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We've gone away for a while.....

Solent Housing is going into dry dock for a few years. I'm off to the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena to take up the opportunity of a lifetime: to establish a new housing service to provide homes to support the regeneration of this tropical island. There’s an open invitation for all of the people I have had the pleasure to work with to call by. There will always be a spare room – but since it takes longer to get there than to the moon, you might want to check the fares first…

I’ll be working closely with the Saints (can there be any better name for a people?) to create a completely new housing service. The Island of St Helena is one of the remotest places on the planet and is about to be transformed by the construction of an airport. The island was established and populated by the East India Company and freed slaves. For years now, since the growth of the airline industry it has been in decline. The airport will open it up to luxury tourism and the most adventurous travellers and transform the island's fortunes. It will be essential to protect its unique flaura, fauna and historic sites to ensure that it maintains its appeal to both residents and tourists.

The task will be to help establish its first ever housing organisations, serving both the social and private rented sectors, bring existing homes up to standard and create an exemplar (and I hope original) new style for the housing. I will be working with local people and colleagues in the government of St Helena to create several new settlements and 350 new homes, as well as bringing any empty homes back into use.

I leave behind a housing sector that is going through the biggest revolution since the Right to Buy. The unpublished housing strategy (not the insipid one that we have previously criticised) seems to be i) to force up social rents so high that nobody earning a half decent income will want to rent ii) privatise the housing associations now that they are earning huge surpluses iii) Continue to reduce benefits to such a level that everyone who can’t get a job really does feel the pain.

If that sounds outlandish who could have predicted what has already happened? Who could have thought that we would have a Walter Mitty Housing Minister promising, demonising and threatening everything but delivering nothing?

The next few years will be critical to both the UK and St Helena housing sectors. Let's hope that things only get better. Thanks and good luck to everyone who has supported Solent Housing over the last two years. I'll be continuing to blog about the experience of a lifetime.

Andy

CANDLE IN THE WIND

Well done Mr Shapps for being the longest serving Housing Minister at a couple of years. But that might be his biggest achievement and some might suggest it was two years too long.

The government says that is keen to promote payment by results. The charming Mr Shapps' results are the lowest level of housebuilding since the first world war, a trebling in the use of bed and breakfast, the largest number ever on housing benefit and rent levels rising well ahead of inflation. He aimed to ‘get the country building again; but the number of new homes targeted in development plans across the south has collapsed because many Councils either don’t want or don’t have the strength of leadership to drive up the volumes needed. The housing benefit bill that he was going to ‘sort out’ is now several billions of pounds higher, in part because of his ‘affordable housing’ policy. His aim to ‘green up’ every home has been stalled by the government's dithering and penny pinching decisions on feed in tariffs and barriers to social landlords.

The ‘payment’ for these results is promotion – if ever Mr Shapps’ use of the phrase ‘bonkers’ was apt (and it never was) this would be it. And who would have predicted a Housing Minister – repeat: a Housing Minister - calling for the removal of poor people from council and housing association homes in well off areas?

What this depressing episode demonstrates is the power of mindless soundbites over real substance and true commitment. Let us hope that the new Housing Minister is made of stronger stuff.

WAITING IN VAIN

July 2012

We've seen the publication of two pieces of guidance by the government in recent weeks. The homelessness guidance sets out reasonable expectations that families being rehoused under the legislation should be entitled to homes that are safe and suitable. The question of exporting the homeless crops up again, but does not debar Councils from it. As we've said earlier, so long as the families are themselves in favour, a new start may be just what they want.

The allocations guidance exhorts Councils to give reasonable preference to people who genuinely need and deserve being housed. This raises questions not asked since Victorian times about who the 'deserving poor' are and on what basis the decision is made. Few would argue against giving preference to armed forces personnel and the families of the bereaved when they need it. But do we mean only those who have been dodging bullets and IUDs or everyone, regardless of their role and experience?

There is more difficulty and less enthusiasm about giving credit for voluntary activity and the seeking of work. How much voluntary work should you do to warrant preference? How many job applications warrant preference?

Most Councils already take underoccupation and overcrowding into account but the waters are muddied by the four definitions of what this means. The bedroom standard, the Housing Health and Safety Rating System and the 1985 Act all say different things. You could get priority for a larger home and then get your benefits taken away. We need one standard for all.

Ultimately it just feels like the deckchairs are being moved.  We all know those whose ambitions don't go beyond having a large family and a life on the dole and the government is trying to say that this is no longer an option.  Which might make sense if we had plenty of employment on offer and the government wasn't doing its best to increase the poverty trap with 'affordable' and market rents. Most of those we help are good people who just happen to be unable to afford market housing. We provide a safety net to a silent majority. But at the end of the day rationing is the price that we pay for the acute shortage of affordable housing.

BLANK GENERATION

Just imagine this – you’ve spent three years getting a university degree and debt to find that the degree is worthless. You can’t get a reasonably paid job and have to rely upon housing benefit to meet the gap in your rent. Private rents continue to increase and house prices are way beyond you, even if you could find a bank to lend you the money. We have a whole generation trapped in this way. The Prime Minister’s response is to blame the victims, as part of a culture of dependency, calling for the abolition of housing benefit for the under 25s.

We live in a society in which the cheap headline, the spin, is more powerful than the substance. In which the evidence, such as the fact that 90% of housing benefit claimants are in fact ‘hard working’, is cynically ignored. Let’s look at some of the other facts – that care leavers, people who were last week ‘our brave armed forces’ and those who have gotten on their bike to find work will all be caught in this ill thought out suggestion.

But who cares if it gets a Daily Mail headline? As with all the headlines on immigration, anti-social behaviour and the ‘lazy consensus’ this incompetent government will achieve nothing but a climate of fear. But what’s this? Even Daily Mail and Daily Express readers have been repelled by the suggestion. Maybe it is one spin too many.

JUNE 2012

BICYCLE RACE

Congrats to the brave souls who took part in the Isle of Wight Randonnee and raised nearly £7,000 for our favourite charity, the Two Saints Trust. This is all going to provide practical help to help homeless people to live better, more fulfilling and productive lives.

If you missed out on the ride and fancy an even bigger cycling challenge we will be organising a ride from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Angkor Wat in Cambodia in October/November 2013. The numbers will be limited so please contact us to pre-register for the event, which will also help communities in Cambodia.

Below: an impression of how it feels to cycle 400 kilometres

THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME 

Have you been seriously detrimented recently? Chances are that you won't be able to tell.  The HCA has just issued its guidelines on regulation and as might have been expected the emphasis is almost entirely on financial strength and value for money.

in terms of quality of service, primary responsibility lies with the organisation itself except when it comes to ‘serious detriment’. Working out what is meant by ‘serious detriment’ is rather like getting Arsene Wenger to admit that his team was beaten by a better side. But digging deep you find that ‘the regulator will require evidence of harm or potential harm, in particular but not exclusively in relation to: health and safety, loss of home, unlawful discrimination, loss of legal rights, and/or financial loss.’ And just to make things clearer ‘decisions on serious detriment are a matter of judgement by the regulator.’ It would be helpful to have some examples – though the NHF inexplicably argued against this.

On the basis that prevention is better than cure we'd recommend that responsible landlords take the following exercises:  

  • Increasing the role played by residents. It is great to see that Synergy tenants are now playing a major role in procuring new contracts, for example. It has been easy in the past for tenants to be portrayed as disinterested or not having the time to take part. It is remarkable what a difference real power over budgets and key decisions and a culture of empowerment can make.
  • Strengthening the complaints system. One can imagine the sighs of the Housing Ombudsman service when it gets called upon to adjudicate in matters which should have been resolved locally. So the service is encouraging landlords to introduce an independent appeals mechanism to their complaints systems if it does not exist at present. This will of course show both that landlords take complaints seriously and that complainants have been given a reasonable opportunity to state their case.
  • Adopting a Value for Money culture. VFM isn’t simply about cuts; it is increasingly about doing things more effectively and using the savings in time and money to support tenants through the challenges presented by universal credit, single room rents, under-occupancy, disability allowances and other cuts in benefits. It really isn’t that difficult to develop a strategy to ensure that everybody in an organisation knows the true cost of their activities and understands the quality of service that they are providing. 
  • Ensuring that Boards have the necessary skills and experience. Seeing that the majority of adverts in the ‘jobs’ section of Inside Housing are for Board Members maybe this is all in hand.

Synergy's Scrutiny Panel reviewed the Group's approach to resident involvement this year

May 2012

North Country Blues

The politically inspired furore over Newham and other London Boroughs wanting to export its low income families has overlooked one important fact: it’s been happening for years. Basingstoke and Andover were built on LCC ‘overspill’ and the new towns of Milton Keynes, Bletchworth and Welwyn were all a response to the demand for homes in the capital. Elsewhere in the world cities like Kuala Lumpur are still at it; developing a massive techno city some miles away. And then there are the ten pound Poms.

The homes in Stoke and Derby are already there and if they were in London they’d be worth their weight in gold. And unlike the ‘thousands’ of homes that fall below the benefit cap around Newham, they aren’t occupied, so filling them would help reduce the number of empty homes.

So what’s the problem? Firstly there is the implication that such moves would be obligatory. And no offence intended, but the Potteries are not quite as pretty as Australia. But the biggest problem is that the jobs aren’t there. And this is the problem undermining all social policy in the country – since 2008 unemployment has risen from 1.6 to 2.6 million. The risk is that Stoke would become an even bigger retirement home for unemployed, unskilled people of all ages – hardly likely to create a balanced community.

 A joined up policy that combines improved housing with jobs and training is exactly what the housing market renewal areas need. But as a cross party Parliamentary Committee has only recently said, ‘joined up’ is not part of this government’s lexicon.

APRIL 2012

The Promised Land

As the housing market continues to head towards an iceberg we've got some handy hints to help organisations in the Solent area to survive the recession:

Be clear about your aspirations. Do you and your customers want to be the friendly, if a bit pricey, local store or the big supermarket?

Do your sums. The financial regime is changing: rents are going up but benefits are heading down. Grants are disappearing and more complicated bonds and financial models are being offered in their place (for a price). Basing your future growth and activities on the past is a recipe for failure.

Be efficient. It’s not about offloading staff; it’s about ensuring that they are doing what is most needed. And my, do we need to offer more than a bog standard housing service. But we also need to know when it is right to develop into other areas and when we should not. We've developed a VFM menu if you'd like to have a taster.

Staff too need to be flexible. Its 30 years since Tom Peters thrived on chaos but there are still some people for whom a change of desk will result in sleepless nights. Managers need to show that changes enhance lives and that predictable, Groundhog Days are a waste of the skills that everybody has inside. The shortest route to redundancy is an unwillingness to develop the financial, ICT and people skills that are most likely to be needed in the future.

Embrace scrutiny. We know what an absence of it did for the banking sector: do you want to have devoted your life to a sector that is seen as greedy and indifferent to its customers and the wider society? If so you should never have joined the housing sector in the first place. As we found on inspection, involving service users keeps the focus on outcomes rather than paperwork.

Value information. Appropriate, timely, succinct and accurate information is important for you and your customers – it is a central plank of scrutiny. The organisations that have limited horizons need to learn to learn and cease using preciousness as an excuse not to.

Don’t give up. The revisionists among us might like to forget the past but we need to hang on to the best bits. We need to fight hard when the government doesn’t deliver or dreams up another excuse for the failure of its housing strategy. We need to welcome the good initiatives, too – it isn’t all bad.

Conversation Piece

We were delighted to be invited to be part of a Guardian Expert Value for Money Panel on March 4th. Here is how it went :

http://www.guardian.co.uk/housing-network/2012/mar/08/top-tips-housing-value-for-money

Postcards from the Edge

The abiding memory from the CIH Conference at Brighton was of the three-headed HCA. Terry Fuller appears to have accepted that the future is in market rented housing* to all but the very well paid. Richard Hill wants, like most of us, to see a huge increase in housebuilding, which will help to restart the economy. Anthony Mayer (OK, not HCA but close!) says in as many words that we don't have a proper housing strategy and would like to see a Royal Commission to look into things.

Now having lived through Faith in the City and other Commissions looking into housing, they seemed to be costly, lengthy and made no impact at all. The sector needs to be far more agile and far more imaginative if home ownership and truly affordable housing is to once again be a reality for the majority of society. But it was good to know that at least somebody in government recognises that the current housing strategy isn't good enough. And it was good to hear Abi Davies of the CIH challenging the emerging consensus on market renting. Yes, we need many more homes and if the market is properly managed, we can still meet most peoples' aspirations. It's a long recession but leaving it to the market was in many ways how we got into such a mess in the first place.

* the term affordable housing is currently used, but how long before Ministers realise that if housing associations charge full market rents they will be able to build even more? (but don't tell Revenue and Benefits).

Nine Million Bicycles (well a couple of thousand)

Having climbed Kilimanjaro it’s hard to believe that there is a tougher challenge in the Solent area. But the Isle of Wight Bike Ride is just that. OK, there’s twice as much oxygen to breathe, but 68 miles up and down the cliffs that encircle the island in one day is enough to scare the most hardened Iron Man or Woman. So it is great that Two Saints Housing Association is using this year’s Randonnee on May 6th to raise funds for its excellent work with the single homeless people of Hampshire, Berkshire, Oxford and Dorset. Unlike Kilimanjaro it doesn’t cost £3,000 to take part (£100 will do, thank you very much) so if you would like to join Solent Housing and its partners then please contact us. If you aren’t feeling so energetic then a few quid in sponsorship would be great!

http://www.twosaints.org.uk/events.php/8/join-us-on-the-isle-of-wight-randonnee

All Shook Up

We’ve just been staggered to see a two hour seminar being advertised for £199 a head. Ye gods – we’d expect to pay that for an Elvis Presley Comeback concert, but a couple of hours of ‘quite hard’ work? Our guess is that the seminar wasn’t on the subject of value for money. There’s something that doesn’t seem right about sky high prices which, after all, low income tenants end up paying for. Gentrification used to be the term used for working class areas being colonised by yuppies. Has the housing profession been ‘gentrified’? The training budget is often first in the firing line when cuts are imposed – and no wonder when tenants might gain more from 500 lottery tickets than spending £500 to send one member of staff away for a day. But there is an alternative to cuts – if you’d like a day’s training for as little as £50 a head at a venue that is within the Solent area then please contact us. That said we do rate the CIH regional conferences highly because you can pack lots of learning into one or two days. We're also quite flattered that the Brighton Conference organisers have nicked our idea of using song titles for headlines!

Hard Times

 
Charles Dickens birth 200 years ago is being celebrated, notably in his birthplace of Portsmouth, at the heart of Solent territory. If Dickens came back today we wonder what would he recognise and what has moved on? He’d certainly recognise the historic ships and our Eton-educated government. He’d see a busy port, with many more homes and factories. But he’d be scratching his head – why then is rough sleeping increasing dramatically and why, 200 years later, do seven million households still live in fuel poverty? Is Victoria still on the throne?

FEBRUARY 2012

Greatest Hits

Thanks to everyone who gave this site a total of 1,000 'hits' in January 2012 alone. We think that imitation is the best form of flattery, so would like to thank some of our followers.... 

‘Having inflated the benefits bill even more by obliging Councils to house homeless families in the private sector and create the Orwellian 'affordable rents' regime, the government is cutting funding by 10% and expecting local authorities to make the cuts.’ Solent Summer Special Blog 2011

‘The housing strategy includes the government's Orwellian affordable rent model, which will be completely unaffordable to those who need it most, those on low incomes.’ Jack Dromey MP November 2011

'The changes to the Right to Buy has been heralded like the Second Coming by the media, but scratch beneath the ‘one for one’ headline and we can’t see it having anything like the impact of the 1980 legislation.' Solent Blog January 2011

And of course....'There is a simple solution to the irresponsible and inflationary lending policies of the Halifax to lend up to six times the income of its borrowers. It is to make reckless lending a defence to any possession action.' 

Andy Crowe, The Times Letters of the Year 2003.....but no-one listened!

 
Eric fought the law (and the law won)

 
 

Recent ‘convictions’ of the government in the High Court over the feed in tariff and abolition of regional strategies suggest that its approach to consultation is akin to the Spanish Inquisition. The last government’s style was often more like Mavis Riley1; unable to decide for itself, fearful of upsetting anybody, consulting on everything and producing almighty fudges such as the review of regulation. There must be a middle ground.

But Solent Housing does have some sympathy with the government's impatience over community planning. Our most recent email from Winchester City Council was headlined ‘Winchester District Local Plan Part 1 – Joint Core Strategy Pre-Submission Consultation under Regulation 27 of the Town & Country Planning (Local Development) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2004 (as amended by the Town & Country Planning (Local Development) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2008 and 2009).’ That’s the sort of language to inspire community engagement. In fairness Winchester does produce a jazzier ‘LDF bulletin’ but it still reads as though written by a Dickensian committee clerk than a real person.

Housing organisations have made great strides over the past 20 years in the language that they use to communicate with residents and our planning colleagues could learn a lot from it. Honesty, openness, friendly language, the crystal mark and photos of people rather than buildings and mayoral chains are all marks of the best newsletters and correspondence. Informing residents well is effectively the foundation of a good service.

We’ve been working hard with Synergy Housing Association’s residents to help them to develop their approach to co-regulation and scrutiny. Synergy has taken a bold step in welcoming their Customer Scrutiny Panel into the heart of their business, giving them the power to scrutinise any area they wish. The first area chosen was resident involvement. The Panel set out what it would expect to see in terms of information, involvement, empowerment and the overall direction of the Association. Solent Housing's experience is that this varies greatly from organisation to organisation depending upon the strength of leadership and how much time and energy residents have. But the difference between the landlord that simply informs (‘you’ll be getting a new red door tomorrow’) and one who empowers (‘do you want new doors or windows, which range shall we offer, what choice of finishes and when do you want us to do the work?) is the difference between a poor service and a good one. 

The Panel has now completed its scrutiny and made its recommendations to the Synergy Management Team. We think that open and transparent processes like this will help to rebalance the relationship between providers and their customers. We’re aiming to bring tenants in the Solent area together in the late Spring to compare their experiences to date, so please let us know if you would like to be part of this.

Though I Hear You Calling I Will Not Answer

The Green Deal seems to be going mouldy and the government appears only committed to recycling old press releases. At Solent Housing we really believe that Grant Shapps wants to be a good Housing Minister. He’s certainly been in post longer than most of his Labour predecessors and Portsmouth FC's owners. By releasing public sector land, squeezing the pips of housing associations and the Get Britain Building initiative as well as the planning reforms the Minister clearly wants to see new homes built. And, of course, tackle this week’s demons - the bonkers bureaucrats. Not including, we assume, his HCA and TSA teams. 

 ‘Critics have predicted doom’ according to the Minister – no they haven’t; they’ve pointed out in a bonkers sort of way that it is the poorest families who are missing out on new homes, are paying higher rents, enjoying less security, about to get hit by cuts in housing benefit and fearful of the Welfare reforms. At least most tenants haven’t got knighthoods to lose.

This week’s Ministerial speech is encouragingly entitled ‘It’s All About Delivery’. We have been waiting for a few weeks now for Grant to answer our ten big questions (see 'Ask' in January’s blog). These questions are all about delivery but it’s ‘jam tomorrow’ not delivery that forms the content of the speech. Bonkers!

(1) Mavis, for the uneducated, was the dippy Coronation Street character in it's heyday. Married to the equally dippy Derek Wilton.

JANUARY 2012

One

The changes to the Right to Buy has been heralded like the Second Coming by the media, but scratch beneath the ‘one for one’ headline and we can’t see it having anything like the impact of the 1980 legislation. A £50,000 cap on discounts is hardly likely to make any difference to house sales in the Solent area where these are now regularly valued at over £200,000, but may sell some flats.

The question of whether it is fair for a distant family member to share in the purchase at the expense of those on the waiting lists is not addressed. The Minister’s target this week is tenants who sublet because they already live elsewhere, so will sharing in the RTB when adequately housed also be criminalised?

The current rules on eligibility for rural purchases have done little to stem the loss of homes which now fetch huge prices on the open market, so a ‘one for one’ promise would be welcomed in the villages – if the NIMBYs don’t scupper it.

The government expects that because house prices are higher in the south that so too will receipts – but this overlooks questions of how easy it would be to get a mortgage and whether the genuine occupants are in well paid employment. They don’t all earn £100,000, Grant.

But none of this would matter if we could trust the government to replace every home on a ‘one for one’ basis as it promises. Last year we wagered that this would never materialise. The government’s consultation paper shows in its workings that every 16 homes sold will generate between zero and £160,000 in cash for Councils to invest in new homes. In other words around £10,000 per home at most. Now even using the Orwellian ‘affordable’ model of investment you wouldn’t even get a rusty old mobile home in the Solent area for this contribution. The government says it will ‘seek to prioritise funds to make up the shortfall’ for homes sold by housing associations. No new money; just at the expense of other development. This is not 'one for one'.

Our recommended response would focus on the proposals for replacement homes. Once any outstanding debt is paid off we wouldn’t mind if the government kept all of what was left so long as it provided a grant to enable each Council and Housing Association to replace what it had lost or, where, using localism principles, it believed that this sum would be better spent on different homes. So if a social rented flat was sold it and it would need £60,000 in grant to replace it with another social rented flat – not, we’d stress, ‘affordable rented’ – then there would be a grant of £60,000 which the Council/Housing Association might use towards developing a family home. And we would demand that the grant is in addition to the existing affordable housing programme – otherwise it cannot be ‘one for one’, can it? 
 

Ask

We start 2012 in depressing fashion with the Minister making another cheap shot at council and housing association tenants, claiming that 'rewards are reaped for those who know how to play the system best'. Now we all know that there are people who play the system in every field (£17 billion of tax evasion springs to mind). But we also know that the majority of tenants are hard working, but too low paid or too old to own a home of their own.  

We think it is about time that we start to hold the Minister to account for what he has delivered rather than what he says. He's been promising to 'crack down' on 'scandals' and 'lazy consensuses' for years now. We know that changes take time to bed in and new homes don't appear overnight. We don't know the answers to all of them and of course would be delighted if, in spite of our fears, the results are positive. We're sending off our questions to our open government and encourage all of our readers and tweeters to do the same...every year until things improve.

Dear Minister,   

1. You said that the new homes bonus ‘will provide a "powerful" incentive for councils to back new developments’. How many Councils have increased the number of homes they plan to build and how many have reduced the number in their local plans since the Coalition came to power?

2. In May 2008 you said that ‘it would not have been possible to have imagined a serious attempt to tackle homelessness by the Conservatives. How many families became homeless in 2008 and how many in 2011? How many were in B&B in May 2008 and how many now?

3. In 2008 you said that you were going to ‘sort out’ the out of control housing benefit bill. How much was the bill in January 2008 and how much is it now?

4. In 2009 you aimed to ‘green up every home in the UK’. How many homes did you green up in 2011 and how many remain needing greening up?

5. In 2009 you said ‘we need to get the country building again’. How many homes were completed in 2009 and how many were completed in 2011?

6. In 2009 you said that the (last) government ‘have utterly failed to tackle the glut of empty homes we have sitting empty while families are desperate for a roof over their heads.’ How many homes in the public and private sectors were empty for more than 6 months in 2009 and how many now?

7. In 2009 you stated that ‘successful communities are built on opportunity for all in housing, employment and a thriving local economy. We believe that affordability of housing is the key to that opportunity.’ What is the average entry level age and income for first time buyers in the Solent area now compared with 2009?

8. In 2009 you said that Local Housing Trusts ‘will kickstart a rural revolution, allowing villagers across the country to become the masters of their own destiny’. How many homes were completed by Local Housing Trusts by 2009 and how many in 2011?

9. You said that it was better to reduce the regulation of landlords but that you are ‘putting councils on alert to use the range of powers already at their disposal to make sure tenants are properly protected’. How many complaints did Shelter receive about bad landlords in 2009 compared with 2011?

10. For all of the above, what outcomes would you use to show that you have succeeded as a Housing Minister and government by the time of the next election?

DECEMBER 2011

Demolition Man
Have you ever wondered why so many housing managers in the south have Scouse accents? It’s probably because the number of jobs in Liverpool has halved in the last 40 years. The same goes for Hull, Sheffield, Middlesbrough and many other northern cities built on the industrial revolution.

As a result the housing market has collapsed in these places. In Hull for example you could buy a terraced house with a single cash machine withdrawal a few years ago. And if you look out of the second floor of Middlesbrough’s Council Offices you can see row upon row of the same abandoned, rat infested dilapidated ‘two up - two downs’ all the way to the horizon.

Masterplanning techniques were used to ensure that local people decided for themselves whether the homes should be improved or demolished and for some, where gangs and drug dens held sway and where inter-generational unemployment was the norm, they chose demolition. These incidentally were often the 1960s Radburn estates, where defensible space was absent and burglaries and anti-social behaviour was rife, such as in Newtown, Birmingham. Places where your home address would exclude you from a job interview.

At the same time a host of additional investment was taking place. It really was joined up. New schools to create a better educated, more ambitious new generation in Hull. The refurbishment and redevelopment of redundant industrial sites such as the Crocodile Works in Sandwell. New health centres everywhere. And impressive low energy homes in Sheffield and Middlesbrough.

So the next time a certain millionaire Home Counties MP makes some cheap, insensitive and ill-informed comments about demolitions, you might want to question the motivation for this. The pathfinder programme has been cut by 90% and it would be better to just be honest and admit that the Coalition cannot afford to honour the promises made by the previous government. And if by some miracle the jobs are created to recognise that the demolitions have cleared the way (literally) for the sorts of homes and environment that will attract skilled higher income earners back. Employment, employment, employment has to be the mantra for the pathfinder areas now.

Money money money

One of the dying acts of the TSA is its consultation on changes to the regulation regime. In effect it’s the old Housing Corporation role without the funding – financial security overrides everything and quality of service is left to local scrutiny by tenants and stakeholders. Let’s make it clear – unless your housing association employs assassination squads to enforce tenancy conditions, the regulator doesn’t really mind.

It is positive that the TSA sets minimum service delivery standards and emphasises the importance of value for money. But in the absence of any real form of intervention, they may end up as merely aspirations. The onus is firmly and squarely on the shoulders of the Boards, Councils and Tenant Scrutiny Panels to take these responsibilities seriously.

Past experience shows that this doesn’t always happen. Coasting and poor organisations thrive on mushroom management and too often value for money is defined as ‘cuts in services’ which it plainly isn’t. The approach to public sector funding hasn’t helped, with cuts being across the board rather than targeted on the least effective activities.

Here at Solent Housing we are helping local housing associations to strengthen their governance and transform their approach to value for money, so please give us a ring if you could do with a few days’ help.

Oscar’s Boogie

Everyone else does it so we’ve launched our own Solent Housing awards…and the winners this year are:

Best new development – we were really impressed by the quality of Alabare Court in Salisbury; an imaginative redevelopment of a sensitive and compact historic site to create a 30 bedroom hostel for homeless people. Well done Alabare and Greensquare!

Best conference – Radian’s Retrofitting event. Short, to the point and without the eye-watering fees demanded by other conference organisers. It reminds us to congratulate Radian on winning yet another energy efficiency award; the Inside Housing ‘Energy Saving Initiative of the Year’. The way that Radian is piling up these awards reminds us of Squadron Leader Tony Hancock who commented ‘if I should die on my next mission, you can melt all my medals down and build a Spitfire with them’. What’s the chance of Radian being able to build a house made of eco awards?

Best website – Both Synergy and First Wessex have sites that are bright, interactive, easy to navigate and written in plain language. Unlike some other sites they feels like they are written with tenants very clearly the target audience.

Best party - Two Saints’ Christmas Ball – we haven't attended it yet but it makes so much good sense to combine your works party with raising money for homeless people. Surely the true spirit of Christmas!

George Orwell Award for Misinformation – shared by

• whoever coined the term ‘affordable’

• whoever at the HCA issued a press release thanking Eric Pickles for awarding £30 million to the pathfinders a few weeks after a cut of £2 billion

• whichever Housing Minister claimed not to know that housing starts had fallen by 97% while launching the national housing strategy

Best t-shirt – the one of Karl Marx saying ‘I told you so!’

Housing Strategy Special

Let’s begin positively. It is good that the government accepts that there is an unprecedented housing crisis. We agree that the economy has to be the number one priority. Employment and training has to come before housing. If there are jobs and a good supply of affordable development land, builders will come forward and create the homes that the labour market demands. Housing enablers just need to define what is needed and oil the wheels of planning. The government needs to stick to its guns on the national planning policy. But it will still need a revolution in land values to generate the massive increase in development that is needed for all tenures.

Simply stated, a strategy should clearly set out where you (in this case the government) want to go and how you will get there. Unfortunately the Minister kicked this into touch before we’d got out of bed by stating on breakfast television that ‘we are not putting a figure on it.’ There are plenty of numbers in the strategy but they are suspiciously rounded, as in ‘the capacity to deliver up to 100,000 new homes…’ and 100,000 Right to Buy sales.

Our own hopes were that the new strategy would ‘seek a better housing future for everyone, rather than improving some households' circumstances at the expense of others’ as the CIH so nicely put it. But the strategy is one which is overwhelmingly biased towards the deserving middle classes; those who can afford so called ‘affordable rents’, the Right to Buy and shared ownership. It is ironic that barely a week following royal assent for the Localism Bill, the views of local authorities over what homes are most needed locally are of no consequence. Or - given the complaints that many Conservative Councils have about the loss of homes in villages under the Right to Buy - they face further depletion. Equally local authorities are granted ‘the freedom to allocate stock in the way they see fit’....but only a few paragraphs later they must give priority to armed forces personnel. Nobody questions how much returning soldiers deserve to be housed – but the government appears to put the duty of local authorities to balance competing needs behind the need for a populist headline. All of this appears to consign the strategic housing role to history.

While the strategy for new housing does not tackle the root cause of high land values, some of the initiatives are to be welcomed. We’ve already supported the planning proposals though it will be quite an achievement if housebuilding recovers from the uncertainty generated by Eric Pickles in his haste to get rid of Regional Strategies. The £400 million ‘Get Britain Building’ initiative, while a fraction of the former National Housing Programme and Housing Market Renewal Programme, recognises the importance that housing plays in the economy. The continued actions to tackle empty homes are to be welcomed – a Labour government could never have hoped to have imposed a stealth tax on homes lying unused for two years.

Tenants are the biggest losers. Rents will rise as fast as security of tenure is falling in both the public and private sector. And as we have already said, quite how the housing benefits bill will be cut given this scenario is perplexing.

We are worried that the reality of the Green Deal will not match the rhetoric within the strategy. The halving of feed-in tariffs for photovoltaics certainly suggests this. The spurious reason given; that it was a subsidy for the middle classes, when local authorities and housing associations were lining up to take advantage of it, makes us feel like we’re going to be dealt a bad hand. Leaving aside the understandable howls of the green lobby, the final judgement will be whether the energy efficiency and consumption of housing improves significantly over the life of this parliament. The green lobby needs to ensure that the electorate is kept informed of this single fact, since as Mr Shapps says, ‘we are not putting a figure on it’.

What does this all mean for the Solent? Well, since none of it is that new, not a lot. But we would think that preparing bids to Get Britain Building would have to be a first priority. As far as the affordable housing programme is concerned, this depends upon whether associations want to simply follow the money or have the confidence to hang on to their reserves until a better offer comes along. As far as the Right to Buy, Pay to Stay and allocations are concerned we don’t expect the world to change, even if these grab the headlines.

Brand New Cadillac

Overheard in a local car dealers…

Customer: ’Hi there Grant, my lad Matt is now 25 so I thought I’d get him a car. Can we test drive a Ford Affordable’

Salesman: ‘Good day and may I say what an excellent choice. I’d recommend the new ZC model.’

Customer: ‘ Great. How does it differ from the old Level 4?’’

Salesman: ‘Well we’ve rebadged it and added some freedom and localism’

Customer: ‘And the price?’

Salesman: ‘Well it’s £13,000’

Customer: ‘But it was only £8,000 last year!’

Salesman: ‘er…I ought to add that you also need to give it back to us in two or three years if he gets a job. Or if his brother gets into trouble with the Police. But it does contain Force Vector Hydraquench and Pro-Retinol A…’  

Customer: ‘Mmmm….I might try another dealer…’  

Salesman: ‘Well I’m sorry sir but they’re all closed until 2015.’

NB Our solicitors have asked us to point out that Ford actually make great cars and the ‘Affordable’ is not yet on the market.

Holiday in the Sun

Taking a winter break in southern Spain, work is never far from the mind. We’ve identified the earliest known section 106 agreement: Sugar manufacturers in the 17th century weren’t allowed to build mills down here unless they also build fortresses to scare off the local pirates. Today’s pirates are some of the local Mayors, namely those serving time for handing out planning permissions in exchange for backhanders. It reminds us that whatever faults local government has in the UK it is far less open to corruption than in many other countries. But whoever wins the privatised Audit Commission contracts had best keep a close eye on those elected Mayors…

There are many half-finished apartment blocks that have fallen victim to the recession. With the right fixtures and fittings they would make superb sheltered housing, with plenty of affordable care and support at hand. We can’t help wondering if a place in the sun might be a better incentive to underoccupying older people than the threat of increased council tax or reduced benefits. But we can already hear the righteous indignation of the Daily Express that poor people should spend their dwindling pensions and remaining days in the sun.

Sadly one of our least desirable exports to Spain is xenophobia. While most expats are keen to integrate, the Editor of the local English language magazine blames the ‘lack of restrictions on immigration’ for the UK housing crisis. Which, coming from one of the million Brits who have emigrated to Spain, is a bit rich.

November 2011

Mr Blue Sky

It’s early days for Jack Dromey but his initial comments on planning policy being ‘grotequely mishandled’ might be true but will hardly be likely to change things. He’d be better to concentrate on making the new policies (which are on the face of it pro – housing and pro-employment) work. And to do so requires some blue sky thinking.

As we have said before the granting of planning permission is a gift from the community to the landowner. And landowners need to be convinced that the hyper-inflation of land values is a thing of the past. To do so, the most radical approach would be to limit the price for development land of, shall we say, 100 times agricultural value. That seems a lot, but a figure closer to 1000 times agricultural value is what we have been used to. Once granted planning permission the landowner will be expected to develop the land within, say, five years, failing which the local authority will, in partnership with a local developer, be entitled to purchase the land at, say, 80 times agricultural value. Given that anyone - not just the landowner - can apply for planning permission and that local plans can set out which sites should be developed, this transfers power from the landowner into the community's hands. We can imagine the resistance to this! 

We believe that only by depressing land values for the foreseeable future can development become viable and produce the community benefits that will result in affordable housing, infrastructure and everything else that Councils will want under the community infrastructure levy. Section 106 ‘truly affordable’ housing agreements could arguably be first in the queue though there may be some places where economic development ought to come first. By depressing land values there is less of a scramble and more rationality in the creation of community benefits. What we outline above is one radical way of doing so.  

Of course ‘100 times agricultural value’ is an initial pop, but the important point is that Labour should be supporting changes to the planning system and ensuring that it is the community gains most from them. Now that's what we call localism!

Careful with that Axe, Eugene

The housing benefit time bomb….is it this government’s Poll Tax? The Solent area could be the battleground for what could be a seminal moment in the life of the Coalition. The government has made plenty of noises, with some justification, about ‘out of control’ housing benefit bill. But as we pointed out, the bill has risen by over £2 billion, or £3.8 million a day, since the Coalition came to power. This has been as a result of the shortage of truly affordable housing and the growth of the private rented sector, in part to address homelessness.

This affects the south far more than the north because the shortage of social housing is greater, the demand is higher and by no coincidence rent levels are higher. The position will worsen with the growth in so called affordable rents in both new and relet homes. The crunch will come when the government passes on the problem for local housing benefit offices to sort out. In June the Chancellor announced a 7% cut in the funding it provides to local councils to meet the HB bill, though this will hardly offset the growth since May 2010. Some cuts will be imposed by changes to the amount of subsidy on, for example, benefits for single people aged from 25 to 35, but once again localism means ‘handing down the axe’. The gap between what is currently paid out and what subsidy will be available is enormous. This will create an enormous headache for the Solent’s Councils, almost all of whom are Conservative and LibDem. A fair few local councillors may also be private landlords.

So what options are there?

• Simply to reduce the benefit paid could generate a homelessness double whammy. The numbers becoming homeless will increase due to rent arrears and homelessness teams will find the option of privately rented housing closed. Councils that are already opposing the so called affordable rents model could use the benefits system to do so by placing a limit on the benefit that it pays on assured tenancies.

• Landlords may decide to reduce their rents (possible among those who have inherited property, less so for those with a hefty mortgage)

• Landlords may simply choose to disinvest and sell their homes. Would housing associations be prepared to buy up these homes and charge lower rents? Without grant? In what condition?

• Councils might instead cut other services. The salami slicing days will be over. Some front line services will disappear.

• They can’t pass it on in increased Council Tax – this too is frozen.

Here at Solent Housing we wear two hats when it comes to public sector cuts. We know that there is always room for efficiency and nothing concentrates the mind more than cuts in funding. But at a strategic level there’s the need to distinguish between expenditure on investment (jobs and homes) and cuts across the board. Decisions on taking out whole services, rather than limping on with a wide choice of poor ones, are strategic decisions. Operationally, a few organisations still live in a bubble where they ‘do things differently’ but cannot justify why. Some insular organisations still refuse to learn from best practice elsewhere. There is a risk that the decisions on cuts will favour those making them, rather than being made on an objective basis. Equally, ‘de-layering’ can take out years of experience and expertise that harder pressed junior managers will struggle to replace. Decisions can be made without sufficient information on, for example, comparative unit costs. Havant/East Hants and Christchurch/East Dorset are leading the way on shared services, which are becoming an imperative rather than something that is ‘too difficult’. As the cuts begin to bite deeper and deeper these decisions need careful thought and managers will need to show that the savings offered up really do materialise. So will we see Housing benefit riots? We doubt it. Unlike Poll Tax, it is still the minority that are affected directly. It also depends upon how much (ahem) freedom Councils have to cut the benefits. And if you riot, you risk losing your benefits….

Climbing Up the Walls

But talking of efficiencies, it’s not often that we can find common ground with Eric Pickles. But his support for an integrated approach to turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country. While Mr Pickles’ figures of ‘up to £330,000’ a year being spent per family when only ‘£14,000’ a year needs to be spent probably come from the same source as the Hitler Diaries, there is a degree of common sense in what is being said. There is an awfully long list of professions built around the behaviour and needs of families, including the housing profession. All expect to be at the table for every case conference and this means that decisions are made at the speed of the slowest. The cost of every meeting and every home visit to ask or check the same information must inevitably be high. And the greater the number of professionals, the greater the risk of poor communications or weak links, as successive inquiries into child abuse have found. More meetings also mean smaller caseloads and less time with the families themselves. If this targeted initiative succeeds, in the longer term we could see a merging of professions or, less satisfactorily, protocols that enable one lead professional to make decisions on behalf of others. The Solent’s housing organisations should be talking to their partner organisations about how to drive this forward.

October 2011

Quote of the month

‘Annual gas checks? Sounds like the nanny state again, listeners. Political correctness gone mad…’ (Alan Partridge, Radio Norwich)

Local Hero

Well to quote M People we're still searching for a localism hero given that the central directives (right) continue to outweigh the local 'freedoms' (left). It's not that central directives are always bad (think:end the use of B&B for homeless families) but that localism is trumpeted as one of this givernment's priorities...

Our House

The deadline for tenancy strategies is looming. Local authorities should have these in place by April 2012, setting out their high level aims and local allocations policy. They then need to include links to local providers’ policies.

We can expect Solent Councils (who, if they wish to do so cost effectively, will do so jointly) say that there is a huge demand for all forms of housing and that homelessness is on the increase. But for the next three or four years the providers’ policies will be dictated by the Orwellian affordable rents regime: all new homes and many relets will be at or near to 80% market rents. Only those on reasonable incomes or expecting to survive on benefits for the duration of their miserable lives will be queuing up for an ‘affordable’ tenancy. Transfers and exchanges will grind to a halt if the move to a better home means less security and a doubling of rent. Those who do want to spend time on their tenancy strategy will need to find out as much as they can about those who most need housing and what the pattern of lettings is likely to be. They need to talk to housing associations about the estates where there needs to be a more balanced community or where it would make sense to dispose of low demand homes. Providers will welcome the increased flexibility that they have to make better use of their assets, but, as the history of sheltered housing has shown, many have backed off from difficult decisions. A truly strategic approach could set out a target mix of housing stock for each neighbourhood. But in reality the strategy is more likely to be supply-driven than directed by the ambitions of the local authority.

Can´t Buy Me Love

How support services are purchased is changing with the drive for personalisation and the commissioning role of local authorities. ´User engagement´ has been a mantra in social care for a generation, going back to the Griffiths report and beyond. But it is a principle that has been very difficult to establish in practice. Cultural and organisational barriers have played a big part – jargon remains the biggest barrier. For this reason the growth of personalisation, or self-directed support (to use two more additions to the jargonictionary) is arguably the biggest and most important change in the way that support to vulnerable tenants is provided. By now 30% of all vulnerable adults should be ‘personalised’. Each will have a budget and a big say over how it is spent. This really does put the individual in the driving seat. Evidence to date shows that personalisation can improve wellbeing and secure better value for money.
And ev
ery Solent sheltered housing provider needs to sit up and take note of impending changes to Hampshire’s approach to Supporting People funding. These could see an end to the whole concept of ‘accommodation-based’ funding. The idea is that sheltered services will be personalised, subject to competitive tender and only be funded to those who need and want it regardless of whether they live in a sheltered scheme or not.

For those schemes with residents who are not frail this could result in the loss of a big chunk of income. The message to landlords is threefold:

• sheltered services need to be cost effective if you are to attract funding in a more competitive environment;

• if you have large numbers of active elderly who do not need the service and the important preventive role it plays, you will need to remodel it (focusing on the frailest tenants, wherever they live); and

• the risk of underoccupation in family housing may increase, rather than fall as the government hopes.

In truth this move is rather overdue. I recall having discussions 20 years ago with David Smith of Eastleigh about national reports calling for more extra care and less traditional sheltered housing. The shift towards more flexible support and the remodelling of obsolete schemes in East Hampshire began about this time. Many landlords have done the same to varying degrees. But in their heart of hearts some landlords know that they have relied for too long for mobility schemes to be the solution for hard to let sheltered housing, instead of tackling the root cause. The challenge for housing providers is to retain and redirect this funding to where it is needed most, rather than see it disappear forever.

What a Waste

The Housing Minister believes that the so called ‘affordable’ funding regime has a future. Nobody else does (well, apart from one housing association CE on last night´s Question Time). Lenders say that it will result in increased debt and will increase interest rates, since debt increases risk. Landlords say that their pips have been completely squeezed and they will be unable to bid again. This is after some impressive efficiency savings - Orbit has achieved a huge £5m of savings in operating costs from a 2009/10 budget of £134m. But almost all of the new homes for which contracts have been signed are at rents which 70% of emerging households cannot afford, or are for shared ownership. The Treasury has yet to kick up about the impact it will have on the benefits bill, as will the number of homeless households being forced into the private rented sector.

 It’s a pity that the government has been so bold with its draft planning policy, but that the beneficiaries – if it holds its nerve – will need to have a very large income to escape the poverty trap, even with the more generous tapers that the welfare reforms promise. As everyone in the sector knows, it is impossible to develop and maintain homes at truly affordable rents without some form of subsidy, whether it is free land, sweat equity or grant. It is tragic that so much time and energy is being used to try to invent byzantine exceptions to this rule. Take community land trusts, for example – over a decade of hard, dedicated work to produce just 60 homes.

September 2011

Running on Empty

Some facts are amazing. If the sun was the size of a pound coin and you placed it in New York, our nearest galaxy Alpha Centauri would be located in Los Angeles. If that same coin was the nucleus of an atom and you placed it in the centre spot of the St Marys Stadium, the orbiting electrons would be in row XX. The rest is empty space.

But the fact that will amaze housing geeks most is that the housing benefit bill is rising at a rate of £3 million a day. £3 million a day. £3 million. A day. And it has been rising at this rate every day since the Coalition took over. That's more in one day than the average person will earn in four lifetimes. And that's before the impact of the so-called 'affordable rents' regime hits us.

For more amazing - or should I say appalling - facts take a look at http://speye.wordpress.com/2011/09/06/the-hb-bill-and-true-cost/ and start to ask how this money could be better spent on investment in jobs and homes. Or police, health services, pensions..... and what does this means to the public sector deficit?

This state of affairs is likely to affect the Solent more acutely to the rest of the country. The housing benefit bill has been inflated by a huge growth in applications from people living in the private rented sector. The amount paid per home to private sector tenants is 40% higher on average than that paid to public sector tenants because public sector rents are lower. So private sector rent levels, which are high in the Solent area, and levels of unemployment, which are increasing but at a slower rate, both add to the pressure on our local authorities when they inherit the housing benefit bill. The South's councils now need to brace themselves to work out how to make savings on a budget that is already £2 billion higher than the amount that the government inherited.

We've Gotta get out of this Place

Solent Housing’s response to the Draft National Planning Policy Guidance

Housing and employment need to be far and away the most important objectives the new planning system given the current state of the economy. The vocal support that the PM, Chancellor and Communities Secretary have given to the presumption in favour of development is therefore very welcome indeed. Equally the brevity of the guidance is welcome – both the government and its agencies have spent too much energy in the past developing guidance that few people have the time to read. But there is a mountain to climb and the cutting of government funding for affordable housing has so far exacerbated the recession.

There is a world of difference between public investment to create jobs and homes and public subsidy to pay for unemployment benefit and the associated costs of a recession.

Starting with first principles, a successful planning framework for housing requires the following ingredients: developable land, willing landowners, effective developers and balanced communities.

We need a massive growth in the supply of developable land. This, along with the carrots and sticks we mention later, will help to bring down land values and create the opportunities for the ‘rent generation’ to become home owners. The recent NHF-commissioned report must make uncomfortable reading for any party that brands itself as champions of home ownership. The CLG consultation asks somewhat misleadingly whether there is a ‘strong clear message on the green belt’. Agreeing with this does not mean that we agree with the message itself.  While much of the green belt has a critical role to play in preventing sprawl, there are nonetheless locations where it adds little to the environment. We know of at least one True Blue Home Counties Council that says privately that some of its green belt is of little environmental quality, but which publicly dare not face up to articulate and well connected home owners.

But focusing on the green belt is a distraction. Accusations of concreting over the countryside are baseless and reflect the views of a wealthy, well housed majority at the expense of young local families. Housing takes up less than one percent of the land area of the country, as anyone flying home from their summer holdays will have been able to see. Another of the barriers to housing development is the price at which landowners are prepared to sell land. Below a certain value and many have the wealth and income to be able to prevent development from taking place. Yet the inclusion of land within the plan boundary is in effect a gift from the community and for most people would be the equivalent of winning the lottery. That gift should come with conditions; that the land should be developed within a set period of perhaps five years, failing which it should be compulsorily purchased at below market value. The Plan therefore creates both a carrot (the lottery cheque) and a stick (a smaller cheque, but a cheque nonetheless).

We need effective developers. By this we mean both the banks and the development industry. The need to address the lending policies of the banks is outside of the scope of the guidance but is critical to its success. But once the wheels of demand have been oiled, we also need to end the practice of developers holding on to land either as a negotiating tool in terms of planning permission (‘if you don’t give it we’ll land bank’) or for pure speculation. At the height of the 1990s housing boom we recall how the developer Biltons landbanked a completed estate in Bishops Waltham until prices had been inflated to their satisfaction. The national guidance should therefore suggest carrots and sticks that local planning authorities could use to get homes built.

Finally there is the need to develop balanced communities. We welcome the focus on neighbourhood planning but feel that the impact assessment needs to fully reflect the costs of masterplanning techniques that engage the whole community rather than just the articulate wealthy. We would want the guidance to ensure that the 15-35 age group takes the lead in the process and that it should be jargon free. Planners using phrases such as spatial and masterplanning itself should be retrained!

As with all of the above the proof of the pudding is in the eating – if the current housing collapse continues then no amount of jaunty press releases and digs at the previous government will be able to hide this.

Propaganda

To employ Solent Housing for 200 days (ie a normal working year less weekends, annual leave and bank holidays) would cost in total the same as employing a middle manager on a £50,000 salary. And in the incredibly unlikely event that we don't provide complete and total satisfaction you can cease using us without the need for hours spent with your HR and legal team.

Melting Pot

Latest kick in the localism groin from Eric Pickles is a dictat to local councils that try to find out more about the diversity of people who use their services. Yes we all know that there have been some cack handed approaches to diversity. Take the Council that - with the best intentions - installed a Braille notice at its entrance and then fitted a perspex cover because of all the finger marks. But these are the exceptions that Daily Express columnists base their prejudices on; for the best organisations Mr Pickles' demands will be irrelevant.

They recognise that long questionnaires and evening meetings at the Council Offices do not provide the necessary insight. The worst will issue questionnaires just to tick the box and then ignore the results. The most successful develop strong partnerships with local representative groups and can demonstrate what changes have come about. Finding out that, for example, publicly funded services are only used by a small and relatively wealthy portion of the population helps to inform VFM and options appraisals. We don't need a diversity industry but we live in an increasingly changing society and need to ensure that our diminishing public funds are spent fairly. The sight of Mohammed Farah parading around with the Union Flag after winning the World 5000m is far more inspirational than that of another petty attack on the work of people who are trying to help the most disadvantaged.  

Summer Special 2011

Summer in the City 

We're old enough to remember the Toxteth and Brixton riots but they seemed more political and less about looting than those which scarred London. There are no doubt many reasons why people took to the street; from criminal and lacking in empathy through to stupid and impetuous. But the vast majority of local people stayed at home and then helped with the clear up. It is a pity that so many politicians and academics have tried to stereotype all of those involved or caught up in the troubles. Everyone would like to see the criminals punished, but we can't ignore the causes - if people have jobs and a stake in the community they have more to lose. If people see bankers continuing to be rewarded with obscene sums of money there is a simmering resentfulness. People with jobs build their own communities - they have the confidence and can afford to do so.

Idiot Wind

Localism was described a while back as 'handing down the axe' and the housing benefit changes announced this month are a shining example of this. Having inflated the benefits bill even more by obliging Councils to house homeless families in the private sector and create the Orwellian 'affordable rents' regime, the government is cutting funding by 10% and expecting local authorities to make the cuts. Eric Pickles describes this as 'greater freedom' and an incentive for Councils to do better at overpayments and fraud. Maybe Councils will rise to the challenge but, aside from an indifferent government, the barriers they are bound to face are increased homelessness as 'No DSS' makes a comeback and legal challenges as Councils desperately try to find the savings. The real beneficiaries will be the documentary makers as they highlight the postcode lottery that will emerge. None of this addresses the underlying cause that there isn't enough housing to go around.

On Some Faraway Beach

Here at Solent Housing we never sleep and July saw the production of plenty of holiday reading. Forget Jackie Collins and Dan Brown our selection is….

Firstly, the Draft National Planning Policy Framework. Forget Grant Shapps' regular but increasingly implausible pronouncements about how many millions of new homes he thinks will be delivered; this document has meat. The presumption in favour of development, the continued preference for mixed communities, the use of compulsory purchase for empty homes and the need for ‘robust justification’ not to include affordable homes all signal a challenge to NIMBYism. Planning Minister Greg Clark has announced a national planning guarantee that no planning applications should take more than 12 months. Local Plans with five year housing supplies become the driver but developers will know that if there is the need for housing and the Plans do not address the need, they can leap into this policy vacuum. But watch out for the get out clauses: ‘local approaches to density’ might price out affordable housing; green belts, however grotty, are sacrosanct and entire villages can bid to be frozen in aspic as part of the belt. The new funding regime for affordable housing will not lead to an increase in development, but a positive planning system might just do that. Let’s see how quickly local councils get their act together (if they can still afford to employ planners).

Our second tome highlights the degree of scepticism among those who would hardly call themselves socialists.’ Housing the Nation – The Impact of Localism on Housing Supply’ by BNP Paribas estimates that the changes to the planning system will reduce the supply of new homes by over 30,000 homes a year – half in the south east alone. And the fewer the market homes completed, the fewer the affordable homes. The impact of the New Homes Bonus is expected to be negligible and more to do with good fortune than strategy. To add to the gloom, a recent report by the Countryside Alliance, shows that rural completions are 76% below what is needed. BNP Paribas and the CA will therefore be pleased to see the obligation upon local councils to meet housing need in the Draft National Policy Framework. We have also echoed its desire to see the under 40s have a much greater say in local planning policy, as opposed to the NIMBY generation (well, not all of us). The desire to see economic development drive change via the Local Economic Partnerships is also spot on, but ironically it is in places like Barnsley where jobs remain scarce that local housing targets remain high.

Next on the bookshelf is the Open Public Services White Paper. ‘Open’ is Conservative jargon for decentralised. The Paper aims to increase choice, decentralise wherever possible, increase the range of providers, guarantee fair access and increase accountability. It envisages personal services (such as GP, adult social care and housing) as being driven by choice and personalisation, with continued regulation possible through an increased Ombudsman role. Neighbourhood services such as leisure and street scene are to be devolved as far as possible to Town and Parish Councils and community ownership. National (‘commissioned’) services such as the Inland Revenue and Prison Service will continue to be funded nationally with the government still wanting to monitor quality, though it sees a place for local Council scrutiny.

So what does this mean? Increasing the range of providers can deliver improvements in our view. Those organisations that had ‘always done it that way’ and where there has never been genuine competition have always offered poorest value for money. But much depends upon the nature of the market – as CCT showed, there are many ways for poor providers to cling on and equally private sector providers can run rings around a poor specification. An uninformed customer base hardly helps, either. While users of moneysupermarket.com can compare providers easily it’s getting less easy for tenants. There could be a role for Councils to produce an annual report on comparative local housing association performance as East Hampshire did from 1996, but this demands comparable information and staffing time, both of which are disappearing down the regulatory plughole. Here at Solent Housing we can help Councils to work together and in partnership with housing associations to compare performance in a cost effective way.

The proposals to increase tenant choice looks relatively toothless. The White paper suggests unrealistically that tenants can change landlords at the drop of a hat thanks to the Universal Credit and proposes extending ALMO-style competition among providers for funding. The former will we think have no impact in a sector where supply is so scarce and demand so high. And the ALMO funding was based upon quality ratings which no longer exist. The National Home Swap scheme will probably have the same success in persuading tenants in the Solent area to take up homes up north as the National Mobility Scheme. However attractive places like Hull are (and if you haven’t been there you’d be surprised what a great place it is) there are very few well paid jobs, so don’t expect queues on the M62. A truly radical solution would have enabled tenants to choose a different managing agent in the same way that we change our electricity supplier, but this doesn’t feature in the legislation.

What does this mean for providers? Well the coasting, complacent and downright lazy will breathe a sigh of relief. But the majority of landlords will want to be their tenants’ landlord of choice. They will focus on value for money and ways of demonstrating that if their customers ever have a genuine choice , they will vote to stay. Some like Radian, already take VFM seriously, while others are looking for independent, no holds barred, health checks to show that they too mean business.

Next on the reading list is the Welfare Reform Bill. Once again the objectives (or rhetoric) is welcome: simplicity and fairness. Nobody, given a blank sheet of paper, would design the current benefits system (or the tax system, for that matter). But blunter instruments generate more victims and the devil is in the detail: steep tapers, benefit rates, reductions for underoccupancy and the funding of crisis loans. Then of course there is the policy on the hoof regarding looters and other criminals. It is good to see charities and professional bodies working together to try to iron out the sorts of unfairness that the Bill aims to avoid. But fairness is a value-laiden term that means different things at different times to different people...  

August 2011     

News of the World                       

What can the housing sector learn from the News International scandal? Firstly that if you know that illegal or unethical activity is taking place then you are just as culpable once these things come to light. And, applying the principal of ‘wilful blindness’, you are culpable if you should have known but chose not to ask. Secondly, where regulation is weak, as we have seen in banking and now in the press, the scope for abuse is greatest. How long until the first big housing scandal?

News of the World (2) 

Got a few hours? Well you might just have enough time to catch up with this week’s news. Traditional readers can get hard copies from Inside Housing, The Guardian, Housing24, Housing magazine etc etc. The IT literate consumer can get it from all of the above on line, CIH weekly briefings, NHF briefings, Housing South East, Housing South East, political websites, Facebook, Twitter and of course blogs like this. The bigger housing organisations produce their own intranet briefings. Then there’s the television, with C4’s recent documentary on rogue landlords.

How do you keep up with it all? How can you ensure that you won’t display some ignorance of a recent government announcement? And of course if you have money to burn you can send people off to £300 a day (or more) training sessions in London.

Well the Solent Housing handy hints are as follows:

- Firstly, don’t aim to know everything. Yes, we know that there are people who jump on to every bandwagon that is going. But if it’s important you will get to know about it soon enough and you can have the self confidence of not needing to know first. Using the latest jargon doesn’t impress tenants.

- Secondly, focus. If, like Solent Housing, you are part of a cooperative, partnership or simply a management team, share out the responsibility to keep up to date. Reinforce this by asking each lead to report regularly on news affecting their area of expertise.

- Thirdly, decide in your own mind what your personal approach will be. Too much of what you read is repetition, so assess what each source of information provides and which sources give you what you need most. Social networking is increasingly about getting the news headlines and deciding which ones to follow up via a link. Twitter gets a bad name when people tell the world that they are ‘just off to the toilet’ so if you really have to, save those friends for your spare time and but follow news sites if that’s your preferred source.

- Fourthly, learn to speed read. There really did used to be housing organisations that believed that if you simply overwhelmed inspectors with documents they would give up, go away and leave them in peace. But the response to this, as with work generally is: sit back and think, what do I most need to read? Then scan the first sentence of every paragraph to capture the key messages (assuming of course that the author is literate). With strategies and plans the approach that I used was like reading the newspapers – start at the back first. For newspapers it is for the sport, for strategies and plans it is for the action plan. Because, quite frankly, if the action plan is weak then the chances of the strategy succeeding are minimal.

- Fifthly, carry out an audit of meetings and training. How much does each meeting cost, is it really necessary and could it be undertaken in a different way? This is a particular challenge to widely dispersed organisations and it surprises us just how little teleconferencing is used. Investing time in the first meetings with partners is normally worthwhile because by generating trust and empathy from day one will mean that more business can be carried out by email and telephone in the future. On the training front Solent Housing has identified a range of low cost but memorable training venues where we can provide training with a local emphasis for under £100 a day per delegate. Compare that with the cost in time, travel and training for a day in London! -

- Finally, share these handy hints with colleagues. How often do you discuss your approach to information management?

The Greatest Love of All

'I believe the children are our are future, teach them well and let them lead the way…’

Sharper readers will be shocked that the Blog headlines, which normally reflect classic rock and punk anthems, have been usurped this month by Whitney Houston.

Well we haven’t gone all gooey but believe that the future of localism really does hinge on the next generation. There is so little trust in local and central government and so much obsession with house prices that it will take a generation to overcome. This is unfair on the many councillors who work many hours for a pittance yet whose motives are forever questioned, but a fair reflection of the cynicism generated by MPs’ expenses and promises on tuition fees. We argue therefore that local people aged 15-25 should play a central and critical role in drawing up neighbourhood plans starting with a blank sheet of paper. 

There are a great many uncertainties at present:

• Demand for market housing – deposits, mortgage lending policies and interest rates are all affecting confidence, combined with unrealistic prices

• Land for housing – one Council in the Solent area says privately that it would rather transport in low paid workers than build more homes; the end of section 106 as the dominant source of affordable housing and mixed views on the conversion of offices into housing. 

• Funding for affordable housing – the variable impact of the new homes bonus, the slow negotiations and secrecy over the national affordable housing programme, the sustainability of ‘affordable rents’ and new private funding models such as bond issues.

• Levels of homelessness and housing need – nationally, households are increasing at a rate of 250,000 a year, while new homes are a fraction of that. In the south household sizes may be rising at a smaller rate, but so too are new homes. The consequences, without a dramatic increase in housebuilding, will be that there will be more homes in multiple occupation, homelessness will increase, the cost to the benefits bill of private renting will soar and communities will become less stable as families move away.

• Employment – One of the lessons of housing market regeneration is that it has to be led bycannot succeed without growth in employment. And this is patchy and geographical, even within the Solent subregion. 

Solent Housing and its affiliates have a strong track record in developing housing strategies in difficult times, of facilitating stakeholder workshops and analysing the local situation. Please give us a call if we can help you.

July 2011                                 

The End

There are 1046 housing associations and 353 local authorities in England. 39 of them took the time to comment on the TSA consultation on the future of regulation and the TSA claims with breathtaking naivety that the sector is ‘overwhelmingly in favour of the changes’. The TSA admits in its response to the consultation that its focus is now upon economic regulation, so the idea that tenants should be involved is dismissed lightly. Inspection is only warranted in the event of serious service failure which is defined as the use of weapons of mass destruction by one or more housing officers (I made up that last bit).

Those landlords who are content to provide mediocre or worse services may be raising a glass to celebrate. But I still recall the housing Chairman who beat up the tenants who dared to complain of his organisation. I think of the transfer list which was empty because you had to 'provide services' to the Board of Management such as making meals to be eligible for a move. I think of the Board that spent thousands of pounds of tenants' money on litigation in order to fight off supervision by the Housing Corporation. I think of the ready to let property offered to a disabled person which featured loose floorboards and Nazi graffitti on the stairs. I think of the million pounds worth of efficiency savings that we identified in just one repairs and maintenance budget. I think of the improvements in gas and asbestos safety throughout the sector. I think of the Council leader who said 'BMEs? we've only got one...and that's one too many.' Housing inspections helped to bring these scandalous practices to an end as well as drive up the quality of service that most tenants now enjoy. The message is clear: if tenants around the Solent area are not organised, do not have the information with which to compare performance and have little if no recourse to justice then the housing advances of the last ten years will become little more than a vague memory. Those who chose a career in housing for the right reasons, the Solent's leading housing association and local authority landlords and a groundswell of tenants need to create a strong, lobbying force to ensure that the ‘HMO generation’ are able to enjoy decent, well managed homes.

Overheard (allegedly) in the House of Commons:

 Backbencher: Minister, planning permissions are 50% of what they were five years ago, construction orders were down in the first quarter, development targets are being slashed by an average of 20% and housing association bids are 50% down on last year in the south due to the affordable rents regime. Is this what you mean by ‘a ground-breaking shift in power to councils and communities’?

Minister: Don’t blame me, blame the last Labour government

Backbencher: Minister, could you update us as to progress against your promises of 150,000 affordable homes in 4 years, 250,000 homes converted from commercial premises, and 60,000 homes in ten years from vacant public land?

Minister: Don’t blame me, blame the last Labour government

Backbencher: But these are targets that you set yourself, in the full knowledge of the state of the economy…

Minister: Don’t blame me, blame the last Labour government

After over a year of the Coalition, Can localism reverse the trend? Taking part in an on-line Guardian debate it is clear to all that devolving power and responsibility to local people is in theory a good thing. But it will take a long time for power to be genuinely devolved and for local people to believe that they really can design the future shape of their own cities, towns and villages. In the meantime the Housing Minister insists that  members of the armed forces should go to the top of everybody's waiting list and my own Parish Council is run by a councillor who does not believe in delegation, even to her fellow councillors. The Minister says that local councils must renegotiate (down) section 106 agreements. A  district council in the Solent area is saying that it would rather pay for public transport subsidies to bus in workers, than build homes for low income households. It feels like it will take a generation to change attitudes and that we ought to be enabling local college kids to plan the future, free from the preconceptions and prejudices that plague so many voters and the people they elect. But there is a glimmer of hope - so long as sites do not dry up altogether in the south (not all Councils are NIMBY and many have strong leaders of all political persuasions) there are imaginative new ways of stretching and injecting the subsidy that is needed to make social housing viable.

June 2011                        

Lost in the Supermarket

SITRA has been seeking views on the future of data on Supporting People services. Our view is quite clear: data is essential to help users, service managers and funders to assess the valuie for money of the services being provided. Used well, it can help prevent crises and tragedies from happening. Used badly it can mislead - too often we lack the time, desire or capacity to look behind the stats. With personalisation approaching, we take it for granted that we will know the price, calories and weight of food in the supermarket, so why shouldn’t we know about an equally important service?  We need the same checks and penalties that assure the quality of financial data, using a kitemarking approach. But we don’t need to have excessive amounts of data and should not re-invent the QAF wheel, which cost so much to set up in the first place. Finally we need to shift to a ‘tripadvisor’ model of reporting and viewing information on services as they are now, rather than the slower, bureaucratic DCLG approach of the past.

Electric Warriors

The Green Deal was announced in May and this tied in well with Radian Housing Group’s Conference on retrofitting. There have been many energy savings pilots over the years – from better insulation, more efficient heating systems and renewable energy sources to the various Codes and standards for new build. Indeed, it was over a decade ago that we were able in East Hampshire to commission Hyde to develop eco homes on a site in Liphook. We asked them to employ the visionary architect Robert Vale, who remains the best speaker on housing that I’ve ever heard. Around 100 delegates from local authorities, housing associations and developers attended the opening and conference chaired by Chris Packham who has since gone on to megastardom in TV land.

Three housing associations worked on the site in Liphook but it was Drum (now part of Radian) who most recognised the importance that energy efficiency would have. Through their champion Paul Ciniglio they are now the market leaders among housing associations in the field of retrofitting as well as new build. While new build to Code 6 might be sexier, retrofitting will help many more homes and the UK to meet its Kyoto obligations. But it still isn’t cheap.

That long history of pilots is arguably localism in action – lots of small scale innovation. But in a diverse and not always competitive market where some run a lot faster than others, this is not enough to change the world. Compare this with the car industry, where last year’ added extras are this year’s standard fittings. I still remember the excitement of being able to operate remote control side mirrors for the first time and now I look down on mirrors that need hands.

So it needs national action to change the world and this is what the Green Deal promises, though it won’t be up and running until 2012. Energy Minister Chris Huhne MP, who probably felt like he was among more friends than he has been for a while, explained the combination of incentives for residents, landlords and suppliers to invest in improvements. Importantly, there will be no costs up front as loans should become available which will be more than offset by the savings. Added to this are obligations upon the energy companies to improve the poorest homes and upon landlords to improve their homes in order to be allowed to let them. There have been siren sounds about the Green Deal and the revised definitions, but few were to be heard at the Conference. It might just work and if it doesn’t we were reminded that the alternative didn’t bear thinking of. In an echo of the cold war we kept seeing images of Vladimir Putin controlling the gas supply.

So what are the chances of success? Firstly the lenders need to be won over and Huhne is confident of this. But there is still a need to bring costs down and ‘provide a clear and compelling argument’ to residents as the Minister recognises. Secondly peoples’ behaviour needs to change. On this note I feel that the energy efficiency sector needs to get its own house into order. Having installed photovoltaics, a combi boiler, argon filled double glazing and several acres of loft insulation I ended up with a severe techno-migraine. Cost, income, choice of insulation, form of generation and suitability can be very confusing. I have an information pack that might just as well be written in hieroglyphics. However I didn’t feel so thick when I found out that one of my next door neighbours, who had worked on the incredible Solar Helium Observatory, which orbits the Sun, was just as confused. If an indifferent public are to be won over the language needs to change and they need to feel in control. I am reminded of how the mobile phone industry was transformed by the introduction of pay as you go. Another speaker reminded us of the impact that energy ratings have had on fridge sales, though these are both highly competitive markets where products are easily compared. Another risk might be a change of Minister. If Huhne goes, for whatever reason, will his successor be as enthused and as well connected with the City? Last but not least is money: the Green Deal has to be worth the disruption and trouble involved in securing a loan. Just how much will be needed to improve millions of homes is not yet clear.

In the meantime the Conference highlighted the vast amount of European Regional Development Funding that Radian has been sharp enough to tap into. You have until 2015 to apply for some of the 8 billion euros that is just sitting there waiting to be invested.

May 2011                        

Power to the People

Localism Watch – we've been monitoring how much the government believes in delegating decisions to local people. So far this year alone it has told councils not to build on the green belt, not to fine people who do not recycle, not to set any rules for street parties, how to collect bins, not to publicise their services, to renegotiate section 106 deals made with developers, to ‘lock the doors on squatters and their so called rights once and for all’, to sell their assets, not to cut services to specific groups, to develop tenancy strategies and to let central government have all of the proceeds from right to buy sales. Most are orders rather than requests. 

The sentiments expressed might well appeal to some voters but surely these are decisions that localism demands should be made locally...

The 'dead hand of government', as Eric Pickles likes to call it, is still twitching in the announcements of the successor to HMR funding. The £2 billion programme was one of the biggest victims of the public sector cuts. But Grant Shapps has now announced a 'lifeline to families trapped in abandoned streets'. This is worth £30 million but the HCA has thanked the Minister for his announcement in a rather North Korean manner and will be issuing 'guidance' on bidding. Inside Housing suggests that if you can't match fund it you don't get it. This might be something of a challenge to Councils with valueless land, a freeze on Council Tax increases and no demand for market homes so no new homes bonus. In other words those places that most need the investment. In fairness the initiative is aimed at addressing the worst effects of the cuts that I identified in the HMR reports for Hull and South Yorkshire, but like other announcements it doesn't seem that well thought out. And it is abundantly clear that until there is a skilled, employed and well paid workforce it will be better to plant trees than build homes that no-one will buy.

April 2011                      

A Child is Born

The Solent Housing Partnership emerges from the womb on Friday 7th April making lots of noise at the Chartered Institute of Housing Conference in the South West.

Invited to run a workshop on Localism, we argue that there are as many new demands being made of local government as there are freedoms in the Localism Bill. Whitehall and the big local authorities in particular will find it very challenging to really let go of power. 

Yet there are many great but sometimes isolated examples out there of how decision making can be devolved to local people, such as Parish Plans and tenant consultation events. We need to address the fears of those at the top, challenge empire builders and ensure that those being delegated power have the skills to take responsibility.

David Cameron’s ambitions for localism still face several hurdles. There are the unintended consequences such as the inertia created by the botched abolition of regional spatial strategies. The new homes bonus could encourage greenfield rather than brownfield development. How new sources of income are shared out could well generate conflict, particularly in places which retain County and District Councils.

But the government cannot and must not absolve itself of responsibility if things don’t go to plan. Grant Shapps has set out many outcome targets, such as an end to rough sleeping by 2012 and 150,000 affordable homes in four years. Supporters of housing need to focus on these and hold the government to account for the system it has given birth to.

March 2011              

It's the End of the World as We Know It

The last housing inspection reports have been published and I am returning home to many emails from housing inspectors who are leaving the Audit Commission. Radian Housing Group is beginning the implementation of the VFM strategy that turned out to be my last piece of work.

The national report on the housing market pathfinder programme and supporting reports on the pathfinders in Hull and South Yorkshire contain the last judgements that I will make as an inspector. For the pathfinders it will be a job half completed; a house without a roof, unless they can complete the job of making run down areas more attractive. But this also depends upon local people having the ambitions, jobs and income to create a balanced housing market. 

Most of the emails say the same thing - that it was a great challenge and pleasure working for the Audit Commission with some of the sharpest brains in the sector. Some of these will be lost to housing as they decide to move into new careers, which is a pity. Teaching, journalism, disability charities, fitness instruction and the IT industry will benefit from housing's loss. 

For me the first few years at the Commission under the charismatic and influential leadership of Sir Andrew Foster will be the most memorable of my own housing career to date. It has allowed me to see the country and every couple of years a new challenge came along; Housing Inspection, Supporting People, CPA, CAA, Regeneration and consultancy. It has been a great ride and fortunately few people believe the political propoganda being put about around the demise of the Commission. Inspection was not perfect, but without it I doubt that house conditions would have improved as much as they did and far more people would be languishing in bed and breakfast hotels. 

December 2010            Waiting for the Hammer to Fall

The Localism Bill was presented to Parliament today. The government also announces what we already knew - the first of three years of cuts in revenue funding for local authorities. Let's forget about the 74% cut in capital funding for the moment. The Bill is described as 'landmark', revolutionary', and 'radical' all in one CLG press release while others describe it as 'anti-democratic' and 'handing down the axe'. Yet the principle is something that every party has aspired to. The success of the Bill really hangs on the degree to which the cuts are addressed strategically and local government redefines its boundaries; how well more cost effective ways of working are embraced; and whether there really are legions of frustrated creative and altruistic people out there just waiting for the chance to do things differently.

November 2010            Don't worry about the Government

Phil Davies of Derby Homes introduced me to the importance of a company song. His style was brutal....thrusting a microphone into the faces of the inspection team during a Tenants' Conference. His choice was 'Startrekking' for obvious reasons though I did suggest 'Two out of three ain't bad'. But he got his three stars and Derby really was public sector heaven.

Our chosen anthem is 'Don't worry about the Government'by the Talking Heads. This is the only song we could think of that extols the virtues of government, our civils servants, decent homes and choice based lettings. We think.

And finally.....

Some helpful and constructive advice as published in the Times Letters to the Editor, April 5th 2003. Reprinted in the 'Letters of the Year' hardback. If only they'd listened....

Please contact us on 07587 189809 or email Andy on andy@solenthousing.co.uk

September 2012

Island in the Stream