The Budget – my response regarding housing, homelessness and rough sleeping

Today (22nd November 2017) in his Budget, the Chancellor had a great opportunity to do the right thing to tackle the housing crisis.

Yet he has failed, and failed spectacularly.

The abolition of Stamp Duty for first time buyers for homes costing up to £300,000 will help the lucky few.

Philip Hammond has devoted many millions of Pounds in pursuit of policies that do nothing to reduce rough sleeping and nothing to increase the supply of homes that people can afford.

The Chancellor spoke about the “dream of home ownership”. His obsession with home ownership has done nothing to increase supply and will achieve little other than to further fueling house price inflation. In this he has failed this and future generations who just want somewhere decent to live, of any tenure, a place to call home.

He failed to end the economically illiterate Right to Buy of council homes which has seen the privatisation of public assets, at a huge cost to the public purse. 40% of the homes sold through Right to Buy reappear in the private rented sector charging rents four or five times higher than the previous social rents.  Chancellor Hammond is persisting with this discredited policy.

He failed to abandon the extension of the Right to Buy to housing associations, throwing good money after bad.

As a result of Mr Hammond’s failure to make adequate investment in council housing, house building cannot hope to meet the needs of the nation.

Welfare Reform is forcing people to use food banks and rent arrears are spiraling out of control. There have been warnings about Universal Credit from all quarters, including Conservative Members of Parliament and even the former Prime Minister, John Major.  Philip Hammond has announced some tiny concessions.

I welcome the removal of the seven day wait to claim Universal Credit, and also the promise of a full month’s payment within five days to households that are experiencing particular hardship and that meet certain criteria. The devil will be in the detail.

He has recognised that Universal Credit is causing problems with rent arrears, but a two week extension of housing benefit will still leave a gap in payments and rent arrears will continue to climb, albeit not at quite the same frightening rate as at present.

The six week wait for payment of Universal Credit has been reduced to five weeks. This is hardly something to cheer.

He failed to announce any increase in the level of Local Housing Allowance, the help people can receive towards housing costs. The ongoing freeze has resulted in the majority of privately rented homes becoming well beyond the means of ordinary people in areas like Brighton and Hove.

Eight out of ten private landlords are saying that they won’t house people on Universal Credit. The Chancellor said nothing to reassure private landlords.  Merely reducing the waiting time before Universal Credit payments are made, from six to four weeks will do nothing to reassure landlords. He should have said that the housing component of Universal Credit will be paid direct to landlords. The Chancellor, again, is failing this generation and failing landlords.

The Chancellor’s commitment to end rough sleeping by 2027 is something, but he failed to say how this will be achieved. The sum total of all his housing announcements will do little, if anything, to actually end rough sleeping. In fact, it could make matters worse.

But why should Philip Hammond worry? 2027 is a long way away and he will be long gone by then. But it is more than a lifetime away for those people sleeping on our streets.

Mr Hammond should have announced a massive investment in council house building, a complete relaxation of restrictions on borrowing by local authorities, and public land to be earmarked for public housing.

He should have ended failed policies, such as the Right to Buy and Universal Credit, but instead he muddles on, unmoved by the obvious hardship caused by these disastrous policies.

Winston Churchill once said: “You can always rely on the Americans to do the right thing, once they have exhausted all other possibilities”. The same can also be said of Philip Hammond’s housing and welfare benefit policies.

In summary, the Chancellor has, to use his own words, failed to “embrace the future” or to “meet the challenges ahead”. He has not made any meaningful announcements regarding “building the homes for future generations”.

I hope that when Sajid Javid makes further announcements on housing over the next few days he will have something meaningful to say about reducing rough sleeping and building the homes, the council housing, that this country so desperately needs.

 

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The Budget – Time for a fundamental rethink on housing policy

Winston Churchill once said: “You can always rely on the Americans to do the right thing, once they have exhausted all other possibilities”. The same can also be said of government housing policy.

Over the years, we have seen so many policy initiatives fail miserably that one would hope that all the wrong policies have now been exhausted and that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, will, in his Budget on Wednesday, do the right thing.

The millions of Pounds committed in pursuit of its obsession with home ownership has done nothing to increase supply and has achieved little other than fuelling house price inflation. Home ownership levels continues to slide.

Rent to Buy, too, has failed. Just one in ten Rent to Buy tenants purchase their home (based on a snapshot survey of nine housing associations where just 180/ of the 1,594 homes have been bought over past decade). Yet again, this policy has done nothing for affordability or supply.

The Right to Buy of former council homes has seen the privatisation of public assets, at a huge cost to the public purse, with 40% of the homes sold reappearing in the private rented sector charging rents four times higher than the previous social rents, rents often subsidised through housing benefit.

The extension of the Right to Buy to housing associations as the ill-named ‘Voluntary Right to Buy’, has become, according to Inside Housing magazine, a “Zombie policy”.  It was not thought through and is heading nowhere very slowly. (Here is what I wrote about it recently).

As a result of the government’s lack of capital investment and the restriction on the powers of local authorities to borrow, house building is at its lowest level in decades.

Welfare Reform is forcing people to use food banks and rent arrears are spiraling out of control. In spite of all the warnings about Universal Credit from the ‘usual suspects’ as well as Conservative Members of Parliament and even the former Prime Minister, John Major, the government plows on and on and on, unmoved by the obvious hardship caused by the disastrous policy.

Eight out of ten private landlords are saying that they won’t house people on Universal Credit.

I have said that the Minister, David Gauke, must be arrogant, deluded or ill-informed to persevere with this policy.

Because of the ongoing freeze of Local Housing Allowance (the amount you can claim in Housing Benefit to help with your housing costs), almost all privately rented homes are now unaffordable for those on benefit and the low paid.

The number of rough sleepers continues to climb, the most visible and shocking indictment of the failure of government policy. 4,218 people in Brighton have nowhere to call home.

Chancellor Philip Hammond

This is not a comprehensive list, but illustrative of the government doing all the wrong things.  I hope that all the wrong things have now been exhausted and Philip Hammond will do the right thing – a massive investment in council house building, the relaxation of restrictions on borrowing by local authorities, public land to be earmarked for public housing, and the abolition of all the failed policies, such as the Right to Buy.

“Something must be done about rough sleeping”: something IS being done

(This is the text of my article that first appeared in the Brighton Argus on Saturday 25th November 2017)

“Something must be done”, is a common response to the sight of men and women sleeping on our streets.  Understandably, such calls get louder and more frequent in the cold weather.

Rough sleeping in Brighton and Hove is obvious for all to see.  It is not on the scale of London or many cities in the United States where the numbers are in the tens of thousands in individual cities, but nonetheless it is appalling to see. In Brighton there are up to 150 people sleeping rough each night.

Most weeks I hear of new initiatives being proposed or new groups being developed to solve this challenge. Those involved often believe that no effective work is being done. In reality, a lot is happening. This week came the welcome news that the Council is opening a winter shelter.

I believe that there are over thirty organisations working with homeless people in the City.  We at Brighton Housing Trust (BHT) work in partnership with some wonderful organisations  such as St Mungos, the YMCAs, the Clock Tower Sanctuary and Off the Fence who are making a real difference, from helping people to end their rough sleeping to making life a little less unbearable for those on the streets.

Individuals, driven by an understandable need to do something, would be wise to get involved with or support one or more of these organisations, rather than attempt to set up something new.

I am very proud of the work my BHT colleagues do, almost always in partnership with other agencies. BHT’s Advice Centre in Queen’s Road prevented 126 households becoming homeless between April and June this year, and a further 158 between July and September.  BHT’s First Base Day Centre prevented 61 and 65 individuals from losing their accommodation in the same periods.

At First Base people get the basics for survival and basic dignity – hot drinks and meals, showers, toilet facilities, clean and dry clothes, essential advice and information and, and critically, help to move off the streets and into supported or other accommodation. We also refer them to appropriate health services and, wherever possible, into treatment, if they are addicted.

Care-leavers, ex-military personnel and those escaping violence and abuse have always been disproportionately represented amongst rough sleepers, like those with addictions and mental health problems. However, more recent political changes, such as the sale of council houses alongside a failure to replace them, successive governments’ focus on ownership rather than affordable rental options, as well as welfare reforms leading to cuts and sanctions, have all taken a terrible toll.

When it comes to helping people to move off the streets, the uncomfortable truth is that alcohol and drugs play a major role in keeping some people on the streets. Addiction leads tragically, to some deaths.

The services provided by BHT’s Addiction Services and others, such as the St Thomas Fund, make a big contribution by helping homeless people into recovery, alongside self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

We need politicians and other opinion-formers to call, unambiguously, for treatment services that will help homeless people with addictions to come off and stay off alcohol and drugs. The housed have at least a chance of recovery in their own homes, usually with the support of AA or NA.  Affluent middle class addicts can buy private treatment. Homeless people need effective residential rehabilitation services with support to come off and stay off. It works and we need much more of it.

In the short term we are faced with the immediate prospect of people sleeping on the streets during the coldest months of the year. For many years, BHT has run cold weather shelters in the worst of the weather. We insist that these are properly staffed and managed.  Various other initiatives have been suggested, from the use of empty council buildings to a marquee.  All these proposals have merit but in my view they must be properly planned and staffed in order to maintain safety, not least for women and young people.

Last week BHT launched a report on women and homelessness (copies at www.bht.org.uk).  It clearly sets out the risks faced by women in mixed gender services, even those that are well-staffed. An ill-planned, inadequately staffed shelter can be more dangerous for women, and some men, than sleeping on the streets.

No doubt some people will be angry with some of what I have written above. By all means agree or disagree.  These are my personal and sincerely held views, based on many years working for BHT, and being advised by colleagues and, above all, clients.  I aim to encourage debate on this and other difficult ethical issues.  There is no monopoly on truth and by debating we can hope to find better ways to prevent rough sleeping, and to make a real and sustained difference to the lives of those people who find themselves on the streets.

Shelter for 30 rough sleepers to open in Brighton and Hove

I am absolutely delighted that Brighton and Hove City Council has identified a building that can be used to provide shelter for up to 30 people sleeping rough this winter.

Huge credit should go to Cllr Moonan (Labour councillor and lead councillor for rough sleeping), Cllr Robert Nemeth (Conservative) and Cllr David Gibson (Green), who have organised the plans for the shelter, along with Council officers.

This initiative was triggered by a Notice of Motion by Cllr Tom Druitt at a Council meeting at the beginning of the year. I am delighted this initiative has enjoyed, as it should, all party support.

This achievement is no easy feat. It is an incredibly complex proposal to set something up that is safe for all those who will use it during the worst of the winter months, particularly women and young people. BHT has recently published a report on the experience of women in homelessness services. The report can be found here https://www.bht.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/BHT-Impact-Report-2017-Women-and-Homelessness-final-RGB-web.pdf

The three councillors put out a statement which I reproduce here: “There is a national crisis in the number of people facing the risk of homelessness and we’re united in trying to find ways to help those in need here in our city. This shelter will help many rough sleepers to sleep at night and provide a safe place to go as the temperatures drop.

“We know residents in the city are rightly concerned about people living rough, especially at this time of year when the weather can be extreme. The shelter is one of many ways we are providing help and working with partners to keep people safe and warm this winter.

“People living rough on the streets are at high risk, vulnerable and need help. The average life expectancy of a man sleeping rough is just 47 years old – that’s a shocking fact we are addressing here in Brighton & Hove.”

This shelter will be just a part of how we as a City are responding to the rough crisis we are facing. Several churches open up night shelters during the winter, and BHT co-ordinates SWEP – the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol – where three shelters accommodation around 70 people, can open at short notice in the most extreme weather conditions in order to preserve life.

These are, of course, not permanent solutions, and should not be seen as such. Rough sleeping and homelessness in general is exacerbated by the shortage of accommodation with rents that people can afford.

Throughout the year some excellent work is carried out by a range of organisations to help people move off the streets and into accommodation. For our part, BHT runs First Base Day Centre that works with, on average, 70 people each day, providing toilet facilities, showers, clean and dry clothes, hot drinks and food, as well as advice and guidance to help people in accommodation.

We also run a 52 bed hostel, the Phase One Project that is often the first accommodation for people moving off the streets. Our specialist alcohol and drug, mental health and other services provide a pathway to help people address some of the issues that either led to them rough sleeping or making it hard for them to secure accommodation.

As for the winter shelter, we should congratulate the City Council for providing another piece in the jigsaw in tackling rough sleeping.

4,218 people in Brighton and Hove with nowhere to call home

Shelter has today (8th November 2017) published a report showing Brighton and Hove in second place for the local authority areas outside London with the highest rates of people recorded as homeless. It reports that 4, 218 people are rough sleeping or living in temporary accommodation – that is one in 69 people in the City.

The Brighton Argus headlined its report ‘City in Crisis’.  I don’t agree.  I think every newspaper in the country should have the headline ‘Country in Crisis’.

I have been asked for my comments by several media outlets.  Here is what I have said to them:

“These figures do not surprise me, but they sadden me deeply. Each one of these 4,218 individuals has uncertainty in their lives, and most will be experiencing the extreme hardship resulting from not having somewhere to call home.

“In one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world, these figures highlight the human tragedy of homelessness as well the need for a radical change in government policy.

“We need a fundamental change in approach and a massive programme of council house building.

“Merely building more top of the range flats and houses in Brighton will do nothing to help this appalling situation. That will merely fuel the inflationary consequences resulting from people selling up and moving down from London.

“We are seeing people who have been in housing for a considerable amount of time losing their accommodation due to relation breakdowns and the ending of assured shorthold tenancies which has been the single greatest factor for people ending up homeless.

“Thank goodness that the majority of the 4,218 are not rough sleeping. As well as building new council houses, we need to prevent people losing their homes in the first place by continuing to ensure that housing and other advice services are properly funded.”

If you are facing eviction, please contact one of our advice centres in Eastbourne, Hastings and Brighton, or other advice centres such as Citizens Advice.

My reaction to Theresa May’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference

At the Conservative Party Conference today (4th October 2017), Theresa May said whether someone hopes to buy their own home or has been waiting for a council home “help is on the way”.

She said that the government will invest an additional £2bn in affordable housing, taking the government’s affordable housing budget to £9 bn.

She said that the government “will encourage councils as well as housing associations” and she promised to provide certainty over future rent levels.
We’ve been waiting a long time for that certainty. What a shame Sajid Javid didn’t provide it two weeks ago at the NHF conference and what a shame that Mrs May didn’t give it today.

She said: “In those parts of the country where need is greatest we will allow social rented housing to be built, at well below market levels, getting the government back into the business of building houses.”

David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, described it as a “watershed moment for the nation”.

I hope so. When Mrs May previously spoke about sub market rents she meant rents at 80% of the market.

In Brighton and Hove that equates to rents of c£750 per month for a on bed flat, unaffordable for those on benefits who can receive £612 per month, and then only if they are over 35 years of age.

The ongoing freeze of Local Housing Allowance – the amount people can get towards their housing costs – means that rents become more unaffordable with every passing month, including so-called affordable rents.

Mrs May promised homes with social rents. I hope she has been properly briefed and that we will in fact get such homes.

£9 billion is a lot, but much of it goes towards Help to Buy which doesn’t stimulate supply but rather fuels housing price inflation.

Those benefiting from Help to Buy are already the better off, not those in the most acute need.

We need social rents, within Local Housing Allowance and even below that so people on low incomes do not have to rely on housing benefit. We need a massive programme of council house building, equivalent to what Harold MacMillan achieved when he was Prime Minister, and we need clear action on homelessness and rough sleeping. She was silent on this.

For today I will give Mrs May the benefit of the doubt. The devil is in the detail. I hope this is truly a watershed moment. The next few days will tell us whether it is, and I reserve judgment until we have seen the detail.

The unfolding disaster that is Universal Credit

My second favourite government department (not), the Department for Work and Pensions, has belatedly published a guidebook to help landlords prepare for the roll out of Universal Credit.

It is rather late in the day because Universal Credit has been rolled out in many parts of the country and is imminently going to arrive in full in Brighton and Hove.

I hope this belated gesture by the DWP is a recognition of the problems being caused by this ill-conceived and badly implemented policy. There was research over the summer that showed that 86% of council tenants in receipt of Universal Credit are now in arrears.

Rather than paying rent directly to tenants in a single, direct monthly payment as is happening under Universal Credit, the DWP could have agreed that the rental component should be paid direct to the landlord. Now that would be a sensible idea and would have reduced the risk of rent arrears. Wait a minute, that’s what has happened until now.  But some bright spark, somewhere in the DWP, who has probably never had a days experience collecting rent for a social or private landlord, thought that paying the rent to tenants rather than landlords would be a good idea.

At BHT we work closely with our tenants and support them to pay their rent.  Rent arrears as at 3rd September were 1.1%.  But amongst those on Universal Credit the level of arrears in just over 15% – in spite of the support we can provide.

Today (13th September 2017) the National Audit Office has said that the 60% increase since 2010/11 in households in temporary and emergency accommodation, and the 134% increase in rough sleeping has “likely been driven” by welfare reform.  The freeze on Local Housing Allowance is, according to the NAO, “likely to have contributed”.

Auditor General Sir Amyas Morse said the Department for Work and Pensions had failed to evaluate the impact of the benefit changes on homelessness.It is difficult to understand why the department persisted with its light touch approach in the face of such a visibly growing problem. Its recent performance in reducing homelessness therefore cannot be considered value for money.”

The consequence of this stupidity was easy for foresee, and experience has proven it to be the case.  Belatedly publishing a guidebook for landlords isn’t going to fix this problem.

(PS my least favourite government department is the Ministry of Justice also known as the Ministry of Injustice or MiniJustice).