Our most popular story on the website last week was about the near 3,000 households who had their incomes slashed as a result of the total benefits cap trialled in four London boroughs.
The roll out of the benefit cap in other areas of the country and the city starts today without much analysis released into the public domain about the lifestyle changes of those who have taken part in these pilot schemes. Government advisors are obviously happy that people can cope, but where is the proof?
Our report in July showed of the 2,432 households which had been affected at that time, 1,897 were single parent households.
While these households have only one adult to keep, Halifax research last year found the average cost of raising a child in 2011 was £8,307. If a single parent has only one child, it leaves them with around £17,000 for all other expenses excluding the child’s.
As anyone who has lived in London on a restrictive budget knows, trying to find affordable accommodation and have any kind of quality of life is a miserable task which most certainly effects both mental and physical health.
Growing up, I was surrounded by council estates in Edinburgh where the common knowledge was if you got pregnant you would get a council house. As a result of this, I back the idea that benefits should not be a lifestyle choice. However leaving society’s most vulnerable in the poverty trap shrouded by misery is not an acceptable, nor responsible, answer. The effects on those the policy is inflicted on are too great.
With the financial constraints people are under at present, it’s easy to see why complaints would be raised about those receiving benefits amounting to around the same amount as the UK’s annual wage (£26,500 in November 2012).
The economy’s potential recovery feels so distant from people on the ground trying to keep a decent standard of life for their families. But all I can see arising from this new cap is a further split between those living on benefits and those not, a rising health care bill and many children, 97.3 per cent of the households in the London pilots had children, who will suffer vast reductions in their quality of life.
The government’s insistence that paying housing benefit to tenants won’t harm the finances of social landlords has always been somewhat puzzling.
It is fairly clear that if you put tenants in charge of paying their rent – rather than having the government do it for them – then arrears are going to increase, and this will have a detrimental impact on the balance sheets of housing providers.
You can argue about the extent of the arrears that will be incurred, and the level of damage to the confidence of housing associations’ financial backers, but surely some impact is undeniable?
And yet denying is exactly what the government has done. In January work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith told Parliament welfare reforms would have no impact on housing association finances, a message repeated since by his officials and ministerial colleagues. How the government intends to deliver on this promise is now becoming clear.
A response from the Communities and Local Government department to a select committee report on the impact of welfare reform on local authorities, published last week, states landlords will be able to contact the Department for Work and Pensions once a tenant has run up enough arrears to request that the debt is recovered through deductions to future payments.
It notes that existing laws allow deductions of up to 5 per cent, but that the government is considering whether this should be increased as part of its flagship welfare reform policy, universal credit.
This mechanism should certainly help to ensure lenders retain their confidence in the sector, and will limit the damage that direct payment can do to housing associations’ finances. However it does not solve all the problems of direct payment.
For tenants who have ended up in rent arrears because they are struggling to make ends meet, having 5 per cent or more of future payments cut until they have paid back the arrears will make life even more difficult.
As our anonymous columnist explains in this week’s issue, getting the message about direct payment across is not straightforward, and the size of the chasm between introducing government policy and making it a workable reality on the frontline should not be underestimated.
For landlords too, the arrears recovery mechanism has problems. Social landlords take the social part of their role seriously, and will still feel the need to employ extra staff to help struggling tenants and ensure arrears do not get out of hand.
If the government hopes this latest addition to the detail of how universal credit will work in practice will allow Mr Duncan Smith to make good on his promise, it is likely to be disappointed.
Welfare reform is back on the national news agenda after a few weeks off with a combination of the suicide of Stephanie Bottrill, High Court action, and emerging non-payment figures all meaning the bedroom tax has once again caught the interest of the mainstream media.
The government’s argument hasn’t changed since the last round of stories, with ministers still citing the somewhat contradictory defences of ‘fairness’ and the need to get control of the housing benefit bill.
The fairness argument is problematic, as it is hard to see what is fair about telling people that have to move to smaller properties when there are none available, but even if you disregard that then the economic defence doesn’t really hold up.
Government lawyers last week argued that the bedroom tax would save £500 million a year, which sounds like a lot of money, but is actually a fairly small proportion of the housing benefit bill. Work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has even admitted that the government is no longer hoping to cut welfare spending, but simply to manage the increase.
As the London Finance Commission noted last week, however, there could be another way.
What the expert group set up by London mayor Boris Johnson concluded on housing benefit was that there is a strong case for examining if money that is handed out in benefits as ‘personal subsidy’ could be much better spent on subsidising the development of affordable housing.
In theory, it is easy to see how this could work. Housing benefit has spiralled because the shortage of social housing means benefit recipients are increasingly housed in the private rented sector, where rents are much higher than in the social sector – particularly in places like London. If more money was invested in building social housing, then more benefit recipients could be housed by social landlords, with lower rents, therefore allowing more money to be spent on building homes.
This would also have the advantage that money spent on housing benefit would be going to social landlords, who could use it to build more affordable homes, rather than to private landlords, who could use it to buy fast cars and expensive holidays.
In practice though, implementing such an idea is fraught with difficulties. The London Finance Commission stopped short of recommending the move, instead just saying it was worth examining in more detail, because of the problems it could cause.
Part of the problem is that housing development and housing benefit seem to operate almost entirely separately within government. This was illustrated quite neatly last week by the announcement of £800,000 of Communities and Local Government department funding for Crisis to help projects supporting single homeless people find shared accommodation.
This has become an issue since the Department for Work and Pensions raised the age at which single people on housing benefit could only claim for a room in a shared property from 25 to 35 in January last year. So essentially you have one government department paying to find a solution to a problem created by its Whitehall colleagues.
It’s also questionable whether a Conservative or Conservative-led government would ever really be prepared to implement a policy that could do considerable damage to the private rented sector. As Jules Birch argued in a recent Inside Housing blog, the growth of the private rented sector and housing benefit is a key part of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. Unpicking this would be sure to go down badly with many Tories for both personal and political reasons.
The idea of trying to find a way to channel some money from housing benefit into housing subsidy is not a new one, but the practical problems have always proved too great in the past. As the housing crisis continues to worsen and the housing benefit bill continues to rise, however, it might finally be time for this nettle to be grasped.
The London Finance Commission noted that in the last decade the capital has received £17 billion in capital funding for housing, but £50 billion in revenue funding – the bulk of which is housing benefit. If that situation could be reversed, then it could potentially offer a truly long-term solution to the housing problems faced not just by London but by the UK as a whole.
As more of the government’s welfare reforms come into force the efforts of landlords are changing from opposition to management.
At the start of April the ‘bedroom tax’ came into effect, last week we had disability benefit reforms, and from today the overall benefit cap has been introduced in four London boroughs.
There are still legal challenges to the bedroom tax to be heard, and many more reforms to be introduced, but it seems many councils and housing associations are now thinking more about how they can help people handle the cuts, rather than fighting them.
Today Greenwich has announced it is offering residents who are at risk of losing their home employment. This reminded me of a story from last year, when Liverpool Mutual Homes floated the idea of paying tenants’ bedroom tax in exchange for volunteering. To the irritation of protestors, this ran into difficulties and was shelved.
Other landlords are considering reclassifying their properties, and offering guarantees that no tenants will be evicted if they incur arrears as a result of the bedroom tax. These routes both come with major practical problems, however. Reclassification risks cutting rental income and property value, while identifying which tenants are in arrears because of the bedroom tax, and which are in difficulties because of other reforms, could become impossible once universal credit is introduced.
A more straightforward solution has been taken by Glasgow Housing Association, which has spent £16 million buying 300 one-bedroom flats to help tenants downsize.
Despite all this positive work, the numbers of people that will benefit are only a tiny proportion of those that will be affected by the cuts. With 660,000 households hit by the bedroom tax alone, the housing sector is going to have to push innovation and support to new levels if it hopes to significantly limit the impact of welfare reform.
The coalition is very good at handing power to local authorities, but it has a nasty habit of getting upset when councils don’t use the powers as it would like. Fixed-term tenancies are the latest example of this.
Inside Housing spent the week before Christmas phoning councils to ask them about their tenancy strategies and allocations policies. What we found out wasn’t entirely surprising, but is interesting nonetheless.
Our research shows the majority of councils – 29 of the 50 that got back to us – don’t intend to introduce fixed-term tenancies. We also found a sharp spilt along political lines, with 25 of the councils that are rejecting fixed-term tenancies being Labour controlled, and 12 of those that aren’t being led by the Conservatives.
When we asked the Communities and Local Government department for a response to this, we got a fairly strong comment from housing minister Mark Prisk saying councils should be using fixed-term tenancies.
This seems odd, because surely the point of giving councils the freedom to set their own policies is to allow them to make policies that meet local need. If they don’t think they need fixed-term tenancies, then shouldn’t they be allowed to just get on with it?
Perhaps what the minister is most concerned about is Labour authorities neutering coalition government plans. Last year we had communities secretary Eric Pickles laying into Labour councils for not buying into his right to buy dream, and this could be the latest example of the Conservative-led government clashing with Labour authorities.
If that is the case – and the political divide in our survey would support that – then it is a pretty worrying development. The whole point about localising housing policy is to ensure those policies help people more effectively. If the agenda is instead being used as a political points scoring exercise then there must be a concern that the decisions being made are not those that would be of most benefit to households.
With the half way point of the coalition government’s initial term in office reached, the next two years could see policies increasingly developed to meet political rather than social aims at both local and national level.
The autumn statement has been preceded by more hype than generally accompanies a full budget, and is almost certain therefore to be something of an anti-climax.
If chancellor George Osborne has been listening, however, there should be something in the announcements for the housing sector, because housing groups have been pretty vocal in putting forward their demands.
Here’s our quick guide to what the leading bodies want to see. See below to find out how they got on.
- Increase income disregards under universal credit and link the payments to inflation
- Provide clarity on the £10 billion guarantee scheme for housing announced in September
- Raise the debt caps imposed on local authorities following reform of the housing revenue account subsidy system
- Begin a review of social housing rents after 2015, and confirm plans by the 2013 Budget
- Adapt existing government funding schemes to allow homeless people to turn empty commercial buildings into homes for their use
- Accelerate the release of public land by launching an open competition for small sites
- Extend the current rent-setting formula for social housing until 2020
- Reduce the VAT rate on work to renovate social housing to 5 per cent
- Raise the debt caps imposed on local authorities following reform of the housing revenue account subsidy system
- Ensure benefits keep pace with living costs, axe plans to cut housing benefit for under 25s, and take a ‘common sense approach’ to direct payment
- Channel money from the funding for lending scheme into house building
- Expand the definition of affordable housing to include homes for discounted market sale, shared equity, and private rent
- Review and simplify the planning process
- Expand the Get Britain building programme for mothballed housing sites
- A moratorium on any new policies that increase the cost of house building
Unpicking the detail of the autumn statement may take some time, but comparing the demands of housing groups with what we know so far, they don’t seem to have fared too well.
- Income disregards were announced, but universal credit is being uprated at 1 per cent, not in line with inflation
- Nothing on the guarantee scheme – except that there have been 60 expressions of interest
- Nothing on debt caps
- Nothing on rents
- Some announcements around empty commercial properties, but not on turning them into accommodation for the homeless
- Some movement on releasing public land, although not quite in the form the NHF wanted
- Nothing on rents
- Nothing on VAT
- Nothing on debt caps
- No mention of cutting benefit for under 25s, but nothing on the other requests either
- Nothing on funding for lending
- Nothing on redefining affordable housing
- Some moves to simplify planning were announced ahead of the autumn statement
- £225 million to free up stalled housing schemes, which sounds very similar to Get Britain building
- Nothing specific on a moratorium on policies that increase the cost of building
We also asked Inside Housing readers what they wanted to see in the statement. From the options below, here’s what you said:
- Halting further welfare cuts – 52 per cent
- Clarify on funding – 18 per cent
- Clarity on rents – 14 per cent
- Releasing more public land – 8 per cent
- Raising the debt cap – 8 per cent
If that was a list of demands, I reckon that would be 2/10 as well.
As councils begin to sign off their new housing allocation policies it is clear that divisions are starting to appear along political lines.
Conservative councils like Hammersmith & Fulham are taking their new-found freedoms as far as they can go, offering tenancies for as little as two years, and barring households with an income of more than £40,200 from even putting their name on the waiting list.
Meanwhile Labour-controlled Camden has decided the best way to meet the housing needs of its residents is to reject fixed-term tenancies entirely and keep the ‘status quo’.
Both councils have produced lengthy documents explaining why their approach is the right one for dealing with the housing issues they are facing, but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that there is also some political point scoring going on here. These boroughs are only a few miles apart, can their housing needs really be so different?
If a political motive is to be found here then that could be a worrying prospect. London boroughs do not exist in little bubbles, so the obvious question is how will such radical differences in allocation policies effect housing across the capital?
Will we see low-income families moving to boroughs where they know a council house is for life, not just for a couple of years? If so councils will no doubt be forced into a rapid reassessment of their policies so they become as hard line as their neighbour – somewhat undermining the whole point of giving councils the power to set their own policies in the first place.
With all the speculation that goes on about the impact of government policies it is always good to get some firm figures from the Communities and Local Government department.
Unfortunately the Social housing lettings and sales in England CORE data published last week doesn’t give us any insight into how one of the coalition’s flagship housing policies is going – the revitalised right to buy.
For a start it covers 2011/12, before the increased discounts kicked in, and even more fundamentally only covers sales for housing associations. Local authority figures are available, but only for 2010/11 at the moment.
As luck would have it, Inside Housing has been carrying out its own research to get some more up to date – if a little less comprehensive – figures, and these raise some concerns. We spoke to 25 councils and found they had completed just 233 sales through the right to buy since the improved discounts began in April, despite 5,697 expressions of interest.
The CLG is putting a brave face on this, telling us it is just taking time for sales to go through, but given the prime minister wants to see 100,000 sales, there is going to have to be a lot of activity in a very short space of time.
With the coalition government approaching the midway point of its existence it may already be time to start rethinking the revitalised right to buy.
Some ideas for improving the policy include introducing a part right to buy – as advocated by Hammersmith and Fulham’s cabinet member for housing, Andrew Johnson. Others including Home Group have argued a more productive route may be to extend the policy to housing associations.
This would certainly make sense as a mechanism to increase sales. Many of the more desirable council houses have already been sold off, so extending right to buy to housing association homes would be likely to see a surge in sales.
There are of course many who oppose the policy outright, and would strongly argue against any move to increase its effectiveness. But it seems unlikely the government is going to perform a u-turn on this one. A change of course is more probable, but if ministers wait until next year’s CORE data it may be too late.
The government’s consultation on whether high-earning social tenants should be charged more rent contained a series of fairly complex questions, but the Chartered Institute of Housing begun its response with a fairly simple comment: ‘No’.
The National Housing Federation was a little more circumspect in its criticism of the scheme, but its response basically comes to the same conclusion. It argues it should be optional, and only apply to new tenancies – effectively meaning it would apply to no-one, as anyone with the income levels required to fall foul of the scheme wouldn’t qualify for social housing in the current environment.
The Association of Retained Council Housing doesn’t even bother to answer the Communities and Local Government department’s questions, instead opting for a one-page response that says the idea is incompatible with localism, and councils should decide individually if they want to raise rents for high earners.
Both the Fed and the CIH go into more detail about why they don’t think it would work, and in so doing uncover the massive complexity that such a seemingly-simple concept would entail. The Fed, for example, raises the question of recovering grant.
If a property that had been built with grant was let at market rate – because the household breached the earning threshold – the property would no longer be a social home, so the grant would have to be paid back to the government. If the property later reverted to social housing, the grant would then have to be returned to the landlord.
The Fed’s description of this as ‘extremely problematic’ doesn’t even begin to address the scope of the difficulties.
‘Pay to stay’ is a classic example of a policy dreamed up to make good headlines. It sounds great on paper, looks great in a paper, but ignores a whole host of problems that would make it completely ineffective and unworkable.
Hopefully our new housing minister – who so far seems a little less concerned with headlines than his predecessor – will see the sense in the consultation responses and ditch the policy before it goes any further.
To some on the Inside Housing newsdesk the announcement of 12 universal credit pathfinders last week sounded a little like old news. Hadn’t we already been told this?
No, it transpired, we hadn’t. What we’d been told about before was the four pathfinders for universal credit, which will begin the full scheme six months ahead of the national roll out in October 2013, and the six direct payment ‘demonstrations’. This was different.
Could the existence of four pathfinders, six demonstrations, and 12 pilots suggest the government is a little nervous about the introduction of its flagship welfare reform policy? Perhaps it is just being careful, but it if does have concerns these could well be justified.
The purpose of the pilots is to look at how certain aspects of universal credit could cause problems for some groups in society, with several of them concentrating on aspects of financial and digital inclusion.
Research being carried out by housing providers suggests the government is right to identify these areas as potential problems.
Under universal credit some payments that are currently made direct to the intended beneficiary – for example housing benefit payments going to landlords – will go to tenants. Although mechanisms will be in place for tenants that don’t have bank accounts, the way the system is designed will make it easier to manage for those that do.
Likewise the new system is going to place an increasing pressure on benefit recipients to have access to the internet, and be reasonably proficient in its use. It is designed to be managed online, and although support will be in place to help people who can’t get to grips with the technology, this will be based around helping people to get online rather than giving them an alternative way of managing their account.
Figures from one landlord who has been investigating the impact welfare reform will have on its tenants reveal the scale of the challenge. So far it has found only 53 per cent of its tenants have a bank account, and only 29 per cent have access to the internet.
These figures are unlikely to be representative of benefit recipients nationally, but they do give some indication of the scale of the challenge facing landlords in the run up to the implementation of universal credit. It’s good to see the government’s pilots looking at these issues, but with just over a year to go it seems doubtful that all the problems can be resolved before the scheme gets off the ground – regardless of how many pilots are thrown at it.