All posts by Tom Lloyd
Poor George Osborne doesn’t seem to be able to please anyone.
First he was slated for putting forward ‘regressive’ policies in his emergency Budget that would hit the poorest in society hardest.
Now he’s coming under fire for his pledge to scrap child benefit for more affluent members of society.
Mr Osborne always claimed his Budget was progressive, but this was questioned by some fairly comprehensive research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, and always seemed a little doubtful.
According to The Mirror, the chancellor has now admitted his cuts would hit the members of society who can afford them least, in an email to Conservative MPs.
Meanwhile the right-wing press has being laying into him for putting forward the idea of cutting child benefit for households where anyone earns more than £44,000. The Telegraph calls it ‘crass and out of touch’.
It seems Mr Osborne is rather stuck. If he hits the poorer members of society with cuts he is accused of being inhumane (or, in the case of The Independent’s Simon Carr, inhuman), but targeting the more affluent seems to be political suicide.
The lack of news over the summer months can mean stories get blown out of all proportion.
Take the Chilean miners for example. It’s an interesting story. It’s good they are alive. But do we really need daily updates on their health and well being? It’ll be a news in brief by the time they finally get out.
Similarly the ‘revelation’ that councils will be able to set social housing allocation policies seems to be getting more attention than it possibly deserves.
But however many column inches it gets, you can’t really get away from the fact that this isn’t new. John Healey announced that councils would be given similar freedoms in December, when he was still housing minister.
And the idea that born and bred Brits will be leapfrogging immigrants to get social homes is just as unlikely as the idea that immigrants are currently leapfrogging Brits.
The simple fact is there are not enough available social homes to go round, and the majority of those that are available will continue to go to those in priority need – regardless of their ethnic background.
One point in the Communities and Local Government department’s progress update stands out – mainly because it is written in red, and states: ‘Not complete’.
Amongst all the other actions with reassuring black status updates of ‘complete’ or ‘work started’ the line: ‘Publish consultation responses on options for the housing revenue account including voluntary arrangements’ leaps off the page.
The document in question is the first monthly update on the CLG’s Structural reform plan, which sets out the part it has to play in meeting overall government objectives such as transferring power to communities.
And in general it suggests the government has made a good start on its aims, meeting goals on revoking regional spatial strategies and setting out incentives for house building, and starting work on a whole host of initiatives.
Admittedly there are a few other self-imposed targets the government has failed to meet before the summer recess, such as nailing down its definition of zero carbon, but it does seem to be the HRA that is causing the biggest headache.
The structural reform update notes that the consultation concluded on 6 July, and says: ‘Responses have been analysed, but pressures of government business have prevented a response by end July’.
It goes on to say an announcement on HRA reform will be made by early September. But a quick scan through its upcoming targets suggests pressures of government business are unlikely to be easing any time soon.
CLG not only has the Localism Bill coming up in the autumn, it has also a vast array of deadlines including to set out plans for a home swap scheme for tenants by October, finish developing options for bringing empty homes back into use by December, and start promoting a scheme getting farmers to turn unused buildings into affordable housing by September.
It looks like ministers could have their holidays cut even shorter than usual. Behind the scenes at least, it will be a busy summer.
It seems bizarre to find the Labour Party defending one of its most right-wing policies against a Conservative-led government that wants to scrap it.
Anti-ASBO campaigners, who would have been unlikely to expect much support from a Conservative home secretary, must be rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Ms May even picked up some of their arguments, saying ASBOs had put ‘young people on a conveyor belt to prison’.
As ASBOs are a civil order, but breach of one is a criminal offence, this argument carries some weight. Especially when you consider the latest statistics, published yesterday, which show of the 16,999 ASBOs issued between 1999 and 2008, 55 per cent were breached.
Ms May used this figure as evidence the orders are failing, but also cited decreasing use of the orders. Some might argue decreasing use of ASBOs is a sign of decreasing anti-social behaviour, and therefore shows they are working.
The truth is probably that for some communities ASBOs have worked. Some troublemakers have been prompted to mend their ways, or received support they need to help them deal with their own problems. In other cases ASBOs have been little more than a ‘badge of honour’.
And then there are always the ones the media finds incredibly amusing, banning people from answering doors in their dressing gowns, having noisy sex, or letting their pigs escape. What will we do without them?
What we will actually do without them, according to Ms May, is deal with the problems ourselves. Solutions will come ‘from the homes or our citizens, from the heads of our police officers, council employees and housing associations’, she said.
Just in case that sounded a bit like she was washing her hands of responsibility for tackling anti-social behaviour, she quickly added: ‘I’m not saying that there is no role for government. We’re not going to just walk away and leave you to it.’
The government is going to review the range of powers for tackling anti-social behaviour that are available to the police, it is also promising to tackle worklessness, and welfare, and improve education.
‘It’s about dealing with some of the root causes,’ she explained, which isn’t very snappy. Perhaps they need a slogan, how about ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Or have we heard that one somewhere before?
Sorting through hundreds of pages of Budget material is always a bit of a chore, so the Conservatives have come up with a solution – get you to do it.
The party has seized on the trendy concept of crowdsourcing – a bit like outsourcing, except you send stuff to lot of people and don’t pay them – for its Budget analysis.
In a ‘war room’ briefing party chair Eric Pickles appeals to supporters to log on to the Conservative website ‘and start picking out anything that might be misleading or hidden away’.
Quite what this has resulted in is a little unclear at the moment. The Tory website features lots of comment from senior Conservatives, including plenty of videos from the likes of George Osborne, but little evidence of mass participation.
Maybe you have to be a card carrying Tory to find out what is going on. Or maybe the concept of crowdsourcing is a bit new for party members.
If that is the case, the party’s more traditional approach to campaigning may work for them – a picture of Alistair Darling in a wedding dress, with the heading ‘My Big Fat Greek Debt’.
A housing officer recently asked why we don’t have more comment from frontline staff in Inside Housing – well here’s your chance.
We are looking to get together a group of people who we can email to gauge opinion on the latest issues in the run up to the general election.
Each week we will ask you what you think of the latest big issue, and to tell us which way you’d vote.
The panel will remain unchanged in the run up to the big day, so it should give an indication of how people’s views are being influenced by the campaigning work of the major parties.
All responses will be anonymous, and we won’t use your email address for any purpose other than to contact you in relation to the panel.
We’re looking to finalise the panel by the end of the week, so if you want to take part please email Gene Robertson by the end of Friday.
Tory turmoil this week, as their ‘future housing minister’ stood down as a candidate for election.
This wasn’t shadow housing minister Grant Shapps, but ‘Cameron cutie’ Joanne Cash – the party’s candidate for the Westminster North seat, and a lady tipped for the housing post by Tatler magazine.
Ms Cash resigned her bid to oust Labour stalwart Karen Buck from the Westminster seat at a meeting on Monday night, after apparently falling out with constituency chair Amanda Sayers.
However yesterday she was back, posting on Twitter: ‘I did resign. Assoc did not accept. CCHQ has resolved specific issue so I am not leaving. It’s official DC has changed the party!!!!!!!!’
Exactly what went on behind the scenes, and why the Conservative Party HQ and David Cameron had to get involved in sorting out a local squabble, is a little murky.
According to reports, party chair Eric Pickles turned up at the meeting on Monday night to support Ms Cash’s attempts to stop Ms Sayers seeking a fourth term as chair of the local association.
His intervention was successful, but local president Lord Strathclyde then threw a spanner in the works by stepping down, allowing Ms Sayers to be voted in as his replacement. At this point, Ms Cash threw in towel.
But the will of central office could not be so easily ignored, and further manoeuvring has clearly seen Ms Cash – who is regarded as one of Cameron’s A list of women candidates – reinstated.
Whether or not she will end up as housing minister, or indeed win the seat, remains to be seen, but the affair once again shows the tensions between Tory central office and some of its constituency parties.
DC may have changed the party, but has he changed it enough?
Possibly the most depressing thing about Channel 4’s latest delve into the world of council housing, is that the only person who might have made a difference had to pull out after one day.
As David Cameron’s social policy guru, and a man who has had a fair bit to say about social housing, Iain Duncan Smith was in a good position to use his experiences.
In the past his Centre for Social Justice think tank has issued reports advocating an end to secure tenancy for life, and using social housing as a ‘lever’ to get people into work.
We’ll never know if spending a week on the Carpenters estate in east London would have reaffirmed these views, or caused IDS to reassess them, as he sadly learnt his wife had cancer and was forced to leave after one day.
The remaining three politicians, Tory Tim Loughton, Lib Dem Mark Oaten, and Labour backbencher Austin Mitchell, acquitted themselves with varying degrees of success.
Oaten was shocked by the state of the Dagenham tower block in which he found himself, and set about organising a petition to get it knocked down, before admitting: ‘If someone said to me you have to stay here for two years, I don’t think I could cope.’
Mitchell fared less well, seeming rather taken aback by the reality of living on a drug-ridden estate in Hull – despite chairing the Parliamentary group on council housing, insisting on living in his own council house rather than sharing with a tenant, and disappearing off for dinner with friends on the second evening.
Loughton looked very lost as a posh white guy stuck in a poor black community in Birmingham, and looked like he knew it, but he did make himself useful as a baby sitter.
One of the opening questions the programme makers ask about the MPs is ‘will they find any solutions?’ With IDS they might have done, but without him it seems doubtful.
Peter Marsh got a bit of a ticking off when the thorny subject of security of tenure arose in Parliament this week.
Labour MP Clive Betts reported that some of his constituents have raised concerns about comments made by the Tenant Services Authority chief executive, who apparently said tenants in areas of high demand might lose their security.
Housing minister John Healey was quick to put the record straight: ‘It would be worthwhile for my honourable friend to reassure residents in his constituency that matters of policy concerning the security of people’s tenure are for the government, not the TSA chief executive.’
The helpful Mr Betts also gave the minister a chance to return to one of his favourite subjects, the evils of Conservative-run Hammersmith and Fulham council’s housing policy, and in particular the views of its leader Stephen Greenhalgh.
Mr Betts enquired: ‘Will my right honourable friend completely dissociate himself from the comments of the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council, who said that one problem with social housing was that it was hard to get rid of these people?’
Mr Healey didn’t have too much trouble with that one: ‘The comments that my honourable friend attributes to the leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council are very revealing - they reveal a deeply held prejudice against people in public housing,’ he responded.
It’s good to see our latest campaign is already having an impact on politicians – House Proud had its first success before it even launched.
The Liberal Democrats did their bit towards meeting one of the campaign’s demands – that each major party dedicate a section of their manifesto to housing – by issuing a pledge on the subject last Thursday.
Admittedly we might have trouble claiming this was a direct result of the campaign, as it didn’t launch until the next day, but it is a promising start, nonetheless.
The Lib Dems’ manifesto pledge focused on bringing empty homes back into use – the subject of another Inside Housing campaign last year. The party has pledged to invest £1.4 billion in bringing 100,000 empty homes into the socially rented sector, and improving a further 150,000 private homes.
Some commentators on this site, and elsewhere, have pointed out that it is easy to make such promises when you have little chance of winning the election. But the Lib Dems could gain influence both in Westminster and locally.
It is also encouraging that the party is giving prominence to housing issues. The core aim of House Proud, which is jointly run by Inside Housing and the Chartered Institute of Housing, is to stress the contribution of housing to every aspect of social policy.
If the Lib Dems have picked up on the message, then hopefully the Conservatives and Labour will do the same.
Next time, we might even be able to claim a bit more of the credit.
It’s not often that Tenant Services Authority chief executive Peter Marsh shares a page with David Beckham and Basshunter, but critics of the regulator seem to be reaching out to new audiences.
The News of the World yesterday carried a story claiming ‘Government watchdog resolves just 12 complaints a year’, and attacking the ‘£38 million watchdog quango’ for wasting public cash.
Whether any NoTW readers could tear themselves away from stories about the sexual habits of Celebrity Big Brother contestants, and David Beckham being turned down for a role in The Simpsons, to take an interest in social housing regulation is unclear.
So why has the paper suddenly decided to go for the regulator? The data it uses is hardly breaking news – it was published in the TSA’s annual report last November.
One clue could be the commentator quoted in the story, shadow housing minister Grant Shapps, who declares ‘taxpayers’ money is being wasted’. Mr Shapps has been vocal in his criticism of the TSA in the past; could the Conservative Party now be seeking new outlets for his concerns?
Either way, the angle taken by the paper seems a little unfair. Although the regulator only dealt with 12 of the 396 complaints it received directly, the vast majority of the remainder were referred to other organisations – often the relevant housing association or ombudsman – who would presumably be best placed to deal with them.
At its heart is decentralisation, and the dismantling of the ‘big government approach’ of the Labour government.
In practice, we are told, this would mean ‘democratic accountability’ instead of ‘bureaucratic accountability’, and giving patients ‘real choice’.
Providers will be given more freedom, and be expected to publish results. Patients will be free to choose, ‘encouraging hospitals to compete for patients’.
There is detail too. The NHS will be opened up to voluntary and independent providers. GPs’ pay will be linked to the quality of the service they deliver. Welfare-to-work agencies will get better access to mental health services.
The blue core at the heart of the plans is the idea of linking pay to results. Where Labour has tried to incentivise with performance targets, the Tories will incentivise with cash.
Whether this approach would be any more successful remains to be seen. Incentivising bankers with large bonuses helped to create a culture in which the reckless pursuit of short-term gain jeopardised the economy, but such an extreme example might not be so relevant to the public sector.
It is reassuring to see a commitment to helping the poorest in society, and it sits in stark contrast to some of the 30-year-old, previously confidential documents published last week from the early days of the Thatcher government.
Whatever might be going on behind closed doors these days, it seems unlikely that David Cameron is warning of street riots if immigrants are placed in social housing.
Labour and the Tories seem to have ditched their traditional colours, and be trying to out do each other to appear a brighter shade of green.
With the Copenhagen climate change summit looming, both housing minister John Healey and his shadow Grant Shapps have used speeches over the last couple of weeks to push their party’s eco-credentials.
But whilst they may be united in their aim to cut emissions from housing, there was a difference in emphasis to their plans.
Healey used his speech at a UK Green Building Council conference to reiterate the government’s commitment to ensure all homes built from 2016 are zero carbon. He even moved a little bit closer to defining what zero carbon actually means, by publishing a proposed standard for measuring energy efficiency.
Shapps headed up to the BRE in Watford to stress the importance of cutting emissions from existing homes. The Tory plan is to get charities and businesses to fund £6,500 of energy efficiency improvements to existing homes, and then recoup the investment through savings in fuel costs.
Tesco and Marks and Spencer have said they are interested, and other groups – including social landlords – have been in contact with the Conservatives about the plans.
Despite the enthusiasm, there is still a lack of detail on exactly how the plans will work. The UKGBC said they would need primary legislation, but a Tory source tells me they just need a provider to sign up to get started.
Equally, Labour’s plans lack finality. Although the energy efficiency statement has resolved some questions over zero carbon, there is still the thorny issue of off-site renewables to contend with.
With the government aiming to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, and 27 per cent of those emissions coming from homes, it is vital that whoever wins the election quickly turns their green rhetoric into reality.
What isn’t in the Queen’s Speech tomorrow could well be more interesting than what is in it.
The stripped down, pre-election legislative programme is expected to include measures on anti-social behaviour and support for the elderly in their own homes – both of which were previewed in Gordon Brown’s party conference speech.
But which of the many initiatives announced by Labour in recent months will receive less support than those with prime ministerial backing?
According to the Mirror today, one such casualty may be housing minister John Healey’s pledge to allow private tenants to stay in their homes for two months if their landlord defaults on mortgage payments.
Under the current system, tenants can be thrown out with little or no notice. Both Labour and the Conservatives have said they will address the problem, but the issue could well be left out of a legislative programme more concerned with delivering votes than promises.
Another issue that seems likely to be put on the ‘too difficult’ pile is reform of the housing revenue account subsidy system. Mr Healey has said this could be achieved voluntarily if councils agree to take on historic debt, but with little visible progress on this any government that wants to make headway may have to go down the legislative route.
The Council Housing Group of MPs recently called for proposals for reform of the HRA to be included in the Queen’s Speech, so that a framework could be put in place before a general election. But it remains to be seen if the government will have heeded its demands.
Politicians are grabbing every opportunity to lay into each other at the moment, but usually they restrict themselves to having a go at the opposition.
At the Thames Gateway Forum this week, it seemed that rule was being stretched to breaking point.
Communities secretary John Denham used his speech to outline the achievements that have resulted from the Labour government’s investment in the gateway, before turning on the Conservatives.
‘The gateway is a stark reminder of the difference between this recession and previous recessions,’ he warned.
‘We are just determined not to repeat those mistakes. Mistakes our opposition would repeat if they were given the country. We have worked to protect those who are most vulnerable to the recession.’
He went on: ‘I don’t apologise for laying out a bit of a political agenda here today, because it is too important.’
However Lord Falconer, a former cabinet minister under Tony Blair, and now chair of the Thames Gateway London Partnership, seemed to feel a little differently.
‘From what I could hear when I went to the Tory party conference, what was being said there was that while there would be a forensic assessment of the various agencies in the Thames Gateway, they were as committed as we were,’ he said.
‘Whatever happens in May 2010, I think we will find that government continues to give the same commitment.’
Sadly Mr Denham had departed immediately after his speech, so we did not find out if he was reassured by Lord Falconer’s views.
Given that councils have waited years for reform of housing finance, it is a bit ironic that they now feel they are being forced into it.
But with a change of government likely, there seems to be a growing feeling among some authorities that if they don’t agree to the plans on the table now, they could be left out in the cold for even longer.
For some councils, the lack of money for refurbishing stock has become particularly pressing with elections looming. At a recent meeting in Westminster, one councillor said his authority would be fighting off the British National Party in the spring if they didn’t find some money soon.
This particular authority, which stands to gain one of the highest levels of redistributed debt under the current proposals, feels it has little option but to come on board despite its opposition to the plans.
Housing minister John Healey has suggested reforms could be pushed through before the general election if councils agree to share out £18 billion of housing debt, but primary legislation would be needed if there is no agreement.
With campaigners and local government umbrella bodies calling for the debt to be written off, and Mr Healey adamant that he wouldn’t get through the door of the Treasury with such a proposal, it remains to be seen who will back down first.
But it isn’t just on the local government side that cracks are starting to appear. One MP who met Mr Healey recently to discuss the review, says the minister is keenly aware of the ‘urgency’ of getting his reforms pushed through.
The Parliament website lists hundreds of special interest groups for MPs to sign up to, but the council housing group is a little different.
What sets the council housing devotees aside from more illustrious groups, such as those dedicated to beer or bees, is that it isn’t a proper all party group.
As its chair, Labour MP for Great Grimsby Austin Mitchell, explained at a report launch yesterday: ‘We are all party, but we can’t call ourselves an all party group because we haven’t got enough Conservatives.’
Perhaps if a few more Tories get in as a result of the general election Mr Mitchell and friends will have more luck attracting Conservative followers.
Or perhaps the current lack of interest says much about the attitude of many grass-roots Tories to council housing.
Following the news that councils will make a ‘major contribution’ to asset sales by selling housing, we’ve been trying to find out how ‘major’ that might be.
The Communities and Local Government department said it didn’t know, but maybe we should ask the Treasury. The Treasury said it did know, but it wasn’t going to tell us.
A cynic might think that is because the numbers don’t really stack up. Earlier this year we heard that right to buy sales had fallen ‘off the cliff’, so that wouldn’t be altogether surprising.
Apparently the figures will be available when the pre-Budget report is published later in the autumn, so we’ll keep an eye out of those.
In the meantime, it does look like the government is wondering if it can use housing sales to help with its debt. A statement from CLG says: ‘Every part of government has a responsibility to do its part to make savings and cut the national debt that includes local government.’
However it goes on to say: ‘Local authorities will remain in control of their assets and decisions on what to sell off will be taken in consultation with communities as is the normal practice.’
Elsewhere, Margaret Thatcher is back in the news. Metro reports that a group of squatters living in her street managed to get £45 together to buy her a book on English heritage and the history of housing for her 84th birthday.
They might have undermined the gesture slightly, however. Firstly by being squatters. And secondly by wrapping the gift in a map of Europe.
Is the government planning to use money from selling off council housing to ease the national debt?
It seems a little unlikely, but it is one view of an odd exchange between Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, and chief secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne, which took place on Monday.
It is certainly an interpretation that occurred to shadow housing minister Grant Shapps, who pointed the relevant clipping out to me at a reception last night.
Vince Cable asked for a statement on the sale of government assets to ease the national debt, which had been announced that day.
Mr Byrne responded with a few lines outlining what everybody already knew – that the government is thinking of flogging the Tote, the Dartford crossing, the student loan book and the channel tunnel rail link to raise an estimated £16 billion – and then added:
‘We know that councils will make a major contribution to the overall level of asset disposals through sales of housing and other assets.’
According to Mr Shapps, a third party asked housing minister John Healey if he knew what the line meant – to which he replied he didn’t know anything about it.
It seems odd that a government that is embarking on a major review of council housing finance designed to allow local authorities to manage their own housing income, would consider trying to channel it back into central government coffers.
It might also be impossible. After further questioning from Mr Cable, Mr Byrne conceded that of the £16 billion of assets the government was planning on selling, £11 billion are owned by local authorities, who would be ‘free to keep those receipts and reinvest them in priorities such as affordable housing and schools’.
All the same, the government’s banking bailouts have left it with a national debt of £170 billion to manage, and it must be exploring every avenue for ways to raise a few quid. If it were to find a few billion down the back of the social housing sofa, that might come in very handy.