Sunday, 4 June 2017

Will Cinderella go to the (Election) Ball?

Well, by now I expected to be completely bored by the whole election process.

British elections are not normally the most exciting of events, despite so much often being at stake, and with Labour’s approval ratings so low and the Conservatives so high, back when the election was called, I fully expected this to be something of a formality.  How wrong I was!

Against all the odds, Labour have narrowed the gap and the Conservatives fallen in their ratings, so completely unexpectedly the prospect of a hung parliament is once again before us.  Not something I would have foreseen only two weeks ago!

So, that being the case , where do the two parties stand in respect of housing policy, the rather unglamorous Cinderella topic that seems despite its fundamental importance to the wellbeing of the people of these Isles, to be reported on by the media rather less than Jeremy Corbyn’s historic links with the IRA, or Theresa May’s no-shows at televised debates.

Housing is important, because without access to decent a decent place to live, there is very little that someone can do to improve their lives.  Housing has a proven impact on health, access to work and education, life expectancy and so much more.  In recent decades, the housing market in the UK has become dysfunctional, to say the least.  In the “South” and the more wealthy areas of the UK, where an investment bubble has distorted the market, there are simply not enough homes available and so prices have been pushed out of the reach of most “ordinary people”.

Here in the “North” and in the more economically challenged areas of the country, the problem is more nuanced.  There are homes available, but their isn’t the investment capital available to make enough of them decent to live in – a legacy of the death of Victorian heavy industry which many of the houses of the region were built to service.  And with average wages much lower than in the wealthy areas, access to decent homes is still a major problem for too many.

So what are the main parties promising to do about it, if they get their say in government?

Well, for once all three do include the need to increase the supply of new homes and in particular the supply of “affordable” homes.

The Conservatives promise in their manifest to meet their existing target of 1 million homes by 2020 with an additional half million by 2022.

Labour promises to build more than 1 million with at least 100,000 per year “genuinely affordable” council and housing association homes for rent and sale by 2022.

The Liberal Democrats intend to commission directly 300,000 a year by 2022 (which totals 1.5 million over the 5 years of the parliament), with 500,000 affordable homes and 10 garden cities.

All three parties recognise that local authorities have a key role as developers of new, affordable housing.  This is refreshing as this has been ignored in recent years, yet was a key element in addressing the previous housing crisis in the UK after the second world war.

The Conservatives will allow some councils to build housing for social rent, with a proportion sold after 10-15 years, with sitting tenants being given first refusal and proceeds reinvested into new homes.

Labour promises to remove restrictions, although it is not specific in which way it will do this.

The Liberal Democrats will lift the cap on local authority borrowing.

And when it comes to the acute problem of homelessness there are aggressive targets in all three manifestos as well.

The Conservatives promise to half rough-sleeping by 2022 and eradicate it altogether by 2027, setting up a homelessness task force and implementing a Homelessness Reduction Act.

Labour intends to make 4,000 homes available for people with a history of rough sleeping, and pledges to protect residents of homelessness hostels and other supported housing from planned cuts to housing benefit.

The Liberal Democrats expect to increase support for homelessness prevention and ensure there is adequate provision of emergency and supported housing.

Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats propose the idea of “housing first” – an approach that moves homeless people straight into permanent housing as quickly as possible, thereby enabling the addressing of wider problems they may face to be put on a sound footing.

A major issue that has arisen out of George Osborne’s austerity plan, post-2010, has been cuts to welfare, particularly access to housing benefit, more of which is planned by the current government with the full implementation of Universal Credit, and the imposition of the Local Housing Allowance cap on housing benefit for all housing association tenants to the lowest 30% of rents, with further restrictions on 18-35 year-olds.

The Conservatives say there are no further welfare cuts planned other than announced already. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both pledge to cut the “bedroom tax” and reinstate housing benefit for the under 21’s.  The Liberal Democrats plan also to increase the calculation formula for the Local Housing Allowance from 30% to 50% - i.e. peg it at the average private rent in the area.  Labour also plan to end the 6 week waiting time for Universal Credit and the sanctions regime – the impact of which were  highlighted in the recent Ken Loach film “I, Daniel Blake”.

So I am pleased that all three main parties are promising much that may help improve the housing situation in the UK over the next 5-10 years.  But of course these are only “election promises”, and we all know what can happen to those once real life intervenes!  The issue is therefore also of credibility?  Which party is more likely to be able to deliver real, sustainable change over the long term?

There we enter the realm of faith!

Whatever happens on June the 8th, I hope the government that comes out of it is able to do something, because for too long housing has been hidden behind more urgent, but less fundamental priorities.  Whoever wins, I hope it is finally time for Cinderella to get the new clothes she urgently needs!

Please vote.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Trump card

As a Chief Executive of a small housing association in the North East of England I never thought I would write a blog that references Donald Trump – but bear with me as there’s a method to my madness!

You see, whether you like him or loathe him, President Trump has demonstrated one thing and that he has been able to connect with a demographic that mainstream advertising, politicians and business cannot.

His use of social media before the election meant he was able to bypass the ‘traditional’ media and reach those who helped him defy all the odds to become President.

There’s lessons to be learned this side of the Pond.

The relative wealth of older people is talked of in the media, yet from the advertising you see you would think the only thing older people are interested in buying is life insurance and incontinence wear!

Advertising loves advertising to millennials (people born in the 1980s), but these guys have limited economic clout, and that is diminishing.  That may be undesirable for the country, but it is a fact nevertheless.  Ignoring the needs, aspirations, desires of older people is clearly economic suicide for a business, but nevertheless it seems to happen.

Similarly, we get the same happening in housing policy.  If older people figure in the reporting of policy at all it is because they are undesirable “bed blockers”  with poor quality of life.

There’s nothing much coming out about the benefits of properly catering for older people in regards to housing that PREVENTS problems and ENABLES older people to continue to have a positive economic impact on society, rather than become ill or injured and start costing society more etc.

This is where we (housing associations) come in, particulary with regard to ensuring our residents don’t get written off by society, and are instead helped to fulfil their potential, whatever their age or ability.

The big challenge of course is making sure this point is understood by society at large.  Certainly our residents and their families understand it.  I hope that the positive experiences they have will eventually make a greater impression on society than our youth-obsessed media!

After all, we all will get old one day, so it makes sense to ensure society is in a fit state to cope with us when we get there!

Monday, 6 March 2017

Staying positive

It was pleasing to see the Government, in its recent Housing White Paper, recognise the positive contribution of housing associations.

Less than a year ago, it looked a whole lot bleaker with David Cameron’s Conservative government putting the squeeze on us, whether it was the rent reduction or the Local Housing Allowance cap, but more on the latter shortly.

Under Teresa May, the same Government’s tone has changed completely and it now appears much more constructive than it was under Cameron.

By admitting the housing market is broken and by pledging to build a million new homes by 2020 it is clear the Government now understands that a ‘fix’ is not possible without the support of housing associations.

There remains much work to be done to deliver this housebuilding target, although I am pleased we will be doing our own bit by providing 91 new two-bedroom bungalows between now and 2022. This represents one of the largest housebuilding programmes in our history, increasing the number of homes we have by 5% - which is no mean feat!

I am, therefore, hopeful that goodwill has been restored, but significant issues remain; the most notable being the impact of the LHA cap on the affordability of rents for the most vulnerable.

The Government’s consultation on supported housing ended this month so we don’t know yet whether it will be included in the cap, but I have written before about the impact it will have on areas like County Durham.

I am hoping that common sense will prevail and that we can all get on with the job in hand – that of providing more affordable homes for people in housing need.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Lighting quick

It’s not uncommon for the Great British weather to cause us maintenance problems, after all, rain, snow and wind can cause lots of damage.

It was slightly more surprising, though, to discover recently that lighting had been the cause of an issue at some of our homes in Stanley, County Durham.

At first, we were called to what we thought would be a routine repair, namely a boiler that had stopped working.

But it was only when one of our contractors went to the home that they discovered there was a lot more to it.

The clue came when the contractor saw sparks coming from a phone socket. He put two and two together and realised the thunderstorm the night before had been the culprit, with a few of our houses having been hit by lighting.

Thankfully, no-one was injured but it was particularly pleasing to see how quickly our contractors responded to the situation.

We are too small to have our own in-house maintenance team so we rely on a roster of local contractors. These contractors are small, local companies, with many other jobs to do, other than ours, but they dropped everything to come to our assistance.

So we would like to thank our electricians Vince Elwick & Son and heating engineers Phil Dobson Gas Technical Services.

Great work guys; now, we are hoping that lighting doesn’t strike twice!

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Retirement housing

I read with interest a report on retirement housing from the National House Building Council Foundation.

As part of the report, people aged 55 and over were asked to share their experiences of living in private sector retirement housing.

The research showed that residents’ needs are being met and that they are enjoying life, which is great.

Whilst the report focused on the private sector, the fact it demonstrates a need for good quality, affordable housing for older people is good news for social housing providers too.

Not everyone can afford to buy a home, or circumstances change which mean they need to find something smaller which meets their changing needs, e.g. disabilities.

The report specified the need for retirement housing to be designed to include facilities which allow those with reducing mobility to maintain an independent lifestyle for as long as possible. Our new purpose-built homes do this and have, for example, wet rooms and walk-in showers.

The fact is we have an ageing population so in the years to come, all housing providers, whatever the sector they are in, will have a very important role to play, along with the Government in ensuring older people continue to have access to the housing they deserve.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Start the bidding

I welcomed the recent news that the Government has approved funding for 8,000 units of specialist homes for older, disabled and vulnerable people.

The funding will form part of £4.7 billion in capital grants which will be disbursed for the shared ownership and affordable homes.

The two-bedroom bungalows we build and provide will come under this specialist category, so we are hopeful of being successful if, and when, we bid for money to deliver further affordable homes for older people in County Durham in the coming years.

Unfortunately, the money available on this ‘pot’ only represents 4% of the overall funding package, with the majority being focused on shared ownership and starter homes.

Whilst helping people onto the property ladder must be applauded, there will be a definite bias in the south where this kind of equity is more in demand.

Another big unknown is what is going to happen to the proposed Local Housing Allowance cap for Housing Benefit. The Government is currently reviewing this, and we are hopeful for a favourable outcome, but if the cap is instigated at the same level as people in privately rented homes, it could make bidding for the new development money almost pointless.

This would be because the rents required to sustain investment in the homes would be likely out of the reach of residents on full housing benefit.

We hope this is not the case, however, and that we can successfully bid for money to enable us to continue to provide the high quality older peoples’ homes that we are renowned for.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Is this the end for the bedroom tax?

This week could well signal the end of the so-called bedroom tax.

A group of five families are going to The Supreme Court in a bid to prove the bedroom tax discriminates against disabled adults - a case that could have major ramifications for the entire system.

The introduction of the bedroom tax in 2013 was always controversial and like all housing associations, it has affected residents of Durham Aged Mineworkers’ Homes Association.

The Government argued that it would encourage people to move to smaller properties, potentially saving around £480 million a year from the housing benefit bill. That is all well and good, and in many respects a good thing as far as the economy is concerned, but I have always maintained that the Government failed to see the bigger picture.

The bigger picture being that it’s fine to say in principle that people should move to smaller properties, but in reality there are not enough homes to meet this need. That is not just down to the current Government, but also a number of previous Governments who have simply not done enough to build more new homes.

In 1970 378,000 new homes were completed and by 2014 that figure had fallen to 141,000. Given people are now living much longer than before, that for me, pretty much sums it up.

In our part of the world, high quality two-bedroom homes are in big demand and whilst ourselves, and others, are doing what we can, it is almost impossible to meet this need.

So, if an elderly couple, for example, are living in a three or four-bedroom family home, they may want to move to a smaller property (and not just because of the bedroom tax), but if there is nothing suitable to move in to, why should they be penalised financially for this?

We will obviously have to wait and see what happens with the legal process, but in the meantime I would urge the Government to do more to help social housing providers like ours to build more new homes – as much as we would like to, we can’t do it on our own!