Empty homes, vacant stats and a bugbear

Happy new year! And don’t the Liberal Democrats know how to celebrate, with a widely reported press release calling the number of empty homes in the UK a “scandal”.

Now, I’m not party political in this blog. Yes, I spend a fair amount of time critiquing the government, but that is because they are the government. They are the ones able to see their policies come to fruition on a national scale, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I want to look at that. But something caught my eye in the Lib Dem release, something that gets my goat every time I see it, no matter which organisation it comes from.

Let’s get on the same page first- using some simple language. Empty homes aren’t great and bringing them back into use is a good thing. I don’t disagree with the main conclusion of the release, that Councils need further powers to bring empty homes -the vast majority of which are privately held- back into use. However, when you actually dig into the data, there is some richness that has been missed and indeed some uncomfortable truths about where empty homes are that means policy directed only at solving this may not be completely successful.

Others have quite rightly pointed out that the numbers seem large, until you compare them with the total national housing stock, or indeed the numbers of new net homes the country actually requires. I’m not going to repeat those unnecessarily, but they are important points to make. Every single long term empty home could be brought back into use without making a really significant dent in the ongoing housing need for the country.

What I really want to talk about is the relative size of local authorities and why it makes comparing overall numbers particularly pointless. The press release goes into detail of the areas with the highest number of empty homes, citing Durham, Leeds, Bradford and Cornwall as the areas with the most empty homes. That may be true, of the places that replied. But what that doesn’t understand is that local authorities have huge differences in population and numbers of dwellings. So comparing absolutes for these areas is bound to lead to larger areas having more of a wide variety of variables.

I’ll put it another way. Let’s say I run a cat charity. I want to put out a press release saying which area is the “most cat loving”. So I write to the cat department of every local authority asking them how many homes have cats in the area. I dutifully get the answers back, put them in a spreadsheet and what do you know, the “most cat loving areas” are Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Liverpool. Why is that? Because they are the local authority areas with the biggest populations and number of households.

So one area has a higher number of empty homes than another, but what does that mean? Are we to expect to see more empty homes if we take a walk around the streets? Of course not, if there are 3 times the number of empty homes, but the authority is 10 times as large, then it looks to me like public policy is better focused on the smaller area.

So, in my opinion, what the authors of the press release should have done is work out the proportion of empty homes compared to the number of dwellings in the area. I don’t know why they didn’t; the figures are freely available for England, Scotland and Wales. I do know it takes about 2 hours to manually copy and paste them across into the spreadsheet, because that’s exactly what I did.

Here’s my version of the press release statistics, with sheets reordering the list of local authorities based on the proportion of vacant homes and the proportions of 5 year and 10 year vacant homes. This makes for some much more interesting and frankly depressing reading.

The 10 areas with the highest proportion of empty homes are:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.12.52 PM

And here is the proportion at 5 years:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.13.30 PM

And here it is at 10 years:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.14.10 PM

I’m not quite sure what is happening in Wycombe and Chiltern (this might be related to the law of small numbers), but the rest of the list looks somewhat familiar. All the original “big four” have dropped out apart from Durham and that looks in keeping with what could be an actual issue. Scottish, Northern, Welsh, Midlands, former strong working communities now de-industrialised, towns not cities, with relatively low house prices dominate the lists.

It is almost like the proportion of empty homes is a symptom of another problem rather than something that can be solved in isolation. So going on about empty homes in isolation might not be the best thing to do, when the issue might well be depopulation and corresponding low house prices.

The other thing to repeat is look at how small those figures are. Outside of Shetland (which will be an outlier due to its tiny overall size and living conditions) the areas with the highest proportion of empty homes after 10 years is less than one in 300. Yes, people get very upset if that one in 300 (or less) happens to be next door to them, but we do need a bit of perspective when thinking about policy.

This puts the over-simplified conclusion of the Lib Dem release under some doubt. If empty homes are a blight and a waste (and they are!) then the areas with the highest proportion of them must be the areas with the biggest proportions of blight and waste. But perhaps what is required is not just Councils taking over empty homes, but wider and more thoughtful approaches to improve the economy of those areas and give empty homeowners a reason to want to bring them back into use.

There’s a couple of other flaws with the release, the most major being that a large number of Councils aren’t included. Both Manchester and Birmingham (Councils, not the whole conurbations) manage to not be included in the release, most likely as a result of not getting the FOI response back before the Lib Dems wanted to issue it. Sure, that can only increase the overall number of empty homes, but it can change the overall proportion of homes and looking at the government’s figures suggests that Manchester especially has an interesting (and positive) story to tell about bringing empty homes back into use.

Which brings me onto the final point of concern about the release, which is the over-reliance on looking at Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) on bringing empty homes back into use. The Lib Dems have actually asked Councils how many homes have been brought back and how many EDMOs they have used. The only thing that they have reported is the proportion of Councils using EDMOs. When you actually look at their own figures, what you see is that areas like Leeds (although be careful about proportions rather than overall numbers!) and Newcastle are bringing the most empty homes back into use and they are doing it without significant use of EDMOs!

Clearly, if the press release authors wanted to look at bringing empty homes back into use, if they really wanted to understand what worked and what didn’t then they might have asked the areas doing best what was happening. I’m sure (in fact, I know) both of the Councils in these cities have been trying very hard to bring down the numbers. But at least part of the answer might lie in the fact that both these cities have inward investment, public and private and improving economies.

Which takes us back to the earlier point- perhaps what this data is showing us is the solution to empty homes is found in improving the wider economy of de-industrialised areas, particularly towns, as well as individual measures on housing.

Assessed need and its objectification

It must be Christmas because I’m talking about planning again! Not only that, but going back to the topics of one of my first posts– the attempts to estimate of how many houses we need.

Reading Inside Housing the other day I came across a slightly strange article title: ‘More than 30,000 new homes were in areas where they were not needed, according to government formula’. Is that true, I thought to myself and, frankly, what could it possibly mean? Follow me on a little circle and I’ll try and explain, hopefully trying to demystify quite a lot of planning-speak as we do so.

First off it is worth reminding ourselves where we are. For a longer explanation, feel free to look at my earlier post. Under the current rules, local authorities have to investigate their own housing need and convince an inspector that the methodology they have used to calculate housing need (and the answers that follow from this) are accurate. Some authorities convince inspectors, some don’t. There are very few hard and fast rules to this, other than bring as much evidence as you can and explain why you did or didn’t include everything you can think of. The total amount for the country is therefore an accumulation of what each local authority has decided.

The government are proposing a new methodology that is consistent across England and can be worked out fairly quickly and easily. Crucially, instead of accumulation, the government has effectively sought out a way to distribute a national figure for housing growth (between 225,000 and 275,000 a year, more on this below) and then worked out a methodology that achieves this and spreads the national figure over the country.

So the first and absolutely clunkingly obvious thing to point out is that these methodologies are different. They may try and measure the same thing, but they go about it in completely different ways and we shouldn’t be surprised if they come to different national and local conclusions. One seeks to try and make each local area right, probably with a bit of leeway and then accumulate them nationally to something possibly right-ish with lots of leeway. The other tries to take a national view and then spread it about the country, using a crude (but therefore easy to understand) measure of affordability to do so. It is consistent and easy to understand, but as a consequence of being crude, more likely to be wrong for each individual local authority area.

Is there one that is more right and one that is more wrong? Well, in terms of trying to work out how many households there will be in, say, 15 years time, there probably is. Indeed, you only need to look at the work of Andrew Lainton to see an impressive attempt to try and find an even better, consistent, relatively easy to understand methodology.

But even the most spreadsheet happy statistician would have to accept that all they can try to achieve is a good estimate. Frankly, we may only know which was more right when we get there and even then the outcome is likely to be predicated on the actions taken until that point (because creating homes can also create households!).

Let’s put that another way- the numbers the government are using are a little bit fudgey. To begin with, the 225,000 to 275,000 range is quite large; 50,000 homes a year difference between them! The figures come from February’s white paper, with a footnote stating where these numbers come from. This includes the 13 year old Barker Report, which even Kate Barker herself has incredulously commented upon it still being used.

I’m not saying these numbers are wrong, I’m saying there is a 22% difference between 225,000 and 275,000. But what matters isn’t that the number is exactly right, but that local authorities have an idea about the housing need in their area that is seen as required and are actively doing something to meet it in a reasonable and plan-led way.

I’d much rather a good but not perfect guess now, rather than an exact answer some time in the future. And yes, that goes for distribution across areas as well as well as for the national figure.

The alternative approach, the one we have had for the last few years, is to have argument on top of argument about what the actual number, down to the last digit, should be. Local plans have been kept in a form of hiatus for years as these arguments progress. What this has meant, as I’ve detailed in my previous post, isn’t no development, but development where housebuilders want (apart from the green belt) at a rate that suits them.

But what about these 30,000 homes that “weren’t needed”? What the report goes on to say is that this is the difference between the additions to housing stock in the last year and what the same local authorities would have as their targets under the proposed new methodology. Hopefully, you’ll be able to see where the mistake (known or otherwise) is there.

Firstly, the new methodology hasn’t been implemented yet (the government are looking at the consultation responses) and even if they were almost all local authorities haven’t had enough time to update their plans based on the new proposals. Secondly, these were almost certainly homes that were needed in one sense or another not least because the housebuilders, who effectively control the market for new completions, knew they could sell them. Thirdly, the targets are really minimums, with a reasonable amount of over-supply having the potential to offset other years that might be leaner. An area that only just meets its target every year is in for a shock in a low year!

So I can’t quite see what the issue is with the fact that in some authorities some homes are being built. There is much to be critical of the government for in strategic planning. Most notably, making local authorities wholly responsible for builders failing to deliver new homes whilst denying (or at least kicking the can down the road of giving) them the powers to actually do anything about this. Such powers inevitably include letting councils actually build new social homes for rent at a scale that would help alleviate some pressure.

In essence the long discussions about housing numbers have got in the way of delivering homes and taken up a lot of conversation time that could have been spent looking at what could actually help deliver homes, particularly affordable homes (for sale or rent), where they are needed most.

But hopefully what I’ve gone some way to showing is that whilst assessments of need are more or less arbitrary -and the government’s proposals are at the “more arbitrary” end of that- what really matters is that there is a clear and achievable challenge for everyone involved in housing supply to meet and time and space to come to real and actual ways to achieve them. The alternative is essentially a parlour game, where anyone with a spreadsheet and a set of range calculations can have their two pennies.

I’m happy to take part in that game, but would also like to see some decent homes built at the right prices in the right places first. If setting a clear figure and empowering people to get out and build according to a plan can achieve that then let’s get on and do it.

Numbers and numbness

Has everyone seen the video of the man who uses excel to paint? Well, I can’t say I’m anywhere near as interesting as him, but I can usually hold down a spreadsheet and extract some valuable information from it.

The heart wrenching testimony from the work and pensions committee have shown, once again, that the systems looking into what benefits people with health issues receive are not working properly.

As regular readers will know, I have already shared my two pennies on one of the reasons I think employment and support allowance (ESA) and personal independence payments (PIP) appeals are going through the roof and why mandatory reconsiderations (the new-ish process the DWP is forcing on claimants) are not helpful. I’m not alone in wanting to look at this, indeed, the work and pensions committee have an ongoing investigation into PIP and ESA assessments, where that recent testimony came from. As part of this the DWP has given them some supporting statistics, which are a treasure trove of interesting information.

That said, like most treasure you do have to do some digging. I’m always very interested in looking at government responses to select committees (or, for many local authorities, scrutiny committees). If you know what to look for you can often find what information the authors are trying very, very hard to avoid saying, whilst putting the data out into the open.

And so it is with the data tables the DWP have released, alongside an explanatory document that explains far more than it is trying to let on. That said, if you read just the explanatory document you wouldn’t see much of interest. But when you actually look in detail, you can see what they are hoping you will miss.

Before we get into the data proper, let’s just take a quick step back and remind ourselves what mandatory reconsiderations are. Introduced in 2013, this was an additional step where a benefit claimant thought a decision was wrong. Instead of just being able to appeal straight away, they had to ask for the DWP to look again at the decision and then only once this was complete could they, separately, appeal against the decision.

This was controversial as it was adding another layer of decision making, expecting claimants to understand the process and to push forward through a difficult and complicated appeals process if they believed the decision was wrong. This is even more difficult when you think that simultaneous cuts to legal aid mean fewer and fewer people can be appropriately represented through the appeals process.

What I find odd about the explanatory document is that it consistently puts each statistic into the context of a larger cohort. So we don’t see just the outcomes from mandatory reconsiderations, we see that within the context of all claimants.

Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.23.42 PM

Similarly, we don’t see just the proportion of PIP decisions that are overturned at the first tier tribunal, we see that within the context of all mandatory reconsideration decisions.

Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.25.10 PM

This makes issues appear smaller than they are. Sure, lots of people are asking for mandatory reconsiderations and then appealing, but they want you to look at it in the context of the whole benefit, where other people are not asking for a reconsideration and then appealing. Surely those people are happy with their decision?

Coming from that second graph, the second odd thing I notice is the insistence that there is a small (2 percentage points) gap between different health conditions. The suggestion seems to be that conditions are treated quite similarly and have similar results.

Well, both those oddities can be rectified by having a look at the actual data. As I suggested at the start of the post, I have held the statistics down and given them a bit of a thrashing out, which is available here. The graphs that follow all come from my tables, which are themselves simply rearrangements of the DWP statistics.

So, when we look at the actual data of decision making we can see some interesting results. Firstly, and coming straight from the government’s data, we can see that a whole lot of people stop after the mandatory reconsideration stage. Nearly 450,000 claims had PIP decisions upheld by mandatory reconsideration between 2013 and July 2017. All of those could have applied for an appeal if they still disagreed, yet only 126,000 have had appeals heard. Similarly, 448,000 ESA claims were upheld at mandatory reconsideration, but only 152,700 cases were heard.

What does this mean?  I suspect, particularly for the more recent decisions, appeals have been made but not yet heard; the tribunal service have a big backlog for obvious reasons. It also means mandatory reconsideration has been an exceptionally powerful tool for stopping people from appealing. It’s hard to tell why that is, perhaps some genuinely accepted the DWPs version of events? But perhaps along with this, people are giving up, or are unable to cope with the stress of further appeals or blindly accept what the DWP is telling them or, worst of all, think that the mandatory reconsideration was the appeal. Further research is most definitely required, because I don’t think society can see this as a win until we know what is really going on.

But more than that, when you look at the overall appeal outcomes, these statistics start to mirror those of the tribunal service itself. Wade through the data and this shows the DWP confirming that 62% of their PIP decisions are overturned on appeal. For ESA it is nearly 45% between 2013 and July 2017.

The ESA result sounds better, until you see that the proportion overturned has been going up each year since 2013, with the rate so far this year matching 2016/17s high point of 61%.

Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.51.15 PM

So whilst mandatory reconsiderations may be preventing many people from appealing, those that do appeal are winning their cases in droves. It’s just like Sir Henry Brooke said a few weeks ago.

Coming onto the second oddity from the explanatory document, this idea that diseases are treated approximately the same. That looks like it is a result of the contextualising data rather than the actual facts. Here is the chart for different primary health conditions for PIP:
Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.57.20 PM

In PIP the highest areas of tribunal overturns are for immune diseases (100% of the 100 cases over those years), visual disease (77% overturns) and neurological disease (70%). The lowest is metabolic disease, with just (just!) 50% of the cases being overturned at tribunal.

And here it is for ESA:Screenshot 2017-12-05 at 7.59.25 PM

For ESA the highest proportion of successful appeals was in cases with ear and mastoid processes (60% of the admittedly small 500 cases over the period) with a wide selection of health problems getting 50% of claimants being successful in their appeals. There are so many at 50% I had to check I wasn’t using the same data twice! The lowest is childbirth and related issues with no successful cases recorded. Due to the way the DWP has collated these figures (to the nearest 100) this means a small proportion of cases could have been successful. Injury and poisoning, one of the biggest groups of people appealing decisions,  has the next highest failure rate, with only (only!) 36% being successful at appeal.

Overall, if you aren’t aware of the DWPs terrible record at appeals you should be shocked by how high each and every one of these numbers is. The DWP is losing cases by the bucketload, which asks serious questions about their competence and about the process of mandatory reconsideration.

What’s more, and however they are trying to argue it, it is losing cases for some primary health conditions more than it is others, so they should be looking at this to work out what they can do to make better decisions the first (or second) time around.  Finally, especially on ESA, it is losing a higher proportion of cases each year, indicating something is very wrong with its decision making.

I think the DWP is trying to say that the focus from people like myself is on a small proportion of their decisions. Those of us on the outside only think about appeal decisions and not about those people who accepted the decision, either when it was first made or after the mandatory reconsideration. But that misses the point: we don’t know why people didn’t appeal. Some might have been happy with the decision, but are others simply unable to get through the process themselves? Many of the decisions (particularly the refusals) could have been just as bad as those getting to appeal, but we simply don’t know. The heartfelt responses the work and pensions committee have received in recent weeks point to the fact that people feel let down and confused about the whole process.

This is a key issue with mandatory reconsiderations- it has added another layer in decision making. A layer suggestive of a tickbox exercise that seems to put droves of people off appealing further, even if they may well have a case on appeal. It is another piece of paper to fill in, another time you have to explain your health condition to a stranger, placing yourself emotionally on the line and another place where -as does happen- there is a chance the award can go down as well as up.

I think we can all agree mandatory reconsideration isn’t working. I don’t want to put extra work on the tribunals service, but I can’t see how the DWP can justify maintaining the current mandatory reconsideration process when their appeal outcomes are so bad. The DWP used to always reconsider their decisions after an appeal in any case, so we have to ask why this obstructive layer is allowed to remain.


PS I’m aware that the charts have some of the primary health conditions names chopped down. It is basically impossible to do it any other way when you have such big names for conditions. All of the full condition names are available on the google document containing the charts and sheets for your persual.

Please please please Letwin get what I want

It would be the first time. So, are we all enjoying the post-budget lull? It is quite possible that Philip Hammond will be off our TV screens for a little while (at least on things relating to his brief) as the world returns to worrying about Brexit.

In my previous post about the budget I tried to outline why I would be concerned about any policies announced that would have a long lead in time. Frankly, I’m worried the government, in its current iteration, won’t last long enough to bring in the longer term policies it announces.

So the news that a major part of the “housing budget” will be another review into turning planning permissions into homes, this time chaired by Sir Oliver Letwin, is a particular worry. It has been given a short period to assemble and write up its conclusions, with the demand that it should have published the results by the Spring Statement (March 2018).

Even then, it looks like a tall order for the government to stay in its current guise. Who knows what might happen in the next few months and, as experience has taught me, I won’t be celebrating any positive policy changes until they are enacted or implemented.

Of course Sir Oliver won’t have to necessarily commission new bits of research, he could just look into what has already been proposed and choose some options. He could look at the Barker Review, the Calcutt Review, the Lyons Review, the most recent Parliamentary briefings on housing supply, their own white paper and the Farmer Review, looking into skills shortages and demographic change. Plus plenty of others (feel free to tell me your favourite!).

Indeed, Sir Oliver has a veritable smorgasboard of options available to him. What needs to happen is for the government to actually take some of them and implement them. Which is where the problem lies.

For the government seems very keen to offer further demand measures whilst not really combatting the need for supply. Put simply the government’s approach since at least Eric Pickles’s days has been to force councils to release more sites whilst posturing and taking tough to housebuilders whilst doing very little to change the market to strongly incentivise or directly create steel toe capped boots on the ground. This has led to the situation where developers have lots of options on which site to choose, but no time or incentive to actually build much faster than they are already.

This approach was evident once again in the budget, with limited support for council building (£1bn seems like a lot of money but it spreads very thinly over the country) and lots of loan underwriting and guarantees. As if all housebuilders need is the final push to get them over the line on individual sites. If only they had share issues or assets they could borrow against.
It’s actually been a common point of my last few posts- political will is required to move beyond this and that means deciding to directly impact some negatively in order to help others. It’s as true with unrepentant city centre drivers as it is with housebuilders.

Trying to capture and reinvest land value uplifts (which is rather popular at the moment) would stop those who have land to sell from receiving the full market price. Robust compulsory purchase order powers (or use it or lose it), joint partnerships or new homes corporations will take business and/or profits away from existing housebuilders. Reducing house prices (however that is achieved) or reducing the rate of growth of house prices would impact people who already own homes.

Indeed, what the government seems incredibly shy of is actually using an arm of the state to directly build homes at scale. Yes, local authorities have been very adept at setting up joint ventures and yes, the government has some small scale schemes like the accelerated construction scheme. But at present these don’t add up enough to a significant market intervention. More funding, especially to cover start-up costs (you’d hope building would be self-funding quite quickly) are required in order to allow one bit or another to build at scale in a way that competes with existing developers.

There’s a word for this kind of decision making. That word is politics. Politicians are accountable to us as voters, but that isn’t the same thing as them needing to please each individual person by each individual decision.

So Sir Oliver, and by extension the government, don’t have to venture very far to solve the particular puzzle of increasing housing supply. Indeed, they have everything they need.

What they want to do, and what they are struggling to find is a way is to achieve, is creating supply without upsetting anyone else, particularly existing homeowners, landowners, landlords or those whose supposed purpose is to build houses on land. But in the real world that is very often simply necessary. It’s a puzzle of their own making, in their own heads and if they could see beyond it they would be able to deliver positive changes.

We’ve come full circle in a way. The government need to make a decision; they have the policy options laid out infront of them. But choosing not to choose is about the worst thing they can do. More delays and half measures make building the right homes in the right places at the right prices significantly more difficult.

Paint, power, priority and priorities

It’s amazing what a lick of paint will do in the right place. I say this partly because our kitchen could do with a refresh and partly because of the launch of the King Street pilot in Toronto.

In the pilot King Street is seeing a huge priority shift in favour of public transport, with cars only able to use it for short (ie. one block) periods before having to move off. This leaves the rest of road free for public transport. The early results show large drops in commute times for public transport users, although there is much more time to see if this continues.

So there you have it, new roads or rail aren’t necessarily required to improve public transport travel times. Just change the roads around to favour whatever public transport is already using the streets. So why aren’t we seeing similar approaches tried everywhere? Well, to get into that we have to look at what it would mean and what the political risks are.

But let’s first have a think about why this is important. Many of our city centres are clogged with poisonous fumes, many are difficult to cross with any form of transport. Large, often multi-storey sections of city are used for the storage of wheeled lumps of metal and plastic that lie unused for much of the day, whilst often buses are half empty outside of peak hours.

I don’t think changing prioritisation is something unknown to policy makers or politicians. They know it is possible, in the right circumstances. They probably also know that in the long run it is likely to do some good and convince some people to change from car to public transport (the elusive prize of “modal shift”).

The first part of answering the riddle is that giving priority to one group of commuters (in this case public transport users) takes it away from another. All the economic theories about whether one group can “compensate” another through a change in policy won’t apply when you have a swarm of angry motorists (and their well organised lobby groups) making a path to your door.

Yes, the changes would hopefully convince some of them out of their cars, but in the meantime they are going to be unhappy and quite likely vocal about it. In Britain it has been a couple of years since the tabloids have unilaterally declared that there was a war on motorists, but I am sure with the right cajoling they could reopen hostilities. It would be a fearless politician who tries to unleash major prioritisation changes on an unsuspecting populace, but even with years of warming up quite a few people are still going to be upset about it.

The second issue is that while there are many people who feel they cannot live without their car, there really are some who actually can’t. People with certain disabilities, those whose work involves deliveries, those transporting raw materials and tools, people with caring responsibilities who may need to leave work in an emergency. Taxi drivers (of every description) might feel that they are a form of public transport. All these groups will be caught up in any de-prioritisation of the car. There may be a way to try and work with these groups to provide them with exemptions, but each time you do that you put more traffic on the restricted roads and lessen the overall impact of the policy.

Thirdly, especially from a European perspective, many of our roads weren’t designed for multiple lanes of cars. They weren’t even designed for cars, but for carts or pedestrians. Especially in city centres, it is hard to imagine road widening taking place if it will destroy buildings.

Add into this that almost all of our cities are built straddling rivers (because: history) then you have a real problem.

I grew up in Worcester, with one four lane road bridge in the city. If you don’t cross that bridge you can travel 2 miles south or five miles north, on essentially local roads, just to get to the other side of the river. The road layout means it’s pretty hard to see how some people travelling across the river won’t have to pass by the Cathedral in all its splendour. This means whatever happens with priority and prioritisation, cars are still likely to be getting close to the city centre when traversing the city, even if they are not travelling into the centre. They will still have to cross the bottleneck that is the road bridge and that is effectively that.

Just as the rivers present an obstacle, so do the actions of previous decision makers. I live in Leeds, where someone a long time ago decided to build a motorway into the heart of the city centre. We also have the shortest numbered motorway in the country right in the city centre. Indeed, if you are travelling from east to west, north to south or vise versa, you are most likely to get pretty close to the city centre. No lick of paint is going to take the roads away and even with lane priority for the buses that use the motorways people are still going to want to travel in large numbers close to the city centre. Better public transport that doesn’t travel to the city centre may be part of the solution to that, but that would require us to be able to direct public transport where to go.

Which leads me onto the next point and the need for public transport priority improvements to be matched with decently directed and quality services. People won’t be nudged into moving out of their cars if the public transport is slow, liable to break down, doesn’t go where you want or is not very pleasant to sit on. For much of the UK that just isn’t happening and the growing consensus is that local democratic control (and perhaps higher subsidies alongside this) is the only thing that could improve this.

Finally, there’s nothing truly exciting about changing priorities for most people. No-one apart from us policy geeks are going to remember the politician who decided to repaint the roads, no matter what impact it makes.

There’s even a school of thought, connected with my previous point, that says you have to wow the middle class, middle income commuters out of their cars with something exciting. Trains excite people more than buses, trams even more than that and don’t even start people on undergrounds or monorail (monorail monorail!). But all of that comes at a cost (exorbitant in some cases) that is not only financial. Roads have to be dug up, viaducts built, stations expanded, tunnel diggers bought, buildings knocked down, land purchased.

Hopefully what I’ve described isn’t enough to turn anyone off road reorganisation, but has laid out why it isn’t as easy as it might appear.

Let’s take a second to look at a case where it most definitely did not pan out. York is one of those historical cities with a medieval street layout, a large river and a set number of bridges in the city centre. It has issues with pollution and slow travel times for private and public transport travellers alike. The council, much like Toronto are currently doing, decided to pilot a scheme where one of the bridges -the one with the highest level of bus use- would effectively become a bus only bridge. It wasn’t just paint, they paid out for some number plate recognition cameras and signs, which meant people received notifications and (eventually) fines for driving through in their cars.

What happened next is most likely seared into the collective memory of every transport planner in the country. It became the single most important issue in the city, dominating press coverage for months. Many people received fines, some without knowing they had broken the rules, some out because they found themselves funnelled into a route that they couldn’t get out of, some out of intransigence. The council lost legal battles to enforce the fines and it eventually became such a millstone around their neck that they ended the pilot. It weakened the ruling administration in the council and strongly contributed to it’s eventual loss of power.

So, upsetting motorists is a difficult sell. It needs careful management and early and clear engagement with the public. You need to be able to show that the majority of the public want better public transport and you have to try and deliver the results early and aid a quick modal shift so that full public transport is passing three quarter empty cars.

Crucially, to my mind at least, you have to be able to present any changes as part of a package that looks wider than a single street or improvement. If X or Y road is effectively closing to cars what will happen elsewhere? What public transport improvements can you lever in at the same time?  Who gains from increased use, a private company or local services? Can investment be made in out of centre parking? And also crucially, how will the needs of people who genuinely need to use their cars be met?

This is an issue many councils in the UK are going to be looking at. Hopefully all eyes are on Toronto, but it will be important to learn not only what they did on the road, but how people reacted to the changes and how the public can be convinced to accept re-prioritisation of the roads for what is clearly in the interest of everyone.

Until the PIP squeaks

Even for a non-lawyer like myself, there is something deeply interesting about Henry Brooke’s arguments showing how the tribunals service are trying to cope with social security appeals.

His most recent comments focus on the issues the quality of evidence from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), especially in health related benefit decisions, for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) and Disability Living Allowance (DLA) that PIP is replacing. Try and remember those acronyms- I’m going to be using them a lot!

From my time as a welfare rights worker (ending just as PIP was being brought in) I’ve seen the confusion and upset that poor decision making can have first hand and the successes and failures of individuals as they go through the tribunal system. What I want to try and spend a little bit of time contemplating is how we got here and what can be done to overcome this dire situation.

I believe Henry’s arguments can be boiled down to the concerns that decision makers often rely too heavily on medical evidence provided by the DWPs own contractors, that this contracted medical evidence is, itself, often of quite a low quality and that the loss of legal aid for most social security cases has made life much more difficult for applicants.

If you want my two pennies on why this seems to be happening, it is the DWPs approach that tries to turn decision making and then appeals work into a bulk job. Indeed, that’s something that really come through when you consider how PIP works in comparison to DLA.

I’m not about to argue that DLA was perfect or that there were no bad decisions; far from it. But there’s a real policy point here about what we want from disability benefits. If you’ve been reading my blog from the early posts you’ll know what I’m going to say next: reality is complicated.

In that post I looked at the ways complexity can come about in policy. Hopefully I got across that complexity can pop up either from law not being detailed enough (in which case ambiguities arise) or being too prescribed and not flexible enough to cope with people’s real circumstances. DLA was arguably the former, but PIP is most definitely the latter.

Who got what under DLA was one of those situations where the law itself could be summed up in a few sentences. But what that meant filled entire books, could change based on caselaw and often turned on very small facts in individual cases. Decision makers would have to consider each of these points when coming to a view and, if needed, would be required to justify this in light of the available evidence.

Coming on to the evidence, this was mostly the account provided by the applicant on their claim form and any other medical evidence that had been collected. Applicants could provide evidence alongside their claim, but the DWP often wrote to some of the people working with them (whether it was the GP, specialist, counsellor, etc) for further information. This usually included the set questionnaire which asked general questions when what was really needed was specific information. The final decision often relied very heavily on this third party information. Whenever I filled in a DLA form (and at times that was 4 a day) I would ask the person what their GP knew of their condition. If they said not much (for example they’d referred to a consultant years ago) I would always expect their claim to be knocked back in the first decision, whether or not I thought they had a good claim.

At least information from a GP was someone who could be aware of the condition. Under PIP the government has moved further towards carrying out their own assessments and this usually means a generalist health professional making very quick decisions.

What’s worse is that many of the assessments appear to be very generic and generalised, with it feeling like it is a tick box exercise rather than a robust assessment of someone’s specific needs.

Coming back to the underlying policy, PIP uses a points system with a range of different descriptors. So those few sentences for DLA are now 7 pages of finely gradiated areas. Each of these descriptors lead to points and points, eventually, mean prizes. So where once a decision maker had to weigh a few big areas together, based on the evidence they had to hand, now they have to look at descriptor after descriptor and make a decision on each individual area.

With the DWP contracted report in their hand, I’m not surprised that decision makers just follow this. It essentially advises them how to make a decision. Do we expect them to unpick a consultant’s circumlocutory response to the wrong question (DWP requests for information are often oblique and I don’t think anyone trains medical staff in how to reply to these questions) or look at what the nurse from Capita says about the exact descriptor?

Over time the reports from the DWPs contractor get very samey, but at least the answer the questions we are expecting decision makers to answer. So, as is the case with Employment and Support Allowance, what the contracted health professional says becomes more and more right, even when it is wrong. What’s more, do decision makers feel that the contracted report is “their” version of events, which has to be weighed against, but is somehow more virtuous or accurate than another health professional’s?

Henry is right to point to mandatory reconsiderations as a way to try and improve this. Too often it looks like these are there to provide a final check on truly ridiculous decisions and to ensure that the the DWP hasn’t totally erred before confirming the decision and seeing whether the applicant will formally appeal.

What really needs to happen is for the decision makers undertaking the mandatory reconsiderations to put themselves in the position of the judge and panel. Is it reasonable to weigh this evidence in this way? Is everything in the right place to ensure this evidence is verified and we know who it is from? Will the medically qualified panel member read something in this report that the original decision maker has not? Do we need more evidence to make the decision we have come to?

Making disability benefits a points game and then basing the points overwhelmingly on medical reports from your own contractor sounds like a recipe for poor decision making and plenty of appeals. Indeed, as Henry says, lots of appeals are coming through and the DWP is losing a high proportion of them.

At the moment it feels like this bad decision making has too low a risk for the DWP and high externalities for other people. Applicants are left in limbo for months as appeals wind their course, tribunals are full of basic decisions that can be made easily on paper in the applicant’s favour. The Courts and Tribunal Service may suffer, but is that a worry for the DWP? Whatever the underlying thinking of decision makers, the idea that political rhetoric is impacting on how we think about those claiming benefits means trying to make arguments about improving benefit processing to the public can be a sticky wicket.

So can these externalities be internalised? At the very least the DWP should be offsetting some of the costs of HMCTS whilst decision making is so poor. But should they be nudged further, maybe by a surcharge on each overturned decision- with a waiver for hard cases? Should successful applicants receive a generous rate of interest on any backpayments? Do DWP need to be forced to represent themselves in person at appeals, so that only those worth fighting for get through? Or is there something about the process, particularly about how medical evidence is compiled and then examined, that needs to be sorted out first?

Supported housing- details, details, details

Forget what the calendar says, last week was the one for fireworks. This is the week for detailed policy analysis (yay!). The announcement that the LHA cap wouldn’t be imposed on social rented housing was (as far as I could tell) universally welcomed. However, the next step is to see what is being proposed in its place.

It is hard to think of a more foolish attempt at supposedly saving money than trying to pretend people needing supported housing (defined widely) could only receive the LHA amount (the 30th percentile market rent) for their area. The supposed top up fund was poorly thought through and led to a lack of confidence in the sector about how it would fund new housing when it couldn’t be sure how much income it would receive in the long run.

But let’s first take a couple of steps back and work out how we got here.

As the population ages (something Brexit may well hasten) more of us are going to need housing that is more than a roof and some walls. We might need specialist equipment, alarm systems, help nearby, visits or adaptations to suit our needs. At one point the solution to this issue was institutional and one size fits all. Now people rightfully expect that their needs are provided for, but that their freedom and independence is respected. Instead of care homes people are more likely to want to have homes that support their needs without institutionalising them.

I doubt there would be much discussion about there being a need for housing tailored to individual’s needs and a mechanism, through the state if required, to both provide appropriate housing and the additional support a person requires.

Housing-related costs have traditionally (in England) been provided by housing benefit with a means test and some arbitration system for unusually big costs. Other costs, such as general care and support visits was paid for through other, locally administered schemes, like supporting people or the general social care budgets.

This is one of the reasons it can be frustrating to hear politicians bemoaning the size of the housing benefit budget without proper reflection on what it actually contains. Paying for supported housing through this budget is a choice, but really only an accounting one. If it wasn’t through housing benefit then it would have to be paid through another route, but claiming housing benefit is growing beyond all proportion (and insinuating that is solely due to unemployed working age jobseekers) really does a disservice to what it is actually paying for. To repeat, paying for supported accommodation is a cost that will keep on growing in the short and medium term, no matter what schemes the government try to insist on imposing on working age tenants.

But, of course, housing benefit is on the way out. It is being rolled into the super-colossus of universal credit, the benefit that is doing so well at winning hearts and minds at the moment.

So getting the government to stop, shake their head and then turn on the heel for an LHA cap, not just for supported housing but all social housing, has been a massive achievement for the sector. That said, I doubt there would have been much of a social housing sector, particularly for supported accommodation, if they hadn’t been successful.

The government have stepped back from the brink, but what are they proposing instead? On Tuesday they announced their plans and things are about to get complicated…

They’ve tried to split supported housing into three main groups:

  • Sheltered and extra care housing, where tenants can receive a new payment (noted as “through the welfare system” but it is unclear (to me at least) if this is part of universal credit) called “sheltered rent”.
  • Long term housing, which is meant to meet the needs of people who will need significant support in the long run, such as those with learning difficulties or mental or physical ill health. This will be provided through universal credit, but with no upper limit on payments although the government is still mulling and asking for advice on “cost control measures”.
  • Short term housing, such as accommodation for people experiencing homelessness or people (overwhelmingly women) fleeing domestic violence. This is proposed to to be a grant payment made through local authorities. So local councils will have to negotiate with central government about their local needs in order to secure their bit of the pie and then negotiate with providers in order to fund them.

Taking the last point first, I can see the sense in directly paying for short term housing. From my housing benefit assessment days I remember the succession of 2 day claims for hostels and the local women’s aid, usually with no proof of income or details to really decide a benefit claim. Of course, any reasonable authority simply paid up- why would anyone stop to try and enquire further on a benefit claim for a woman fleeing domestic violence? So the whole thing was a bit of a paper exercise. A 40 page paper exercise that had to be completed as part of the stay. Not something you want to be doing if you are homeless, fleeing violence or trying to overcome an addiction.

But there are some issues with the grant approach. Firstly, government gives grants but it can also take them away. At least the benefit system is a right rather than a process of continuing negotiations, especially in the context of austerity. With priorities changing and if there is an insistence on delivering savings then grant funding can always be cut, either the total amount England-wide or the amount paid by the local authority to each individual provider.

There is also the tricky issue of assessing needs between areas. Not everywhere is lucky enough to have a women’s aid and many women experiencing violence need to leave the area completely to get away from their abuser. So does the funding go to their “home” authority or the authority they are staying temporarily in?

Some national charities have already commented that payment through local authorities may negatively affect them. This is for two reasons. Firstly, local authorities will each incur costs that they will want to recoup through the funding grant. Secondly, local authorities are unlikely to want what remains of their allocation going to fund the national management of organisation; they’ll want it spent in the local area. Thirdly, and they haven’t said this outright, local authorities may prefer to fund local organisations, especially if they know them and get on with them, rather than the big boys who operate all over the country. So local funding tips the balance in favour of local organisations without management costs elsewhere in the country and perhaps with people they know running it or sitting on management boards.

This all means that fateful and fashionable word: “disruption”. If this is a big enough issue then national organisations could choose to become umbrella bodies rather than directly manage services, spinning local provision out to local organisations. They may also need to have a think about how they use charitable donations. No-one wants to know that their monthly direct debit is paying for a middle manager to attend a meeting with a middle manager from a local authority or central government, but that is often what they do. So it might be that they have to push hard for more charitable donations in order to do the advocacy and campaigning that go alongside actual provision.

Moving on, perhaps you had to read the definitions of long term housing and supported/extra care housing a few times to work out the difference? I know I did and I’m still not 100% sure. How exactly government plan to differentiate between the two, especially as there could be quite a big jump between the payments received for each, will be something to watch out for.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that there will be appeal cases where providers have tried to claim a particular tenancy is long term housing rather than supported housing/ extra care and other cases where a landlord is trying to claim their housing is supported housing whilst decision makers disagree. Thinking back on the housing benefit system there seemed to be an large number of cases (at least for a few years) where what counted as “exempt accommodation” or provision “of care, support and supervision”, particularly by third parties, was debated again and again. So I think there will be a similar pressure to define both what housing can be included in any of these categories and then which are “long term housing” and which are “supported accommodation/ extra care”.

If this is a matter for universal credit decision makers then we have a whole other issue to consider, which is how we think people sat many miles away can make decisions about local areas. At least with housing benefit the authority would either know the organisation, get them in for a chat or visit the housing to look at it. I doubt universal credit decision makers will do that- they’ll just look at the details on paper and come to a view. The outcome: more appeals.

What we don’t know yet is what the payment gap between sheltered/extra care housing and long term housing will be.

The government have proposed that “sheltered rent” should be the formula rent (basically ratios of local rent and national rent levels and the estimated house price relative to the national average) plus or minus 10% plus eligible service charges. All of this is set to an overall cap, but we don’t yet know what that is and it is likely to be calculated on a local basis.

So the big question mark is will this be enough to pay for decent accommodation and secure new investment in the kind of housing people will need in the future? I’m guessing that there will be finance staff looking at spreadsheets up and down the country this week trying to work that out. The real difference is the extra 10%, but is 10% on top of the formula rent enough to imbue confidence across the sector? I don’t know, I don’t have access to the data, but as soon as those spreadsheets start coming up with an answer I am sure we will hear about it.

Budging the budget

Or “why I’m not even going to try this year”.

So, the budget is just under a month away and there are signs from certain quarters that there may be some interesting announcements coming up.

For the last few years I, like I suspect many people who will read this blog, have had to try and decipher what might be coming, be prepared with statements in case something comes forward that is liked/ disliked, etc, etc. Filtering policies that have been floated, gauging potential reactions from different sectors, considering economic impact, being ready for what is to come, it’s all important work that someone’s got to do it.

Well, this year I’m not going to try not to bother to do this in advance. But what I will do is will explain why this year is different and what I will be looking out for on the day.

Firstly (and apologies for boring anyone) it’s worth understanding that the budget is two things. It’s the formal tax and spend setting that comes with its own parliamentary time. But it’s also a chance for government to push out new policies and plans and set the agenda for a little while. 

Just one year ago it must have sounded like a great plan to separate the budget and the actual implementation of policy by 4 and a bit months. Having “the budget” in November but implementation of policies (most notably tax policies) at the start of the financial year in April gave companies, tax advisors and individuals time to prepare for the new regime. In any normal time a government in November is likely to last until April in order to implement the policies it is proposing.

But we are not in normal times. Perhaps when Philip Hammond announced the date change he felt pretty secure that the government who proposed policies in November 2017 would be able to implement those changes in April 2018. But that now looks worryingly like hubris.

In policy terms, a weak government means we should adopt an air of cynicism about whether announced policies, especially those outside the formal budget, will actually happen.

Not all policies announced in the budget follow the tax year, of course. Government can always find money when it has a need to do something quickly. It is possible that changes, for example raising the housing revenue account (HRA) borrowing cap to allow local authorities to build more homes, could be brought in straight away, although more on that particular policy is below.

This will all depend on what the government need to do to make changes, whether new legislation or parliamentary time is required to bring it through. I think we can often mistake what is on the news for what is happening at parliament, but there’s no doubting that legislation is going to be snarled up whilst days and days of debates go on about Brexit. Put simply, the more time something needs in parliament (due to repeat consultation rounds, committee stages or simply discussion time) the less likely it is to be finished before parliament is prorogued.

If parliament is dissolved, for example due to an election, that will add in further delays to legislation and, if there is no agreement about carrying on with particular bills, it could stop them dead in their tracks. This won’t apply for tinkering changes but let’s say, for example, that a new housing and planning bill is announced on the same day (yes, another one; they’re like buses), containing a large number of the things that have impressed Lord Porter. If an election happens on a completely different topic whilst the bill is being drafted or discussed it could wipe the bill clean away and it would be for the new government to decide what to do next.

Similarly, if there is a change of government without an election, they may come forward with a whole new set of proposals and kick anything from the previous government into the long grass. Perhaps they’ll be concerned with implementing a no deal brexit and, let’s face it, that will eat up so much parliamentary time across all departments that anything else is likely to not even be a sideshow. (It might be a good time to slip through some minor changes whilst no-one is looking, though.)

On some of the changes, such as the aforementioned HRA borrowing cap, the budget itself has to be understood as essentially a Treasury document. What we’ve heard previously is that the reason this hasn’t been implemented is because of a Treasury view that local authority borrowing on housing is part of the country’s borrowing (something called the public sector net cash requirement or PSNCR).

Like anyone who has spent any time looking at British economic policy, I’ve come to my own opinions of the role of the Treasury in allowing policy changes to come forward. Quite often, especially on its own patch, the Treasury can be lithe and forward thinking. In other areas, particularly if there is an established “view” the Treasury can be unmovable. They’re also the only department in government that it is almost impossible to work around- especially if the policy cannot be funded based on the department’s current budget. What’s more, because they set (within some international parameters) the accounting standards, what they say goes.

If the Treasury thinks the local authority borrowing for housebuilding is part of the PSNCR then it is. No matter that other countries do it differently. It’s my view that this, coupled with a desire to not have 200 council leaders saying “we told you so” followed by “look at the fantastic homes we’ve built locally!” is what has stopped government significantly increasing the HRA borrowing cap in the last few years. Will this change, or will the Treasury find a way to keep it out of its document? That probably depends on ministerial judgement and skill; how far and how cleverly  are ministers prepared to push against the established view?

In normal times this might be quite possible, but with the Chancellor and Prime Minister both firefighting Brexit (and common enemies and each other!) can we expect them to bring forward, fight for against internal and external opposition and implement something they chose not to just a few months ago?

Which brings me on to the next issue we’ve seen in recent years which is a tendency, particularly on housing, to overpromise and underdeliver. If ministerial statements in the last couple of years are to be believed, housing has recently had more revolutions than Russia had in 1917. But every policy announcement has fallen flat, especially as central government seem keen at throwing their own money (and no-one else’s) at affordable housing whilst trying to berate housebuilders into acting against their economic interests to create housing supply. The £2 billion for affordable housing (remember that?) lasted less than 6 hours before it was pulled apart and shown to be little more than a damp squib.

Even if the housing summit went very well (and by all public accounts it did) these may still be seen as only suggestions. If the proposals require Treasury support (which, let’s face it, they will) then who is going to have that discussion with them? There was no-one from the Treasury present at the summit, so (to steal from Yes Prime Minister) an agreement there may turn into a suggestion to the Treasury, which could become a note to the Chancellor, which can be ignored in the general sweep of a budget, particularly an embattled budget from an under fire Chancellor.

I’ll try and put it another way. Big numbers make the government look good and big one-off injections of cash make the government look good on the news and can happen very quickly.  But they are unlikely to lead to the sort of transformative changes that can happen with dedicated policy change. Which would a Chancellor choose- particularly if he was being guided by officials against a big policy change? As I’ve said above, it’s simply hard to know if this government can deliver the big changes in the (unknown, even to them) amount of time it has left.

That means we have a classic morton’s fork. Small amendments have a higher chance of being implemented, but a lower chance of being successful in creating change. Big new policies have a higher chance of being successful if brought in, but a lower chance of actually getting the support and time to be implemented.

Crucially, part of this is in the government’s gift- they can announce concrete and significant changes to policy here and now, or they can do a budget day announcement of, for example, a new housing and planning act with bells and whistles and free homes for everyone, because what really are the odds it will get through parliament before it’s dissolved? Government must know this, so it’s not just the policies that are important, but how they are seeking to implement them.

A more cynical person than I might suggest that policies needing significant time to work through are more about setting the terrain for the next election.

What I will therefore be looking out for on budget day is changes that can be made without long lead-in times and without the need for extensive parliamentary scrutiny outside of the formal budget process. Small changes (some of which would be positive) might happen, big changes possibly won’t.

But I shan’t be losing sleep until I’ve actually seen the detail and implementation strategy that matters this year much more than ever.

UBS again

My last post on universal basic services (UBS) was rushed out in a naptime and an evening and, to be honest, I didn’t expect it to have the immediate impact it did. Many thanks to Jonathan Portes for replying on twitter, which may have had something to do with it.

As I mentioned early on in the previous blog, I wasn’t aiming to be critical, but to take the proposals seriously and critique what was being outlined in the report compared to what was being suggested in parts of the press. The closest I got to criticism was asking for more information on a couple of points, specifically about housing (or shelter) and food.

Full credit must therefore go to Andrew Percy, co-director of the Social Policy Network, for responding in his own blogpost. That said, I’m hoping he wasn’t just responding to me. Firstly because that wouldn’t be good for my ego and secondly because some of the things he refers to as “some confusion” aren’t in my piece.

In any case, I think there is enough in the reply in order to come to some broad conclusions about UBS, the scope of it and what this means if there is a serious attempt to implement it.

On food (or “nutrition”) the proposals are a big expansion of local and community led food services, so that those in need can call upon assistance. Andrew states he would ideally like to go further and have something everyone can partake in now and again, but the recommendation of the report is something more like a large community run but centrally paid for food bank in every local area.

I think we can leave food there. I have nothing more to say on it and would be happy if those proposals were put forward as some part of a UBS scheme.

On housing it gets a little bit more complicated. My concerns were essentially about cliff edges (between those who receive the service and those who don’t) and that the system looked static and that a dynamic component had to be added to make the policy more clear. Andrew has kindly sketched answers to those points.

His response states that whilst the 1.5 million properties proposed will be available rent (and utilities) free for 30 years, that doesn’t mean they will be let to the same household for 30 years. So we are looking at something like set tenancy lengths, with (I’m assuming) the possibility of renewal if things haven’t improved. In terms of the actual allocation of homes, this would be done based on housing need, perhaps in a similar way to how council housing is currently allocated.

For me that means there will still be some cliff edges. The person who is included gets a home for a period, utilities paid for, etc. The person who may be just slightly less in housing need, doesn’t. In the final analysis allocating resources like this means the line is always drawn between two very similar set of circumstances- one gets it, the other doesn’t.

Now, it is fair to say that there is already an element of this in the existing framework. Someone allocated a council home is likely to have a lower rent than their colleague who lives in a private rented home. With the same income the person paying  a higher rent loses out. Housing benefit does a little bit of smoothing this out, but past a certain income it no longer applies.

Where UBS shelter looks significantly different to me is that those who get it really do considerably better than those who don’t. In housing benefit, the minimum payment is 50p, so when the line is drawn the person included gets 50p a week and the person with a few pence a week higher income gets nothing. They’d probably agree that makes sense as their circumstances are so similar.

But under UBS shelter this distinction between very very similar circumstances, whether it is done on income or housing needs, means one person gets a subsidy of hundreds of pounds a week whilst the other with very similar needs gets nada.

Will politicians go for this? Will people vote for it? Will we be ready to change parts of our civil society and become more locally led to accommodate this? All questions I’ll leave here for now, apart from to say that I can imagine some sort of offsetting and mitigation of this cliff edge would be required to make it politically palatable.

On sketching how UBS shelter could be dynamic Andrew has envisaged that the tenancy length could be from “3 months to 30 years”. That’s a welcome clarification, but it means there is also a cliff edge for those who are allocated homes; the transformative aspect of UBS shelter and all the benefits it offers will come to an end for many. Yes, that means that they will be able to get a less-basic home, but it means they will have to pay for it and their utilities. They will have got used to the income they received being able to pay for much more, but when they roll off the service they will find themselves much worse off.

Perhaps a tax credits example is required here? In order to solve an issue of big overpayments, a large (ie. £25,000) in-year disregard was applied to changes of income. This meant when someone’s income increased by, say, £5,000, in the middle of the tax year it didn’t change the amount of tax credits they received straight away. They got used to their higher income, took out contracts and loans based on their income, started doing things they previously couldn’t afford like eating out, etc. In brief, their standard of life rose considerably.

Then the new financial year came along and their tax credit payments suddenly reduced. They had less income than before, they couldn’t afford the contracts or loan repayments (and thus had credit companies chasing them), couldn’t eat out either at all or as often. In brief, their standard of life rose and then fell as a result of the tax credit changes. It didn’t fall as much as it had risen, but they didn’t feel that way.

I think there is a real risk in UBS shelter that a similar thing could happen, people will -even if they know the tenancy is coming to an end- expect the experience of UBS shelter to be an improvement in their way of life. Even if they are better off financially or in terms of housing need at the end compared to the beginning, will they feel that way if they have a higher standard of living in the middle?

These are not fatal issues with UBS shelter, they are simply things that need to be considered as the policies are worked up. But they do lead to the question of whether UBS shelter would be better than other ways of financing, building and then allocating a large number of affordable homes.

That’s something we need to look at in the round, comparing this to other affordable housebuilding policies (of which there are many) and looking at their chances of political and economic success and the overall impact they would have. It requires us to be self-questioning and open to debate, but also prepared to work together on the solutions, whether they are quick or slow, in order to ensure everyone can access basic services.

Blurring the universal

When Jonathan Portes has put his mind to something the policy community usually sits up. So this week we have been like meerkats, with the launch of the IGP report on Universal Basic Services.

Having read it through a couple of times, I have a few comments, which are meant simply to ask for some more information to help us understand what is actually being discussed, especially about housing and food provision.

Whilst the press reporting has mostly repeated the line about this being services for everyone, there is a pretty huge caveat running through the report about the provision of housing and food. Indeed, in the penultimate page of the report out and out says:

“ the options modelled would not be “universal” in the sense of providing free housing to all, or even to all those who would take up an offer of free, basic social housing; similarly the food program modelled is one that would end “food insecurity” rather than provide free food to all or even to all those on low incomes.“

So whilst universal does mean free bus passes, BBC services, broadband, etc. it doesn’t mean housing and food for everyone. It means “everyone who doesn’t have the resources”. So it has a form of conditionality; a bar some will pass and some will not.

This allows for the “universal” services to be highly progressive, but it opens up a whole new can of worms.

Firstly, where and how do we draw the line? At some point, assuming this is arranged by income (with perhaps an income proxy for capital) or housing need, there will someone who gets a house rent free with cash for utilities and someone else, on a slightly higher income or in slightly less need, who doesn’t.

That has the potential for all sorts of difficulties- political, societal and legal. Sure, we’ll assume the person just outside the line can still receive some support for housing (through Housing Benefit, Support for Mortgage Interest or Universal Credit– good luck to them!) but it has the potential to create a significantly unfair situation where one family is significantly helped and another very much like it has to deal with the benefit cap, LHA rates, etc.

The paper also presents people’s situation as effectively static- those in the lowest decile stay there and so on. Whilst this is sadly true in many cases, trying to make the system dynamic has the potential to redouble this problem, particularly in terms of housing. The paper suggests that rent and utility free homes could be provided for 30 years. That’s a long time and some people’s income will change. Is the paper really suggesting those who do well can continue to live rent free for a generation whilst other who fall on hard times get hard cheese?

I’m sure there are ways around this issue, but on the first couple of reads it looks like there is the potential for quite a big cliff edge between the “haves” (who, confusingly in this situation, to begin with, have not) and the “have nots” (who have slightly more to begin with!).

There are probably ways around this, most likely trying to ease the burden on those outside of the group receiving housing. But that would need to be costed itself and included in the price of the policy.

Another way would be to apply an income based approach but this would very quickly collapse back into something like a means tested benefit- exactly what they are trying to avoid!

Of course the reason housing cannot practically be a universal service is that would require public ownership of the means of accommodation. No elected government in the UK is likely to consider confiscating people’s homes for the greater good.

So, given 2 of the 4 new services being suggested for universalisation are not universal, is this just good branding of extending the welfare state? Free bus passes and kitty gifs for all as cover for social housing for some?

That wouldn’t be a bad thing. If a bit of canny marketing is required to get more affordable homes built and a better safety net for those who need food then I can live with it.

But I’d rather have a full and frank discussion about the changing nature of work, productivity any support for those who would otherwise lose out as our society and economy continues to change.