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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Private house builder chief executive gets £110 million bonus thanks to government housing policy

If there was any reason (and there are many others) why the government should look again at council house building, it is the extreme bonus paid to the chief executive of private housebuilder, Persimmon.

Jeff Fairburn has received £50m worth of shares as part of a record-breaking bonus scheme.  In total he will get bonuses totalling £110 million.

He says he deserves his £110m because he has “worked very hard” to reinvigorate the housing market. (Some suggest that the rich need bonus incentives to work hard, while the poor need benefit cuts as an incentive to work hard).

According to Inside Housing magazine, “more than half the homes sold by York-based Persimmon last year went to help-to-buy recipients, meaning government money helped finance the sales. Persimmon’s share price has nearly tripled since help to buy was launched in April 2013.”

The Guardian newspaper has calculated that a donation of £4.6m (just 4% of Fairburn’s bonus) could provide a home for all of the 58 homeless families in York where Persimmon is based.

According to the National Audit Office (September 2017), there has been a 60% increase in households in temporary and permanent accommodation since 2010/11. That is 77,000 households including 120,000 children.

But they are the poor and they don’t really matter because Jeff Fairburn is doing ok and the Persimmon share has tripled thanks to the government’s housing policies.

And people ask why I am getting more cynical in my old age ……

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.

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.

 

“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.

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.

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)