Monday, 27 February 2017

Inside edge

All posts from: February 2014

Double shift

Thu, 27 Feb 2014

Figures published today underline yet again the historic change in the way we are housed in England.

Headline results from the English Housing Survey for 2012-13 confirm not just one but two remarkable trends. I’ve highlighted them in a graph below:

The first is the one happening within renting that I first highlighted on this blog in 2011. There are now more private tenants than social tenants for the first time since the early 1960s and the heyday of Rachmanism. Contrary to some reports, this historic shift actually happened in 2011/12 but 2012/13 saw the gap between the two grow as even more of us rented from a private landlord and social housing continued to decline.

The second less noticed one is happening within owner-occupation. As is widely reported today, the overall rate of home ownership fell to 65.2% in 2012/13, its lowest share since 1987. However, that conceals a deeper underlying shift: the number of outright owners almost overtook the number of households buying with a mortgage in 2012/13. On current trends this will happen next year.

The graph below shows the number of households in each form of tenure going back to 1981, the first year for which the split between owning outright and buying with a mortgage is available. Click on the tabs at the top to see what has happened to each of them:

The number of outright owners has seen a steady increase over the last 32 years as more and more of us pay off the mortgage or can afford to do without one in the first place.

The number of people buying with a mortgage is in stark contrast to this. The 1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s property-owning democracy saw mortgaged ownership rise by about half thanks to policies such as the right to buy and the liberalisation of mortgage lending.

Growth continued more slowly into the 1990s and early 2000s but went into reverse after 2003. The general decline of home ownership is usually seen as the result of the credit crunch and global financial crisis but this shows it began much earlier as young first-time buyers were priced out of the market. Mortgaged ownership is now back at levels last seen before 1988.

That same year was both the post-war low point for the private rented sector (just 1.7 million of us were private tenants) and in retrospect the turning point in its fortunes as the government moved to dismantle security of tenure and deregulate rents. Growth was sluggish at first but really took off after the creation of Buy to Let in the late 1990s. The number of private tenants has doubled in the years since then, with many of those outright owners becoming owner-landlords as well.

Finally, we have social renting. In 1981 it was already declining thanks to the right to buy and cuts in investment. A million homes were lost in the 1980s and the sector has continued to decline ever since under governments of both parties as homes are sold off or demolished faster than new ones are built.

These trends are of course all connected. The explanations are for other blogs but include long-term trends in the labour market, the lending market and the taxation of investments as well as the rising inequality noted in Danny Dorling’s new book. The effects are already being felt but a country that had grown used to home ownership as a right and social housing as a safety net is still making the adjustment.

Housing minister Kris Hopkins has responded to the new figures with the usual bluster about Help to Buy and affordable homes and by pointing out quite correctly that they are a year old.

He might also want to note that the number of households buying with a mortgage fell by 513,000 in the first three years of the coalition. The number who are private tenants rose 601,000. The historic shift in housing tenure continues. 

Double shift

Thu, 27 Feb 2014

Figures published today underline yet again the historic change in the way we are housed in England.

Headline results from the English Housing Survey for 2012-13 confirm not just one but two remarkable trends. I’ve highlighted them in a graph below:

The first is the one happening within renting that I first highlighted on this blog in 2011. There are now more private tenants than social tenants for the first time since the early 1960s and the heyday of Rachmanism. Contrary to some reports, this historic shift actually happened in 2011/12 but 2012/13 saw the gap between the two grow as even more of us rented from a private landlord and social housing continued to decline.

The second less noticed one is happening within owner-occupation. As is widely reported today, the overall rate of home ownership fell to 65.2% in 2012/13, its lowest share since 1987. However, that conceals a deeper underlying shift: the number of outright owners almost overtook the number of households buying with a mortgage in 2012/13. On current trends this will happen next year.

The graph below shows the number of households in each form of tenure going back to 1981, the first year for which the split between owning outright and buying with a mortgage is available. Click on the tabs at the top to see what has happened to each of them:

The number of outright owners has seen a steady increase over the last 32 years as more and more of us pay off the mortgage or can afford to do without one in the first place.

The number of people buying with a mortgage is in stark contrast to this. The 1980s and Margaret Thatcher’s property-owning democracy saw mortgaged ownership rise by about half thanks to policies such as the right to buy and the liberalisation of mortgage lending.

Growth continued more slowly into the 1990s and early 2000s but went into reverse after 2003. The general decline of home ownership is usually seen as the result of the credit crunch and global financial crisis but this shows it began much earlier as young first-time buyers were priced out of the market. Mortgaged ownership is now back at levels last seen before 1988.

That same year was both the post-war low point for the private rented sector (just 1.7 million of us were private tenants) and in retrospect the turning point in its fortunes as the government moved to dismantle security of tenure and deregulate rents. Growth was sluggish at first but really took off after the creation of Buy to Let in the late 1990s. The number of private tenants has doubled in the years since then, with many of those outright owners becoming owner-landlords as well.

Finally, we have social renting. In 1981 it was already declining thanks to the right to buy and cuts in investment. A million homes were lost in the 1980s and the sector has continued to decline ever since under governments of both parties as homes are sold off or demolished faster than new ones are built.

These trends are of course all connected. The explanations are for other blogs but include long-term trends in the labour market, the lending market and the taxation of investments as well as the rising inequality noted in Danny Dorling’s new book. The effects are already being felt but a country that had grown used to home ownership as a right and social housing as a safety net is still making the adjustment.

Housing minister Kris Hopkins has responded to the new figures with the usual bluster about Help to Buy and affordable homes and by pointing out quite correctly that they are a year old.

He might also want to note that the number of households buying with a mortgage fell by 513,000 in the first three years of the coalition. The number who are private tenants rose 601,000. The historic shift in housing tenure continues. 

Unequal shares

Tue, 25 Feb 2014

What if our real housing problem is not a lack of a new homes but the distribution of the ones we already have?

That’s the key premise of All that is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster, an intriguing new book published this week by Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Oxford University. In it he attacks not just the ‘yes to homes’ consensus about the solution to the housing crisis but the actions of just about all the key people involved. Politicians, housebuilders, landlords and property journalists are all seen as part of the problem but housing associations, the CIH and the voluntary sector also come under fire for accepting the status quo.

Dorling’s starting point is an analysis of Census returns of the number of bedrooms in the UK. We may have been building fewer homes in the last 30 years but we have been busily extending the ones we have with more rooms. On this measure we have never been better housed: the 2011 Census revealed that we have more bedrooms per person than ever before and that even in London there are more bedrooms than people.

But if you look at the distribution of those rooms something has changed in the last 30 years. Through most of the 20th century, society became more equal in the way that people were housed. The number of bedrooms enjoyed by the richest 10 per cent of the population fell to three times as many as the poorest 10 per cent in the Census of 1981. Then it began to rise again, reaching 3.7 times in 2001 and accelerating to five times in 2011.

Dorling argues that this is a manifestation of rising inequality and that this is the real cause of the housing crisis rather than a shortage of homes. As the super-rich consume more housing the effects cascade through society as the very rich feel they need more, the rich aspire to have more and so on. Location becomes ever more important as the well-off and the well-housed cluster near good schools and in safe neighbourhoods. One place to live is no longer enough as those who can afford it buy second homes or become landlords.

As he sums it up: ‘Fundamentally it is the linking of housing to social status that allows prices and rents to be increased beyond what the cost of providing the dwelling might be, or beyond what the value of the land might be if it were turned to other purposes.’

To my mind, Dorling asserts the link between inequality and housing more than he proves it and the effects may go even deeper than he makes out. Liberalisation of mortgage lending, the decline of organised labour and the removal of protection for private tenants all took place over the same period. Are they manifestations of rising inequality or something bigger? However, if you doubt that there is a link, have a quick read of Saturday’s Financial Times about the middle class ‘cling-ons’ being pushed out of London and the ‘über-middle class’ who are reshaping Oxford. ‘Middle class’ in FT headline terms means those in the top 10 per cent of earners but even these people are being priced out by those above them.

Dorling links housing directly to the global financial crisis, not just in the UK but in the US, Spain and Ireland, and suggests that as our economy become ever more reliant on the housing market it has become ‘the defining issue of our times’. Yet this is a book with a difference that he says supports none of the usual solutions offered:

‘Solutions such as home-building, which look as if they might solve some of our present woes, may not be the panacea many imagine if we continue to allow a few to get richer and richer through exploitation of what the housing system has become. Building more may result in the wealthy owning even more homes, more families renting some of those homes, but more being empty at any one time and in greater future inequality, unless we address rising inequalities in how housing is shared out.’

And so Dorling’s solutions are very different too. ‘We have already built enough homes,’ he argues. ‘We have far more bedrooms than we have ever had before. But a few have been taking more than their fair share, increasingly so ever since 1980; and very recently they have been taking far more again with each year that has passed since the crash.’

He argues those at the top of society harm the rest, by evicting the poorest from their homes, penalising people for their spare bedrooms and impoverishing middle earners through high rents and mortgages. We will need to build more homes if more people come to the UK than leave (as has happened in the last few years) but his other solutions are all focussed on housing inequality. They include:

  • Extending current council tax bands to Band Z with a view to transforming it into a national land and property tax
  • Giving people with mortgages a ‘right to sell’ and become tenants rather than be repossessed
  • The reintroduction of rent controls with local housing allowance rates used as the maximum fair rent in an area
  • Decriminalisation of squatting
  • Recognition that housing is central to environmental sustainability so that, when we build, we build for the long term.

Dorling argues that it will take another housing market crisis for these sort of solutions to be seriously considered – but that another crisis is what is on the way. ‘The vested interests in British housing are stoking up the embers of the last crash to create a new crisis. But a crisis is as good a time as any to get out house in order.’

This is a book that sometimes shows signs of being written in haste. Housing nerds will spot some errors and questionable assertions, at times I found the structure confusing and repetitive and he is more dismissive of the case for new homes in the book than he was in TV and radio interviews linked to its publication.

A bigger problem for me is that if rising inequality really is at the heart of the housing crisis then surely action on housing alone will not be enough to solve it. Just for starters, we would also need radical reform of the labour market, the financial system and the dominance of London in the UK economy. Dorling discusses all of these points and more in the book yet his conclusions are about housing alone. 

However, as his media appearances over the last week show, All that is Solid is being published at a time when more and more of us sense that business as usual will not provide the answers to the housing crisis that are so desperately needed. It’s well worth a read. 

All that is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster, by Danny Dorling, is published by Allen Lane, RRP £20

 

Unequal shares

Tue, 25 Feb 2014

What if our real housing problem is not a lack of a new homes but the distribution of the ones we already have?

That’s the key premise of All that is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster, an intriguing new book published this week by Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at Oxford University. In it he attacks not just the ‘yes to homes’ consensus about the solution to the housing crisis but the actions of just about all the key people involved. Politicians, housebuilders, landlords and property journalists are all seen as part of the problem but housing associations, the CIH and the voluntary sector also come under fire for accepting the status quo.

Dorling’s starting point is an analysis of Census returns of the number of bedrooms in the UK. We may have been building fewer homes in the last 30 years but we have been busily extending the ones we have with more rooms. On this measure we have never been better housed: the 2011 Census revealed that we have more bedrooms per person than ever before and that even in London there are more bedrooms than people.

But if you look at the distribution of those rooms something has changed in the last 30 years. Through most of the 20th century, society became more equal in the way that people were housed. The number of bedrooms enjoyed by the richest 10 per cent of the population fell to three times as many as the poorest 10 per cent in the Census of 1981. Then it began to rise again, reaching 3.7 times in 2001 and accelerating to five times in 2011.

Dorling argues that this is a manifestation of rising inequality and that this is the real cause of the housing crisis rather than a shortage of homes. As the super-rich consume more housing the effects cascade through society as the very rich feel they need more, the rich aspire to have more and so on. Location becomes ever more important as the well-off and the well-housed cluster near good schools and in safe neighbourhoods. One place to live is no longer enough as those who can afford it buy second homes or become landlords.

As he sums it up: ‘Fundamentally it is the linking of housing to social status that allows prices and rents to be increased beyond what the cost of providing the dwelling might be, or beyond what the value of the land might be if it were turned to other purposes.’

To my mind, Dorling asserts the link between inequality and housing more than he proves it and the effects may go even deeper than he makes out. Liberalisation of mortgage lending, the decline of organised labour and the removal of protection for private tenants all took place over the same period. Are they manifestations of rising inequality or something bigger? However, if you doubt that there is a link, have a quick read of Saturday’s Financial Times about the middle class ‘cling-ons’ being pushed out of London and the ‘über-middle class’ who are reshaping Oxford. ‘Middle class’ in FT headline terms means those in the top 10 per cent of earners but even these people are being priced out by those above them.

Dorling links housing directly to the global financial crisis, not just in the UK but in the US, Spain and Ireland, and suggests that as our economy become ever more reliant on the housing market it has become ‘the defining issue of our times’. Yet this is a book with a difference that he says supports none of the usual solutions offered:

‘Solutions such as home-building, which look as if they might solve some of our present woes, may not be the panacea many imagine if we continue to allow a few to get richer and richer through exploitation of what the housing system has become. Building more may result in the wealthy owning even more homes, more families renting some of those homes, but more being empty at any one time and in greater future inequality, unless we address rising inequalities in how housing is shared out.’

And so Dorling’s solutions are very different too. ‘We have already built enough homes,’ he argues. ‘We have far more bedrooms than we have ever had before. But a few have been taking more than their fair share, increasingly so ever since 1980; and very recently they have been taking far more again with each year that has passed since the crash.’

He argues those at the top of society harm the rest, by evicting the poorest from their homes, penalising people for their spare bedrooms and impoverishing middle earners through high rents and mortgages. We will need to build more homes if more people come to the UK than leave (as has happened in the last few years) but his other solutions are all focussed on housing inequality. They include:

  • Extending current council tax bands to Band Z with a view to transforming it into a national land and property tax
  • Giving people with mortgages a ‘right to sell’ and become tenants rather than be repossessed
  • The reintroduction of rent controls with local housing allowance rates used as the maximum fair rent in an area
  • Decriminalisation of squatting
  • Recognition that housing is central to environmental sustainability so that, when we build, we build for the long term.

Dorling argues that it will take another housing market crisis for these sort of solutions to be seriously considered – but that another crisis is what is on the way. ‘The vested interests in British housing are stoking up the embers of the last crash to create a new crisis. But a crisis is as good a time as any to get out house in order.’

This is a book that sometimes shows signs of being written in haste. Housing nerds will spot some errors and questionable assertions, at times I found the structure confusing and repetitive and he is more dismissive of the case for new homes in the book than he was in TV and radio interviews linked to its publication.

A bigger problem for me is that if rising inequality really is at the heart of the housing crisis then surely action on housing alone will not be enough to solve it. Just for starters, we would also need radical reform of the labour market, the financial system and the dominance of London in the UK economy. Dorling discusses all of these points and more in the book yet his conclusions are about housing alone. 

However, as his media appearances over the last week show, All that is Solid is being published at a time when more and more of us sense that business as usual will not provide the answers to the housing crisis that are so desperately needed. It’s well worth a read. 

All that is Solid: the Great Housing Disaster, by Danny Dorling, is published by Allen Lane, RRP £20

 

Pickled homes

Thu, 20 Feb 2014

To hear ministers talk, we are in the middle of a housebuilding boom. Official figures released today beg to differ.

According to the DCLG housebuilding statistics for the fourth quarter of 2013, starts and completions in England were both down 1 per cent on the third quarter. These are only the figures for one quarter but they don’t seem to be in the script. 

While starts for the year as a whole were up 23 per cent on 2012 at 122,800, completions were down 5 per cent at 109,480. True, those starts will soon turn into new homes but this hardly feels like a giant step towards the promised land of 250,000 additional homes a year.

And it doesn’t exactly tally with upbeat statements from ministers either. Here’s Eric Pickles in hyperbolic mood on today’s figures:

‘This government is fixing the broken housing market we inherited in 2010. Last year, we built the most homes since 2007, and even the appalling weather conditions this winter have not stopped our hardy builders from getting the job done.’

Sorry, Eric, but that’s simply not true. Homes built are completions and both private housebuilders and housing associations completed fewer homes in 2013 than in 2012. Total completions were also down on 2008, 2009 and 2011. As for the appalling weather, most of that has been in the past two months, not the end of last year.

David Cameron was more cautious at prime minister’s questions last week:

‘Housing starts are up from the dreadful situation we were left by the previous Government. We are now investing huge amounts into affordable housing. I make no apology for the fact that it is right to deal with the demand side on housing, as well as the supply side. Programmes such as Help to Buy are helping to get builders building, because builders will not build unless they believe that buyers are able to buy. We are fixing this problem and house building is rising.’

The rise in starts in 2013 provides modest support for Cameron’s case: the year did indeed see the highest level since 2007 and starts are up since the start of this Government. However, six years after the start of the financial crisis in 2007, starts would have to rise by another 50 per cent to match the figure achieved then.

Much of the current optimism seems based on sentiment surveys and anecdotal evidence of shortages of bricks and blocks. Two weeks ago, for example, the Markit/CIPS index showed that ‘housing activity growth was the highest in a decade and remains the fastest improving area of construction’.

However, as Brian Green of Brickonomics points out, there is a big difference between what people think is happening and actual activity on the ground. The surge in activity seen in mid-2013 may be more the result of housebuilders catching up from a slow start and restocking their production pipeline.

To put all of this in perspective, if starts continue to rise at the rate seen in 2013, we will get back to 2007 levels by the end of 2016 and get to around the level needed to hit the magic 250,000 by 2018. Completions would take a bit longer to feed through but we might get there by the end of the decade.

However, a five-year period of such sustained growth would be unprecedented in housebuilding history. Given continuing austerity, most of the growth would have to come from the private sector. But what will happen when the taps of Help to Buy are turned off at the end of 2016, or if interest rates rise after that? Can enough people afford to buy new homes at current prices and who will build them if prices fall?

Today’s figures may show an encouraging revival in housebuilding but it is happening from a very low base. We are still a very long way from the ‘gold standard’ set by Grant Shapps of building more homes than Labour, let alone his dream of making us ‘a nation of homebuilders’.

Pickled homes

Thu, 20 Feb 2014

To hear ministers talk, we are in the middle of a housebuilding boom. Official figures released today beg to differ.

According to the DCLG housebuilding statistics for the fourth quarter of 2013, starts and completions in England were both down 1 per cent on the third quarter. These are only the figures for one quarter but they don’t seem to be in the script. 

While starts for the year as a whole were up 23 per cent on 2012 at 122,800, completions were down 5 per cent at 109,480. True, those starts will soon turn into new homes but this hardly feels like a giant step towards the promised land of 250,000 additional homes a year.

And it doesn’t exactly tally with upbeat statements from ministers either. Here’s Eric Pickles in hyperbolic mood on today’s figures:

‘This government is fixing the broken housing market we inherited in 2010. Last year, we built the most homes since 2007, and even the appalling weather conditions this winter have not stopped our hardy builders from getting the job done.’

Sorry, Eric, but that’s simply not true. Homes built are completions and both private housebuilders and housing associations completed fewer homes in 2013 than in 2012. Total completions were also down on 2008, 2009 and 2011. As for the appalling weather, most of that has been in the past two months, not the end of last year.

David Cameron was more cautious at prime minister’s questions last week:

‘Housing starts are up from the dreadful situation we were left by the previous Government. We are now investing huge amounts into affordable housing. I make no apology for the fact that it is right to deal with the demand side on housing, as well as the supply side. Programmes such as Help to Buy are helping to get builders building, because builders will not build unless they believe that buyers are able to buy. We are fixing this problem and house building is rising.’

The rise in starts in 2013 provides modest support for Cameron’s case: the year did indeed see the highest level since 2007 and starts are up since the start of this Government. However, six years after the start of the financial crisis in 2007, starts would have to rise by another 50 per cent to match the figure achieved then.

Much of the current optimism seems based on sentiment surveys and anecdotal evidence of shortages of bricks and blocks. Two weeks ago, for example, the Markit/CIPS index showed that ‘housing activity growth was the highest in a decade and remains the fastest improving area of construction’.

However, as Brian Green of Brickonomics points out, there is a big difference between what people think is happening and actual activity on the ground. The surge in activity seen in mid-2013 may be more the result of housebuilders catching up from a slow start and restocking their production pipeline.

To put all of this in perspective, if starts continue to rise at the rate seen in 2013, we will get back to 2007 levels by the end of 2016 and get to around the level needed to hit the magic 250,000 by 2018. Completions would take a bit longer to feed through but we might get there by the end of the decade.

However, a five-year period of such sustained growth would be unprecedented in housebuilding history. Given continuing austerity, most of the growth would have to come from the private sector. But what will happen when the taps of Help to Buy are turned off at the end of 2016, or if interest rates rise after that? Can enough people afford to buy new homes at current prices and who will build them if prices fall?

Today’s figures may show an encouraging revival in housebuilding but it is happening from a very low base. We are still a very long way from the ‘gold standard’ set by Grant Shapps of building more homes than Labour, let alone his dream of making us ‘a nation of homebuilders’.

Rent squeeze

Wed, 19 Feb 2014

Why is there so little debate about the fact that social housing rents are set to rise so much faster than prices and earnings?

Figures out this week from the ONS show that CPI inflation rose 1.9 per cent in the year to January and average earnings rose just 1.1 per cent in 2013. Earnings have now been falling in real terms since 2010, the longest period for at least 50 years.

And yet all around the country social landlords are preparing to increase their rents by at least twice the rate of inflation, and many times more than earnings, according to recent surveys by Inside Housing.  

Housing associations are planning an average increase of 3.7 per cent, with some using extra flexibility to charge up to 4.8 per cent more. Only one said it was raising rents by less than the maximum.

Among local authorities the average increase will be 5.16 per cent, rising to a peak of 7.22 per cent in Welwyn & Hatfield, constituency of former Conservative Party chairman and former housing minister Grant Shapps.

These increases are partly down to longstanding government policy and partly down to an abrupt change in the rent-setting formula. Until 2015, social rents in England can rise by RPI inflation plus 0.5 per cent plus an extra £2 a week for those landlords who are not yet charging target rents. In a change announced last year, rents can rise at CPI inflation plus 1 per cent from 2015.  

Rent increases for this April are set according to the RPI figure for last September of 2.7 per cent. However, 2014/15 is also the last year that landlords can use their extra £2 per week flexibility, which has prompted those much bigger increases to fill holes in their business plans. Some even seem to be ignoring the rent increase limits.

Landlords argue that these increases are vital to maintaining development programmes and community activities and to the viability of their business plans. The sudden change in formula has had a particular impact on those who had not yet achieved target rents.

Since most tenants are on housing benefit that means most (but not all) of the increased bill will be picked up by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). That’s one reason for the lack of debate, even if it runs directly against what the DWP claims to be doing about controlling the housing benefit bill and reducing benefit dependency. 

However, what about tenants who are working? If the increase in average earnings is only 1.1 per cent, the minimum wage did at least rise by 1.9 per cent last year and even George Osborne says he want to see it rise by more than inflation in future. However, thanks to government pay policy, average earnings of public sector workers rose by just 0.5 per cent last year.

The extra that working tenants will have to find will obviously vary from property to property, region to region and landlord to landlord. As an indication, the average housing association rent in England in 2013 was £88.98, so a 3.7 per cent increase would be £3.29 a week.

Depending on how much they are paid and their circumstances, families with someone in work will also be entitled to tax credits, child benefit and partial housing benefit. However, in-work benefits like tax credits and council tax support have been cut and that rent increase could still eat into a limited budget. Remember too that their rent has been going up by more than inflation for years and more than their earnings since at least 2010 and that the squeeze on low income families is set to continue.

And the rent increase has implications for the bedroom tax too: those deductions of 14 per cent for one ‘spare’ room and 25 per cent come off the eligible rent. The bigger the increase, the more people on partial housing benefit will ‘float off’ any entitlement, and the more people on full housing benefit will lose. The difference between 14 per cent of £88.98 and £92.27 (£46p a week) may not sound like much but only if your budget has not already been squeezed to nothing and your other benefits are not restricted to an increase of just 1 per cent from April. The National Housing Federation revealed last week that two-thirds of tenants affected by the bedroom tax are already in arrears.

At a local level, these sort of issues are being debated. In Cambridge, for example, the Liberal Democrat mayor had to use his casting vote to force through a 5.76 per cent rent increase after tenants and Labour councillors voted for a smaller amount.

Meanwhile Nottingham City Homes says it has no choice but to apply an above-inflation increase but is consulting with tenants on two different options: a 5.47 per cent increase for all tenants; or increases of 4.68 per cent for ‘responsible’ tenants with a £100 credit at Christmas but 7.5 per cent for ‘irresponsible’ tenants. Being ‘irresponsible’ in this context might mean failing to look after your garden, failing to stick to an agreement to pay your rent arrears or committing crime or anti-social behaviour in your neighbourhood. That will clearly generate a debate all of its own.

However, to go back to my original question, the bigger questions about increases in social rents do not often get asked at a national level. Contrast that to the time devoted to talking about a few high-earning tenants. Housing finance requires tenants to pay more and we seem to have become so used to this that we rarely stop to ask why or whether it’s such a good idea.

If austerity and the continuing squeeze on wages and living standards do not give some pause for thought, then what about the prospect of more cuts in housing benefit in future? Increases in the local housing allowance for private tenants are already restricted to just 1 per cent a year (with some relief for high-demand areas). Applying the same to the social sector would play so much havoc with landlords’ finances and run so completely against established government policy that it seems hard to imagine. But would you rule it out? 

Rent squeeze

Wed, 19 Feb 2014

Why is there so little debate about the fact that social housing rents are set to rise so much faster than prices and earnings?

Figures out this week from the ONS show that CPI inflation rose 1.9 per cent in the year to January and average earnings rose just 1.1 per cent in 2013. Earnings have now been falling in real terms since 2010, the longest period for at least 50 years.

And yet all around the country social landlords are preparing to increase their rents by at least twice the rate of inflation, and many times more than earnings, according to recent surveys by Inside Housing.  

Housing associations are planning an average increase of 3.7 per cent, with some using extra flexibility to charge up to 4.8 per cent more. Only one said it was raising rents by less than the maximum.

Among local authorities the average increase will be 5.16 per cent, rising to a peak of 7.22 per cent in Welwyn & Hatfield, constituency of former Conservative Party chairman and former housing minister Grant Shapps.

These increases are partly down to longstanding government policy and partly down to an abrupt change in the rent-setting formula. Until 2015, social rents in England can rise by RPI inflation plus 0.5 per cent plus an extra £2 a week for those landlords who are not yet charging target rents. In a change announced last year, rents can rise at CPI inflation plus 1 per cent from 2015.  

Rent increases for this April are set according to the RPI figure for last September of 2.7 per cent. However, 2014/15 is also the last year that landlords can use their extra £2 per week flexibility, which has prompted those much bigger increases to fill holes in their business plans. Some even seem to be ignoring the rent increase limits.

Landlords argue that these increases are vital to maintaining development programmes and community activities and to the viability of their business plans. The sudden change in formula has had a particular impact on those who had not yet achieved target rents.

Since most tenants are on housing benefit that means most (but not all) of the increased bill will be picked up by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). That’s one reason for the lack of debate, even if it runs directly against what the DWP claims to be doing about controlling the housing benefit bill and reducing benefit dependency. 

However, what about tenants who are working? If the increase in average earnings is only 1.1 per cent, the minimum wage did at least rise by 1.9 per cent last year and even George Osborne says he want to see it rise by more than inflation in future. However, thanks to government pay policy, average earnings of public sector workers rose by just 0.5 per cent last year.

The extra that working tenants will have to find will obviously vary from property to property, region to region and landlord to landlord. As an indication, the average housing association rent in England in 2013 was £88.98, so a 3.7 per cent increase would be £3.29 a week.

Depending on how much they are paid and their circumstances, families with someone in work will also be entitled to tax credits, child benefit and partial housing benefit. However, in-work benefits like tax credits and council tax support have been cut and that rent increase could still eat into a limited budget. Remember too that their rent has been going up by more than inflation for years and more than their earnings since at least 2010 and that the squeeze on low income families is set to continue.

And the rent increase has implications for the bedroom tax too: those deductions of 14 per cent for one ‘spare’ room and 25 per cent come off the eligible rent. The bigger the increase, the more people on partial housing benefit will ‘float off’ any entitlement, and the more people on full housing benefit will lose. The difference between 14 per cent of £88.98 and £92.27 (£46p a week) may not sound like much but only if your budget has not already been squeezed to nothing and your other benefits are not restricted to an increase of just 1 per cent from April. The National Housing Federation revealed last week that two-thirds of tenants affected by the bedroom tax are already in arrears.

At a local level, these sort of issues are being debated. In Cambridge, for example, the Liberal Democrat mayor had to use his casting vote to force through a 5.76 per cent rent increase after tenants and Labour councillors voted for a smaller amount.

Meanwhile Nottingham City Homes says it has no choice but to apply an above-inflation increase but is consulting with tenants on two different options: a 5.47 per cent increase for all tenants; or increases of 4.68 per cent for ‘responsible’ tenants with a £100 credit at Christmas but 7.5 per cent for ‘irresponsible’ tenants. Being ‘irresponsible’ in this context might mean failing to look after your garden, failing to stick to an agreement to pay your rent arrears or committing crime or anti-social behaviour in your neighbourhood. That will clearly generate a debate all of its own.

However, to go back to my original question, the bigger questions about increases in social rents do not often get asked at a national level. Contrast that to the time devoted to talking about a few high-earning tenants. Housing finance requires tenants to pay more and we seem to have become so used to this that we rarely stop to ask why or whether it’s such a good idea.

If austerity and the continuing squeeze on wages and living standards do not give some pause for thought, then what about the prospect of more cuts in housing benefit in future? Increases in the local housing allowance for private tenants are already restricted to just 1 per cent a year (with some relief for high-demand areas). Applying the same to the social sector would play so much havoc with landlords’ finances and run so completely against established government policy that it seems hard to imagine. But would you rule it out? 

Tough times for rough sleepers

Thu, 13 Feb 2014

In a grim few years for housing and homelessness No Second Night Out stands out as a rare bright spot.

The idea behind the scheme, which was extended to 20 areas outside London in 2011, is that the longer someone sleeps rough the greater the risk that they will become trapped on the streets and vulnerable to crime, drug or alcohol issues or mental or physical health problems. No Second Night Out (NSNO) aims to help people off the streets as quickly as possible and ensure that they do not return.

Nobody could hope to be completely successful with that but a report out today from Homeless Link suggests that progress in the 20 areas has still been impressive: 67 per cent of the rough sleepers they worked with were taken off the streets after their first night; and 78 per cent of those did not return once they had been helped.

The 20 areas cover 69 local authorities from Cornwall to Newcastle and between them they account for 38 per cent of rough sleeping outside London. The result is broadly comparable to the one achieved in the capital, where 86 per cent of rough sleepers helped by NSNO services did not sleep rough again.

Finance for the NSNO services outside London comes from the £20 million Homelessness Transition Fund (HTF), provided by the DCLG and administered by Homeless Link, and from local authorities and charities. The 20 areas helped 2,546 rough sleepers over a period of six months plus another 1,498 at risk of rough sleeping. Compared to London, there were more women (17 per cent), under-25s (20 per cent) and UK nationals (75 per cent).

If the results are impressive, the report also identifies some worries. Concern about entrenched rough sleepers emerged across the survey. The biggest obstacle to progress was seen as getting all partners to agree.

And, above all, a big problem is looming in just 13 months’ time: all funding from the Homelessness Transition Fund (HTF) ends in March 2015.

Homeless Link says there is a real risk that all the good work done so far will be undone by lack of funding and is calling on the government and councils across England to protect investment in NSNO services.

And that in turn raises an even bigger issue. As I blogged in December, the government has helped to introduce a better methodology for counting rough sleeping and it has protected central funding for specific services like homelessness prevention. 

However, that ignores what has happened elsewhere, especially with cuts to Supporting People and funding direct from local authorities. The Homelessness Monitor 2013 published by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation included concern that cuts in Supporting People funding have weakened the support available and led to more rough sleeping.

While housing minister Kris Hopkins can boast in the NSNO press release about the £470 million the government has invested over four years, that has to be put in the context of cuts in local authority and voluntary services that are happening all over the country. Not to mention cuts in housing benefit from which the government still can’t find a way to protect supported housing.

To take just one example, Nottinghamshire County Council was in the forefront of the first wave of cuts in Supporting People funding and now it wants to cut even more. As Patrick Butler reported for The Guardian yesterday, local housing association Framework is warning this will result in almost all homelessness and housing support services in the county closing down.

Among the services that would close, according to Framework, are all emergency accommodation, all specialist supported housing for people with drug and alcohol problems and people leaving prison, all supported move-on accommodation and almost all the support services that assist vulnerable people in their own homes.

No Second Night Out seems to be a genuine bright spot but against a backdrop as bleak as this is that so surprising? 

Tough times for rough sleepers

Thu, 13 Feb 2014

In a grim few years for housing and homelessness No Second Night Out stands out as a rare bright spot.

The idea behind the scheme, which was extended to 20 areas outside London in 2011, is that the longer someone sleeps rough the greater the risk that they will become trapped on the streets and vulnerable to crime, drug or alcohol issues or mental or physical health problems. No Second Night Out (NSNO) aims to help people off the streets as quickly as possible and ensure that they do not return.

Nobody could hope to be completely successful with that but a report out today from Homeless Link suggests that progress in the 20 areas has still been impressive: 67 per cent of the rough sleepers they worked with were taken off the streets after their first night; and 78 per cent of those did not return once they had been helped.

The 20 areas cover 69 local authorities from Cornwall to Newcastle and between them they account for 38 per cent of rough sleeping outside London. The result is broadly comparable to the one achieved in the capital, where 86 per cent of rough sleepers helped by NSNO services did not sleep rough again.

Finance for the NSNO services outside London comes from the £20 million Homelessness Transition Fund (HTF), provided by the DCLG and administered by Homeless Link, and from local authorities and charities. The 20 areas helped 2,546 rough sleepers over a period of six months plus another 1,498 at risk of rough sleeping. Compared to London, there were more women (17 per cent), under-25s (20 per cent) and UK nationals (75 per cent).

If the results are impressive, the report also identifies some worries. Concern about entrenched rough sleepers emerged across the survey. The biggest obstacle to progress was seen as getting all partners to agree.

And, above all, a big problem is looming in just 13 months’ time: all funding from the Homelessness Transition Fund (HTF) ends in March 2015.

Homeless Link says there is a real risk that all the good work done so far will be undone by lack of funding and is calling on the government and councils across England to protect investment in NSNO services.

And that in turn raises an even bigger issue. As I blogged in December, the government has helped to introduce a better methodology for counting rough sleeping and it has protected central funding for specific services like homelessness prevention. 

However, that ignores what has happened elsewhere, especially with cuts to Supporting People and funding direct from local authorities. The Homelessness Monitor 2013 published by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation included concern that cuts in Supporting People funding have weakened the support available and led to more rough sleeping.

While housing minister Kris Hopkins can boast in the NSNO press release about the £470 million the government has invested over four years, that has to be put in the context of cuts in local authority and voluntary services that are happening all over the country. Not to mention cuts in housing benefit from which the government still can’t find a way to protect supported housing.

To take just one example, Nottinghamshire County Council was in the forefront of the first wave of cuts in Supporting People funding and now it wants to cut even more. As Patrick Butler reported for The Guardian yesterday, local housing association Framework is warning this will result in almost all homelessness and housing support services in the county closing down.

Among the services that would close, according to Framework, are all emergency accommodation, all specialist supported housing for people with drug and alcohol problems and people leaving prison, all supported move-on accommodation and almost all the support services that assist vulnerable people in their own homes.

No Second Night Out seems to be a genuine bright spot but against a backdrop as bleak as this is that so surprising? 

Seen and heard

Tue, 11 Feb 2014

Five things struck me watching the Dispatches documentary on the bedroom tax on Channel 4 last night.

First, it’s impossible for anyone to cover all the issues and angles in half an hour. That’s not a criticism of Channel 4 at all, more a comment on the complexity of the implications of the bedroom tax and the way that the effects vary around the country. I must have written thousands of words on the subject over the last two years and invariably have to cut something important or leave an angle untouched.

It sounds like lots of material ended up on the cutting room floor for last night’s programme too but, within the time allowed, it did a very good job of presenting the issue from the point of view of under-occupying tenants, social landlords and local authorities. We heard from Iain Sim of Coast and Country Housing on its 150 per cent increase in voids since April 2013 and a couple who were both in wheelchairs who face the bedroom tax on the ‘spare’ room in their specially adapted flat yet were denied a discretionary housing payment. The programme was also balanced enough to include two overcrowded families who have benefitted from larger homes being freed up.

Second, the policy is unravelling from the ground up. The programme included the leader of a Labour council openly admitting it is doing the minimum possible within the law when people appeal against benefit decisions. And it also featured Mike Bird, the Conservative leader of Walsall council, warning his party colleagues that the bedroom tax will have a disastrous effect at the ballot box. This may not mean anything when Labour MP Ian Lavery presents his ten-minute rule bill tomorrow, but along with anecdotal evidence that Conservative backbenchers have woken up to the implications of the policy, it still seems significant.

Third, tenants should be appealing wherever they can and landlords should be helping them. Joe Halewood, who has pushed this line consistently, appeared near the end of the programme explaining the pre-1996 mistake to a group of tenants in Liverpool. On his Speye blog over the weekend he argued that the bedroom tax is dead in the wake of tribunal decisions in Bolton and Monmouthshire. Whether or not that’s the case - and Giles Peaker of the Nearly Legal blog has a different interpretation of the same two decisions – remains to be seen but it does seem clear that tribunals are prepared to treat arguments about room size and room use sympathetically in the absence of any government definition of a bedroom.

Fourth, government MPs themselves seem to be losing faith in the policy. If the Tory on Walsall council felt like a lone voice on the programme, I wonder what he made of the interview with one of his national party colleagues at the end. The government could have put up a minister to speak for it but instead we got Harriet Baldwin, a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) at the DWP. By the time the programme appeared, Baldwin had moved from the DWP to become an assistant chief whip.

As a member of the work and pensions select committee from 2010 and 2012, she will have heard the evidence ahead of implementation but last night she seemed almost semi-detached. Asked how many people are affected by the pre-1996 exemption, she said:

‘I have not heard a definitive figure but I believe it is about 1 per cent of the total people affected and I’ve heard a figure of about 5,000.’

Interviewer: How can the government put out a policy with such an obvious loophole still in place?

‘There’s apparently 1,000 pages of guidance and no one had spotted this loophole for many years. What we’re going to try and do is make sure that we clarify that legislation, that we simplify the guidance because it’s just not practical is it for civil servants to have to cope with 1,000 pages of guidance.’

Interviewer: It may not be practical but when you make a policy the public expect you to have gone through all the relevant guidance whether it’s 1,000 pages or not. Why is that not happening?

‘Well of course the policy intention is that everyone be reviewing exactly how much accommodation is needed in a particular social home. So there was never any intention to exempt a particular group of people. But I gather that there are some people who’ve perhaps been continuously in the same property for 17 years and no one had spotted for many years that there was this particular page in this 1,000 pages of guidance.’

Esther McVey would have blustered her way through the interview. Baldwin did at least try to answer the question and she makes a fair point that nobody else had spotted the blunder. I’m also assuming that the interview took place before the DWP made regulations to close the loophole from 3 March. However, for me her use of words and phrases like ‘apparently’, and ‘I have not heard’ and ‘I believe’ spoke volumes about the way that faith in the policy seems to be draining away even within the government.

Which brings me to my fifth and final point. When it wants to, Channel 4 can make programmes that illuminate the real issues about welfare reform rather than stereotype the people affected. Benefits Street, which followed an hour later, may have improved since the opening episode but it represents the second kind. I wrote about that yesterday for my other blog here.

Seen and heard

Tue, 11 Feb 2014

Five things struck me watching the Dispatches documentary on the bedroom tax on Channel 4 last night.

First, it’s impossible for anyone to cover all the issues and angles in half an hour. That’s not a criticism of Channel 4 at all, more a comment on the complexity of the implications of the bedroom tax and the way that the effects vary around the country. I must have written thousands of words on the subject over the last two years and invariably have to cut something important or leave an angle untouched.

It sounds like lots of material ended up on the cutting room floor for last night’s programme too but, within the time allowed, it did a very good job of presenting the issue from the point of view of under-occupying tenants, social landlords and local authorities. We heard from Iain Sim of Coast and Country Housing on its 150 per cent increase in voids since April 2013 and a couple who were both in wheelchairs who face the bedroom tax on the ‘spare’ room in their specially adapted flat yet were denied a discretionary housing payment. The programme was also balanced enough to include two overcrowded families who have benefitted from larger homes being freed up.

Second, the policy is unravelling from the ground up. The programme included the leader of a Labour council openly admitting it is doing the minimum possible within the law when people appeal against benefit decisions. And it also featured Mike Bird, the Conservative leader of Walsall council, warning his party colleagues that the bedroom tax will have a disastrous effect at the ballot box. This may not mean anything when Labour MP Ian Lavery presents his ten-minute rule bill tomorrow, but along with anecdotal evidence that Conservative backbenchers have woken up to the implications of the policy, it still seems significant.

Third, tenants should be appealing wherever they can and landlords should be helping them. Joe Halewood, who has pushed this line consistently, appeared near the end of the programme explaining the pre-1996 mistake to a group of tenants in Liverpool. On his Speye blog over the weekend he argued that the bedroom tax is dead in the wake of tribunal decisions in Bolton and Monmouthshire. Whether or not that’s the case - and Giles Peaker of the Nearly Legal blog has a different interpretation of the same two decisions – remains to be seen but it does seem clear that tribunals are prepared to treat arguments about room size and room use sympathetically in the absence of any government definition of a bedroom.

Fourth, government MPs themselves seem to be losing faith in the policy. If the Tory on Walsall council felt like a lone voice on the programme, I wonder what he made of the interview with one of his national party colleagues at the end. The government could have put up a minister to speak for it but instead we got Harriet Baldwin, a parliamentary private secretary (PPS) at the DWP. By the time the programme appeared, Baldwin had moved from the DWP to become an assistant chief whip.

As a member of the work and pensions select committee from 2010 and 2012, she will have heard the evidence ahead of implementation but last night she seemed almost semi-detached. Asked how many people are affected by the pre-1996 exemption, she said:

‘I have not heard a definitive figure but I believe it is about 1 per cent of the total people affected and I’ve heard a figure of about 5,000.’

Interviewer: How can the government put out a policy with such an obvious loophole still in place?

‘There’s apparently 1,000 pages of guidance and no one had spotted this loophole for many years. What we’re going to try and do is make sure that we clarify that legislation, that we simplify the guidance because it’s just not practical is it for civil servants to have to cope with 1,000 pages of guidance.’

Interviewer: It may not be practical but when you make a policy the public expect you to have gone through all the relevant guidance whether it’s 1,000 pages or not. Why is that not happening?

‘Well of course the policy intention is that everyone be reviewing exactly how much accommodation is needed in a particular social home. So there was never any intention to exempt a particular group of people. But I gather that there are some people who’ve perhaps been continuously in the same property for 17 years and no one had spotted for many years that there was this particular page in this 1,000 pages of guidance.’

Esther McVey would have blustered her way through the interview. Baldwin did at least try to answer the question and she makes a fair point that nobody else had spotted the blunder. I’m also assuming that the interview took place before the DWP made regulations to close the loophole from 3 March. However, for me her use of words and phrases like ‘apparently’, and ‘I have not heard’ and ‘I believe’ spoke volumes about the way that faith in the policy seems to be draining away even within the government.

Which brings me to my fifth and final point. When it wants to, Channel 4 can make programmes that illuminate the real issues about welfare reform rather than stereotype the people affected. Benefits Street, which followed an hour later, may have improved since the opening episode but it represents the second kind. I wrote about that yesterday for my other blog here.

Crisis talk

Wed, 5 Feb 2014

It was the housing shortage rather than the housing crisis that he said would last for 10 years but it was still a surprisingly frank admission from George Osborne.

This was the key quote from the chancellor yesterday that was the basis of the stories in this morning’s papers:

‘I imagine if we were all assembled again in 10 years’ time we’d still be talking about the challenge of making sure that our housing supply kept up with housing demand and we’re all legislators here and we all have a responsibility to the next generation.’

He also made possibly his strongest statement yet on the need for new homes:

‘I don’t pretend this problem is going to be solved in a couple of months or a few years. It is a big challenge for our country – we have got to build more homes and we’ve got to create an acceptable political and social climate where people will want to see homes built so that their children have the prospect of living near where they grew up.’

It’s certainly hard to disagree with a statement that could have been scripted by the Yes to Homes campaign. Perhaps it was the setting that made Osborne think so long term: he was being questioned by members of a House of Lords economic affairs committee whose members include Lord Lawson, the chancellor in charge at the start of the housing crisis in the late 1980s.

But as Isabel Hardman notes on her Spectator blog (which also has audio of the hearing yesterday), that raises political tensions within the government: while Osborne and the Treasury think planning reform has not gone far enough, there is little prospect of anything more happening before the 2015 election.

However, even 10 years may be an under-estimate. The Home Builders Federation, whose members admittedly have a vested interest, argues that England needs to see 250,000 homes a year for 20 years to solve the crisis.

But do ministers yet accept there is a crisis? Osborne didn’t actually use word yesterday: his argument is that there was a failure of the housing system rather than the housing market and that Help to Buy is addressing it. But he also found time to blur the affordable/social distinction to boast that 'we have a large social housing programme underway' [thanks to @Simplicitly for reminding me of this]. And, from his first TV interview on, housing minister Kris Hopkins has denied that there is a housing crisis.

In an opinion poll last week though, 82 per cent of Londoners begged to differ. In a poll commissioned by London Councils 27 per cent said that the affordability of housing was the most important issue facing the capital, compared to 23 per cent saying housing, 14 per cent crime and 10 per cent immigration. It’s hosting a meeting on how to meet London’s housing need tonight.

For me the deeper point is that, desperately needed as they are, new homes can only offer a long-term solution. Things need to happen in the short and medium term too but that does seem to be increasingly recognised by Labour and the Conservatives, who each now have an independent commission looking at future policy. 

An indication of a new urgency in the debate on housing came in a report by the think tank Civitas on Monday proposing to ban non-EU citizens from buying residential property unless it adds to the housing stock.

The idea is borrowed from Australia, where overseas purchasers are banned from buying established homes and have to apply to a Foreign Investment Review Board to buy a new one. There are doubts that this works even in Australia but it is still significant to see a free-market think tank calling for state intervention.

Crisis talk

Wed, 5 Feb 2014

It was the housing shortage rather than the housing crisis that he said would last for 10 years but it was still a surprisingly frank admission from George Osborne.

This was the key quote from the chancellor yesterday that was the basis of the stories in this morning’s papers:

‘I imagine if we were all assembled again in 10 years’ time we’d still be talking about the challenge of making sure that our housing supply kept up with housing demand and we’re all legislators here and we all have a responsibility to the next generation.’

He also made possibly his strongest statement yet on the need for new homes:

‘I don’t pretend this problem is going to be solved in a couple of months or a few years. It is a big challenge for our country – we have got to build more homes and we’ve got to create an acceptable political and social climate where people will want to see homes built so that their children have the prospect of living near where they grew up.’

It’s certainly hard to disagree with a statement that could have been scripted by the Yes to Homes campaign. Perhaps it was the setting that made Osborne think so long term: he was being questioned by members of a House of Lords economic affairs committee whose members include Lord Lawson, the chancellor in charge at the start of the housing crisis in the late 1980s.

But as Isabel Hardman notes on her Spectator blog (which also has audio of the hearing yesterday), that raises political tensions within the government: while Osborne and the Treasury think planning reform has not gone far enough, there is little prospect of anything more happening before the 2015 election.

However, even 10 years may be an under-estimate. The Home Builders Federation, whose members admittedly have a vested interest, argues that England needs to see 250,000 homes a year for 20 years to solve the crisis.

But do ministers yet accept there is a crisis? Osborne didn’t actually use word yesterday: his argument is that there was a failure of the housing system rather than the housing market and that Help to Buy is addressing it. But he also found time to blur the affordable/social distinction to boast that 'we have a large social housing programme underway' [thanks to @Simplicitly for reminding me of this]. And, from his first TV interview on, housing minister Kris Hopkins has denied that there is a housing crisis.

In an opinion poll last week though, 82 per cent of Londoners begged to differ. In a poll commissioned by London Councils 27 per cent said that the affordability of housing was the most important issue facing the capital, compared to 23 per cent saying housing, 14 per cent crime and 10 per cent immigration. It’s hosting a meeting on how to meet London’s housing need tonight.

For me the deeper point is that, desperately needed as they are, new homes can only offer a long-term solution. Things need to happen in the short and medium term too but that does seem to be increasingly recognised by Labour and the Conservatives, who each now have an independent commission looking at future policy. 

An indication of a new urgency in the debate on housing came in a report by the think tank Civitas on Monday proposing to ban non-EU citizens from buying residential property unless it adds to the housing stock.

The idea is borrowed from Australia, where overseas purchasers are banned from buying established homes and have to apply to a Foreign Investment Review Board to buy a new one. There are doubts that this works even in Australia but it is still significant to see a free-market think tank calling for state intervention.

Rights row

Tue, 4 Feb 2014

Seeing ourselves as others see us can be an uncomfortable experience and so it is proving for ministers responding to United Nations special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik.

Her preliminary report in September called for the abolition of the bedroom tax and prompted a furious row with Conservative party chairman and former housing minister Grant Shapps. Now his ‘woman from Brazil’ is back with a final report that uses the approved Conservative term ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’ but still recommends that it ‘should be suspended immediately and be fully re-evaluated in light of the evidence of its negative impacts on the right to adequate housing and general well-being of many vulnerable individuals and households’. You can read the full report here [downloads Word doc].

The government has had over four months to decide how to respond to the final report so it is perhaps telling that it can’t quite decide how. The official DCLG response from housing minister Kris Hopkins is that Rolnik ‘has failed to correct a number of inaccuracies that have been repeatedly been made clear, meaning her recommendations are of very limited relevance’.

Yet he also pops up to tell The Guardian that it is ‘a misleading Marxist diatribe’. And the DWP demonstrates its ability with pots and kettles by describing the report as ‘based on anecdotal evidence and the conclusion was clearly written before any actual research was completed’.

But the final report is about far more than the bedroom tax. It judges the UK’s record to the right to adequate housing under a succession of UN conventions and covenants on social and human rights that our government has signed since 1951. It analyses the current housing situation and its impact on specific groups including people with low incomes, the homeless, the disabled and sick, young people and Gypsies and Travellers though its recommendations are not binding on the UK government.

However, the crucial point is that the starting point for the analysis is the UK’s previous exemplary image on housing and human rights. The conclusions and recommendations start with these two paragraphs:

‘The Special Rapporteur commends the United Kingdom for its history of ensuring that low- and middle-income households have access to adequate housing and have been protected from insecure tenure forms and poor housing conditions. People in the United Kingdom have a deeply anchored trust in their right to housing, regardless of income or other status.

‘Some of the policies and practices that played a role in ensuring access to affordable and well-located housing, facilitating enjoyment of the benefits of mixed neighborhoods in urban centres, and embedding housing in the social safety net serve as inspiration around the world. The Special Rapporteur praises the priority given to social and affordable housing by various Governments over time, including through  public funding for specific housing-related policies.’

The International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, which we ratified in 1976, establishes ‘the principle of progressive realization in the right to adequate housing’. It commits member states to take special care ‘to avoid unjustified retrogressive measures’ and ‘examine themselves against their own legislation and policies’.

This is the context for the recommendations that follow on policies that Raquel Rolnik considers are ‘retrogressive’. These cover the policies of successive governments since 1976, not just this one.

She also recommends that the UK government should:

  • Assess and evaluate the impact of welfare reform on the most vulnerable people, including whether the costs of implementation may outweigh the savings and whether there are alternative ways to achieve the same objectives
  • Extend and expand grants and subsidies for social housing ‘as these have been essential in responding to the housing need of the most vulnerable’
  • Ensure that current measures to release public land favour social and affordable housing
  • Consider planning measures for the immediate development of land, ‘build or lose’ safeguards and priority for affordable housing
  • Put in place target measures to increase the supply of housing in the private market
  • Increase regulation in the private rented sector, including minimum length of contracts, restraints on rent increases and strict limits on eviction.
  • Promote measures to reduce discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers and to protect the right to adequate housing for migrants and Roma.
  • Address persistent inequalities in housing in North Belfast.

So this report is about far more than just the bedroom tax, or even what you call it: it challenges many of the key changes in UK housing policy made since the late 1970s as well as questioning some current government policies and highlighting areas of discrimination. For anyone looking at housing in terms of social and human rights, these are obvious points. But tor Conservatives suspicious of anything that even mentions human rights, this is clearly enough to make it a Marxist diatribe.

Ironically, on the same day the Special Rapporteur confirmed her call for the immediate suspension of the bedroom tax, one part of the UK revealed that it wants to go as far as it can towards that within its existing powers.

Northern Ireland, of course, has still not implemented the policy and it seems likely that it will not apply to existing tenants when it does. Now Scotland’s deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon is calling on Lord Freud to lift the cap on discretionary housing payments so that Holyrood can add an extra £15 million. That would bring the total budget to £50 million, which would be enough to cover all of the losses suffered by the 76,000 Scottish households who are having their ‘spare room subsidy’ removed (though I can’t see how it will make up for other housing benefit cuts too).

Which brings me back to the quote at the beginning of this blog. ‘To see ourselves as others see us’ is a quote from the English translation of the ending of ‘To a Louse: On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church’ by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns. The whole verse seems strangely apt:

‘And would some Power the small gift give us

To see ourselves as others see us!

It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,

And even devotion!’

Rights row

Tue, 4 Feb 2014

Seeing ourselves as others see us can be an uncomfortable experience and so it is proving for ministers responding to United Nations special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik.

Her preliminary report in September called for the abolition of the bedroom tax and prompted a furious row with Conservative party chairman and former housing minister Grant Shapps. Now his ‘woman from Brazil’ is back with a final report that uses the approved Conservative term ‘removal of the spare room subsidy’ but still recommends that it ‘should be suspended immediately and be fully re-evaluated in light of the evidence of its negative impacts on the right to adequate housing and general well-being of many vulnerable individuals and households’. You can read the full report here [downloads Word doc].

The government has had over four months to decide how to respond to the final report so it is perhaps telling that it can’t quite decide how. The official DCLG response from housing minister Kris Hopkins is that Rolnik ‘has failed to correct a number of inaccuracies that have been repeatedly been made clear, meaning her recommendations are of very limited relevance’.

Yet he also pops up to tell The Guardian that it is ‘a misleading Marxist diatribe’. And the DWP demonstrates its ability with pots and kettles by describing the report as ‘based on anecdotal evidence and the conclusion was clearly written before any actual research was completed’.

But the final report is about far more than the bedroom tax. It judges the UK’s record to the right to adequate housing under a succession of UN conventions and covenants on social and human rights that our government has signed since 1951. It analyses the current housing situation and its impact on specific groups including people with low incomes, the homeless, the disabled and sick, young people and Gypsies and Travellers though its recommendations are not binding on the UK government.

However, the crucial point is that the starting point for the analysis is the UK’s previous exemplary image on housing and human rights. The conclusions and recommendations start with these two paragraphs:

‘The Special Rapporteur commends the United Kingdom for its history of ensuring that low- and middle-income households have access to adequate housing and have been protected from insecure tenure forms and poor housing conditions. People in the United Kingdom have a deeply anchored trust in their right to housing, regardless of income or other status.

‘Some of the policies and practices that played a role in ensuring access to affordable and well-located housing, facilitating enjoyment of the benefits of mixed neighborhoods in urban centres, and embedding housing in the social safety net serve as inspiration around the world. The Special Rapporteur praises the priority given to social and affordable housing by various Governments over time, including through  public funding for specific housing-related policies.’

The International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights, which we ratified in 1976, establishes ‘the principle of progressive realization in the right to adequate housing’. It commits member states to take special care ‘to avoid unjustified retrogressive measures’ and ‘examine themselves against their own legislation and policies’.

This is the context for the recommendations that follow on policies that Raquel Rolnik considers are ‘retrogressive’. These cover the policies of successive governments since 1976, not just this one.

She also recommends that the UK government should:

  • Assess and evaluate the impact of welfare reform on the most vulnerable people, including whether the costs of implementation may outweigh the savings and whether there are alternative ways to achieve the same objectives
  • Extend and expand grants and subsidies for social housing ‘as these have been essential in responding to the housing need of the most vulnerable’
  • Ensure that current measures to release public land favour social and affordable housing
  • Consider planning measures for the immediate development of land, ‘build or lose’ safeguards and priority for affordable housing
  • Put in place target measures to increase the supply of housing in the private market
  • Increase regulation in the private rented sector, including minimum length of contracts, restraints on rent increases and strict limits on eviction.
  • Promote measures to reduce discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers and to protect the right to adequate housing for migrants and Roma.
  • Address persistent inequalities in housing in North Belfast.

So this report is about far more than just the bedroom tax, or even what you call it: it challenges many of the key changes in UK housing policy made since the late 1970s as well as questioning some current government policies and highlighting areas of discrimination. For anyone looking at housing in terms of social and human rights, these are obvious points. But tor Conservatives suspicious of anything that even mentions human rights, this is clearly enough to make it a Marxist diatribe.

Ironically, on the same day the Special Rapporteur confirmed her call for the immediate suspension of the bedroom tax, one part of the UK revealed that it wants to go as far as it can towards that within its existing powers.

Northern Ireland, of course, has still not implemented the policy and it seems likely that it will not apply to existing tenants when it does. Now Scotland’s deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon is calling on Lord Freud to lift the cap on discretionary housing payments so that Holyrood can add an extra £15 million. That would bring the total budget to £50 million, which would be enough to cover all of the losses suffered by the 76,000 Scottish households who are having their ‘spare room subsidy’ removed (though I can’t see how it will make up for other housing benefit cuts too).

Which brings me back to the quote at the beginning of this blog. ‘To see ourselves as others see us’ is a quote from the English translation of the ending of ‘To a Louse: On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church’ by Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns. The whole verse seems strangely apt:

‘And would some Power the small gift give us

To see ourselves as others see us!

It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,

And even devotion!’

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