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Surviving

For someone involved in housing for 50 years, it is impossible not to feel embarrassed and ashamed by the appalling conditions lived in by some social tenants as exposed by Daniel Hewitt’s ITV documentary, Surviving Squalor.

The ‘regulator’ (sic) should be throwing the book and the ‘Ombudsman’ (equally sic) should be down on them like a ton of bricks. Sadly, they are both ineffectual. I would like tenants to be able to sue for damages more easily and for landlords to be prosecuted. But where are the highly paid Executives, and where are the Boards and where are the councillors who run these organisations?

We are rightly angry at some of the cases shown and it is excellent journalism especially when the tenants themselves are allowed to speak. Once again, we see people who are articulate but totally exasperated, just wanting a decent service in return for their rent and service charges.

But equally fine journalism and campaigning has also exposed many a bad private landlord over the years. The cases of many badly treated lessees and shared owners have also had wide coverage recently. And I recall that some of the worst housing conditions and poverty I ever encountered were amongst elderly homeowners. So, the issues are broader, not confined to a single tenure, and must be properly examined.

Across all tenures, our standards and expectations are just too low – and falling behind all the time, especially when health implications and climate change are considered – the remedies are just not good enough, and accountability is totally inadequate.

At the core, we just don’t invest enough of our national wealth in homes, and we don’t invest because we do not value highly enough the human dignity that comes with living in a decent, appropriate, warm, dry, affordable home.

There was plenty to be annoyed about in the programme. The practised apologies seemingly written by PR people. The disgrace that urgent action is taken when a bad case gets on the telly – ITV might quickly find itself inundated as the country’s leading housing advice agency. The lack of intervention by people who should intervene. The quick return to normality that inevitably follows.

But one thing above all made me feel sick. Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary, said it was nothing to do with the government, it was all down to bad practice and mismanagement. However guilty we feel, rightly, housing people should condemn this oleaginous brass-necked man.

His Party abolished the regulator, abolished the Audit Commission, abolished the National Tenant Voice, cut housing by 60% as its first act in 2010, ended new funding for social rented homes, introduced chaos into rent setting so no-one could plan, and pushed landlords into taking money out of housing management, maintenance, and capitalised repairs to ‘cross-subsidise’ new build as the only way of getting new homes built.

This is not an excuse for landlords, and it is not all about money – some of the worst disrepair cases in the programme seemed to be in blocks that had expensive new cladding – but for Jenrick not to admit that government drives this increasingly rickety machine is buck-passing of the worst kind.

I do think social landlords have lost sight of the bread and butter, their first duty, that homes must be properly managed and properly maintained. I know only too well that it is possible for things to go wrong even when you think you are doing it right. But now there is too much emphasis on shiny new schemes, sparkling financial products, innovative new structures, and fancy regeneration.

Development is seen to be exciting and strategic, management boring and messily detailed. Housing Association Boards do not have enough people on them with experience of running social housing in which people with relatively small incomes live. They are stuffed with people interested in development and finance, important skills but not enough. I suspect many of them never meet a tenant. I know quite a lot of dedicated councillors and I have almost no explanation as to why local councillors in the boroughs depicted were not up in arms.

Of course, some people jumped at the opportunity to denounce social housing. This is where the greatest peril lies. All too often, social housing has been made to fail by government, even if too many social landlords have also been complicit. Yet the sector has rallied due to the efforts of tenants and campaigners, and it has survived an attempt to end it altogether.

It is still the case that millions of people would be delighted to get a social rented home. Most social tenants are satisfied with their homes, the vast majority are in reasonable condition but lacking investment since the end of the decent homes programme.  

Social rented housing is still the main hope in the search for a solution to the housing crisis. But the sector must stop shooting itself in the foot, speak out for tenants, be more competent, be more caring, and be more focused on the core task of running what we already have well.

<strong>Steve Hilditch</strong>
Steve Hilditch

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

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Lessons from Kosovo: Structured Development Payments

Councillor Dave Ward returns from Kosovo with lessons in development finance. He argues that allowing the land and development supply chain to share in the upside of apartment sales can lower the barriers to entry for smaller housebuilders.

I have just returned from Pristina, Kosovo where I got my new apartment ready for a summer rental to a couple of German students who are volunteering there for the summer and needed a place to stay. 

As Chair of Planning at the London Borough of Merton, I am always interested in housing and planning policy, particularly around building new homes and it was very interesting to see and learn about the differences between the UK, specifically London, and Pristina. 

Firstly, the scale is a lot smaller, Pristina is a city of nearly 150,000 people, just over eight per cent of the total 1.8 million population of Kosovo, and growing. This quite closely compares with London’s 7m people, roughly 10% of the total population of the UK. 

So both cities are the centres of government, the financial sector, the media and the headquarters of many national and international businesses and other organisations. As in London this attracts a higher population as people come to the capital for work, which then leads to housing pressures. 

Pristina is in the middle of a housebuilding boom. The block where I now live (for some of the year) is ten storeys, with roughly 60 apartments varying in size from small studios to three-bed apartments. It is one of at least eight similar blocks, either completed or under construction, just within a few hundred metres, in an attractive location just ten minutes walk from the city centre. 

The most interesting thing I discovered about housebuilding in Pristina is they way it is financed which is very different from the UK. Typically a developer will find some land upon which a block could be built, purchase it from the original landowner, pay contractors to build the block, and suppliers for the materials, then when it is complete, sell or rent the homes and try to make a profit, just like here. 

The difference is that the original landowner, contractors and suppliers are often paid, at the end of the project, in completed properties. 

For example, the company which supplies the concrete struts which form the frame of the building might, instead of cash, upon completion of the project receive a floor, 6 or 8 properties which they can sell, keep or rent as they wish. The same for the building contractors, glaziers and anyone else involved in the project. 

I was surprised at this and wanted to know more so, as I was due to meet the owner of the company which built the block I live in, I asked him about it. 

His company usually funds around half of the construction costs of a new development in this way. It is kind of a loan, without interest, but it is more expensive. He estimates that building a new block of apartments would be 5 to 10 per cent cheaper if paid up-front in cash. This is a compensation for the contractors, for instance a building firm. They need to pay their workers, purchase the materials and do their work, paying up-front, on the promise of a number of properties upon completion, not knowing for certain what they will be worth at that stage. They are taking much of the risk, and therefore take a higher return. 

This model is used widely in Kosovo and has been borrowed from nearby Turkey where this has been the norm for development for some time. 

The practical implications of this are that housebuilding is slightly more expensive, but easier to do for those without huge amounts of up-front capital. So building is not dominated by large developers funded by the major banks or the very wealthy. A relatively small company, such as the family firm which built my block, can get into the housebuilding business and deliver new homes from very small beginnings. 

Property prices and rental values in Pristina are, like London, higher than the rest of the country. They are much lower than London in actual terms, but also lower in relative terms compared to average income, wages and cost of living in Pristina. Housing is genuinely affordable for those on modest or low incomes. 

To rent an apartment like mine – 2 bedrooms in the centre of town – a single person would need a salary around the middle range in Pristina. A couple sharing would find it more affordable. This is for a sought-after area near the centre of town. Move a few miles out, a bus ride from the centre and rents and prices become comfortably affordable for the lower paid. 

Could this be replicated in full or in part in the UK? Could we open up housebuilding to smaller entrepreneurs, to housing associations, non-profit organisations, and to Local Authorities to build new housing, without the need for huge amounts of capital up front? 

I think it is worth looking into. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Dave Ward</span></strong>
Dave Ward

Dave is a Labour Councillor in the London Borough of Merton where he is Chair of the Planning Committee. He represents the ward of Colliers Wood.