Useless announcements in Westminster and Whitehall that will do nothing to address the housing crisis

“Never in the history of housing policy, has so much been announced by so many, whose achievements are so few”, as Winston Churchill never said.

The first announcement was the new job title for Sajid Javid, the Cabinet member responsible for housing, who went from being the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government.  Could it be that the purpose was to celebrate  that Mr Javid is responsible for the worst housing crisis in living memory.

On a similar note, Mr Javid’s department, the Department for Communities and Local Government, which has always been responsible for housing, is now to be called the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government.  Please, please someone, tell me that this is more than mere window dressing, that the policies responsible for the 60% increase in homeless households since 2010/11 will change.

Receiving less publicity, and not noticed by anyone other than housing anoraks like me, was the change in the name of the Homes and Communities Agency, the government quango responsible for social housing development and regulation.  It is now to be called Homes England.

At its launch this week, Sajid Javid said: “This government is determined to build the homes our country needs and help more people get on the housing ladder. Homes England will be at the heart of leading this effort.”

Actually, that was the key purposes of the Homes and Communities Agency.  But at least we are being presented with the appearance that something is being done.  Perhaps he is hoping that we will not notice that nothing is changing at all.

Lastly, the social housing regulation function of the Homes and Communities Agency is forthwith to be known by the cunning title ‘the Regulator of Social Housing’.  Where do they get this talent?

At least Fiona MacGregor, the Executive Director of Regulation, has the honesty to set out the huge anticipated impact of these changes when she wrote in a letter to housing associations this week: “This change is to the regulator’s operating name only and does not alter our regulatory framework, approach or powers and we will continue to promote a viable, efficient and well-governed social housing sector able to deliver homes that meet a range of needs.”

Lots of people in Westminster and Whitehall have been very busy this week, earning their salaries by making sure that, at the end of the day, nothing is changing other than a few letterheads, business cards and signs outside government departments and quangos.  God forbid that they do anything meaningful to tackle the housing crisis.

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Why do we have such a housing crisis in Brighton and Hove?

There are many reasons for Brighton and Hove’s housing crisis, including the limited availability of land, the impact of the housing policies of successive governments that have failed to prioritise and invest in low cost rented accommodation, the impact of the growing student population, and the rise in single person households.

But one of the main factors must be the inward migration of the DFL’s – those moving down from London.

It was reported this week in the Guardian and locally by Brighton and Hove News that over 5,000 Londoners migrated to the City last year. This is the highest level anywhere in the country second only to those moving from London to Birmingham.

These are affluent people, not the small handful of homeless people that tend to end up living on the streets of Brighton and Hove.

Oxford University professor, Danny Dorling, who compiled the report on ‘internal migration’, described the damage done to communities by the scale of internal immigration. He said: “Creating a sense of community again will take a long time and requires two or three generations to be able to stay in one place. The immigrants who have the greatest effect on life in England are internal immigrants, English-born affluent people with a large deposit.”

The consequence of this is increased demand on housing and a significant inflationary impact on house prices. There is nothing that Brighton and Hove City Council can do to reverse this trend.

It requires government action to empower local authorities to control the housing market, perhaps by a massive windfall tax on homes sold to those moving into the City, the proceeds of which could be used to alleviate housing need locally. But I can’t see this or any government being willing to take such a bold move.

Rough sleeping has doubled since 2010, predicted to increase by a further 76%

The stock response from government, local and national, when challenged about a current or impending problem, is to say how much money it is spending to resolve the matter.

This is true about the rough sleeping crisis. The number of people sleeping rough has doubled since 2010, according to a report in the Financial Times in January. And today (10th August 2017), the national charity, Crisis, has forecast that rough sleeping will rise by a further 76% by 2026. (This forecast is based on research conducted on behalf of Crisis by Heriot-Watt University).

A Department for Communities and Local Government spokesman said: “Alongside investing £550 million to 2020 to address the issue, we’re implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act, which will require councils to provide early support to people at risk of becoming homeless. There’s more to do and ministers will set out plans shortly.”

It is easy for someone to quote eye-watering sums but given the track record since 2010 we need something that will inspire confidence. The doubling in rough sleeping numbers is a direct result of government policies. I look forward to the government’s plans being published. The plans need to be more than worthy statements of intent.

The government’s plans need to be SMART. They need to set out specific measures that will be implemented, what difference these measures will make, and when the positive impact will be seen. A vague date like 2026 is no good. Most of the Ministers around today will not even be a footnote in history by 2026.

I would suggest, amongst other things, the following:

  • The appointment of a Minister for Rough Sleeping who will remain in her/his post until the next general election so they can be judged on their record
  • Properly fund local authorities to meet their homelessness duties
  • Reverse the drop in investment for affordable homes, specifically homes that will be made available to homeless households and individuals
  • Reverse the cuts to housing benefit
  • Reintroduce direct housing benefit payments to landlords to build confidence especially in the private rented sector
  • Put funding for homelessness services on a proper footing,

It should shame us all, not least those in power, that rough sleeping numbers have doubled since 2010. Today’s report from Crisis should shame government into urgent action.

Please urge your MP to support Bob Blackman’s Bill so no homeless person is turned away

No One Turned Away, a campaign launched by Crisis, is calling for every homeless person who approaches their council to get the help they need. Homeless people can be turned away with little or no help by councils as they are not considered a ‘priority’, even though they have nowhere else to stay.

Bob Blackman MP

Bob Blackman MP

Now Conservative MP Bob Blackman has tabled a Homelessness Reduction Bill to improve the support that homeless people receive.  There are some concerns regarding ‘intentionality’ (for example, is someone intentionally homeless for not engaging, which could be a problem with very chaotic or vulnerable clients) but BHT will lobby separately on this.

On Friday 28 October MPs will debate the Bill that could help stop homeless people in England getting turned away when they approach their council.

But unless 100 or more MPs attend the debate, parliamentary rules mean that just one MP can kill the bill.

Already, of the six MP’s in the areas where BHT works, two have said that they will attend the debate:

  • Caroline Lucas (Brighton Pavilion)
  • Peter Kyle (Hove)

Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) has said she supports the principle of the Bill, as does the government, but she won’t be attending as she has a prior engagement that evening.

The following have not yet said that they will attend, so if you live in their constituency, please make a special effort to contact them:

  • Simon Kirby (Brighton Kemptown)
  • Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye)
  • Maria Caulfield (Lewes)

As members of the government, it is unlikely that either Amber Rudd or Simon Kirby will be able to attend the debate, but it would be useful if they received many requests encouraging them to attend so they will be able to gauge how important an issue this is.

You can contact your MP by completing the short form on this link.

I salute the former Genesis manager who has taken a principled stand against housing association mission drift

I was most heartened to read in Inside Housing today that a senior officer of Genesis has resigned on a point of principle following the decision of Genesis to focus its future development work on homes for sale, not for rent.

It takes great courage to take a principled stand by resigning one’s employment, especially at a time like this.

A couple of weeks ago there was an attack on housing association is in the Spectator magazine and in The Times. Channel 4 News also gave extensive coverage to the criticisms of the sector.

The attacks suggested that housing associations are the “true villains” of the housing crisis for not building enough homes, allegations of poor performance, and inflated salaries of chief executives. My criticism is that the large developers, the likes of Genesis, are not building enough homes with social rents. It is therefore should be no surprise that I take my hat off and salute the (former) manager at Genesis for her courage and principles.

David Orr, the chief executive of the National Housing Federation gave a characteristically robust defence of housing associations in the face of the media attacks. He is someone I greatly admire.

He referred to the fact that housing associations had built 40,000 homes, around one fifth of all new homes built during the last parliament, and that for every £1 of public investment into housing associations, associations themselves invested a further £6 of their own money.

My problem with the track record of large housing association is they’re building the wrong homes. As I have written on several occasions, building itself is not enough if they are not building homes with social rents.

When housing associations claim it is “their own money” they ignore the fact that the original surpluses generated by housing association will largely be down to homes originally developed with generous grant, and even when that was reduced, with high rents subsidised by working and unemployed tenants claiming housing benefit.  Housing associations were forced to increase rents in order to service the loans from financial institutions. (Another way in which bankers are subsidised by public funds).

Housing benefit is a form of public subsidy, the wrong priority to my mind. I favour direct investment in bricks and mortar to reduce the need for high levels of revenue subsidy through housing benefit. But this is something that successive governments, back to the days of Margaret Thatcher, have failed to do. It has been short-term economics resulting in huge cost yesterday and today, and greater cost tomorrow.

An enquiry has been launched by MPs on the Communities and Local Government Committee that will look at, amongst other things, how housing associations use their surpluses. In the last fortnight, several housing associations have reported their surpluses for the year ending 31 March 2015. Affinity Sutton for example increased its surplus to £124 million from £75 million on the back of sale activity in London. Notting Hill Housing Trust reported a surplus of £121.3 million, up from £65.7 million the previous year. It generated £68.5 million from its first tranche of shared ownership sales while revenues from property sales increased from £49.4 million to £76.8 million over the same period.

This may be good news for finance directors and chief executives of these associations, but the homes that they are building are increasingly not available for rent for people on low and medium incomes.

(In defence of Affinity Sutton, they have recently announced that they will be renting some homes at living rent levels. This is to be welcomed and I hope others will follow suit, especially in places like Brighton and Hove.)

As I have written recently, the housing association world is in meltdown. I imagine that by the end of this Parliament the majority of large associations with no longer be regulated and will act, more and more, as private businesses.

The question is whether they will be able to retain their charitable status and whether it is appropriate that they do so if they are no longer achieving the charitable objectives set out by the founders.

in the meantime, I take encouragement that there are people in the social housing world who remain passionate and committed to housing with social rents.

The Supreme Court has given the most important, and most positive, judgement for homeless people in 15 years

Earlier today (13 May) the Supreme Court gave a ruling on a case about the way local councils decide who is ‘vulnerable enough’ for housing help. The judgement is quite sensational. Until now, single homeless people had to prove that they were particularly vulnerable compared to other homeless people in order to qualify for support.  This has now changed.  They no longer have to show that they are more likely to come to harm (commit suicide, resort to drug use, etc.) than “an ordinary homeless person”.

That led to situations where single homeless people suffering from problems including depression and suicidal thoughts were deemed not vulnerable because “an ordinary homeless person” would also be expected to suffer from those problems.  (I kid you not!).

The Supreme Court has, in effect, said that councils must do more to help single homeless people, that local authorities were failing to recognise homeless people in vulnerable situations.

Speaking to the BBC after the ruling, Giles Peaker, a partner at Anthony Gold Solicitors, said it was the “most significant judgement in homeless law on vulnerable people in the past 10 to 15 years”.

He said, “The ruling makes it more likely that vulnerable, single homeless people will have their vulnerability taken seriously and it clears the way for them to go into priority need.  Vulnerability had become almost impossible to demonstrate but this now gives purpose to the original intention of the law that people with more risk are given accommodation.”

Of course this ruling was based on three test cases, which had been supported by Crisis and Shelter, and is not a reflection on our local councils in Brighton and Hove, Eastbourne, and Hastings.  However, it does set the bar for councils, and could make challenges easier to define.

Of course, challenging a local council’s decision is the last thing we want to do.  It is better all around, to work together to resolve individual cases of homelessness.  That is why today I have published an open letter to councillors in Brighton and Hove calling on them to work with others, including BHT, to end the scourge of street homelessness, as far as it is possible, by 2019.

I also recently published an account of an advice worker’s attempt to get her local council to respond positively to help a suicidal 18 year old suicidal young woman.  Do read her account.  It brings into clear focus why this decision by the Supreme Court is so important.

Finally, given the law has been clarified on this matter, I do hope that central government will provide the necessary resources to allow councils to do what Parliament, and now the Supreme Court, expects them to do.

Right to Buy: just wrong on a financial, housing and moral basis

I was thrilled to see that the Scottish government is intending to scrap the Right to Buy. As we know, one third of homes sold through the Right to Buy initiative are now in the hands of private landlords. I have blogged about this before. Scrapping the Right to Buy will not resolve the housing problem; it will just slow down the worsening rate of the housing crisis.

One other point about Right to Buy: sales have more than doubled over the last year. In Quarter 1 of 2013, there were over four times as many sales as the same three months in 2012. In 2012, 5,942 social homes were sold. In the same year, there were just 844 starts on new homes.

When Grant Shapps was the Housing Minister, he said that under the reinvigorated Right to Buy, there would be a new home built for everyone sold, on a like for like basis. The 844 starts represents a one to seven replacement rate.

I just cannot understand the logic behind Right to Buy, from a financial, housing or moral basis.

(Note: I drafted this is July and forgot to post it at the time).