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Let them drink soup

<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.

As I lived in Westminster for nearly forty years, readers will forgive me if I have a sharper focus on what goes on there.  There is normally plenty to report.  Mostly over the forty years it has been bad news.  Always run by the Tories, they sank from being a paternalist council that built an astonishingly high number of council houses in the late 60s and early 70s to the depredations of Lady Porter and the post-Porter policy of shipping as many homeless people as far away from the borough as possible.

But it is their policy on street homelessness that demonstrates that they have been, and remain, fully paid-up members of the nasty party.  The latest event in a long history is their plan, through a new bye-law, to ban soup runs and make sleeping on the streets illegal in a defined zone of the city, around Westminster Cathedral in Victoria.   (It was in the Daily Mail, under a headline containing the word ‘callous’, so it must be true). 

There is a contradiction in the stance taken by Tory Cabinet member for Housing, Angela Harvey.  She complains that, of the people attending the soup kitchens, “The majority will not be rough sleepers… you see them going off with large carrier bags stuffed full of food which is for them and their house mates.”  Now if that is the case, logically you might ban the soup runs.  Or you might exercise your mind and wonder why it is that people need to come out on a freezing night to find free food.  But why would you ban street sleeping if the people attending the soup runs are already housed?

Old Etonian and millionaire Cabinet member Sir George Young once said (or ‘quipped’ if you prefer the softer version in Wikipedia): “The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you are coming out of the opera?”  Quip or not, it reveals an attitude which many long-term observers of Westminster Council think also reflects the council’s real motivations: keep the place tidy and get the poor out from under our feet.  

There is a genuine debate about the effect of soup runs, and whether they save lives daily or encourage people to stay out of hostels and on the streets.  Westminster knows it is a balanced argument because it sponsored research from LSE which produced a sensible assessment of the pros and cons in a report less than 2 years ago.  The research identified the downsides of soup runs but concluded that they “provide a safety net by making available food and social contact to those who are unable or unwilling to access other services.”

But even if you think soup runs should be banned, the first article of the Bye-law is not about that.  It bans street sleeping itself.  “No person shall lie down or sleep in or on any public place.” And “No person shall at any time deposit any materials used or intended to be used as bedding in or on any public place”.

As Ken Livingstone put it:

 “The idea with all the other problems we’ve got, with crime, that we should have police diverted to seizing their soup is just bizarre.  I think this is just another: ‘Can we move the poor on from Westminister?’”

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What is the truth about Supporting People cuts?

<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.

An interesting spat between Patrick Butler of the Guardian and Grant Shapps.  Butler – the Guardian’s head of society, health and education – wrote a strong piece arguing that ‘savage cuts will leave people sleeping in the streets’  and Shapps replied with ‘the government is protecting the homeless from council cuts’.  Read both and see what you think.

Butler’s article quoted examples of councils making huge cuts in their Supporting People (SP) programmes, which provides services to homeless people amongst others. He quotes (as far as I know his figures have not been challenged) examples of 65% and 45% cuts. Butler concludes by saying:

The savaging of SP, a proven cost-effective social intervention, also spells doom for scores of small charities, which have quietly used SP money to up the kind of innovative, low-cost, volunteer-assisted community support networks that the coalition likes to call “big society”. Much of this infrastructure will be laid to waste.

In his reply, Shapps says he ‘simply does not recognise’ Butler’s ‘apocalyptic picture of impending social disaster’. The government has protected both SP budgets and homelessness budgets, ‘so there is no excuse for councils to be targeting any disproportionate spending reductions on programmes that support the most vulnerable.’  

To discover the truth we have to rely on mostly anecdotal information at this stage. However, Inside Housing’s survey of 150 councils’ intentions for 2011/2012 shows that there will be cuts of more than 30% in 16 councils and 67 of the councils in the survey will lose money compared to this year. Of equal interest is the fact that the remainder appear to have increased allocations – although, with no ring fence around SP spending, it remains to be seen what will actually get spent given all the other pressures.

And a National Housing Federation survey of 136 organisations which provide services to vulnerable people revealed that the vast majority of councils had already indicated cuts greater than 12%. Nearly three quarters of respondents (73%) said local authorities they work in had already indicated cuts of greater than 12%. 41% expected cuts over 20% in their area, and 18% of respondents expecting cuts over 30%.  60% of respondents said their organisation would be forced to reduce the level of service they offered and the top five client groups most at risk of cuts were: single homeless people, older people in need of support, people with drug and alcohol problems, ex-offenders, people with mental health problems.

The best that can be said is that a major redistribution of funding is taking place at the same time as the total national allocation is being frozen (taking Shapps at his word) or reduced, making life impossible for the losers, and more importantly, for the people who depend on the services. As funding is not ring fenced councils are doing what the government says they should – determining local priorities.  Regrettably, some vulnerable groups do not seem to be highly prioritised and ‘localism’ means the government can wash its hands of any responsibility for the outcome.  For Shapps to say that ‘there is no excuse for councils to be targeting any disproportionate spending reductions on programmes that support the most vulnerable’ when he has shifted large sums of money away from many of them is outrageous.

Shapps’ article contains one hostage to fortune. He says “If I thought this would in any way increase homelessness and rough sleeping, I certainly would not support the moves we are making to ensure every taxpayer’s pound is spent more wisely.”

We will soon know and then the sector can hold Shapps to his word. As we are talking about the very visible end of homelessness, the evidence will be there for everyone to see.

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Localism Bill – the Pickle Family Circus

<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 famous American Pickle Family Circus was known for its ‘Big Juggle’ that ended every performance in an intricate club passing pattern.  As the Localism Bill, published yesterdy, passes ‘powers’ (ie the blame for cuts) down to councils, ‘Pickles Big Juggle’ seems an appropriate metaphor.

For social housing and homelessness, the Bill had few real surprises as everything had been widely trailed or pre-announced.  We’ll pick up on specifics in later posts but here’s an initial reaction to the Social Housing Reform chapter of the Bill.

On allocations, councils will be able to decide who goes on waiting lists, which will no doubt lead to great claims in the future about ‘cutting waiting lists’.  We will be back to local manipulation of the list for political ends.  Transferring tenants will be moved outside the waiting list, but there is no evidence to support the claim that this will make it ‘easier for them to move’.        

On homelessness, its a nerve to call this reform rather than virtual repeal.  Come on Shelter, time to wake up to what is actually happening here!   And come on LibDems, the homelessness legislation was a Liberal private member’s Bill in the first place, something the Party has always been proud of  – time for you to speak up.  The government complains that 20% of social lettings go to homeless people ‘at the expense of other people in need on the housing waiting list’.  A miserable and ‘divide and rule’ justification for an extraordinarily backward step. 

The introduction of ‘flexible tenancies’ (insecure fixed term tenancies) which will gradually turn social housing into transit camp accommodation.  Some housing association chief executives really like this, so I am even more concerned.   

Reform of council housing finance is something I welcome but we still have to be careful about how much will be returned to the Treasury and how the detailed formulae will apply to different councils with stock.  Called a ‘key plank of localism’ but a previous Labour measure. 

The proposed Homeswap Scheme again is something to welcome as mobility arrangements need a boost.  Landlords will be required to participate in home swap schemes. 

‘Reform’ of the regulatory system and abolishing the Tenant Services Authority will, in some magical and as yet unexplained way, “put local people in control of driving up standards of social housing management and resolving most failings.”  Social tenants will receive ‘stronger tools to hold landlords to account’ but I’ll believe it when I see it.  The more likely explanation lies in the statement that ‘State intervention will be reduced’.  A positive change will be to end the system of two separate ombudsmen handling complaints, providing a common route for all social housing tenants.

In London, new powers for the Mayor will include full control over housing investment, a good step, and the devolution of more planning decisions to the boroughs.

Watch this space for more discussion of these issues over the coming few weeks.

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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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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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Is homelessness next on the hit list?

<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 the absence of a proper statement as to what the ConDem government’s housing policy is, we are left to pick up jigsaw pieces and try to make a coherent picture out of them.

Lord Freud of Benefit Reform, speaking to the work and pensions select committee, seems to have let one particular cat out of the bag. 

Flying in the face of expert opinion and echoing what David Cameron said on the subject, he argued that the housing benefit reforms would not cause additional homelessness or a need for additional temporary accommodation.  But then, in rather contradictory terms, he argued that it would be very valuable to change the definition of homelessness.  The statutory definition is not as it should be, he complained, because it is more than not having a roof over your head. 

If this is a signal that the government is working on a change in the statutory definition, which has been broadly the same since landmark private member’s legislation in 1977, promoted by a Liberal, then yet more of the most dire forecasts of the housing world will come true.  Freud complains that housing experts are stirring up fears and frightening people, but the pattern at the moment is that, when the worst fears are expressed, they are condemned as scaremongering by Ministers one day only to be confirmed as policy the next.       

As we have noted before, the homelessness legislation is indeed a barrier to the government’s plans to cut housing benefit support, because local authorities will have to take responsibility for some of those displaced.  So the next obvious step is to change the homelessness legislation to enable the HB cuts to be delivered without so many knock-on effects.  In effect, many more people will become homeless under the existing definition, but will not be regarded as homeless by a new definition.  So there is no additional homelessness.  Clever trick, but a trick nonetheless.  

There is a large constituency in this country that believes that the homelessness safety net, imperfect though it is, is one of the core pillars of the welfare state, not just a nice add-on that we can no longer afford.  Out there in the real world there are countless voluntary organisations, faith groups, and concerned citizens who work with homeless people daily and know the real story.  Many regard the manner in which we treat homeless people as a benchmark of our civilisation.  When mobilised, they can be a huge political force, and if I was the coalition government, I wouldn’t want to upset them.

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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.