All posts from: July 2012
In 1914 potential recruits for the British army had to undergo a physical examination and it was discovered that ex-public schoolboys were, on average, six inches taller than their working class counterparts. The situation has improved since then of course, but social class and malnutrition still walk hand in hand, and there are clear links between deprivation, poor nutrition and conditions like obesity and diabetes. For example, the most deprived people in the UK are two-and-a-half times more likely on average to have diabetes at any given age and diabetes in Wales is almost twice as high in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived.
In a free society, the only thing more important than decent, affordable housing is decent, affordable food. Yet food poverty is increasing. The Trussell Trust now runs over 200 food banks and has seen a 100 percent increase in users over the past year. They provide regular food parcels to 130,000 people. And, as supermarkets head out of town, more and more poor people are living in food deserts, where they cannot buy affordable, good quality food.
So what has this got to do with housing providers I hear you ask? Purists will argue that our job is bricks and mortar and that it would be patronising to tell tenants what they should or should not eat. But I think it would be morally wrong to ignore something that we have the power to change, particularly when decent nutrition could dramatically improve the health and life chances of our tenants. Increasingly, housing associations should see themselves as social enterprises that happen to specialise in housing, and their remit should aim to cover every aspect of the health and wellbeing of the communities they serve.
It is good to see that more and more housing providers are taking up this challenge and developing projects that address food and nutritional issues. This ranges from healthy living advice to urban agriculture projects. For example, I carried out some recent work for Cross Keys Homes in Peterborough and discovered that they are running a project to grow free food for residents. Modelled on the Todmorden Incredible Edible scheme, Cross Keys, working with their tenants, have planted up several communal areas with vegetables. Local residents can pick this produce as soon as it crops. Claire Higgins, Cross Keys’ Director of Operations, described the benefits; “In Peterborough we know that in some areas of the city a man has a 10-year lower life expectancy from others. As a responsible organisation Cross Keys Homes wants to make statistics like this history and we hope by using our open spaces we can help everyone access fresh, healthy produce…” Many other housing providers are now running food growing programmes on their estates and organizations like Cultivate London are making use of derelict land to run training and employment schemes, using polytunnels to grow vegetables for local outlets and restaurants. Some providers are also engaging with land share schemes, that link up potential growers with people who have spare plots. I think there is huge scope to expand projects like these, because we are rich in the key asset required to make them successful – land. The BBC’s Mark Easton recently calculated that 78.6% of England’s urban areas are natural – grass verges, gardens, allotments and open spaces of one sort or another. Too many of our housing schemes were designed with pointless patches of communal space, which could be commandeered for food-growing projects, or even for livestock. I think this is something that could really capture the imagination of tenants. It will need community champions to make it work but how wonderful would it be if a single parent living in an inner city flat on benefits could just pop outside and pick some tomatoes or a few runner beans?
Food growing projects hit at least four nails with a single hammer: they can get residents to take ownership of semi-public communal areas and therefore promote community cohesion; they make use of unloved open space (and save on the costs of upkeep); they provide healthy affordable food and they are truly sustainable, saving on the cost of transporting produce to distant supermarkets.
If the idea of urban agriculture inspires you, I recommend you have a look at the video on the Todmorden site. It would be great if all housing providers started to think seriously about nutrition and the health of their tenants. We have the necessary assets – the land, the partnerships, the money, the skills and the people. So map your area, speak to your tenants, develop a food strategy and get growing!
Three contrasting yet related housing items caught my eye last week. The first was a report from Shelter pointing out that people in the UK spend more on their housing than any other European country, apart from Denmark and Greece. One in six of us (16.5%) pay more than 40 percent of our net income on mortgage, rents and related running costs. This compares to only 5.2% in France. Shelter commented that “Chronic lack of supply of affordable homes and years of easy access to mortgages” had driven up house prices.
The second was a report from the IMF warning of an “extended housing market slump” in the UK and that property values are still 30 per cent above their historical average in relation to incomes. The IMF says that prices could drop by another 10 to 15 per cent. I’m sceptical about this, because the latest census shows an increase in population of around 3.8 million in England and yet we have built only 1.4 million homes over the same ten-year period. It’s estimated that that 232,000 households will form each year for the next thirty years, and, with households reducing in size, the demand side pressures on house prices (and thus rents) are remorseless. But the IMF admits that supply in the UK is contrained by a tight planning system and we all know that the moment mortgage lending is relaxed there will be a rush to buy and, with no increase in supply, there will be an inevitable increase in prices. I predict we will be in the foothills of another housing bubble within the next two years.
The final item was an article in the New Statesman by Shelter’s Robbie de Santos who argued cogently against Ken Livingstone’s calls for rent caps in the private rented sector. Homes in the PRS, argued de Santos, are often unaffordable, unstable and of poor quality, but rent caps would have the perverse effect of reducing supply and making life worse for the majority of new households who now see the PRS as their only chance of a home. Instead, we need to look to the German model where rents are set by the market at the outset but increases are capped. This is matched by longer, secure tenancies something that lenders in the UK are reluctant to endorse, as David Lawrenson has pointed out. Of course, we need a better licensing and regulatory system for the PRS, to drive out rogue landlords, but de Santos is right to argue that rent caps would only make matters worse. They attack a symptom, and do not address the root of the problem, which is lack of supply.
All three of these items highlight the point that supply is at the root of our problems. As a result, we are over-burdened with excessive housing costs and therefore have the lowest saving rate in the G7. More spent on housing means less spent in the economy, so our recession deepens. The PRS is taking the strain because private housebuilders will not build and the public sector is under-funded. So it all comes back to lack of supply, and the constraints imposed by our planning system, our lenders who will not lend and our unfit-for purpose housebuilding industry. When we built a record 352,000 homes in 1968 it was because local authorities were regularly building 150,000 homes each year. Now, the public sector is building about an eighth of that figure. One ambition for a future government should be to set a goal of reducing the ratio of house prices to wages, something that Kate Barker argued for in her 2004 and 2006 reports on planning and housing supply, where she called for 250,000 homes to be built each year as a way of restring balance to our dysfunctional housing market and reducing macroeconomic volatility. This can only happen if enough land is released for housing, something the Germans understand well enough – they set regional and national targets for land release and as a result, Germany has seen a real reduction in house prices of 10 percent over the past thirty years.
Meanwhile, we continue to spend twenty times more on propping up high rents than we do on public housing investment. It’s a crazy world and we are failing to get our message across.
The excellent BBC series “The Secret History of our Streets” ended last night with a look at Arnold Circus and the Boundary estate in Shoreditch. It should be essential viewing for every student of housing (which means everyone from the age of 18 to 80) since it embraces all the key issues that have shaped our housing world for the last 150 years.
Each episode started with the work of the indefatigable Charles Booth, a rich industrialist who set out to map the social history of London over a twenty-year period from 1880 to 1900. H.M.Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Foundation, had claimed that 25 percent of Londoners lived in poverty. Booth felt that this was an over-exaggeration and set out to prove Hyndman wrong by carrying our careful statistical analysis of London’s streets, going from door to door gathering data - Beatrice Potter/Webb was one of his assistants. But he found that the true figure was closer to 35 percent. Booth’s work was therefore the spur to social reform and intervention by local and national government. His colour-coded maps, now kept at the LSE, are works of art.
The opening episode on Deptford High Street was a classic. A 1943 public information film (from 6.40 onwards) showed a monocle- wearing Patrick Abercrombie (one of my bête noires) gazing out over the rooftops of London and decrying the streets and buildings all “jumbled up together in a hopeless confusion” (but that’s exactly what makes London so interesting today!) This was pure Mr Cholmondley-Warner as he declared: “All these bad things must go and the sooner the better.” What followed was effectively an act of class war, as middle class planners and “experts” swept away huge swathes of perfectly good housing in Deptford, along with the vibrant communities that lived in them, to be replaced by ugly, soulless council blocks. The programme also provided evidence that the council had deliberately distorted its housing reports, finding unfitness where none existed. People were paid piffling amounts of compensation to move away from properties that would now be extremely valuable. Meanwhile, the same properties in Chelsea of Fulham were left untouched. (However, I thought ex-Lewisham councillor and architect (and colleague at Camden when I worked there in the eighties) Nicholas Taylor was very unfairly treated by the programme. He appeared to take the rap for the Council’s slum-clearance when in fact he was an advocate of rehabilitation. His book, “The Village in the City” is an excellent read.)
In the last episode we saw the awful slums of the Old Nichol in Shoreditch, movingly portrayed in Arthur Morrison’s “A Child of the Jago”. The benefits of municipalisation were highlighted, as the area was compulsorily purchased by the London County Council who built England’s first council housing scheme, the wonderful Boundary Estate set around Arnold Circus, in 1900 (if you haven’t visited, go now.) The same happened at Reverdy Road in Bermondsey where, in 1960, a far-sighted council bought up an entire estate of 787 Victorian terraced homes for just £375,000 and created a mixed community that still survives, albeit under pressure from rising prices and gentrification. The estate was sold to the Council by its aristocratic owners because of the 1957 Housing Act, the same Act that de-regulated rents and led to the villainy of Peter Rachman in Notting Hill, portrayed in the episode about Portland Road. The impact of legislation upon individual lives and communities was made plain here, like the 1980 Act and its Right to Buy, which led to flats on the Boundary estate being sold, arguably with some benefit to the community there.
The series also highlighted the waves of immigration that have swept through London over several centuries, starting with the Huguenots in the eighteenth century, followed by Jews, West Indians and Bengalis. The squatting and short-life movement of the seventies and eighties was covered in the Arnold Circus episode, where Bengali families living in awful slums were shown taking up residence in empty GLC properties, with help from local white activists, and winning support from Horace Cutler, the GLC leader, in due course. It confirms the point that communities change, people move on. Visit Brick Lane today and you will be struck by the division between the indigenous Bengali community and the arty, white incomers, which turns the very notion of the word “incomer” on its head! The same is happening in Brixton.
These programmes makes you realise that we need to take a long view of housing history. What may seem like an insoluble problem today usually sorts itself out over the long term, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But above all the programmes show that housing is about real people trying to make their way in the world, and we should never forget it. Every house and flat portrayed here had a rich personal history. We saw some great characters like Dave from The Farm on Camberwell Grove, Eileen Christie the pub landlady on Caledonian Road, the raffish and Council-dodging landlord Andrew Panayi who owns half of the properties on the Caledonian Road, Mrs Finkelstein who grew up on the Boundary estate and Dr Max Gammon and his family on Reverdy Road. It is people who should be at the heart of all our housing and planning decisions.
This was great TV. If you missed it, please go and watch it on iPlayer.
(Note: Graham Findlay at the CIH has alerted me to a wesbite set up by a resident of Deptford who challenges some of the issues raised in the first episode. See here: http://deptfordptrs.com/Default.aspx )
I’ve been spending a lot of time recently doing presentations to groups of staff, councillors and tenants around the country on current issues in housing.
I always mention the fact that the present changes are the deepest and most far-reaching I’ve seen in my thirty years in the sector. But I’m always trying to simplify and clarify what’s going on in housing so, in that spirit, here is my list of the Top Ten issues that are having the greatest impact. I’ve thrown in a few predictions as well. It’s a list you or may not disagree with but it’s offered up for discussion.
- Overall housebuilding in England is down to its lowest level in peacetime for a century. The latest figures from the HCA suggest that completions across all sectors could fall below 100,000 this year. It’s worth recalling that in 1968 a massive 352,000 homes were built in England. In the fifties, the then housing minister Harold Macmillan would have been forced to resign by now. This lack of new supply is keeping house prices high and pricing an entire generation out of the housing market. CLG projections show that 230,000 new households will be forming each year between now and 2033, so we really need to be building a quarter of a million new homes to keep up with demand.
- Planning reform. The new National Planning Policy Framework was published in March and aims to simplify the planning system, stimulate growth and “to boost significantly the supply of housing” and “meet the full objectively assessed needs for market and affordable housing…”. Regional targets have been scrapped and we’ve returned to bottom-up planning. It’s too soon to say what impact this will have but early indications are that many local authorities are scaling down their housebuilding targets from the previous regional figures. This is worrying.
- The affordable housebuilding programme has been cut from £8 billion to £4.5 billion over the four years to 2015. Nearly all newly provided homes will be “affordable” with rents at up to 80% of market rents, not to forget the same higher rents for conversions of existing stock. This programme is likely to trap thousands of people in high rent properties and signals the demise of social housing as we know it. The latest report from the National Audit Office suggests that the programme may not deliver and will raise the housing benefit bill. Expect another statistics war and growing pressure on the housing minister when the expected completions fail to materialise.
- The unstoppable growth of the private rented sector. It’s doubled in size since 1980 and has now overtaken social housing. Most new households are now entering this sector, including families with children, but growing numbers of landlords are refusing to take people on benefits, so the bubble of rising rents may burst before too long. We can expect to see a worsening of conditions at the lower end of the market as more rogue landlords seek to make a fast buck. That means more sheds in gardens, beds in lofts and, given that 40% of the sector is non-decent, possible fatalities. The clamour for regulation will grow. The imminent Montague report may prompt institutional investment and could see the PRS replacing affordable housing as part of planning deals on new builds.
- Power to the people. The provisions in the Localism Act for neighbourhood planning, the right to challenge and the right to bid could re-generate communities across the land. Alternatively, they could be a damp squib. The danger is that it will be the well-heeled, wealthier communities that take up the new rights and poorer areas will be left behind. It is therefore critical that housing providers work with their residents to encourage communities to take up these new rights.
- Reform of local authority housing finance. The £21 billion of housing debt doled out to local authority housing revenue accounts gives councils more freedom to take control of their business plans and perhaps start building limited numbers of new council homes. It will also have an impact upon ALMOs and slow the transfer of stock. Can we expect a new golden age of council house-building? I don’t think so. If anything, there will be a net loss of stock to right to buy.
- “Am I bovvered?” regulation. A “new” regulator for social housing, within the HCA, but only offering a backstop service so far as consumers are concerned. Early signs are that the regulator is not intervening in complaints about serious detriment. Can we expect to see a Barclays’ style scandal over the next few years as rogue staff take advantage of the lack of supervision?
- New tenancy strategies and allocation changes will lead some local authorities to tighten up on who they house. Housing waiting lists around the country will shrink, allowing the housing minister to claim that he is solving the housing crisis. Fixed term tenancies will lead to a greater turnover of stock in some areas.
- The bedroom tax will affect 670,000 households but only 250,000 lettings take place each year. Lord Freud says people affected should move, take in a lodger or pay the rent. What happens to tenants who get into arrears because they cannot move to smaller properties? Judges are unlikely to be sympathetic to possession actions, so you can expect to see landlords carrying a large cohort of under-occupying tenants with arrears who cannot be evicted.
- And finally, Universal Credit will replace all income related benefits and housing benefit from 2013 onwards for working age tenants. Joe Halewood believes this will have a greater impact upon the social housing sector than the right to buy and will lead to the closure of many hostels. The impact upon larger families is potentially devastating. Huge doubts still hang over the I.T. system that will deliver UC, and the target for 80% of transactions to be on-line seems wildly optimistic. There’s still a lot of water to go under the bridge on this one.