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‘Bleeding stump’ charge adds insult to injury

<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.

On top of the policies that have come out of Communities and Local Government department since the Election, which are bad enough, many people in the housing and local government world have been infuriated by the style of political argument adopted by Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps.  It all seems so unpleasant. 

Anybody with a contrary view is rubbished and serious debate about the huge and sweeping cuts to frontline services is reduced to a few soundbites about the salaries of some senior officers or a couple of funny-sounding job titles.  The fact that Tory and Liberal councils are making huge cuts to frontline services is brushed aside as Labour councils are denounced for making supposedly politically-inspired cuts. 

Shapps raised the political temperature by accusing Liverpool of a ‘disgraceful attack on the vulnerable’ when it made cuts to its supporting people programme.  This was believed to be not entirely unconnected to the fact that the council pulled out as one of the vanguard communities for the Big Society – because of the scale of the cuts enforced by the Government.  Last weekend Pickles accused Labour councils of adopting a “bleeding stump” strategy

According to the BBC, Pickles said that Labour councils are making bigger than necessary cuts for ‘politically motivated reasons’ and that he ‘is angry about councils publicising spending cuts and blaming them on ministers.’  Even his own coalition partners have had enough: last month a large group of Lib Dems complained about his approach and said he was engaged in ‘gunboat diplomacy’ with local government.

It is therefore good to hear that the Cabinet Secretary has officially rebuked the Prime Minister over the ‘unacceptable’ behaviour of Pickles’ special advisers and the way in which they brief the media.  Cameron has been told to ‘restrain his aides’.  Politics is a rough old trade, as they say, but this action appears to be unprecedented.  The Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell’s letter, according to PR Week, read: ‘This behaviour is unacceptable. I trust you will agree with me and take necessary action to make sure that people understand this will not be tolerated.’

All over the country Labour councils have been struggling with huge front-loaded cuts to their budgets.  There have been large demonstrations at many council budget-making meetings by community organisations seeking to save their services, and Labour councillors dedicated to serving their communities have faced impossible decisions.  Pickles ‘bleeding stump’ comment adds insult to injury and will cause enormous resentment.

It is probably unconnected, but last week I signed up to Twitter for the first time, only to receive an email within minutes which read “you are being followed by the Conservatives”.  It’s an alarming thought. 

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March of the Meanies

<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.

A Day in the Life of Ministers in and around Communities and Local Government.  On January 3rd, Housing Minister Grant Shapps took action to prevent the demolition of a single house in Liverpool, occupied from the age of 0-4 by one Richard Starkey, later a drummer in a band.  “Let It Be” trumpeted Mr Shapps in the CLG press release.  More like Back in the USSR. 

Meanwhile, just along the corridor, Bungalow Bill* (played by E Pickles) was condemning, in the strongest possible terms, “Whitehall’s addiction to micromanagement” whilst ending requirements limiting car parking spaces in new developments, alongside his friend,  Lovely Rita, meter maid (aka Transport Minister Philip Hammond), who was removing restrictions on councils’ parking charge regimes.  CLG didn’t risk calling the policy Drive My Car.

All I can say is Help.  And Run For Your Life.

*John Lennon said that “‘Bungalow Bill’ was written about a man at the Maharishi’s meditation centre who went off to shoot a few tigers then came back to commune with God.

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A Christmas Carol (in prose)

A guest post for Xmas from Bernard Crofton adding a seasonal spin on a topic previously reported on Red Brick here.

A Christmas Carol (in prose)…… being a …….. ghost story for Christmas. 

In November of 2010,  the two government departments facing amongst the biggest budget cuts, the Department for Communities and Local Government,  and the Ministry of Justice,  issued a new  guidance leaflet : “Advice on dealing with squatters in your home”   available as a pdf  download from  http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/housing/advicesquatters,  where there is a helpful summary as well :-

There are an estimated 20,000 squatters in the UK. This guidance is aimed at homeowners and to make them aware of their rights where their property has been unlawfully occupied. It has been jointly produced with the Ministry of Justice which makes clear that it is an offence for a squatter to fail to leave a residential property when required to do so by or on behalf of either a displaced residential occupier or certain other occupiers whose interest in the premises is protected under the legislation.

That stirred some queasy  questions about the “new” advice;  mainly “Why?”  and “Why now? “ .

However, when I clicked and the pdf started its weary download, I heard the rattling of chains in the cellar. Surely Jacob Marley has been dead these seven years (or 17  since the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994).

The Advice starts with these words:

 “What can I do if my home has been taken over by squatters?

1                 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. “

I was fascinated by the imagery. Mainly because part of it was mine, come back to haunt me.  I was among the local government representatives consulted by the Home Office about the legislation. Actually the law, as laws of that era went, ended up quite fair. I never met any supporter of squatting who thought squatters should be able to move into an occupied dwelling and effectively evict the occupants.  Nor did I ever find a case where this had happened. Canvassing round the councils in London (where statistically almost all the squatting in the UK was concentrated) we couldn’t find a single case where that was  alleged to have happened.

We found a few cases where home-owners were trying to repair a newly acquired empty property before moving in, and it being squatted while undeniably unoccupied. We found very many parallel examples on council estates (and I managed a tenth of that national 20,000 squats figure) But the pubIic debate had far more of the tang of the illegal immigrants debate  It was about scroungers and spongers but with a more direct threat: they wouldn’t just take your money indirectly through the tax system, they would take your home and all that was in it!

One newspaper (I think of it as being the Daily Mail but I may just be prejudiced) ran a tale of a family returning from holiday to find their home squatted. “Vox populi” in the neighbourhood were said to be frightened to leave their homes unattended in case squatters moved in. We tried to find this example. The local council, where it reportedly occurred, only came up with a couple who lived abroad and owned several rented properties in the UK, one of which they found squatted on a visit back to the UK. They were certainly neither “displaced residential occupiers” nor  “protected intending occupiers” of the property.

So in discussions with the civil servants I pointed out that if I went out to walk the dog and found someone in my home when I returned, I would not find the Police reluctant to act on straightforward “breaking and entering” or even malicious damage grounds. My  sarcasm was effective. That “walking the dog” phrase alongside the “returning from holiday” one became shorthand for the fact the legislation was an over-reaction or a pandering to right wing prejudices. I still do not believe any owner-occupier was ever “displaced” by squatters while the kettle was still warm, or as Confucius say “swinging chain, warm seat”.

The issue, as local government and voluntary sector consultees all argued, was the time it took to get to court to repossess a squatted property. Ironically,court waiting-times  meant that if you bought an empty house that was immediately squatted, you were kept out of it for the full term of that other brilliant invention of the era: the shorthold tenancy.  So the law was eventually drafted to include the situations of both “a displaced residential occupier” and a  “protected intending occupier” of the property. And rather than put resources into reducing court waiting lists we got the “interim possession order”.

Now I never rule out the possibility there really was a case where people left their home to go on holiday and found it squatted on returning. I never completely rule out the possibility that somewhere there is a Big-issue seller who gets into his Rolls Royce at the end of the day. But I never met one remotely near that bracket, and so I remain sceptical. But as for home-owners being squatted while out for a walk with the dog, I never heard anyone ever suggest it has happened – except me as a sarcastic example of the hysteria over squatters.

Suddenly at the end of 2010, I find the example heading a new advice leaflet, not just from one but two government departments.  So I wrote to them both under the Freedom of Information Act (we didn’t have that when the 1994 Act was proposed, it was up to us to produce our own statistics). I asked:“Please supply me with any statistical information held or viewed by the Department or its predecessors, as to the number of owner-occupiers who have found squatters in their homes: a) on returning from holiday; b) after walking their dog.”

DCLG were first to respond, with the classic line from Fawlty Towers “ I know nuzzing”. The Ministry of Justice were more helpful.    The person with “responsibility for answering requests in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) which relate to civil (non family) law and housing possession related statistics which are to be handled under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA)” told me : 

“I can confirm that the Department does not hold the information you have requested. MOJ does not record property owners or property occupiers who have found that whilst away from the property, for whatever reason, that it has been occupied by squatters.”

After advising me of the rights of the un-numbered disposed occupiers, he helpfully provided the following table which he was not obliged to do under FOI, as it did not directly answer my question. He hoped it would be of use to me, so I am using it below. He warned me :

Table 1 below shows the number of Interim Possession Orders and Possession Orders against trespassers made in the county courts of England and Wales for the past full five years. Please read the footnotes underneath the table which describe how the data were compiled. Please note in particular that the figures include cases where properties were occupied by types of trespassers other than squatters (figures for squatters alone could only be determined by inspecting individual case files at a disproportionate cost), involving non-residential properties; and also that not all such orders given result in actual repossession of a property from a trespasser.

Table 1 Number of possession orders and interim possession orders given for trespass in the county courts of England and Wales, 2005-2009

                  Possession orders          Interim possession orders

2005                  929                                            117

2006                 1036                                           114

2007                   752                                            154

2008                  626                                             164

2009                  653                                             136

Source HMCS manual returns

Notes:

1. Data from 2005 to March 2009 were gathered from the Dept’s Management Information System.  Data from April 2009 were collected from the courts online data monitoring system One Performance Truth

2. Quality assurance checks have been carried out to remove outliers.  However these decisions have not been verified by contact with the courts.  These figures should therefore be treated with caution.

3.  Orders against trespassers and IPOs can be given for the possession of both commercial and residential properties from trespassers.

4.  Not all orders and interim orders given for possession against trespassers relate to properties that are occupied by squatters.

5.  Not all possession and interim possession orders result in actual repossession of a property from a trespasser.                       

Now let’s ignore that the table includes squatted shop-units etc. and that not all trespassers are squatters.  The table shows possession orders against trespassers (I recall the definition used to be “against persons who entered as trespassers” but that mayhave changed).

I conclude from this table the following.

The number of full orders has declined significantly in the last five years.

The number of interim orders has started to decline, after a rise.

That at the current rate of full orders  it would take 30 years to remove the current number of squatters….if there were no new cases.

That at the current rate of interim (i.e. urgent?) orders it would take nearly 150 years.

No one seems in a hurry.

Is it me or is there something odd about the emergence of this new governmental advice from financially strapped departments just in time for the Xmas season? Conspiracy theories are accepted, but any genuine leaks as to why this ghost has been disturbed would be especially welcome.

Bernard  Crofton

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An unfair future for social housing

<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.

It’s too ambitious a task to analyse Grant Shapps’ social housing consultation paper in one post.  I hope people will read it and make their comments forcefully to the government.  But there are a few points I think are worth stressing.

1. Localism is a great dodge.  It allows you to slide away from all difficult questions by saying you are just enabling the landlords and it will be down to councils and housing associations to decide for themselves how much the new powers are used.  The paper has no predictions of how many of each type of new tenancy might be created in future and it avoids any substantive discussion of how ‘well off’ a tenant needs to become before they are evicted at the end of a short tenancy.  So its a postcode lottery, what happens to you and your home depends entirely on an accident of geography and chance.  Given that the stated justification for the policy is to give more opportunities to the 1.8m on waiting lists, it is astonishing that there is no estimate, however rough, of how many people might benefit from the policy over a period.  

2. The proposed change to the homelessness duty guts the legislation as we have known it for 33 years.  Local authorities will be able to discharge their duty to a homeless household by finding a private letting for the applicant, who can no longer refuse it, even though landlords will still have to offer ‘reasonable preference’ to vulnerable homeless households under their allocation policy.  The paper complains that “those owed the duty can effectively insist on being provided with temporary accommodation until offered social housing” as if being in TA is some luxurious option.  In fact, TA makes it almost impossible for people to work, frequent moves mean families do not settle and children are seriously disadvantaged.  The average stay in TA is one year outside London and 3 years in London.  No-one would suffer that if the private rented option was a reasonable one for them.  People suffer it because social housing offers the only hope of a decent and secure home at an affordable rent to enable families to rebuild their lives in a settled home.   

3. Some extraordinary claims are made – for example that the reforms will help overcrowded families.  How exactly?  There are no proposals to tackle underoccupation amongst existing tenants and zero existing large homes will be released to help the 260,000 overcrowded social tenants.  Even more astonishing is the claim that the proposals will promote ‘strong and cohesive communities’ when the opposite is the almost certain outcome of a more rapid turnover of tenants with new tenants not being able to put down roots and become net contributors to their neighbourhoods.

4. The new ‘affordable rent’ tenure, or ‘flexible tenure’ as they now seem to prefer, is aimed to provide homes for the same people who might be offered social rent now.  But it is open to the landlord to decide the rent, the length of tenancy and, within a broad framework, the terms.  The paper at least is honest when it says this is “a significant first step towards those greater freedoms for social landlords.”  How will people on waiting lists, homeless people or any other prospective tenant know what kind of tenancy they will receive, for how long and at what rent?  Chaos awaits.      

5. The paper has one traditional charlatan’s trick – if you can’t change the reality, change the way it is counted.  One reason for the growth in waiting lists since 2002 was labour’s decision that they should be open to anyone to apply.  As a result, waiting lists have become a more accurate count of not only the need for social rented housing but also the demand – and it is huge.  Social housing is a popular option with many people and they want more of it.  But in future councils will be able to dictate who qualifies to join the waiting lists, leaving it open to local political manipulation as was the case prior to 2002.  And no doubt the government will claim that waiting lists have been slashed since they came into power.

6. And my 2 favourite hobby horses.  First the claim that social housing is subsidised when everyone at CLG knows that council housing is running a surplus, including the cost of debt, which is likely to grow over the next few years.  Even calling houisng association homes subsidised because they have capital grant is questionable – they make a large surplus in the long term.   And secondly, the use of the term ‘lifetime tenancy’ as if it was a legal or technical term, is extremely irritating.  This phrase was invented by those opposed to security of tenure to try to make it sound ridiculous.  Security of tenure simply means that the tenancy is not time limited and the landlord has to have grounds for possession and to get a court order to repossess.  Simple consumer protection.

‘Local decisions: a fairer future for social housing’ can be found at http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/housing/pdf/1775577.pdf

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Social housing ‘reform’: less Localism and more Localis

<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.

There is a lot in common between the policies on social housing announced today by Grant Shapps.  None of the policies appeared in the Lib Dem Manifesto.  Apart from better mobility, none appeared in the Conservative Manifesto, which promised to “respect the tenures and rents of social housing tenants”.  Apart from the HRA reform and empty homes, none made it into the coalition agreement.  The common thread is that they have all been thoroughly undemocratically arrived at and the British people were not told any of it at the Election.

The truth is that these policies have all been developed in the back channels of the Conservative Party.  One document recommended virtually all the policies now adopted by the coalition.  A Localis pamphlet written by the Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council, Stephen Greenhalgh, and John Moss, in 2009, called ‘Principles for Social Housing Reform’, proposed ending security of tenure, raising rents to market levels, and removing rights from homeless people.  There is only one serious departure – Greenhalgh and Moss accepted that there would have to be a commensurate increase in housing benefit payments to enable rents to rise so high – and the government hasn’t taken that one on board.

Dave Hill in his London blog traces the contact between Greenhalgh and the Tory front bench.  The more they met, and the more the front bench distanced themselves in public from the more extreme policies, the more committed they seem to have become to implementing them if they won.

There is little doubt that social housing has suffered from a great deception. 

We will have more about the new policies on Red Brick shortly, but the government’s consultation paper can be found here: http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/housing/pdf/1775577.pdf

 The Tory back channel policies can be found here:  http://www.localis.org.uk/images/articles/Localis%20Principles%20for%20Social%20Housing%20Reform%20WEB.pdf

And Dave Hill’s history can be found here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/davehillblog/2009/oct/05/stephen-greenhalgh-housing-policy-timeline

Those that like to follow the personalities in housing as well as the policies will be interested to know that Greenhalgh and Moss specially acknowledge the help of “two extremely influential couples” – Julie Cowans, co-author of Visions for Social Housing, and David Cowans, Chief Executive of Places for People; and Nick Johnson, Chief Executive of H&F Homes and Kate Davies, Chief Executive of Notting Hill Housing Trust. 

 As Stan Laurel once said, “Here’s another nice mess I got you into.”