David Gauke says that all that is wrong with Universal Credit is that criticisms go without challenge

David Gauke, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has denied that the introduction of Universal Credit is causing hardship. He said: “I strongly believe we have got a really good policy with this that will transform lives, but there is almost a sort of knee-jerk criticism and a temptation in particular with universal credit that you can almost say anything critical about it and it goes without challenge.”

That’s alright, then.  Just the same as when Iain Duncan Smith repeatedly claimed that Universal Credit would be delivered “on time and within budget”. The massive overspend, the wasted millions on a failed IT system, and the massive overrun on its delivery must be Fake News.

And what about the hardship being caused to those claiming Universal Credit. Fake News, Fake News, Fake News.  It just goes without challenge.

What about the excellent and well-researched article by Heather Spurr, once with Inside Housing and now with Shelter.

And what about this item by the Resolution Foundation, or this from the Institute for Government, or this from Citizens Advice, or BHT’s own research following the roll out of Universal Credit in Hastings.

I know I have had a word or two to say about Universal Credit, such as the blog post entitled “Universal Credit is a disgrace, and those who have advocated it and continue to defend it should hang their heads in shame” or this one “Another day, another report on the disaster that is Universal Credit” or this one “More evidence of the disaster zone that is known as Universal Credit” or this “Should the roll out of Universal Credit continue at this time? Watch the evidence to Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee”.

Noi doubt it is all Fake News that has gone without challenge.

The problem, Mr Gauke, is not that criticism goes unchallenged.  The problem, in the words of the former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, is that Universal Credit is “operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving” (see here).

The problem, Mr Gauke, is that you, Mr Duncan Smith, the DWP and the government as a whole carry on regardless, in spite of the evidence.  The most modest reforms imaginable announced in the autumn won’t resolve the fundamental flaws inherent in Universal Credit. A lick of paint would not have saved the Titanic after it brushed up against an iceberg.

Universal Credit has become Mrs May’s poll tax. (I vlogged on this recently).  No matter how well Mr Gauke defends the indefensible, Universal Credit remains flawed, it remains operationally messy, it remains socially unfair, and it remains unforgiving.


Should there be time limits for how long a housing association chief executive should stay in post?

Last week there was an interesting debate on Twitter (although I don’t think Twitter is the place to have such a debate). The debate concerned the suggestion that there should be a maximum term for housing association chief executives, such as five or ten years.

Housing association Board members have a time limit, usually nine years, yet there is no limit for the time that a chief executive can you remain in post.

I should declare an interest here: I’m about to start my 16th year as chief executive at BHT. I’m always looking for a new challenge, but not one outside BHT. There is always so much to do here. The fact that I have been at BHT for over 32 years suggests that I do not spend time looking for my next promotion bringing with it a salary increase! (Either that or nobody else would have me!).

I think that longevity has something going for it. It means that you can be held accountable for the success or failure of a business plan. I am always sceptical when I see someone making bold announcements and publishing ambitious plans before moving on to a new organisation to do just the same, never seeing their plans coming to fruition or failing, for that matter.

Of course there is the risk that a chief executive might become stale. That depends greatly on the strength of their board. With robust accountability, and clearly defined objectives, a chief executive would not be allowed to remain in post, nor would they be allowed to oversee a declining or stagnant organisation. I personally cannot understand people remaining when they no longer have passion in their bellies to bring about positive change.

There is no right or wrong length for someone to remain. I accept that some chief executives can hang on for too long, sometimes standing still in neutral, waiting for retirement. But it must be down to the board to ensure that that doesn’t happen. Strong governance is the key.

In the twitter discussion, Tom Murtha wrote that most housing associations where he had been a statutory appointment had CEOs who had been around for too long and that they had weak boards. He said that he had suggested fixed terms some years ago but, “strangely” he said with some cynicism, most CEOs opposed the idea. (I guess I am reenforcing his experience!). He suggests a minimum term of five years and a maximum of 10 years, subject to strict annual review and accountability.

Paul Roberts, the chief executive at Newydd Housing, recalls that David Edmonds, when he was at the Housing Corporation, suggested a five year maximum term. Paul thought this would be a recipe for short-term decision-making and said that sustainable decisions and accountability are more important.

Alison Inman, the current President of the Chartered Institute of Housing, raised the issue of chief executives who are also board members. That is a debate for another time (although I agree that there is too strong a potential for conflicts of interest and the erosion of accountability).

Maddy Bunker said: “Just to be contentious, I don’t agree with fixed term CEOs. I have witnessed brilliant CEOs that have been around over 10 years“.

She is right when she asks whether CEOs could be on fixed term contracts so that boards can you give them their marching orders. I personally agree with that idea, but even within existing arrangements this can happen (although it usually has a hefty price tag attached to the Settlement Agreement).

I am persuaded by Matt Campion, chief executive of the Shepherds Bush Housing Group and a board member at Newlon Housing Trust, who suggests that boards should give fixed term contracts which can be renewed, or not, depending on performance. That, to me, sounds like the right approach.

When we have new board members at BHT, as part of their induction, I say that the three most important tasks that they will have in any year is to review the business plan, agreed the budget, and question whether I remain fit for purpose. I’m confident that the BHT Board would not hesitate to remove me when it felt that I was approaching my ‘best before’ date.

I hope that that time is still some way off, and that I will decide to go before I am pushed. I still remain as motivated as ever. In December, the Board agreed an exciting and challenging new Business Plan that has been eighteen months in the making. We have brought about changes during 2017 resulting in performance in all areas that has reached new highs, and a culture exists that encourages innovation and improvement (a culture shared at Board level, within the executive team, and throughout the organisation). Tenant and client involvement is reaching new levels and we have very exciting plans to take service delivery to new levels, drawing on best practice from within the sector but, crucially, from beyond.

A related but separate issue is the level of chief executives’ pay. I would suggest a cap on salaries so that chief executives do not go from one organisation to the next, securing ever-increasing levels of pay. I don’t go with the argument that salaries in excess of £300,000 are necessary to attract ‘the best’. I would cap salaries at, say, £150,000. That, in my opinion, is more than enough for anyone (and it is well, well beyond anything BHT pays). But that is a debate for another day.

Graffiti and Tagging: An Attack on Services for Rough Sleepers

One of my posts from the last year that attracted quite a response was in September when I wrote about graffiti.  The post resulted in wider media coverage including an appearance on television news.

Today I walked past my office in London Road to discover that we have been the target of some mindless idiots who have tagged walls, the front door, even a window.

We will, of course, get it cleaned off, but it will cost.  The money we spend, which will run into several hundred Pounds, if not over £1,000, could have been used to provide services at First Base Day Centre.  In this instance, tagging is a direct attack on services being provided to rough sleepers.

I hope those responsible feel proud of what they have done.


Record breaking street collection for Brighton Housing Trust

This weekend we collected a record £5,207 in our annual street collection, smashing last year’s total of £4,511.

Collections took place at Brighton Station on Friday evening and at sites throughout Brighton and Hove on Saturday afternoon.

We are extremely grateful to the people of Brighton and Hove for their incredible generosity this year. This record amount is indicative of the concern that people feel about seeing people sleeping on our streets.

This money, together with the funds raised through other activities this month, will help our day centre, First Base, to support rough sleepers at Christmas and throughout the year.

The Rock Choir

We had over 100 people out on Saturday, either collecting donations or singing in choirs. We had church groups, community organisations, councillors, volunteers, members of staff and Board members, even the Brighton Table Tennis Club, all turn out.

I am so grateful to them all and, in particular, everyone who donated towards achieving this incredible result. It will definitely make a big difference.”

It is not too late to donate. Donations can be made online or by sending a cheque payable to ‘Brighton Housing Trust’ to 144 London Road, Brighton, BN1 4PH.

David Chaffey, BHT’s Director Of Housing and Property Services, with Cllr Phelim McCafferty

Councillors Adrian Morris, Karen Barford, and Daniel Yates

Television journalist Tracey Dooley with the BHT Elf (and our Senior Manager for Mental Health Services) Sharon Munnings

Former Mayor of Brighton and Hove, Cllr Pete West

Being with and apart from those you love at Christmas

Dear Friends

My dear old mum died at Christmas eleven years ago, and I miss her more with every passing year. I also miss my brother, Simon, who lives in South Africa.

But I am lucky. I will spend Christmas with many of those I love and, thanks to FaceTime, will share some of the festivities with Simon and his family.

But not everyone is that lucky.

It is particularly difficult for homeless people over Christmas. They are reminded of all they have lost, not least home and family. And if they are street homeless, there won’t be decorations, presents under a tree, or festive cheer. There won’t be warmth, comfort and security.

Christmas morning for a person sleeping rough will be the same as every other morning – cold, wet, lonely. There aren’t gifts and, like every other morning, there isn’t a toilet, shower, kettle, or breakfast in the cupboard. The heating can’t be turned up a notch, and there won’t be the smell of a roast in the oven.

Far from it being ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, Christmas can be the worst of all times for homeless people.

Fortunately there are services open on Christmas morning where homeless people can go.

First Base Day Centre, for example, will provide a cooked breakfast. People can shower, put on clean and dry clothes, be warm and comfortable and for a few hours forget the daily indignity of living on the streets.

The efforts and sacrifices made over Christmas by staff at BHT and other organisations in Brighton and Hove cannot be over emphasised. They ensure that homeless people do have somewhere to go. Fortunately, this year there is more emergency accommodation available, provided by the City Council, churches and, in the most extreme weather, several charities, including BHT.

How do you feel about people being homeless at Christmas? Are you able to help?

The most immediate and obvious way is to make a donation to one of the organisations that opens its doors over Christmas.

My job is to ask you to support First Base which you can do online by following this link or by sending a cheque payable to BHT to First Base Christmas Appeal, 144 London Road, Brighton, BN1 4PH.

Please remember that services such as First Base don’t just open over Christmas. We open throughout the year, offering all the facilities that homeless people rely on to sustain life and to maintain basic dignity.

Every week we help people to move off the streets and into accommodation, so that they don’t have to face another night, let alone Christmas, without somewhere safe to call home. We can only do this with your ongoing support.

Thank you so much for your support. It is only with your help that we can continue to do what we do to help those in the greatest need.

I hope you have a lovely Christmas.

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.

Homelessness and women’s refuge providers slam government funding plans

(Yesterday, 31st October 2017, Inside Housing magazine published the following report by Sophie Barnes on the government’s proposal for the future funding of supported housing services)

Homelessness accommodation and women’s refuge providers have branded government plans for the future funding of short-term accommodation a “step backwards”.

Today the government set out its proposals for the future of supported housing funding. This includes a plan to fund short-term accommodation through a ringfenced fund held by councils. The government had planned to fund all supported housing through this route but backtracked when this proposal met with severe criticism from the sector.

Homelessness accommodation and women’s refuge providers have said this funding approach will lead to insecurity in the sector and fewer providers will invest in new accommodation, with the sector dependent on short-term grants.

Katie Ghose, chief executive of Women’s Aid, said: “The government’s proposed reforms to supported housing will dismantle our national network of lifesaving refuges and put the lives of women and children trying to escape domestic abuse at risk…If pursued, the reforms will result in a postcode lottery of domestic abuse support services with further refuges being forced to close their doors and more women and children being turned away from the lifesaving support they offer. Without a safe space to escape to, more women and children’s lives will be lost to domestic abuse.”

Denise Hatton, chief executive of YMCA England and Wales, which provides nearly 11,000 beds for homeless young people, said: “The response to the supported housing consultation was a long time coming and can only be seen as a step backward. It is extremely disappointing that the government has not taken on board some of the most crucial recommendations made by sector experts.

“The government’s suggested approach to dealing with ‘short-term’ supported housing will mean no security within the sector and lead to fewer providers investing and building new and additional accommodation going forward.
“The sector will now be dependent on short-term grants and living under the threat of the ringfenced funding being lifted at any time, as it was in the past with supported people funding.”

Andy Winter, chief executive of Brighton Housing Trust, which provides homelessness accommodation, said: “What has been announced today has the potential to be even worse for specialist supported housing.

“The grant will be a finite pot and while it might initially reflect the current spend on specialist supported housing, its value will be eroded in double quick time by administering authorities taking out their costs.”

Mr Winter also said it is “highly unlikely” that the funding paid through councils will match the Consumer Price Index plus 1% rent deal other housing providers will benefit from post-2020.

Providers are concerned that the fund will not remain ringfenced, as happened with the Supporting People programme where the ringfence was removed and the funding reduced.

However Lord Gary Porter, chair of the Local Government Association, said: “Today’s announcement demonstrates that the government rightly sees councils as crucial when it comes to providing supported housing for some of their most vulnerable residents. Ensuring that no cap will be applied to housing benefit, and that funding will be kept at current levels for short-term accommodation, is a hugely positive first step towards putting all supported housing on a more secure footing.”

The Department for Communities and Local Government has been approached for comment.

(Please see my full response – ‘Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire’  – posted on this blog yesterday)