the argument that “only four per cent of cases will have a shortfall of over £20 a week” – well, that’s all right then.

DWP refuse to make an assessment of the number of households that will have to move.  They say they can’t predict behaviour, and customers have options – for example, “some may start work or increase working hours”, others “may be able to renegotiate their rent with their landlord and others may have resources such as savings they can fall back on”.  To be fair, they do note that the Greater London Authority’s estimate that over 9,000 households may need to move in London as a consequence of the caps, and that 6,800 of those will be families; and Shelter’s estimate that between 68,000 and 134,000 households may have to move nationally.

“David Cameron insisted today

no one will be made homeless

by limiting ‘extravagant’ housing benefits”

Daily Mail

Contrary to the assertions of leading members of the coalition, including David Cameron, the impact assessment notes “a risk of households falling into rent arrears leading to eviction and an increase in the numbers of households that present themselves as homeless”…. and that “any resulting population movement could have wider impacts. People who move may need to rearrange their children’s schooling, healthcare arrangements or, where relevant, social services support; they may also need assistance with finding accommodation.”

Other specific groups affected by the changes include:

Disabled people, especially those who may have to move across a council boundary, because care and support packages do not move with the person and settled arrangements will be disrupted as the new authority carries out a new assessment. This “could lead to gaps and delays in new arrangements being put in place and consequential distress for the individual.”

Large families, who often have poor employment prospects and a much increased risk of poverty: for them, the “cap could affect their risk of overcrowding and the associated health and educational effects.”

Ethnic minority groups, who tend to have a higher proportion of large families, will be likely to be affected disproportionately.  Further research may be commissioned in this field as there are “limitations in current data.”

Quotable quote from the impact assessment

“the impact assessment recognises that there are a number or risks as follows:

– increases in the number of households with rent arrears, eviction and households presenting themselves as homeless;

– disruption to children’s education and reduced attainment;

– disruption to support services for people with disabilities and other households with care and support needs;

– increase in the number of households living in overcrowded conditions; and

– a decrease in the number of and quality of private rented sector properties available to Housing Benefit tenants.”

The truth will out.

Quotations from DWP impact assessment:

apart from *David Cameron

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The new serfs

<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.

In my first ever post on Red Brick I traced the development of security of tenure in social housing and the reasons for the introduction of secure tenancies to council housing in 1980.  To put it mildly, landlords did not always behave well and tenants needed basic consumer protection against arbitrary or unfair actions.  As I said there, without security tenants have fewer rights in relation to losing their homes than drivers have in relation to parking tickets.

Are social landlords better now?  Yes they are, indeed much much better, but they are still highly variable and some, frankly, just can’t be trusted.  It has taken years of regulation and inspection to change the attitude and practice of some of them, and that pressure is about to be stripped away.  At the bottom of it is respect for tenants, who are now informed customers rather than grateful serfs*, tugging the forelock to the landlord. 

I am hugely impressed by the humanity and commitment of most people who work in social housing.  It can be a hard and challenging sector to work in.  But I also have little doubt that some will slip back into old ways given half a chance.  I have sat in many a room with senior managers moaning that their basic problem is the tenants.  Nothing wrong with the properties, one housing director said, it’s the people that need fixing.  Or the housing association chief who said that the problem nowadays was that tenants no longer feared their landlord.  

Security of tenure regulates the relationship.  Bad tenants can be removed, so it is not a tenancy for life as then propagandists say.  The landlord has to go to Court and provide evidence against a set of rules fixed by Parliament.  A serious decision – to remove somebody from their home – is taken seriously and with proper process; people have clear rights to object and put their case. 

Landlords hate the Courts, partly because the wheels of justice are slow, cumbersome, bureaucratic and not always rational in outcome (here they have a fair point), and partly because the Courts are a check and balance on their administrative power.  The Courts don’t always throw tenants out just because the landlord says so. 

With temporary tenancies the decision to remove the tenant from their home will be taken administratively by the landlord.  No doubt there will be rules, but these will be locally determined and I doubt if there will be much transparency and there will be no effective external regulation.  Internally, the power to make decisions will be delegated.  Housing officers will be required to make decisions I do not believe they are equipped to take or ever will be: whether a tenant stays or goes, whether they pass or fail a means test, whether a tenant still needs or, worst of all, deserves the tenancy.  It will change the whole basis of the relationship between tenants and front-line housing staff.  Tenants will feel more fearful, deferential, and uncertain.  The scope for bad practice and error, discrimination and bad behaviour by landlords will increase.  By mirroring the arrangements in the private rented sector, the social sector will import more of the failings of that sector as well. 

This is why I think the housing lobby will make a serious mistake if it gets into an argument with the government about the minimum length of the new tenancies – 3 years is better than 2 – rather than articulate and defend the core principle of security of tenure itself. 

*Even under feudalism landlords could not dispossess serfs without cause.


The Tories will reduce the waiting lists…

…and they can do it without housing a single extra person.
This is old news for those who read Steve’s post a couple of weeks ago, but the housing minister has been busy today arguing that the growing waiting lists demonstrate his reforms are the right thing to do.
He certainly will cut waiting lists; his reform paper gives councils the ability to limit those who join the waiting lists and those who want to move within social housing will be taken out of the current allocations system and off the waiting lists. The second of these is no bad move. It could help people move more easily. But, it takes people off the waiting list, whether they are successfully housed or not.
In short, the shrinking of the waiting lists in the coming years will have little relationship to more people getting secure, good quality homes. Don’t forget that when the Tories start boasting.
It’s worth considering the end of open waiting lists for a moment. Labour believe that public housing isn’t just a safety net for the neediest and most vulnerable, but could and should be a support for working people, especially those on low incomes. That’s why, at the moment, anyone can apply to social housing lists regardless of their level of need (even if their chances of actually getting a home are virtually nil). It represented a belief that public housing was part of building settled successful and prosperous communities, not the antithesis to them.
This is not the Conservative view – increasingly they see it as a temporary safety net for people, which should be available for a short time only. That’s why they’d like councils to impose criteria of need onto who applies for social housing. It’s why they’d like landlords to not renew the new time-limited tenures, if people’s incomes have risen.  
This is an entirely different philosophy and one which means all estates by definition must be the stereotypical ‘sink’ estates: unless you’re desperate, you shouldn’t be allowed to live there.

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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.


Scaremongers abound

During the election the Tories were very keen on painting Labour as a negative party, who wanted to whip up unfounded fears about the Tories’ secret and malicious plans. On cancer tests, cuts, and Sure Start, among others, the cry of scaremongering went up from Dave, George and co. 
It’s an effective political technique that undermines the credibility of criticism by arguing that it is extreme and that those making it are desperate, with only the power of fear to play on.
Such a skirmish took place on the housing front. People who pay attention to housing will remember this in Inside Housing April 2010. Rattled by Labour claims that the Tories would hike social housing rents and abolish security of tenure, Mr Cameron came out to bat himself to rebut such claims.
He said these claims were part of a ‘scare campaign’, Labour’s allegations were ‘simply untrue’ and that the Conservatives believe in the ‘security [social housing] provides’.
Within months of their election they are set to abolish security of tenure and allow social housing rents to rise to 80% of market rents.
Regardless of if you think these measures are good or bad, they broke their promises and were perhaps even telling porkies at the time. 
Anyway, it’s an unattractive habit of political people to rake over lost election claims, seeking retrospective justification. But does this episode tell us anything about our government now and in the future?
Didn’t Clegg and others jump to say Labour were scaremongering over housing benefit cuts compelling people to move out of their communities? Remind me, what was Eric Pickles’ response to the (Tory-controlled) Local Government Association’s assessment of the impact of cuts on council services? Scaremongering?
Just a thought: Rather than scaremongering being the last resort of desperate parties, aren’t accusations of scaremongering becoming the first resort of our government when they’ve been caught bang to rights?

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Unequal impact

<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.

Since the Election the Government has substantially reduced the information it provides in announcements, consultation papers and the like concerning the impacts the proposals will have in equalities terms. 

It was an important innovation by Labour to introduce a statutory requirement to publish impact assessments.  Policy documents improved: ‘straight line thinking’ was challenged by the discipline of having to look at issues from the different standpoints of women, ethnic minorities, disabled people, and others.  It didn’t solve the problem but equalities issues were much more likely to be properly considered as part of policy development, and policies were much more likely to be adapted to mitigate any adverse impacts identified.  Impact assessments were fascinating to read because they tended to reveal downsides or unintended consequences of a policy that did not appear to have been addressed.      

By any measure, this week’s consultation paper on social housing and homelessness is likely to have major implications for women, ethnic minorities and disabled people.  Yet there is no impact assessment or equalities assessment published with the consultation paper.  And none of the 30 consultation questions explicitly concerns equalities (although one asks if new tenants who are older people or have a long term illness or disability should be given ‘a social home for life’ – is there any answer other than ‘yes’?).  The only reference to the duty is a note saying that impact assessments of the legislative changes will be published with the Localism Bill – we will see how thorough these are when they emerge – but the consultation paper has much wider consequences for practice in the sector than the contents of the Bill. 

The Equality Commission is launching a formal inquiry as to whether the Treasury fulfilled its “legal duty to pay ‘due regard’ to equality and consider any disproportionate impact on protected groups when making decisions, including decisions about the budget”, pointing out that “Where decisions are found to have a disproportionate impact on a particular group protected by the legislation, public bodies must consider what actions can be taken to avoid, mitigate or justify that impact.” (see link below).  The charge was made at the time of the spending review, notably by Yvette Cooper, that it would hit women much harder than men.  Although officially denied, it emerged that Theresa May had written to George Osborne after the June budget to register concerns about non-compliance with the legislation.  

Although the Commission will not report until next summer, they could then serve a compliance notice and go to the Courts to force the Treasury to comply.  Their intervention is to be welcomed and should also serve as a warning to Communities and Local Government Ministers.

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Welwyn-Hatfield Syndrome

<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.

Always one for the grand gesture and photo-opportunity, Grant Shapps is on TV yesterday cutting some ‘real red tape’ and complaining that local authorities suffer from ‘Stockholm Syndrome’.  Well, the point missed me for one and possibly most of the rest of the population as well.  Wikipedia came to the rescue as usual, letting me know that in psychology Stockholm Syndrome describes the paradox where captives express positive feelings towards their captors.    

I don’t know if Shapps is a student of psychology but evidentally in Spooks the syndrome was crucial to the storyline involving agent Lucas North.  More likely that was the inspiration.

Shapps was describing the ‘bonfire of the regulations’ that are to free local government from the ‘apron strings of the nanny state’.  But, just as this week’s social housing consultation talked of freeing landlords and not tenants, this announcement is about freeing government and councils and not residents.  Both are about removing scrutiny of performance and achievement.  At the core, they are about obscuring and hiding the real impact of the cuts.

One of the casualties is inspection by the Audit Commission of local authorities’ strategic housing function.  Under the government’s plan to remove regional planning and targets and to place all key housebuilding decisions at local authority level, councils’ understanding of their local housing markets and housing supply and demand will be critical. 

Over the last couple of years, the Audit Commission has completed over 30 inspections and re-inspections of councils’ strategic function.  Not one was found to be excellent.  Only 4 were found to be good, 18 fair and 11 poor.  Picking one at random, West Somerset was described as follows: “The service lacks a clear understanding of community need and because strategic plans are weak, the Council has yet to effectively target the relatively poor private sector housing conditions. The delivery of new homes is not meeting needs and there has been little success in addressing empty homes. Strong outcomes for vulnerable people, such as those living in temporary accommodation, are limited.”

Some districts are very small, many now have no housing stock of their own, and many have little capacity to undertake the strategic work that is necessary.  It is not surprising that they do not perform strategic housing tasks well and it would be even more surprising given budget reductions if they were to suddenly discover the talent to do so.  This is one reason why so many local housing development decisions will be decided by the loudest voices rather than careful deliberation.  It is also why the regional perspective was so important to housebuilding delivery.

So, we identify the new Welwyn-Hatfield Syndrome, unfortunately not yet in Wikipedia, but named in honour of Shapps’ constituency.  This is where someone passes the buck down the line having made damn sure the recipient will fail to deliver, removing all scrutiny of the process, at the expense of everyone who needs a home to buy or to rent.  Then you shout from the rooftops:

“Nothing to do with me guv, I’m only the Minister.”