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Compromise and Council Houses

In part two of this three part blog contribution we continue to hear from inside the tent to what extent our planning system is truly representative and democratic. Do cries of ‘social cleansing’ hold any veracity, or does left-wing NIMBYism refusal to accept trade-offs manifest itself to the same effect?

Once upon a time, I would’ve stood on Reginald Street in Deptford in searing anger. Even with the land cleared and the hoardings up, I would still be bitter about what my colleagues had been put through. But today I’ve found myself mellowed. As I watch the diggers at work, laying the foundation for 117 new social homes, I wryly smile to myself. Today, the fight for these homes seems so easy, so tiny, so inconsequential. 

The old Tidemill school site on Reginald Road had long been earmarked for the development of new homes. Instead of allowing the vacated site to fester, Lewisham Council agreed to a ‘meanwhile use’ leased and the area was handed over to a volunteer community group to operate. With the land, they created a ‘community garden’. 

A ‘community garden’ is a bit of a misnomer, as it conjures up the image of an area open and shared by all in the neighbourhood. In reality, due to a lack of volunteers, by the time of its closure, the garden was overgrown, locked up, and open for a few hours each Saturday. Insiders say that a small clique living on well-heeled streets over in Brockley, operated the site as their own semi-private enclave. No big deal, we felt, because at least the land was semi-utilised.

The trouble only started when the council request the stewardship of the land to be returned so that our long-awaited housing development could get underway. Reneging on their promise to hand back the land when the ‘meanwhile use’ was up, the community group refused to hand over the keys. And thus, the ‘Save Tidemill Garden’ campaign arrived. 

It quickly snowballed. 

Opposite the development site, sits the Birdnest pub in Deptford. I like the boozer, but if I say it wears its counter-cultural chic a little too earnestly on its sleeve, you might get what I mean. It’s filled with students, old rockers and geezers, and was a perfect local meeting point for the Save Tidemill campaign.

Close your eyes and picture a row of wooden tables, on each one, sits a different segment of the Save Tidemill campaign’s coalition. 

  • Table 1: The founders of the garden, mostly your classic NIMBYs, primarily asset-rich and comfortable. They’ll miss their garden when it’s gone and they don’t want pesky social housing spoiling their Saturday afternoon sun-spot.
  • Table 2: Assorted Left-wing groups. Nearly all older NIMBYs as well, these lot are driven primarily by political opportunism and they want to find a wedge issue to campaign against the local Labour council (internally in the Labour Party, or externally). For this group, they’ll reject any council-led development programme from the pin-head of ideological grounds. Any development that is not 100% council ‘target rent’ is rejected, even if the private sale properties on-site are necessary to fund the building of the social homes. It means that in reality, they reject any new large-scale affordable house building.
  • Table 3: Eco-Nimbys, probably Green Party members, you know the ones — the type of people who weep over fallen trees on the HS2 path, despite HS2 being a piece of crucial infrastructure to increase our rail and freight capacity and reduce our over-reliance on private cars and lorries which has a huge knock-on effect on our nation’s carbon emissions and the death of more of your bloody trees.
  • Table 4: Anarcho-crusties / Green-Black Groups. A bit like the Eco-Nimbys but they are more inclined towards violence towards the man. 

The Save Tidemill campaign only got as noisy as it did because Tables 1 & 2 framed the building of this new social housing as corporate ‘ecocide’ and therefore managed to connect with Tables 3 & 4. The campaign itself was risible. Misinformation was spread in the neighbourhood and councillors who spoke up for the scheme were relentlessly attacked. Eventually, the rhetoric spilt over into direct action.

Cllr Joe Dromey, one of the few who were brave enough to face the misinformation head-on, would eventually be attacked on the street by masked protestors. Cllr Paul Bell, who led the scheme, would take his address off the Lewisham Council website out of fear of reprisals. He had been accosted in the street as well, while leaving a council meeting. 

But as nasty as the campaign got, I never felt like our plans were in jeopardy. Here were 117 new social homes, as well as 41 for shared ownership and 51 for private sale, replacing a ‘meanwhile use’ garden and an old and dilapidated block at 2–30a Reginald Road. The new green space on the development would be accessible to all unlike the Tidemill Garden, and the tenants of 2–30a Reginald Road would be provided brand new high-quality homes on lifetime tenancies. Those in housing need would be given what they deserved. The case was a no-brainer. 

Lewisham Council has a Residents’ Charter that guarantees all residents impacted by a regeneration scheme are given the right to remain on their estate and guarantees an increase in genuinely affordable housing. To me, these guarantees are not only morally right, but they also make political-strategic sense. 

Left-wing groups and other opportunist political opponents have desperately and repeatedly tried to leap into our estate regeneration proposals for political gain. And while they may have recruited a few new paper-sellers in the process of campaigning, they have failed to stop any major schemes.

Take the regeneration of Achilles Street, New Cross. Despite a campaign by left-wing NIMBYs spreading fearmongering and disinformation among tenants and leaseholders, an estate ballot returned 73% in favour of the regeneration. The likely outcome of this renewal will be 450 homes on site, with a minimum of 50% of the total homes built being affordable, and a minimum of 35% of the total homes built will be Council-owned homes for social rents.

Similarly, even Lewisham Council’s joint-venture with Grainger to build 324 new homes for rent off Besson Street in New Cross slid fairly comfortably through planning, with the ward’s left-wing councillors speaking in favour of the proposals. On the Besson Street scheme, 65% will be leased at market rent to fund the 114 homes which will be lease at London Living Rent. The scheme also delivered an array of other amenities for the area including a new GP surgery and community space for the New Cross Gate Trust. 

The left-wing NIMBY groups rejected Besson Street because London Living Rent is not social housing. Instead, these are genuinely affordable rents set by the average incomes in the Telegraph Hill ward. Each household will sign a secure 5-year tenancy that is automatically rolled-over if they want to remain. In Lewisham, we need to build all sorts of tenures, not just social housing, and these homes are designed and will cater to our key workers who will never be eligible for social housing. 

On the hoardings that line Besson Street today, someone has scrawled ‘stop social cleansing’. But in fact, these new homes will help key workers —  your nurses, your police officers, your school teachers, remain in our borough near where they work. Even more absurdly, the cries of ‘gentrification’ and ‘social cleansing’ were used for Achilles Street and Tidemill Garden. These schemes offer net-gains in social housing — they are a firewall against gentrification and help low-income families remain in our community. 

The left-wing NIMBYs have tried to peddle the falsehood that these estate regenerations are not supplying social housing because the new homes will be provided at London Affordable Rent — which is pegged at 2016 social rent levels. London Council target rent is now £105.87pw for a two-bedroom property, while London Affordable Rent is £158.85pw. The 13 residents of Reginald House who would be offered a new home on the development, would continue to be housed at their target rent. For the 104 homeless families being offered a new home, it’ll be a huge fall in rent and for many, the first time they’ve ever had a secure, decent home for their family. 

Affordable housing funding is extremely restricted by an austerity-driven Conservative government. But as this article highlights, in 2016, Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London, managed to negotiate funding from central government for new affordable homes. While funding for social homes, at target rent, were ruled out, the government did agree to fund new homes at Khan’s London Affordable Rent. London Affordable Rent is sent at 2016 target rent levels and is deemed a social rent. While target rent levels have fallen since, year on year – a plan devised by George Osborne to reduce the housing benefit bill — London Affordable Rent has stayed static, that’s caused the disparity. 

The long and short of it is that for these homes to be funded and built at all, they’ll need to be at London Affordable Rent. Working with a charitable provider and building at London Affordable Rent was the only way Lewisham Council could get this many genuinely affordable homes built at the Old Tidemill site. For activists, it’s a choice of viable developments, providing social homes at London Affordable Rent, or no new social homes at all. Sadly, I know where some groups would side.

The refusal of these left-wing activists to accept those trade-offs, reveals, more than anything else, just how out of touch they are with the lives of London’s precariat and working-poor. The median rent for a two-bedroom property in Lewisham is £365.75 per week, above the housing benefit cap. Moreover, ‘no DSS’ discrimination remains rife in the private sector. Many of our poorest residents cannot afford the private sector and if they can, they remain in overcrowded sub-par accommodation.

Even if new homes on Achilles Street and Tidemill Garden are more expensive than target rent council homes, they are seismically cheaper and more secure than the private sector. The homeless families moving into these homes will care more about a new chance in life than the fact that a registered charitable provider is supplying them a life-time tenancy and not the council. Nor are they likely to quibble about a rent far more affordable than their temporary accommodation or home in the PRS. 

Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the working class. 

And that’s why these campaigns do not work and never build traction beyond those four tables. Because their arguments are devoid from the lived-reality of the housing crisis and the trade-offs necessary to build new social housing. Despite our reputation, councillors are not daft. We clock that no young renters joined the chorus against the Tidemill Garden development at our local Labour meetings, even if they did follow the Momentum whip.

During Lewisham Labour’s manifesto working groups in 2017, it was noted that it was our young Momentum members who were the ones most enthused by our Besson Street plans. Not only did they like that the income generated from the scheme would help provide services for our residents, they knew from personal experience how life-changing it would be to move into long-term, stable housing in the private rented sector. Like me, they can only dream of a home at London Living Rent.

Councillors speak to residents in our wards all the time and we know that the overwhelming majority accept schemes like Achilles Street, Tidemill and Besson Street are positive. Of course, we still take precautions — we ensure we engage early on any estate regen project and we ensure the facts of a scheme are widely disseminated. On Achilles Street, we held meet-and-greet drop-ins to tackle misinformation. Yet when push comes to shove, sensitive and policy-compliant council-led schemes to build new social and affordable housing are going to have broad support.

While not as politically-heated as large estate regeneration, smaller social housing developments, such as estate-infills can be trickier. Faced by densification of their area without an offer of a new home, current tenants and leaseholders on an estate often take a ‘what’s in it for us?’ approach to the building of essential affordable housing. Moreover, infills often only remain viable if they are larger in scale than many residents are willing to accept.

However, colleagues, alongside the wider public, accept the trade-offs needed to deliver social housing schemes and policy compliant applications will often be looked upon sympathetically. Broadly, public and institutional support (i.e. amongst the council’s political group) work in tandem. It is why councillors can feel emboldened to champion our promised new social and affordable housing schemes and face down the political pressure from noisy campaigns to abandon policy complaint schemes.

But in the grand-scheme of things, I know that all these battles for social housing are small-fry. Local authorities do not have the resources to purchase new land to build social housing on. The scope of what we can achieve is extremely limited. Despite our good work, we can’t even build enough council homes to replace the ones we continue to lose from right-to-buy. 

In short, only the private sector is going to get us out of this housing crisis. While affordable housing programmes have institutionalised support, across the political spectrum market-rate builds are viewed with suspicion. This suspicion leads to a widespread lack of public support for market-rate builds and in my view, this in turn leads to councillors having a pre-disposition to be swayed by NIMBY-campaigns.

In part three of this series, I’ll explain that if we don’t accept this reality, and take a new approach to development, the housing crisis will never be beaten. We need to build a new consensus — one that agrees that a lack of supply (+ building in the wrong places) is causing our housing crisis and that we need market-rate developments at large scales that we cannot deliver without reform.

This is option two, and the only one left. 

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Leo Gibbons-Plowright</span></strong>
Leo Gibbons-Plowright

Leo is a Labour and Co-Op Party Councillor for Forest Hill in Lewisham.

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The Return of Housing Regulation

From a Government that has until now been considered de-regulatory, we are now witnessing a return to housing regulation. But will it deliver the goods?

The aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy in 2017 has been far reaching. The Public Inquiry continues with revelations every week about the appalling practices in both the building industry and the procurement framework that led to the deaths of 72 people.[i] One outcome was the Government commitment to reform social housing and place tenants and residents at the centre of decision making around the management of their homes and the estates where they live. As a consequence the Government published a Green Paper one year after the fire proposing reforms to social housing to address some of the problems revealed by the Grenfell fire. [ii]   

Following the fire, the existing framework for regulating social housing was subject to savage criticism. Since 2010 the regulation of ‘consumer services’ had effectively been abandoned. Before the election in 2010, the Tenant Services Authority and the Audit Commission jointly regulated/inspected the housing services delivered by housing associations and local authorities under a regime designed by the Labour Government.  Research subsequently showed that the regulation/inspection of social housing in the 2000s significantly boosted performance in the sector.[iii]

But as the Coalition Government set about the ‘bonfire of quangos’ both the TSA and Audit Commission were abolished. The DCLG led by Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps took a contrary approach to Ministerial colleagues in the Education and Health Departments (taking two examples) where ‘consumer regulation’ was highly valued. Ofsted and CQC were seen as important parts of the Government armoury in education, health and social care. But consumer regulation was anathema to those running DCLG.

 Shapps actually wanted all formalhousing regulation abolished but the funders of housing associations (the banks and other finance institutions) fought hard to retain a regulatory regime that oversaw financial viability and governance.  After all, £100bn of private finance is invested in social housing provided by housing associations. And if you ran a finance house you would be foolish not to have the State carry out at least some of the checks of the bodies you fund. 

The regulation that remained after 2010 was transferred to the Homes and Communities Agency.  Consumer regulation was given a minor role in the new set up. And the hurdles erected to limit effective consumer regulation were high. For instance, ‘serious detriment’ had to be identified before any regulatory action could be taken by the HCA. And a ‘democratic filter’ was introduced to in effect stymie the efforts of tenants seeking to complain about their social housing landlords.

The 2018 Green Paper recognised the weaknesses of the regulatory framework for social housing with one section of the consultation paper calling for enhanced empowerment of residents and the strengthening of the regulator. Two years after the Green Paper was published, the social housing White Paper finally emerged this month (November 2020).[iv]  

Specifically looking at regulation, ‘The Charter for Social Housing Residents’ really does take us back to the position in 2010.[v] And in many ways the proposals significantly strengthen the regime that existed a decade ago. Points to note:

  • A major step forward sees all regulation of social housing placed under the auspices of one body – the Regulator of Social Housing; this finally realises one of the key ambitions of the seminal review of social housing regulation by Professor Martin Cave in 2007.[vi]
  • The return of service inspections. It is instructive to note that the ‘i’ word was used just once in the Green Paper of two years ago – and then, bizarrely, in relation to the assessment of the financial performance of housing associations. Inspection is the centre piece of the proposed regulatory framework.
  • An inevitable but welcome focus on health and safety.
  • A strengthening of the ties between the enhanced Housing Ombudsman Service (run by former Boris Johnson adviser Richard Blakeway) and the regulator.
  • A proposal to publish details about executive pay for housing associations (nothing that some association CEOs are paid over £400,000 a year).
  •  A strengthening of the enforcement powers available to the RSH including the introduction of unlimited fines for non compliance with the regulator’s standards.
  • A recognition that for-profit providers should be subject to greater scrutiny to prevent fraud and not claim housing benefit for their tenants when there is no entitlement.
  • A proposal to make housing associations subject to the Freedom of Information Act provisions that apply in the public sector (although this may founder given how this might threaten the private sector status of associations[vii]).

From a Government that is portrayed as de-regulatory, this revamped housing regulation framework is remarkable. Indeed you wonder how civil servants managed to persuade Robert Jenrick and his Ministerial colleagues to accept this much enhanced regulation regime. Those interested in improving the performance of social housing providers and ensuring those providers are fully accountable for their actions should welcome these changes.    Tenants in particular should relish the prospect of greater scrutiny of their landlords.  Certainly the Government appears to have rejected the siren voices from the larger housing associations in particular that have batted off tougher regulation in the past.  There is every prospect on this occasion that the regulator will not be subject to ‘professional capture’.

But there is a long way to go before the good intentions become a reality. Even if there is a fair wind it will be three/four years before the new regime is in place given the time needed to pass the necessary legislation and to set up the new arm of the RSH covering consumer regulation.  Funding may also be a problem as spending cuts are implemented to pay for the pandemic.

Even if the legislation is passed and monies found to pay for an enhanced RSH, tenants and others pushing for better performance by social housing providers need to ensure that a rigourous methodology is developed to inspect landlords in the new era. Inspecting largely from the user’s perspective is critical – a technique followed by the Audit Commission’s Housing Inspectorate from 2000 until 2010. Tenant Inspection Advisers must be involved in all inspections. Enforcement is key too. The RSH has been reluctant in the past to use its significant powers to bring back sliding providers to book.

And there are still gaps in the proposed regulatory framework. The current proposals do not cover the regulation of local authority strategic housing services such as homelessness or meeting housing needs.  And if we are seeking a true level playing field, perhaps the large providers of private rented housing – with over 1,000 homes, say – should be subject to regulation by the RSH.

Perhaps in another ten years…….

<span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color"><strong>Roger Jarman</strong></span>
Roger Jarman

Roger Jarman is an Associate with the Housing Quality Network where he provides consultancy services, leads training programmes and writes on housing regulation and other matters. He is also a Non Executive Director of two housing organisations.

From 1991 until 1999 he was Head of Housing Management at the Housing Corporation and then from 1999 until 2011 he was Head of Housing at the Audit Commission overseeing the 1400 housing inspections undertaken by the Commission during that period.  


[i]   https://www.grenfelltowerinquiry.org.uk/

[ii]  https://www.gov.uk/government/news/social-housing-green-paper-a-new-deal-for-social-housing

[iii] https://www.ukhousingreview.org.uk/ukhr1011/index.html

[iv] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-charter-for-social-housing-residents-social-housing-white-paper

[v] Older readers will note the language used here as it echoes the Tenants’ Charter promoted by another Tory Government in the early 1980s.  

[vi] https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20070701140243/http://www.communities.gov.uk/pub/422/EveryTenantMattersAreviewofsocialhousingregulationReportbyProfessorMartinCave_id1511422.pdf

[vii] https://www.ons.gov.uk/news/statementsandletters/statementonclassificationofenglishhousingassociationsnovember2017

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Building the New Jerusalem – How Attlee’s Government built 1 Million New Homes

Everyone knows that Clement Attlee’s 1945-1951 Labour Governments created the NHS, brought the coal mines and railways in to public ownership and gave India and Pakistan independence. But one of Attlee’s lesser celebrated achievements was building one million new homes at a time when building materials were in short supply and when the construction labour force was reduced to a third of its pre-war size.

From a slow start in 1945 -1947, new housing completions averaged around 200,000 a year for the next four years from 1948 -1951. By 1951, a total of 1,016,349 new homes were built, of which 806,857 were new Council houses. On top of that, 156,623 ‘prefabs’ were built, many of which provided decent and much-loved homes for many years to come. In addition, hundreds of thousands of existing homes were repaired and converted in the six years after the war.

Michael Foot rightly claims, “This achievement was no small one in the first years after the war when the country was also engaged in a big factory-building programme. It far surpassed anything achieved in Britain after 1918 or in most countries after 1945”.

However, despite the heroic efforts of Aneurin Bevan and his colleagues, more could have been achieved had Labour stuck to its Manifesto commitment and created a separate Ministry of Housing and Town Planning. Attlee gave Bevan the job of ‘slaying’ two of Beveridge’s ‘five giants’ – Squalor (caused by poor housing) and Disease (caused by inadequate health care provision). As Nick Thomas-Symonds argues:

“Having the same Cabinet minister responsible for both the creation of the NHS and housing the nation after the destruction of the Second World War was more than overload. It left Bevan to deal with the intricacies of both sides of his department when either half in itself would have been too much for a single minister.”

Should the housing building programme have been led by a ‘National Housing Corporation’, as Douglas Jay had recommended in the first few months of the Government, rather than by the local authorities, many of which had little experience of building new homes at scale.

Certainly, a national organisation with regional offices would have made planning, direction and control easier, but it could also have taken some time to establish. By harnessing the experience of the big city housing departments in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Glasgow, which had been building new out-of-town estates for over a decade and more, Bevan was able to combine real expertise with local knowledge.

The downside was that outside the big cities, experience was strictly limited with many local councils simply unable to move quickly. Overall, perhaps a key factor in this debate is that, six years later, Harold Macmillan was able to build 300,000 houses a year based on the same local authority ‘delivery system’ established by Bevan.

Should Labour have been more pragmatic and built more homes at lower standards, as Macmillan did during the 1950s? The average new three-bedroom Council house increased in size, from 860 square feet in the pre-war period, to 1,026 square feet in 1946, to 1,055 square feet in 1949, falling back to 1,032 square feet in 1951 and down to 947 square feet in 1952.

By 1959, the average size of a three-bedroom Council house had fallen to 897 square feet. Bevan was surely correct to increase space standards, remaking famously in Margate on 22nd May 1947, “We shall be judged for a year or two by the number of houses we build. We shall be judged in ten years’ time by the type of houses we build”.

There is little doubt that the new, larger Council houses built in the years immediately following the Second World War were some of the best ever built and have stood the test of time. In 1950, the first four blocks completed on the Churchill Gardens estate in Pimlico won Festival of Britain Architectural Awards. It wasn’t just the architectural critics who praised the flats. In 1962, tenants in the ‘posh’ private flats in Dolphin Square next door opposed a rent rise arguing, that “many of the flats are not as nice as those put up by the Council in Churchill Gardens opposite”.

Other post-war estates were similarly feted. In 1998, English Heritage listed the Spa Green estate in Finsbury as Grade II*. The Survey of London describes the Spa Green Estate as ‘heroic’. Nikolaus Pevsner called it ‘the most innovative public housing’ of its time.

Perhaps where Labour’s lofty ambitions most obviously failed was in the goal to create new communities where the ‘spirit of companionship’ would flourish and “wartime sentiments of social solidarity and shared purpose could be maintained and strengthened in the post-war world”. Aneurin Bevan harked back to the time where “the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street”.

Similarly, Lewis Silkin’s ambition that class distinctions would fade away in the New Towns was never achieved. He hoped that “different income groups living in the new towns will not be segregated” and that after attending a town centre event, “When they leave to go home I do not want to see the better-off people to go to the right and the less well-off to go to the left. I want them to ask each other, ‘Are you going my way?’”.

There can be no denying Labour’s fundamental achievement to meet the aspiration of very many working class families to live in high quality affordable housing – which the Conservatives followed with great success over the next 13 years. The lives of so many working class families – who had been ignored by every previous Government – were transformed for the better.

As the historian Kenneth Morgan so clearly concludes:

“The rehousing of several million people in new or renovated houses, at a time of extreme social and economic dislocation, was a considerable achievement. Housing, therefore, deserves its honoured role in the saga of Labour’s welfare state.”

His book, ‘Building the New Jerusalem: How Attlee’s Government Built 1 Million New Homes’, is available in paperback and Kindle https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B08N1H3PYL

All royalties will be donated to Foodbanks in Westminster.

<strong><span class="has-inline-color has-accent-color">Paul Dimoldenberg</span></strong>
Paul Dimoldenberg

Paul Dimoldenberg was first elected to Westminster City Council in 1982. He was Leader of the Labour Opposition Group from 1987-1990 and from 2004-2015.

He is the author of ‘The Westminster Whistleblowers’, published by Politicos in 2006, which tells the story of the Westminster ‘Homes for Votes’ scandal of the 1980s and 1990s. He also has recently published Cheer Churchill. Vote Labour.

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Time for the Guardian to shape up

You would have thought that Patrick Wintour on the Guardian was experienced enough to realise that a briefing from Grant Shapps and No 10 is a poor source for a major story.  But the Guardian today splashes the tale that David Cameron is backing Shapps’ plan ‘to abolish housing rent subsidy for higher earners living in social housing’.
Wintour falls into several of Shapps’ well-rehearsed traps.

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The King is dead. Long live the King?

The internet is getting increasingly littered with dead websites from now defunct social housing regulators. The Tenant Services Authority closed on 31 March and its functions transferred to a new Committee of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA).  Its website remains as a record of activity, just as the Housing Corporation’s web content remains online following its demise back in November 2008.
Another king is dead, long live the new king, this time the snappily titled HCA Regulation Committee, whose new regulatory framework for social housing came into effect along with other Localism Act changes on April 1st.

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Allocations policy – the devil is in the detail

By guest blogger Monimbo
Take a clutch of housing policies for which this government might like to be remembered: rewarding work, mobility for tenants looking for jobs, creating ‘flexible’ tenancies, allowing councils to set local lettings policies and decide who qualifies for housing, setting ‘Affordable’ rents and assessing potential tenants’ incomes, and cutting waiting lists.  Apart from all being championed by Mr Shapps, most of these policies are now embodied in the Localism Act and all of them depend crucially on councils’ allocations processes if they are to be put into effect.

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Stunell's subterfuge

Andrew Stunell seems such a nice man, and he’s a Methodist Lay Preacher to boot.
But an observer of his speech to the LibDem Conference yesterday might be forgiven for thinking he was stretching the truth just a little.  Given the LibDems good track record in
supporting social housing over many years, and their general embarrassment over the housing policies of the government, I can only assume he was struggling to find anything to say that shows that the LibDems have some influence over Pickles and Shapps.
He started off in the right territory by calling housing the ‘Cinderella’ policy.  “It is one of the most important issues facing the entire country”  he said. “The record of previous governments on social housing was nothing short of a disgrace……Social Housing just wasn’t important enough for the last government.”  Now I agree that far too few social homes in particular were built under Labour, but surely Mr Stunnell realises that you can’t build more social homes with a 60% cut in funding?
But then comes the subterfuge.  “That’s why we’ve introduced the Affordable Rent programme…. we’re on course to build 170,000 new social homes in the next four years…… thanks to Liberal Democrat influence in government, we have a social housing target that we can and will meet…. ..the first government to deliver an increase in social housing during its term of office for more than thirty years.”
So affordable rent is the new social rent.  Despite the fact that they bear no relation to each other at all.  The rents are much higher, up to 80% of market rent, and the terms are not secure.  Not only are new homes to be let at ‘affordable rent’ levels, but many re-lets of existing social rented homes are going to be as well.
Boris Johnson is the expert at smoke and mirrors in terms of housing statistics.  He is
very clever about including almost everything built under the much abused term ‘affordable’.  But even he hasn’t had the gall to claim that affordable rent and social rent are the same thing.  At least not yet.

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Myths about migrants

On Red Brick we’ve taken an interest in trying to test out and bust a few of the myths in housing.
One area where there are more myths than most is in migration policy and the access that ‘foreigners’ have to social housing.  It’s interesting that social housing is often portrayed in the media as being the lowest of the low, except when it is occupied by immigrants, in which case it is a wonderful national asset that should only go to ‘British people’.
Migration Watch gets a lot of sympathetic coverage in some parts of the media and their latest use and abuse of statistics comes in their ‘study’ on social housing and migration in England, in which they claim that the social housing requirements of new immigrants will
cost the taxpayer £1 billion a year for the next 25 years.  They say that 45 additional social homes would have to be built everyday, or nearly 1400 a month, over that period to meet the extra demand” and “The impact of immigration on the availability of social housing for British people has been airbrushed out for too long. Either the government must cut
immigration very substantially as they have promised or they must invest very large sums in the construction of extra social housing”.

At least I can agree with the last 13 words of that quote.
John Perry, who blogs at the Migrant Rights Network, has analysed Migration Watch’s claims and the Migration Observatory has published a detailed briefing on the real facts about migrants and housing.
Perry demonstrates that there is no automatic link between the number of new households that are projected to be formed by migrants and the provision of social housing.  On current government spending plans migrants would have to take virtually all of the funding available and new homes provided for the claim to be true.
Yet few if any new migrants will actually get these homes.  The percentage of new social lettings going to foreign nationals is 7%, most of whom have lived here for many years in
order to qualify.  The Migration Observatory points out that 75% of new immigrants go into the private rented sector, and that is probably where the serious issues around migration and housing lie.
The veracity of Migration Watch’s analysis can be summed up by the graph they include which shows the ‘cumulative stock of migrants’ and ‘households on waiting lists’ on the same chart, as if they were correlated in some way.  You might as well correlate Newcastle United’s league position and the frequency of cyclones in south east Asia.
With his Chartered Institute of Housing hat on, John Perry has also written a helpful guide on the role of housing providers in relation to UK migration and how to handle national policies and trends, published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
The paper comments that “Migration policy often focuses on the number of new migrants entering the UK, but little is done to support neighbourhoods where migrants already live. Central government is withdrawing from these issues at a local level, placing more
importance than ever before on regional and local leadership
”.
It then highlights the ways in which housing providers have already taken steps towards better neighbourhood cohesion and integration and suggests ways in which they could do more because they are well placed to do so.  It also explores the perceived and actual
competition between migrants and host communities for housing.
Migration is a complex and emotive topic where exaggeration is rife and ‘facts’ are often exploited by the media to promote a particular political agenda.  The housing world generally and many individual providers have a terrific record in promoting community coherence, work that is needed more than ever after the events of the last few weeks.  There is an appetite in the sector to do even more and the CIH/JRF guide and the MO briefing are invaluable and highly recommended tools.

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Who should get priority for social housing, people in work or people in need of work?

Ed Miliband and Caroline Flint have suggested that being employed should be a factor in social housing allocations.  It has been suggested that this is an effective ‘message’ to the ‘squeezed middle’, which I commented on in a previous blog.  But, whatever the message it conveys, does it stand up as a housing policy?  
Guest blogger Sheila Spencer takes up the debate. 
There’s been some debate within the Labour Party, at senior levels, and on the pages of Inside Housing, about giving priority to people on the basis of their employment status, and it seems to me that some people are missing the point a bit.  Ed Miliband, for example, has pledged to make it easier for voluntary workers and the employed to gain council housing, to fit with the idea that the welfare state should reward those who contribute. But what about those who can’t yet contribute in this way?
I know that some councils have already adopted this policy: Manchester, for example, gives extra priority on the basis of someone in the household being in work or contributing
to their community. Manchester’s allocations policy says that the idea of this is to encourage people to access work. But the person in work has to be employed for 16 hours or more, and must have been in work for at least 9 months in the last year – so it is not
encouraging people to move into work, just giving priority to those who already have work.
It seems to me that this puts those who are out of work and without anywhere to live at a considerable disadvantage. If you are homeless, you are fairly unlikely to be able to get a job until you have an address; and if you are living in temporary accommodation, in most cases the housing and support costs stop people from being able to take on a job whilst they are living there. So this policy puts an additional barrier in the way. It’s really
a Catch 22 – you don’t have priority to get rehoused because you’re not working, but you can’t apply for work because you won’t be able to afford to have anywhere to live in the meantime.
There is one glimmer of light for people in temporary accommodation: many people are now getting involved in some way as a volunteer, as part of “meaningful activity” and tangible support to move on with their lives. But Manchester’s scheme seems to restrict the community contribution to the area you want to be housed in – expecting, I would guess, that this is as part of a neighbourhood or community group there. Again, this could exclude people who are not yet part of a community.
I prefer the schemes which give people an incentive for looking for work by awarding priority for rehousing, or priority for particular places, to those who have pledged to get into work, or training or education once they have somewhere to live, and which supports them to do so. So those who have only just got themselves into a position where they can look for work are able to do that with a steady home to live in. Isn’t that a responsible way
to look at offering social housing? And how can we justify rewarding people who take responsibility for their lives whilst excluding those at the bottom of the heap, and in effect, taking on policies which keep them there?

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Time to say goodbye

Love it or loathe it, the Audit Commission Housing Inspectorate will be missed after it closes operations this month.
I have a long list of irritations with how it went about its work. Number one is probably the poor quality of some of the inspectors, who sometimes failed to follow their own guidelines about transparency, feedback and having ‘no surprises’ in their conclusions, or imported their own views about how something should be done and turning it into a supposedly objective judgement. Having experienced inspection outcomes that were both significantly higher and significantly lower than the service being inspected justified, I’m left with the nagging feeling that some were preordained and that political fixing could make a difference. Some services seemed to get stars simply because of their previous reputation and sometimes there seemed quite a gap between the evidence and the conclusion.
All of this would be denied by the AC of course and the upside of its achievements comfortably exceeds my annoyances. Most importantly, there is evidence that after decades of flatlining, housing management standards really did pick up and improve during the period that the housing inspectorate was active. The first series of inspections of housing association services burst the balloon that their chief executives had been blowing up about the quality of their own services. Shining a light into a few dark corners brought significant improvement to the sector, in both councils and housing associations. The weight given to the experience of tenants increased as the regime was refined and improved. The set of KLOEs (key lines of enquiry) that the AC produced was a brave attempt to provide a template for a good service, even if they were then rather slavishly followed. Whilst the industry of pre-inspection consultancy prospered, the ideas of regular service review, external challenge and constant improvement became endemic, driving service improvement and a focus on tenant satisfaction.
There were a couple of areas where I am happy to own up to just being wrong in my early views on the inspection regime. One was that the traffic light system was superficial and trivialised important judgements – in fact it was a great success and an effective communication tool. Second that introducing the link between inspection outcomes and funding in the ALMO programme wouldn’t work. In fact it was a great motivator and became an important driver of service improvement and tenant engagement, helping to restore the credibility of council housing.
Maybe I’ll be wrong again but my view even before the Election was that the inspection element of the new TSA regulatory regime risked not being comprehensive and rigorous enough to keep standards improving and that some organisations would slip back into bad old ways. Since the Election, the changes made by this government convince me that it will be far worse than that. Even if the TSA (whilst it exists) and the HCA, as the new regulator, ensure the financial viability and probity of the sector, they will be toothless tigers in relation to service quality. I would welcome the emphasis on local tenant scrutiny if I didn’t know that it will be hopelessly under-resourced and open to manipulation by landlords of all types wanting to talk a good service instead of delivering one.
One of many challenges facing landlords will be to put sufficient effort and resources into making tenant scrutiny work and to maintain the tradition of external rigorous challenge based on the methods developed by the Housing Inspectorate. I hope they will but I fear they won’t – and the industry will take a step backwards.