Ken Gibb's 'Brick by Brick'

Housing, academia, the economy, culture and public policy

Category: Scotland

Prevention and Predictive Analytics

 

I was at a What Works Scotland seminar this morning, the latest in our joint events with NHS Health Scotland on the Economics of Prevention. Papers and slides and a summary of discussion groups will be posted at the WWS website. We heard papers from Heather McCauley on the use of predictive analytics in New Zealand, on modelling the burden of disease by Diane Stockton and using agent-based models to consider informal care and obesity by Eric Silverman. They were followed by Ian Marr who summed up, drawing on his first-hand knowledge of social impact bonds and the social impact partnership model he has been developing.

A key aspect of preventative thinking, from Derek Wanless to Campbell Christie and beyond, is the issue of understanding where the most public service spending goes and therefore targeting spending, as far as one can, to those people and needs that will otherwise generate disproportionate public cost e.g. early year intervention to prevent what would otherwise lead to, in high likelihood,  negative future outcomes such as less good education and employment outcomes, poorer health and or episodes involving the justice system. A key issue is also how to manage the disinvestment that goes with a shift to prevention.

While it was fascinating to hear Eric Silverman tall about these simulation model as safe playgrounds of policy experimentation without consequences (unlike piloting, for instance), I want to talk  primarily about Heather’s exposition of preventative predictive analytics in New Zealand. She told us about the evolution of the programme, how it works and provided detail in terms of policy spheres such as welfare benefits and children in care.

The three big lessons and challenges that arose for me were as follows:

  • Moving government to think and act in terms of the lifetime costs (on an actuarial basis) rather than the annual cash costs of a high need individual, household or client;
  • Using statistical/econometric methods to uncover the probabilities that signify the high need households and individuals – the diagnosis of where lifetime costs are very high and therefore where large potential savings can be made; and
  • Designing the optimal mix of practice and policies that allow case managers to maximise the effectiveness of intensive interventions (what works?).

All three are difficult – the third, perhaps the most challenging. Let’s look at each in a little more detail.

Heather described the need for culture change to take on the lifetime cost approach. She pointed out that New Zealand has a culture of seeking the best possible value for the public dollar and so the shift from short term to a longer, multi-parliamentary term perspective, can be made and perhaps done so more readily than in the UK or Scotland. Many of us might be comfortable with the idea of focusing on the lifetime savings made by preventing someone falling into the negative outcomes suggested above – but it does require current governments spending money now and postponing benefits to future governments.  Heather provided the example of using a helicopter to transfer a spinal injuries patient from an accident site immediately to hospital with potential long term savings in reduced future health care costs. Lifetime benefits considerably outweigh upfront (helicopter usage) costs.

Second, the New Zealand benefit figures suggest that much of their employability spend goes to job seekers who are a small proportion of the total client group compared to the higher and persistent incidence of for example those on disability benefits and lone parent benefits. They cost more in lifetime terms and represent longer term need. Modelling under certain conditions offers, to different degrees in different policy areas, a reasonable basis to diagnose where highest need is concentrated and where benefits might be maximised by effective targeted interventions. But as was stressed in the presentation, these models produce probabilities and associations; they are not causal and indeed there is a fascinating question about understanding why some highly at risk groups remain resiliently unaffected in future years – what can we learn from their resilience?

Heather rightly recognises the suspicions and criticisms open to these sorts of approaches (often relating to big data and predictive algorithms): bias, non-discretionary model creating discriminatory or arbitrary outcomes, perverse incentives, moral hazard and discrimination like cream-skimming of the cheapest easiest candidates in areas like the work programme.  Transparent models (all on line from the New Zealand government) and independent scrutiny of the models, their assumptions and how they work ‘under the hood’, is essential, as is always seeking to improve the model and to reduce negative aspects of models.

Finally, there is the classic what works question – assuming that the modelling has indicated who and where the highest need target group resides, what are the suite of policy tools and interventions that best reduce the lifetime cost and make those savings because negative future outcomes are significantly reduced? How do we assemble good practice, policies, and effective case management in the variety of policy areas likely to be developed? A sector by sector repository and on-going discussion about these tailored responses is essential.

Predictive analytics has well founded criticisms but as in so many areas, this is one where continued independent scrutiny, a commitment to transparency and a willingness to continuously improve modelling, can provide valuable prevention benefits but there I can be no guarantee that this will be so. Furthermore, there is the small question of then designing the appropriate mix of policy responses aimed at those in most need

 

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.

 

Revisiting the Scottish National Performance Framework

 

The purpose of the Scottish Government is to focus government and public services on creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth’

In 2007 the first minority Scottish National Party Government established the Scotland Performs framework based on a core national purpose (2016 version above), five strategic objectives, a series of (currently) 16 high level national outcomes, and a set of 55 national indicators that operate at high level but can also drill down to clusters of indicators within specific sectors. This approach has been widely acclaimed internationally (it was initially, in part, the product of drawing on a similar model in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States) but has also undoubtedly found sceptics, critics and critical friends.

The Scottish Government is now consulting over the framework, its outcomes and indicators and is undertaking a large-scale stakeholder discussion exercise to support this process . Last week they started with an academic roundtable in Glasgow co-organised by What Works Scotland [link]. The session was held under the Chatham House Rule and involved an historical contextualisation of the origins of the framework, a presentation on the outcomes approach to public policy by Ailsa Cook (shortly to be published by WWS) and a detailed discussion on the structure, format, uses and functions of the framework. Below are my personal reflections on the meeting.

The framework sits at the heart of the so-called Scottish approach to public policy, one that stresses pursuit of agreed high-level outcomes consistent with the national purpose and the application of these objectives down to local level through agreeing objectives with each community planning partnership across the country. It is also about a decisive shift to prevention, stressing partnership working and co-production, community empowerment, inclusion and the breaking up of departments and silos in the way Government is structured and led. The touchstone document for all this is the 2011 Christie Commission on the Reforming of Scotland’s Public Services.

One person commentated that we know, for all the critique that may justifiably exist, that Scotland is ahead of the curve on this accountability-outcomes-performance nexus of public policy. How do we now go forward to better work with the complexity of governance and public service reform rather than adding to it?

A first point that came out of the discussion was an exploration of the implications of the different and not necessarily consistent elements of the national purpose. Economic growth, inclusion and sustainability all feature and may well in normal circumstances represent a series of trade-offs – i.e. increasing one may be at the expense of the others. So, how do you determine the weight to be attached to each element and how does that accord to societal preferences? This quickly moved into a conversation about Kenneth Arrow and social welfare functions in economics and the wider appeal of Sen’s capability approach (which is the underlying normative framework used in much of the work of What Works Scotland).

A second theme was that while there was a perhaps surprising degree of consent around the table for an outcomes-focused approach, recognising that there remains little rigorous evidence at a national level about the impact such an approach has on wellbeing, there was much more concern with the relationship between outcomes and indicators that act as performance proxies. As one commentator noted, there is world of a difference between attributing performance to a conscious service or intervention approach and recognising that it may contribute to it (and that this is located in a credible theory of change).

The critique of performance indicators in general is well known – cream-skimming, parking, only counting ‘what can be counted’, focusing on the indicator rather than the broader outcome or purpose, the scope for a wide range of other perverse incentives that undermine a service or intervention. The meeting also discussed the need for consistently rigorous, generalizable, valid and reliable evidence and operational indicators with which to make meaningful judgements. There is often quite a gap between the outcome statement and the indicators in terms of specificity and measureability.

This would seem to make a case for 1. a greater investment in the evidence and data audit required to build better indicators and 2. a comprehensive attempt to ensure minimum indicator quality. On the latter point, I have always taken the view that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with performance indicators, or with the use of sharper incentives or indeed (as came up in the discussion), the use of payment by results mechanisms – what matters is the appropriateness of their design and the careful assessment of how they are used and concern for unintended consequences.

Perhaps this suggests that Government might consider the creation of an independent review group who could support the performance team, comment and propose amendments to the indicators, evidence and data used? Academics and independent researchers could play a potentially valuable role (and the potentially complementary relationship between quantitative measures and qualitative evidence on the ground was stressed by different speakers). This could be an opportunity from the top of Government down to evangelise the use of evidence in accounting for government and public service performance against desired outcomes.

A third element of the story is the fit between local and national level approaches. With single outcome agreements and now with local outcome improvement plans, local community planning partnerships sign up to specific goals which nest into the national performance framework. On the one hand, this provides for a clear place-based representation of these ideas in localities all over Scotland, but it also brings with it the danger of compounding the performance indicator problems and the over-zealous focus on indicators discussed above at the level of the local authority and below.

There were other useful points highlighted. First, make distributional or social justice outcomes and indicators more explicit and more benchmarked consistently with other nations (in the way for instance economic productivity performance is measured against OECD quartile scores). Second, presentationally, the refreshed set of national outcomes  should be discussed and part of the public policy discourse in their own right,. This should be quite distinct to and separated from the mechanism that seeks to use the best practice theory of change and credible analytical evidence (which is valid, reliable and generalisable) by creating high quality indicators of the journey towards the outcomes (and unlike at present – those indicators should nonetheless be mapped on to the outcomes they seek to measure).

At the end of the roundtable I said I thought it had been a valuable exercise on the criteria that I had both learned a lot and we had produced a genuinely multi-disciplinary conversation – economist shall speak unto sociologist, etc. I think the Scottish Government team also felt there was genuine value from the day and I wish their endeavours well.

 

Accountable? Transparent? Budgets and Public Finance in Scotland

 

‘Exceptionally complex and opaque’ and ‘without precedent internationally’. Fraser of Allander Institute on the Fiscal Framework, quoted by the Finance Committee, Scottish Parliament in their 2017-18 draft budget report

I found myself reading the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee’s draft budget report  the other day in part to prepare for teaching on public finances in Scotland. I was struck just how non-transparent the fiscal framework is and how difficult it is to communicate the consequences of the rules of the game in terms of Scottish policy intentions and budgetary implications. It is as if the designers in Holyrood and Westminster were seeking to be rewarded for fiendish inventiveness rather than designing a set of financial rules that were clear, transparent and fostered accountability. In that respect, the Finance Committee’s report is remarkably helpful (along with the recent SPICe briefing on the budget).

I will get into the main points that struck me shortly but it also raised a second related question. In the year of the council elections in Scotland, there is a near equivalent lack of transparency regarding the local government settlement and the consequences for local decisions on tax and spend. This has, if anything, been exacerbated by both the implementation of the recent council tax reforms and the controversy over what the draft budget means for local spending by councils. We need more transparency here too and perhaps a local fiscal framework (something being pursued by the Scottish Greens) that makes explicable and straightforward how local tax and spend works, how it is impacted by Scottish ministers and what decisions mean for tax bills and spending choices.

What is it that makes the new national fiscal framework so difficult and why is it so significant? The devolution of new tax powers reduces the size of the Block grant. Critical to how this will operate is,  how the Block Grant adjusts, which comes down to a series of decisions, firstly, about the baseline reduction that is determined by revenue in the year prior to the devolution of the tax in question. Thereafter, the second critical question is how accurately tax revenues for the now devolved tax are forecast in terms of playing into public spending planning and control decisions and the risks of over-estimation. Third, there is the contentious question of how to uprate the block grant adjustment for the devolved taxes in subsequent years. This concerns the extent to which Scottish tax revenues grow relative to UK tax revenue growth and  (and this is where the controversy exists between the two governments) then how adjusting for relative population growth between Scotland and rUK operates.

These Byzantine and head-hurting rules are incredibly important. If Scotland can grow its tax revenue quicker than rUK, the block grant and the size of the fiscal cake expand. This fundamentally depends on relative tax policy changes, which currently benefit Scotland because we are not raising the threshold for the higher rate of income tax by as much as HM Treasury – and other things equal we should grow tax revenue per head more than rUK. But it is also driven by relative population change, relative economic and productivity growth (and these presently all look less favourable from a Scottish perspective). As the Finance Committee stress, the Scottish Government have taken on considerably more responsibility and the technical requirements for forecasting future tax, economic growth and in specific sectors too (e.g. land and buildings transactions tax depend on housing and commercial property markets) – and they have done so in a period of remarkable uncertainty, austerity and Brexit.

The Scottish Government is presently consulting over the Scotland Performs National Performance Framework. In the light of the above maybe they need to change the absolute or top line purpose of Government to maximising relative tax revenue growth?

One might conceivably say ‘well, these risks are what happens with more responsibility and that is what real devolution is all about’. My view however is that what we might be seeing is actually the outcome of bargaining over an inherently complex system and one that consequently is difficult to predict, manage and base fiscal plans on. I am sure the Scottish Government will step up to the plate – they have to get this right and must invest the necessary resources and capacity in doing so. Specific forecasting expertise by the Scottish Fiscal Commission will also become much more important in the future. Moreover, the plan is that in less than 5 years the whole basis of the fiscal framework will be reviewed and the indexing methods and other fundamentals may well be substantially revised. Let’s hope for less haste and that a simpler and more durable set of negotiated outcomes is the result.

Then there is the controversy over the local government settlement. There are several accounts of what is happening to local government spending, depending on what you compare it against (draft or final budget in 2016-17), how wide you draw local government activity, and, if you do include other elements, that you know what these extras are worth. SPICe estimates that local government spend in 2017-18 may either fall (compared to 2016-17) by 1.6% to 3.2% in real terms, or if you just look at the core grant (including non-domestic rates), it may fall by between 4.5% to 5.8%. However, speaking to the local government committee of the Scottish Parliament, the Cabinet Secretary argued (para 273, Finance Committee Report on the 2017-18 Draft Budget) that ‘when wider spend on local services, including funding for health and social care integration and from council tax reform is considered, there is an increase in expenditure on local services by local authorities of £240 million or 2.3 per cent.

Clear as mud. And then there is the interaction between grant, non domestic rates and council tax – we (i.e. tax paying voting citizens of Scotland) surely need to clearly understand how all this works together so that we can make sense of the financial and service outcome implications of different political platforms? Can we not do better?

 

Evidencing the Scottish Approach to Public Policy

 

Back in August I attended a roundtable hosted by the Carnegie UK Trust and the Alliance for Useful Evidence (AFUE) in Glasgow about the extent to which we can discern a Scottish approach to evidence that would underpin the so-called Scottish approach to public policy. The findings from that event has now been put together in a helpful discussion paper by Pippa Coutts and Jenny Brotchie.

What Works Scotland (WWS) is a multi-disciplinary programme of work carried out by the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, supported by its many partners and funded by ESRC and the Scottish Government. I am part of the WWS team. WWS is fundamentally concerned with the use of evidence to inform and support public service reform in Scotland and different dimensions of the Scottish approach to public policy, as exemplified by whole place based policies at community planning partnership levels (and also disaggregated down to local community or neighbourhood levels).

How might we characterise the Scottish approach to public policy? The discussion paper stresses the combination of the outcomes focus of the National Performance Framework estsblished in 2007, the impact of the Christie Commission and its emphasis on the four pillars of empowering people, shifting to preventative spend, promoting partnership and more efficient public services. The Scottish approach stresses integrated, joined up and cross–sectoral co-produced working. Subsequent developments have included espousing greater government openness, legislating on community empowerment and with further decentralising proposals proposed for the current parliamentary session. The discussion paper describes this approach as emergent and the summary states (p.2): ‘whilst we understand these intentions may not be matched in implementation, we think the Scottish approach offers exciting opportunities’.

The discussion paper goes on to argue that the system or modes of evidence required to support the Scottish approach is not yet in place. What is required is a system-wide production and use of mixed forms of evidence rather than concentrating on specific sectors or programmes. The paper argues that the evidence base for greater collaboration and co-production across the research producer and user community in Scotland needs to be strengthened and needs to better involve citizens in that process. At the same time, evidence, from whatever sources (quantitative or qualitative), should be rigorous and seek to minimise bias. The paper speculates that there are lessons and evidence from participatory research and directly from communities (e.g. undertaking participatory budgeting exercises or other forms of deliberative decision-taking) that could improve policy effectiveness.

What needs to happen? The road map suggested by the Carnegie UK Trust and the AFUE involves first, strengthening the national performance framework and promoting its use coherently at local level. Second, they contend that there should be investment in research on co-production. Third, high quality evidence should be embedded to support decision-makers at all levels. Fourth, there  would be value in brokering and developing boundary-spanning relationships across professional, academic and third sector communities to enable them to better work together. Fifth, there is much to learn from outside of Scotland and also a duty to share the Scottish experience more widely.

The paper is an interesting read and one that cannot be adequately captured in a short blog post. Experience from What Works Scotland (see outputs on our website) leads me to make the following points. First, the game-changer for me is how to embed evidence systematically into working practice at local level in all localities. We know that presently there is considerable variety of experience, capacity, resource and use of evidence. At the same time, second, there is actually something of a crowded landscape of providers of profiles and indicators from national levels to the local and there is clearly much interest in how this could be better co-ordinated and more locally contextualised. Third, the Scottish approach is clearly evolving and parts of it have to be refreshed. The Scottish Government is currently consulting widely over the National Performance Framework including its local dimensions and we in WWS look forward to contributing to that process.

Finally, I strongly concur with one of the roundtable participants who stressed (p.13) the importance of learning from failed projects, from what does not work: ‘There’s also something for me about….it’s a kind of form of publication bias, because we only ever hear about the success stories….you don’t send ministers to visit the failed projects’. Indeed.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

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.