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.

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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).

Where will old, homeless people see out their days? Will they die on the streets?

At the very time that the number of care homes for older people is reducing, and amidst regular reports of the care sector in crisis, the Local Government Association has called for a further 400,000 places in specialist homes for older people in order to cope with the ageing population.

Of course I support this. However, there is another group of ageing people whose support needs are very rarely considered and that is the ageing homeless population, many of whom are ex-service men and women who have enduring mental health problems and addictions.

No traditional home for older people would consider such “problematic” residence notwithstanding the sacrifice they may have made for the country.

Will older homeless people see out of their remaining years in sometimes chaotic temporary accommodation or, worse still, die while living on the streets?

Is the level of personal debt, the highest since the financial crisis, holding back a further wave of homelessness?

The Financial Conduct Authority has reported that borrowing through credit cards, overdrafts and car loans has topped £200 billion for the first time since the global financial crisis in 2008.

Whereas the credit boom at that time was very much down to consumerism, it seems that now it is a combination of cheap credit and, more sinisterly, people are borrowing because they are poor. The FCA has concerns about various forms of lending such as rent-to-own loans (for essential household products like fridges, for example), doorstep lending, and catalogue credit.

We already know that people are paying rent and mortgage payments on credit cards. For many poorer households debt is a Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.

The FCA reports that one in six people with debt – 2.2 million – were in “financial distress” and that, compared to 2008, they are now more likely to be younger, have children, be unemployed and less educated than others.

With evictions at an all-time high, unaffordable credit might be holding back a further wave of homelessness amongst the “just about managing” households often spoken about by Theresa May who might, at the end of the day, not really be managing.

Meanwhile, when welfare benefits secretary David Gauke MP said that universal credit is “transforming lives”, it’s unlikely he meant through hunger, pain, debt and possible homelessness.

An act of kindness that will inspire you as much as it has inspired me

Imagine if you have been sleeping rough or sofa surfing, and you are in the process of detoxing from alcohol or other drugs.  You might be feeling ill and scared. You are leaving behind all you have known in recent years. How likely is it that you would think, with compassion and care, about others.

This week the amazing residents at BHT’s Detox Support Project (DSP) started a weekly ‘act of kindness’ –doing a different positive act for the community each week. This week they donated to First Base Day Centre five bags of good quality clothing and footwear, and each DSP client donated £5.00 – a total of £30.00 for toiletries needed by First Base clients.

One client who had received support from First Base when he was a rough sleeper before starting his detox at DSP, said that when dropping off these items at First Base he had felt overwhelmed that he could help people in the same situation that he had been in just a few weeks ago. He also said it made him “feel very good – like I am part of society – a normal, human person giving back to society instead of taking”.

In just under a month’s time I will have been at BHT for 32 years.  I am frequently amazed to hear about the achievements of our clients and their willingness to give something back.  But rarely have I been as moved as I am today by this act of kindness by the clients of the Detox Support Project at the very time they are going through a challenging time themselves.  I am so humbled by their generosity and thoughtfulness.

The future of specialist supported housing is at risk: is it recklessness, incompetence or deliberate design by government?

What motivates someone to take a successful government-funded project that prevents homelessness, reduces hospital admissions, reduces crime and makes a return of more than £4 for every £1 invested, and in its place create a crisis that is seeing services closing and 85% of new schemes being abandoned?  This is what is happening with specialist supported housing.

Is it recklessness, incompetence or deliberate design?

Today, Inside Housing is reporting that “housing associations have slashed the number of supported housing homes they plan to build by 85%, as uncertainty around government reforms to the sector stymie development”.

The National Housing Federation (NHF) has said this is due to uncertainty over the introduction of the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) cap, something I have often written about on this blog since the cap was first announced by George Osborn in his last Autumn Statement, examples are here, here and here.  The uncertainty created by government is unacceptable.  A Green Paper on the future of supported housing was promised in the spring but we are still waiting.

The NHF has surveyed 69 housing associations which together provide a third of all supported.  These associations had previously planned to build 8,800 units of supported housing accommodation but this pipeline has reduced to just 1,350.

At the heart of the government-created crisis is the decision to base the cap on LHA which both the Communities and Local Government Committee and the Work and Pensions Committee in parliament has said is not “a competent starting point” because it is based on the private rented market.  I have written about this here: Is this the most depressing, mind-boggling, ridiculous justification ever from government?

David Orr, chief executive of the NHF, said: “Housing associations know first-hand that the proposed funding model will not work – a view backed by a joint select committee – and yet government has failed to heed warnings.  With social care in crisis, the role supported housing plays in alleviating pressures on the NHS is ever more important. These changes have not even come in yet and they have taken 7,000 homes for vulnerable people out of the pipeline.

“The proposed changes in funding bear no relation to the real cost of providing this type of housing. It is time government put supported housing on a secure and sustainable footing.”

The Ministry of Justice, or MiniJustice for short, is on the verge of wrecking the Court Duty scheme that prevents homelessness

In George Orwell’s 1984, there were government departments that had names with a meaning the polar opposite to what the department did.  According to Wikipedia, “the Ministry of Truth is the propaganda ministry. As with the other ministries in the novel, the name Ministry of Truth is a misnomer because in reality it serves the opposite: it is responsible for any necessary falsification of historical events.”

So too with the Ministry of Justice.  One would have thought the purpose of such a ministry would be to uphold and promote justice, but it appears to do the polar opposite, rationing access to justice, ensuring that accessing justice is difficult for all but the most well off.

But the Ministry of Justice isn’t from 1984, it is Britain in 2017.

The new Lord Chancellor, David Lidington, has been in post since the 11 June 2017.  Since that date, for example, the BHT advice centre in Hastings has stopped 11 households from losing their home because they got assistance under the Court Duty Scheme.  (Three years ago I wrote a live blog about the Brighton Court Duty scheme undertaken by our Brighton advice centre.  I also published an account in October 2014 of the experience of someone whose home we saved through Court Duty).

The MoJ, or should we call it MiniJustice, is consulting on the future of Court Duty services. Court duty for possession cases is the last gasp chance at access to justice.  It is the last line of defence, and for many it is their last hope in saving their homes.  BHT, for example, has an advisor or solicitor in the Court building in case someone turns up without legal representation.

Almost everyone who responded to the Court Duty consultation said that bringing in price to the tendering will be a race to the bottom, but the MOJ thinks it will bring in greater competition…..

What price does anyone put on this? Right now MiniJustice says £71 plus VAT. That’s the fee organisations like BHT get at Court Duty for saving someone’s home.  Imagine the costs to the state, local and national, for each household that becomes homeless.  £71 + VAT must be the Bargain of the Century for government.

Solicitors are already pulling out from operating Court Duty contracts.  Just last month Tunbridge Wells became another Court without a Desk Duty scheme.

According to Bob Neill MP, chairman of the Justice Select Committee in the Commons and a Conservative MP, that, while he understands the budget pressures the government is under, he believes “we have now removed more than the system can take and should rectify the anomalies as soon as possible”.

MiniJustice had planned to cut the legal aid expenditure by £350m, but the spending has reduced from around £2.2bn to £1.6bn, almost twice the plan. The cuts have had a devastating impact on the number of firms and local advice centres from which the public can obtain help. The latest statistics reveal a 32% reduction in the number of providers since the LASPO cuts were made.

Most importantly, there are now nearly a million fewer civil legal aid cases than there were seven years ago.  Further cuts and changes to the Court Duty scheme will exacerbate this and we will see yet more homelessness.