Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Category: Housing

Good for the Gander? Reflections on the 2017 Housing Studies Association Conference

goose 1 is a goose that for three days strongly defended its space on the main way into the conference on the York Campus at Heslington. It appeared to be protecting its partner and made the odd aggressive shift in direction if any delegate came too near its mate in the undergrowth. I am no David Attenborough but it reminded me of years jogging round Strathclyde Park and carefully avoiding the personal space of gangs of Canadian geese or the attention of fairly abrasive Lanarkshire swans.

The conference this year was themed around precariousness and financialisation and how the housing sector is becoming more unequal, insecure and unstable. Plenary speakers included Oliver Wainwright from the Guardian, Shelagh Grant, CEO of the Housing Forum, Dinah Roake ex of HCA , Paul Quinn from Clarion Housing Group and Bob Colenutt from Oxford Brookes. The final plenary involved David Madden from the LSE and Blase Lambert, CEO of the Confederation of Co-operative housing. The conference dinner also included a memorable talk by the ineffable Ian Cole.

Financialisation and the precariat are well-met topics and they worked well with many of the workshop papers and for once a conference theme seemed to retain purchase across the full event. Not that everyone agreed of course with very different views circulating and also some concern that perspectives were a little too metropolitan and London-focused (something conceded by David Madden co-author of In Defense of Housing). There were also debates about the proactive role of the state in facilitating speculative mega real estate projects and a degree of vagueness about the transmission mechanism that might export people out of unaffordable, overcrowded cities. A key theme throughout was what can be done about these processes – do we despair or are there ways to fight back? There was talk (Madden again) about housing movements but I quite liked Glen Bramley’s discussion point that in fact an important (albeit atomised) housing movement are those older equity-rich often suburban home owners (and sometimes BTL investors) who are such a break on progress with respect to increasing housing supply.

I heard some interesting conceptual papers by David Clapham, Keith Jacobs and Tony Manzi, as well as a good paper using Australian evidence on private landlords from Hal Pawson. Duncan Bowie reprised debates about housing tax reform. I did a paper (co-authored with Duncan Maclennan) on Brexit and housing, the fundamental premise of which can be summarised by we don’t know the rules of the game regarding the rapidly approaching negotiations so we cannot really scale or estimate the impacts. Many economists feel they will be negative depending on the scenarios for how Brexit plays out, but we cannot in turn say much specific about housing impacts other than some likely directions of broad consequences via lost trade and growth, out-migration, risks re European funds and EIB, but much more fundamentally, risks to housing policy arising from possible break-up of the UK itself as a consequence of leaving the EU. More to follow on this I am sure.

The conference has a nice informal and friendly feel to it. This was complemented unexpectedly in a city centre bar by a very impressive four piece jazz band playing standards via an excellent trumpeter. Well done to the organising committee. Roll on 2018.

I missed a fair bit of the conference, in part because unexpectedly, the ESRC decided bring forward  the announcement of the UK housing evidence centre which made Thursday a bit of a social media blur but it is great to finally have it in the public domain.  More on that subject in a later blog.

‘The geese are flying westward’ is a fine song by Bill Fay (check it out) – but I am now heading north on the east coast line, eventually back to base for what I hope will be a quiet weekend.

 

 

 

 

Returning to the Start: Housing and Public Health

 

Housing intervention by the state started with public health challenges. Public health approaches today have much to say about the structural determinants of health inequality, spatial inequities and connections to key sites and drivers of these inequalities. Housing is of course centrally implicated both in terms of physical and mental health, but also in relation to the broader wellbeing of individuals, families and communities. Housing conditions, fuel poverty, unaffordability, all manners of indicators of unmet need are relevant.

The Scottish Public Health Network have just published a new report: Foundations for Well-being: reconnecting public health and housing. A Practical guide to Improving health and reducing inequalities (lead author Emily Tweed). It sets out to be a ‘best practice resource’ to guide the Scottish housing and public health sectors to improve health and reduce inequalities through good housing. It is well worth a look.

The report is a primer that sets out the context facing the different professional communities, provides useful links to data and policy resources and provides recommendations for good practice and development for both. The big health themes touched on by housing include well-being, ageing, inequality and poverty, health and care integration, community empowerment and climate change. What is helpful as an educational and professional resource is that the report provides a basic grounding or primer for either group, sets out a long list of statistics and other policy and practice connections as well as key practice pointers.  There are also useful diagrams and boxed case studies.

The report (section 2 and appendices) has a nice discussion of the complex multi-dimensional relationship between housing and health (also see a recent review of housing and health inequalities by NHS Health Scotland ). These dimensions include:

  • Bi-directional – while housing may influence health the opposite is also true with health issues constraining locational choices and housing design as well as impacting on financial constraints and employability.
  • Context-specific – impacts and strength of these connections will vary across different populations (and sub-groups), eras and places.
  • Direct and indirect dimensions – where indirect effects can include for instance burdensome housing costs reducing access to other health-benefitting activities.

As the authors say (p.15): “acknowledging these complexities helps add nuance to our understanding, but does not undermine the central fact that housing can be a powerful determinant of health and wellbeing, and of inequalities in their distribution across the population”.

Section 5 is an excellent compendium of resources for housing and public health. Just one example worth following up – a very useful public health oriented report from Wales on the prevention case for housing investment . The final section looks at opportunities for joint working, initiatives that might be taken to link data in housing and health (potentially very powerful) and specific priorities like the private rented sector and strategic joint planning around for instance health and care integration.

I would not pretend to have any background in public health other than reading about it in a housing context and occasionally debating these causality questions with colleagues. More recently through What Works Scotland and through public health colleagues in the University and beyond I have become more engaged with these important inequalities questions. A report like this one is a great practical way into these questions for researchers, students, practitioners and policy facing professionals alike. Well done.

 

Rent Reform and the Too difficult Box

 

Over the last 20 years, I have worked on at least five discrete projects about rents and rent-setting. This has included studies funded by governments and by individual providers in Scotland and Northern Ireland. A feature of this experience has been on the one hand that precious little reform of how rents are set followed on from this work (score zero for ‘impact’), but at the same time, it has been a learning curve. In this post, I want to reflect on these lessons.

First,  we are primarily interested in the pricing of social housing. By that we mean the level of the average rent, the way that rents are distributed around that average reflecting variations in, or differentiating the, quality of the stock, and, how we uprate rents each year. A fourth theme is whether these principles can be established not just for one provider but across a housing system (e.g. all social landlords), be that a local authority, a region or even a country. A fifth theme is whether rents should be consistent across the entire stock or whether pooling would not extend to separate well-defined schemes and new developments? Most of the following discussion assumes complete pooling (e.g. with a premium applied to new build should it be required).

Second, this desire to look at rents may arise because of policy seeking to remove anomalies and put rents on a more coherent basis than current perception or evidence would suggest. It may also arise because of the actions of a single landlord (e.g. taking over another landlord’s stock), it may be due to external policy challenge such as welfare reform or the sense that competitive threat makes its necessary to review the rents. It may also reflect asset management strategies and the use to which rental income is put. There could conceivably also be internal pressures from board members or tenant groups, or indeed staff groups, to address perceived shortcomings. However, we should not underestimate the ability of these groups alongside other stakeholders like lenders or the regulator – to resist or dilute rent reform proposals.

Third, what are the key principles involved? One would be consistency – that rents are differentiated on a rational and credible basis e.g. bigger properties, more space and more amenity command higher rents and do so in a coherent way. A second would be affordability (a thorny issue in its own right) but typically about securing low cost housing for low income households, especially those just above HB ceilings, often in low wage work. A third point would concern viability – does the rent allow development to take place and does it support the ongoing operational delivery of housing services thereafter?

Many readers will recognise longstanding problems of archaic rent structures lost in the mists of time, of anomalies in rent levels comparing similar properties from different landlords and inconsistencies within a given landlord’s portfolio when looking at different areas, vintages of stock and other similar problems. There is also often the sense that rent systems may be past their prime and are slipping into entropic disorder accelerating over time.  These discrepancies can be brought to light particularly during periods of new development, when stock transfers or mergers take place and when the external policy environment sheds perhaps too much light on the way rents are done.

So how to reform? I worked with one landlord who initially wanted to bring the full weight of evidence and analysis through a sophisticated formula rent. The stakeholders I mentioned earlier thought not and subsequently a much simpler model based really only on size and property type became the favoured option. Others lose their zeal for reform when they see that, as in England in the 2000s. shifting to a national formula rent (complete with local average rent convergence across landlords) requires long term adjustment over 10-15 years and also implementing protection measures for those losing out in the form of damping to lessen year-on-year effects. While the English model was relatively complex – such a process of transition and convergence could be devised for much simpler internally consistent models. But a big lesson from the English experience for me has been the unwillingness of Governments to see these sorts of policies through. The simplicity of a national formula rent, for all its problems (e.g. the financial pressure it put on landlords who had to slow down planned rent increase), fell apart after a change of Government and their desire to set off on different paths for non-market housing and required rents for new models. This was then followed up by statutory rent cuts to save on housing benefit – massively expensive for social landlords who in good faith planned reinvestment (as well as  just trying to retain the resource levels of  their landlord operations).

Geography is interesting concerning policy trajectories over rents. Alongside the English experience since 2000, Northern Ireland’s social sector appears to have had quite a lot of discretion though in fact almost all social landlords base their rents on some version of sorts of the dominant (Housing Executive) landlord’s rent points policy from the 1980s.  Again, this has gradually become less recognizable over time (and average rents remain lower for Housing Executive properties). In Scotland, on the other hand, despite earlier research studies examining the merits of a more national system of rent-setting, there has been absolutely no interest from those who would champion rent reform. And as a result, Scotland probably has the least coherent and comparable rents in the social sector across the UK. Yet no-one gets that excited about it, other than in terms of the starting rents required for new build, and the impact of LHA caps on rents and rental income received.

So, does viable, affordable and consistent pricing of rents matter? At one level, of course it does. But more broadly, surely it still makes sense for tenants to be able to make rational, informed judgements about price and quality both within a landlord’s stock and between different landlords? Arguably the growth and encroachment of private renting into the non-market housing sphere is another reason for more not less transparency. But if the regulator is tolerably happy with the situation, if tenants are not too despondent about annual rent increase (outside of England), and if providers are up to their necks in operations and crises, unless the policy environment forces it on them – rent reform is not going to be coming anytime soon. Like so many public policy reform questions, the rationality and benefits of rent restructuring are outweighed by their time, resource and political costs (and it is of course a nontrivial process) – but like council tax reform, not making the necessary change will only in due course make things worse.

 

 

Lessons from German Housing?

 

IPPR has recently been producing a series of reports on housing in Germany asking why can’t the UK follow in its stead and take on some of the apparently desirable features of their housing system. As with other examples of policy transfer, diffusion or mobility, I don’t think it is always as straightforward, though IPPR are demonstrably aware of either the barriers to transfer or that we do need to look closely and critically at the German system as well as positively regarding certain undeniably positive outcomes.

What do IPPR say in their reports? The first one says why is it that Germany builds more homes, has a less volatile housing market and a bigger private rented sector? The second report, out last week, describes renting (i.e. the PRS) as the dominant tenure, more stable and with greater rights than for those in England. Since 1995,  and with much lower levels of volatility, German house prices have risen by 50%; in the UK they have gone up 400%.

IPPR argue that greater levels of housing construction are associated in Germany with a wider range of builders, both SMEs and larger firms. Ostensibly similar (a plan led system like in the UK), Germany seems to do better at converting planning permissions into new supply (i.e. the housing delivery system) but they have also seen a significant reduction in the volume of affordable housing being constructed. Perhaps more significantly, German public authorities are more proactive in the land market assembling sites and delivering infrastructure. Unlike the English, they continue to use planning gain to support the development of affordable housing. The lending environment is  more conservative than the UK and mortgage debt to GDP is considerably lower. While the housing tax regimes are not dissimilar, the German system of capital gains tax encourages long term property holding rather than speculation.

Interestingly, the IPPR conclusions include what they call mis-steps that should be avoided in the UK: first, they argue that a model of long term covenants (20-30 years) has failed to deliver more affordable units and second, they argue that there are higher transactions costs and inflexibilities that may impact negatively on the labour market.

Turning to the second report on private renting, IPPR stress that alongside security of tenure, private rents in Germany are much less likely to be associated with housing stress or very high housing cost to income ratios. Germany has a large supply of rental properties (which helps reduce the impact of longer tenancies on the supply of vacancies and this is supported by rent controls and a further control or brake on rents when properties are re-let. Not surprisingly, in such a different tenure distribution, tenants are also organised politically and have voice in a way that does not exist in the UK. This leads IPPR to recommend for the UK that: government should let LAs construct build-to-let schemes as part of the PRS and also recommends longer tenancies if public subsidy is involved.

The reports are worth reading and make excellent points. However, one must recognise the universal challenges of lesson-learning, transfer and diffusion of policy across national boundaries where market contexts, institutional settings and the evolution of housing systems move differently. Germany has more than half of its households in private renting but the institutional features of the PRS in Germany are quite different, as we have seen, from the deregulated UK. The benefits of the system stability and much more moderate volatility have taken decades to achieve and have had to overcome the challenges of reunification and surplus low demand social housing in the East. They have also enjoyed a comparatively stable policy framework without the catalogue of initiatives and innovations that we suffer from.

Yes, it is true that they do not meet their housing need targets and affordable housing completions are moving in the wrong direction. It may also be the case that the German mortgage market is more conservative and it is undoubtedly true that their rental market (by definition) is less flexible than that of the UK. But this may be an acceptable trade-off in terms of overall housing policy outcomes?

The point about the mortgage market is interesting for other reasons. Recently, in the House of Lords Economics Affairs Committee inquiry into housing, Dame Kate Barker made the point that there is a massive tension between housing-related government departments trying to boost housing supply and home ownership while, at the same time, HM Treasury, the Bank and the financial regulators are re-regulating and constraining mortgage lending.  Acknowledging this difficult trade-off and trying to develop the right balance is a critical requirement for housing policy and the forthcoming White Paper on housing.

I think these reports are a fundamentally good idea because it is by looking at other places in some depth that we shed light on some of the things wrong with our housing system. However, apart from one references to legislating over letting agency fees, I was a little surprised that IPPR did not make more reference to Scotland, given that we have just undergone fundamental reform to our tenancy laws (creating open-ended tenancies and limited specific routes only for eviction) and also proposed rent uplift limitations in pressured market areas. It is Ironic that there appears to be less interest with intra UK policy diffusion. After all while housing policy is diverging rapidly across the UK, it is nonetheless much more similar than comparisons made with Germany. Although it is early days and the law is not yet in force,  considering reform along Scottish lines might be preferable to the IPPR proposals suggested above which are premised on retaining the present tenancy laws and hence privileging, it seems to me, labour market flexibility over housing security.

 

 

Scottish Welfare Benefit: Using the New Powers

The Scottish Government last week announced the first use of its new devolved powers over welfare benefits. The 2016 constitutional legislation gave Scotland power over specific benefits amounting to around 15% of all benefit spend in Scotland as well as powers to top up and create new benefits in most areas (though not pensions) which would be funded from within Scotland, as well as discretion to amend specific benefit rules in certain ways as they apply to the application of Universal Credit. 

While not underestimating in any way the importance of the devolved benefits to their recipients, it is in truth the medium term development of top-up, new benefits and the use of these discretionary rules that will mark out Scotland’s own path on welfare benefits mostly distinctively. And of course this will also be where the political debate will be most intense.
A strand of the party political discourse in recent months has been the Government’s reluctance to take on the new financial powers and use spending, tax and benefit powers to pursue a range of home-grown policies. In truth, there are plenty of reasons not to alter radically income tax rates, contemplate fundamental reform of council tax or spend block grant at the margin on extra benefit spending. The overall budget is undoubtedly under pressure which makes extra spending more difficult. Equally there is caution over raising taxes or being seen to threaten property owners via local tax reform. Third, Scotland has a minority government where tight votes over budget issues and their implications have to be carefully thought through. Fourth, the new benefit powers require new local policy and service delivery infrastructure that cannot be rushed – delay to the full devolution of benefits is inevitable and should not be surprising.
It was in this somewhat risk-averse context that it was encouraging to see the Scottish Government last week announce that it would (a) look at moving the frequency of Universal Credit payments to be shortened to fortnightly rather than monthly (with scope to consider who receives the payment too) and (b) that the rental element of Universal Credit could be paid direct to landlords, both social and private rental providers. These are low hanging fruit in the sense that they are relatively simple and low cost but they are important to the people affected, symbolic of what is possible and in the current circumstances, offer sensible policy development.
The direct payment issue is an interesting topic. Private landlords have longer experience of tenant responsibility for making rent payments but both social and private will undoubtedly welcome the security of payment offered by rent paid direct. It was always apparent that vulnerable households and people already in arrears should be exempt but that begs further questions about definitions of such categories and the opportunity cost of setting up systems to manage them and to prepare social tenants for payment responsibility. One might in principle want to shift over time cautiously  to a system of tenant payment responsibility but this is simply not realistic at present or in the foreseeable future. The benefits of direct payments to landlords far outweigh the cost.
The big challenges remain – in particular, for housing costs, removing the ‘bedroom tax’ and contemplating increasing the levels of housing costs covered by Universal Credit. These will have direct spending implications (though will be offset in the case of the bedroom tax by reducing the need for discretionary housing payments to go to help tenants meet the spare room charge as well as other contributions from the Scottish Government). But we do have a start in the announcements made last week. And, as Frank Herbert once said ‘a beginning is a difficult thing’.

Welfare Reform and Devolution

 

I was part of a panel at the Social Security Committee of the Scottish Parliament today talking about their work programme priorities for the next five years. It was particularly attractive as a session because Steve Fothergill from Sheffield Hallam was first presenting new evidence  on the impacts of the post Coalition Government welfare reforms on Scotland. However, train problems on the way to Edinburgh meant I only heard his discussion session with the MSPs. In this  post I am going to go over his and Christina Beatty’s findings and then move on to the discussion we had about the committee future priorities.

Beatty and Fothergill’s analysis is a model of clarity, it builds on an established body of work, it makes clear where the data and evidence shortcomings are and it implies where new research is needed. Fothergill was refreshingly straightforward and more than willing to point to the political dimensions of welfare reform. The main findings suggest that, first, there will be big financial losses to households as a result of the additional post-2015 election welfare cuts in Scotland. These will be of the order of £1 billion a year as a result primarily of – the four year freeze on many working-age benefits and reductions in the work allowances within Universal credit (i.e. the point where benefit withdrawal tapers kick in). Cuts arising from the move to PIPs from DLA will also be important, as will planned reductions in tax credits.

Second, there are significant variations across Scotland with older ex-industrial and more deprived areas tending to fare more badly on a per capita basis (although the Scottish average is close to the GB average as a whole). Third, the expected figure of an annual additional financial loss of a £1b per annum for the post 2015 period needs to be added to the 2010-15 welfare changes which themselves imposed a financial loss of £1.1b (admittedly a lower figure than was anticipated because of the challenge in bringing down spending on ESA).

The report is thought-provoking stuff and it is great to see this analysis done at a Scottish level. I was struck by some of the housing-related evidence implied by their research.  Some of the housing information included:

  • The lower benefit cap (£20,000 p.a.) will impact on 11,000 Scottish households and cost £25m a year compared to just 900 under the previous regime.
  • Mortgage interest support, converted into a repayable loan (on entering work or on sale), affects 17,000 Scottish households and costs £25m a year.
  • 1,500 people are set to lose out because of the exemption of Housing Benefit for those aged 18-21 (and not deemed vulnerable – existing an estimated £4m a year.
  • The LHA cap extension to the social sector is estimated to affect 55,000 Scottish households and to cost £40m a year (not clear how this disaggregates between general needs and supported housing, the latter of which is expected to be particularly problematic though it will not be initially affected). Also it was not clear from the report whether this 55,000 sum explicitly includes the under 35 single person households who are treated as if they are sharing housing (ie receive benefit up to the shared accommodation rate).

While the report is about welfare cuts post 2015 in Scotland, it does allude to possible offsetting effects – higher personal tax allowance, enhanced child care, and the minimum wage. But more could have been done to bottom these figures out and and quantify the balance between winners and losers in net terms. In the discussion with the MSPs Fothergill argued strongly that there was no evidence that employment growth follows from sharper benefit incentives as experience din recent economic cycles. He also argued that the long term growth, for instance, in levels of ESA are about lack of jobs. The demand-side explanation is strengthened by the evidence that in high demand labour markets in southern regions people with disability or illness are more likely to get work and can find jobs – but this is more difficult in low demand areas. Supply does not create its own demand.

Turning to the priorities for the committee in the coming Parliament, I recognise that the housing end of social security does not always come top of the bill and today we focused much more on disability, employment support allowance, work assessments and broader system level questions associated with the devolution of social security powers. Consequently, my contributions were modest.

It was not long when despite the conclusion from Beatty and Fothergill that we should not overstate the Importance of devolution of social security powers to the Scottish Parliament, we nonetheless agreed that this was in fact the priority, but also a huge challenge and an opportunity wrapped up in one.  Despite the fact that the Scottish Government does not intend to fully take on the powers till 2020 as one MSP said, the time is now to start planning, and also to ensure the infrastructure and systems are established, and to build the necessary policy and delivery capacity.

My view was that the 15% figure (the proportion of social security spending to be devolved) is a bit of a red herring (though Kirstein Rummery made the good point that it us like being given a block of cash that, now devolved, the Scottish Parliament can design it and use it as it thinks best – there are therefore many opportunities). This is because it is the additional powers to top up, create new benefits and change the rules applying to things like Universal Credit and its housing cost elements that create open-ended flexibilities and choices for Government. However, they all have to be paid for out of the Block and this means Scotland has to consider both its revenue-raising capacity and economic growth (including its new tax powers) to fund expansion and also whether there are choices between spending headings that could change to meet the social objectives of new and better social security benefits. There are opportunity costs from constrained political choice but there are also genuine opportunities.

Much of the discussion was about work assessment, disability benefits and also of course conditionality and sanctions. I was struck by the fact my colleagues around the table had so much relevant evidence to bring especially on their own direct projects and in relation to reviews of international studies. There does seem to be, as was true also in the last parliament, that committees do genuinely want to work from a proper evidence base. This has to be a positive sign in these otherwise concerning times.

True Grit – Ken Loach and the reality of welfare conditionality

 It has been quite a week. I saw ‘I, Daniel Blake’ in the cinema, there has been considerable media scrutiny of the new lower benefit caps and their impact, the DWP has produced a controversial green paper on the future of Employment Support Allowance and the Scottish Parliament debated the effects of sanctions and welfare conditionality, in part as a result of the ongoing ESRC programme which includes the excellent work of my colleague Sharon Wright.

The new lower benefit cap moves the likely burden from very large working age households or people often only in high cost housing reliant on benefits to many more households and often with children right across the UK. From 7th November 2016, the lower benefit cap begins to be rolled out. For couples and single parents, it will fall from £500 per week to £384.62 outside of London and for single people it falls from £350 to £257.69 outside of London (higher costs in the capital mean the reduction in the cap is less there). The benefits primarily affected are housing benefit, universal credit (and its components) and other working age benefits but also things like child tax credits and child benefit. The Guardian reported that 116,000 households would be materially affected.

The Green Paper (Improving Lives) is focused on increasing economic activity among the sick and vulnerable.  It is critically summarised by Paul Spicker in a blog this week who said: “It proposes to extend to those for whom working is least viable the kind of regime that has so signally failed for people in the ‘work related activity group’. If people who are sick cannot find ways to engage with the labour market, why should we imagine that people who are  sick and vulnerable should fare any better?”

The conditionality debate in Parliament highlighted the strength of feeling among our politicians about the impacts of sanctions and the problems they pose for welfare policy and people affected. In a piece for the Daily Record Sharon Wright summarised the key difficulties evidenced in her research:

  • Sanctions led to short term crises and long term debt repayment problems.
  • They were associated with rent arrears, the threat of eviction and possibly homelessness.
  • Sanctions often come without warning – and if people don’t know about the sanction how can it effect the DWP’s desired behavioural change?
  • Sanctions had profound negative wellbeing effects on those directly affected and in the end it was support to help people into work that mattered not sanctions – carrots not sticks.

And what about the film? ‘I, Daniel Blake’ was highly-charged and emotional. I will long remember the complete silence in the cinema when the credits abruptly come up. People looked stunned and many were upset. The film uses highly plausible scenarios to document the descent into poverty of normal people who are dealing with  common human circumstances like sudden ill health or family break-up. Engaging with benefits and systems like Employment Support Allowance and ultimately conditionality, is overwhelming for those less skilled in the world of digital by default and coping with the abrupt shifts into conditionality, as also reported by Sharon in her research. Vulnerable people can be forced to turn to food banks for resources and the black market and illegality for income. There is a strong Kafka-like feeling in the film as Job Centre Plus officers repeatedly use the ‘decision maker’ as the disembodied arbiter of whether or not one gets the benefit they are applying for.

It is a great piece of fiction but one that has a real sense of authenticity. It is well acted and brilliantly made. I did however think the Job Centre Plus staff were with one or two exceptions a little two dimensional, especially the nurse ratchet character and the general demeanour of the staff who were ‘just following orders’.

Thinking on the big themes of the film, I think a complete overhaul of the employment support allowance is needed and the DWP has to end the byzantine and often impossible choices created by the system facing the lead character who was turned down for ESA and can only apply for JSA when he is patently not fit for work. Paul Spicker’s views about these matters as suggested in the new Green Paper seem to be a good place to start. Second, there can be no basis or situation where individuals and especially children in families face destitution as a result of sanctions. This has to end. Third,  the film stressed the confusion and lack of help available to vulnerable people so that they have some chance to navigate (consistently) the arcane complexities of this obtuse and often dehumanising system. There must be a clearly stated rapid assistance system 24/7 on the end of a phone or for working hours  in a town centre office that offers clear and independent advice across all of the UK. Or if it already exists, people must be clearly directed towards such support and this should be done at the earliest possible point in the journey.

Land, Tax & Housing Supply in Scotland

 

The Scottish Government has its five-year target of 50,000 new social and affordable homes and is exploring ways that the sector might overcome bottlenecks and impediments to the required levels of new build. Not surprisingly, there has been a focus on the supply delivery system, planning, the development industry and the land market. Scotland has recently had an independent review of the planning system chaired by Crawford Beveridge and earlier inquiries by RICS Scotland  and by the Shelter Commission on Housing and Wellbeing. Now, as a sidebar to the recent proposed reforms of the council tax, it has been suggested that the Scottish Government would consult on the efficacy of a tax on vacant and derelict land, so as to incentivise the supply of housing land from those relatively untapped sources. This follows on the recent introduction of a similar levy on such land in Ireland.

This was the context for a roundtable discussion I attended Tuesday morning about the pros and cons of such a tax chaired by the minister and populated by stakeholders across the housing supply delivery system, professionals, policy, academics and practice. It followed the Chatham House Rule so I will simply reflect on themes expressed around the table.

The meeting was structured around three key questions: why can’t we deliver more housing supply; would a tax on vacant & derelict land help; what other policy instruments might help? There was a wide range of views on show both in terms of diagnosis and what needs to be done.

Regarding what prevents housing land supply coming forward more speedily, there was (unresolved) disagreement over whether or not speculative land banking played a part. Other culprits were identified as high levels of risk, infrastructure constraints, construction capacity questions, the reduction in SME builders since the crisis, the cost of decontamination many derelict sites relative to the funds available, and lack of access to sufficient affordable land – amongst several other issues. Underlying much of what was said was the continuing large discrepancy between the volume of housing land with consents in the housing land supply figures and the much lower number of what actually gets completed. How do we rectify this and what quantitative significance does vacant and derelict land play as part of this story?

Contemplating a tax on vacant and derelict land means having clear definitions of what it means to be derelict or vacant and targeting the tax appropriately. That is not easy. Assuming that it can be done the tax would have to overcome a series of standard hurdles: the tax should be cheap to set up and run, it should be simple, transparent and be credible as a fair burden. It should also minimise wider distortions or unintended consequences.  I argued that if these criteria could be met through careful design, the tax should also possess local discretion so that the nuances of locally heterogeneous markets could to an extent be addressed. Overall, a wide range of views were expressed about the feasibility and desirability of such a tax.

In the course of the discussion a number of important wider points were made. First, there is of course a major issue about dereliction in our town centres and working on creating residential demand and solutions for these properties could play an important role in the future of many urban areas across Scotland. Second, there was a sense in some quarters that derelict and vacant land was a part of the problem of land supply for housing but it should not be over-cooked against the wider questions of how we best deliver on new housing targets. One view was that there was essentially nothing that far wrong with the planning systems aims and goals but there was a too common failure to actually deliver the housing delivery public policy outcomes we desire – and we need a range of mechanisms to make that happen.

How might this be done? First, there was discussion of the prospect that planning permission might be taken away on a site if it is not used. This is often discussed but of course there are dangers here – the site may nonetheless be a viable site and its development will be delayed and, moreover, by taking consent away, the effective housing land supply is actually being reduced. Second, there was discussion of national and regional land development agencies that could overcome market failures by delivering serviced affordable land for housing. To that end I would also support local revolving land funds that could do the same once they are pump-primed with initial funding. Third, it was suggested that the state can borrow over much longer periods than the private sector and should do more to exploit this by playing a larger role as an investor in infrastructure versus the relatively short run requirements of market sector developers and that, furthermore, there was an appetite for this long term state investment debt from pension funds.

Finally, there was debate about whether the local state has the capacity and even the confidence to use its existing powers, notably CPO as a way of braking log jams, assembling land and moving sites forward. Several speakers stressed the opportunity to use compulsory sales of land which has the added advantage that it is far cheaper to do in terms of transaction costs than CPOs from the point of view of local government.

Plenty of those present brought specific experienced examples to the table to make their arguments. Only one academic brought detailed research evidence (it was not me). One takeaway point for me from the debate in public policymaking terms, therefore, was that the Scottish Government still has an exercise ahead of it to collect different forms of rigorous evidence as well as this distillation of key stakeholder views – before decisions are taken about the direction of, and specific instruments for, a policy aimed at successfully expanding housing land supply and completions.

 

 

 

Gimme (a ‘standard’) Shelter

Showing their undoubted media abilities, Shelter today launched a new study describing a model of a living home standard (LHS). The standard is based on 39 attributes of essential and more ‘tradable’ attributes of five dimensions of ‘home’ drawn from intensive research with the public carried out by Ipsos MORI. The hook was to show many homes in Britain fell below this new standard, an approach characterised as in the same spirit as the national living wage. The social, tv, radio and print media took to it hugely. So well done Shelter for getting the housing crisis and housing deficit to the top of the news agendas.

In this short post I want to review how they arrived at this new standard and reflect a bit on the national results that they hung their story around.

Ipsos MORI carried out nine months of investigative qualitative research with the public to uncover the five themes and 39 attributes deemed to make up the living home standard (regardless of tenure age or size). This was reminiscent of the approach taken by the Oxfam Humankind Wellbeing Index.The themes were based on: affordability, decent conditions, space, stability (i.e. security) and neighbourhood. Passing the standard required that it meet all of the essential conditions for each theme and a minimum number of the tradable ones for each theme.To take affordability as an example: the essential requirements were 1. Can meet the rent or mortgage payments on the home without regularly having to cut spending on household essentials like food or heating; and, 2. Not worried that rent or mortgage payments could rise to a level that would be difficult to pay. Tradable requirements for the affordability dimensions involved: 1. Can meet rent or mortgage payments on the home without regularly preventing participation in social activities; and 2. Can meet rent or mortgage payments on the home without regularly being prevented from putting enough money aside for unexpected events.

This sort of approach to affordability is refreshing in that it gets us away from the tyranny of specific ratios (cost to income ratios) and minimum values (residual incomes) but clearly does require household survey data. However, it would be incorrect to say that this type of approach is unassailably objective – it is not. Its attractiveness is that it has been robustly built up from the views of real people but of course even that has to some extent been conditioned by the design of the approach in the first place. More significantly, the quest for definitive objective measures is illusory and must require judgements about what is included and excluded, how threshold values are set and why, weighting (and how such weighting is approached) and the fundamental realisation that housing need, affordability and an overall LHS is and must be subjective and to an extent derived from judgment. However, that is not to say that this is anything but a comprehensive and well thought through approach. It is. We just need to recognise that while some forms of housing deficit are apparently objective and straightforward; others quickly become harder to pin down. We should welcome multi-dimensionality to thinking about housing problems but it bring challenges too.

A survey of just under 2000 adults, with results weighted to reflect the national (GB) population, was then undertaken to measure the extent to which the LHS was met and where it was not met. The analysis found that 43% of people live in homes that fail to meet at least one of these dimensions of LHS. Affordability was valued as one of the most important aspects of whether a home was acceptable but was the area that most failed on (followed by decent conditions). However, of all that failed only 1% failed in all five dimensions; the vast majority failed on one dimension or not more than two. The percentage failing the standard was negatively related to income i.e. lower income households were more likely to be in homes that failed the standard. A similar regressive gradient was found contrasting LHS with social grade. Third, fully 69% of private tenants failed the LHS and across age bands, the highest proportion failing (at 58%) were young aged 25-34.

This is more than a useful start and I particularly liked several things about the model – for instance, its multi-dimensionality and the concept of tradable relative to essential attributes. But it would be good to look at the LHS at different more local spatial scales so that it could articulate directly with complementary measures like official measures of housing need. Shelter have done a great job in getting their message out clearly and simply and doing so with such effectiveness. Housing needs to be up there near the top of the agenda because chronic problems rarely seem to inhabit the upper echelons of the news cycles for long. For all that, it is amazing how quickly fairly straightforward concepts and ideas get mauled and can confuse. Last night one of the BBC reporters struggled with the idea that 43% overall could fail the LHS but at the same time 69% of (private) tenants lived in homes that did not meet the standard.

http://www.shelter.org.uk/livinghomestandard.

 

 

 

 

A Different Class?

 

Just under a year ago many of us sat looking at the ONS website waiting for the news about whether or not they would reclassify English housing associations as public bodies for public accounting statistical purposes. On the basis of a review of the powers of the Regulator created under the previous UK Labour Government, the ONS took the view that these powers of disposal of assets, board and senior staff appointments were sufficient to deem that enough degree of control from a government agency meant that reclassification was indeed appropriate. This shifted more than £60 billion of debt on to the public books and initially raised uncertainties about the freedoms housing associations would retain over borrowing.

This fundamental change was not wanted by Government or the sector or other major stakeholders. In the midst of last year’s controversial housing legislation in England, the Government proposed a series of measures aimed at deregulating the English sector sufficiently, they hoped, to re-re-classify the sector back into the private sector.

Still with me? Yesterday morning the ONS announced its decision regarding the classification status for public accounting statistical purposes for housing associations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, assessing them on a similar basis as was the case in England. They are now described as ‘public non-financial corporations’. The Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR) has been reclassified as a ‘central government body’.

Interestingly, the Scottish Government had taken pre-emptive action by preparing and pre-announcing deregulatory legislation on a similar basis to the English proposal in order to reduce uncertainty and get back to the pre-announcement status quo. In 2012 the ONS re-reclassified English further education and sixth form colleges which it has earlier reclassified in the public sector in 2010 because Government relaxed some of its earlier controls. So there is a precedent.

According to Inside Housing, the reasons for reclassification in Scotland were threefold: the SHR has a degree of control over the management of housing associations, the housing associations need consent from the SHR over ‘constitutional change’ such as mergers and take-overs, and, associations also need consent over the disposal of assets like land and housing.

The Scottish Government plans to respond with new legislation which will first remove the need for consent over the disposal of assets, they will ‘limit’ the power of the SHR to appoint board members and officers, and, remove the need for the SHR’s consent regarding restructuring, voluntary winding-up and dissolution of housing associations. The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations appear to share the Government’s optimism that this will be enough to put the sector back in the private sector, though they reserve the right to scrutinise the ONS details closely. They do make the point that the Scottish regulatory framework has evolved in recent years to put some distance between the sector and public control [link].

This is a statistical exercise but it has real implications, potentially. Governments around the UK would not seek corrective legislation if it were not of significance. Linked to this is the wider question of the degree of autonomy or level of external control applied to an important part of the voluntary or third sector, The reclassification also creates some uncertainty which may impact on policy delivery i.e. the Scottish Government’s preparedness of response in part reflects their desire to protect their priority to deliver the 50,000 affordable housing supply target over the life of this Parliament.

Deregulation is not without its risks – how will lenders respond to the changing regulatory environment? The English experience will provide a guide. Second, is this the end of the matter – will ONS accept the deregulation as sufficient basis for changing the classification back? The plans set out by the Scottish government may well turn out to be quite appropriate and sufficient for this purpose. ONS reclassification could be the dog that did not bark. We will see.