Universal creditors

It has been another terrible few weeks for the ministers and civil servants at the heart of the universal credit debacle, what with the release of the NAO report into the roll out, their own full service survey and the legal case which showed that they were discriminating against severely disabled people who moved between areas during the roll out period. I’m trying not to shed a tear, but it is pretty hard. Not for the politicians and civil servants, you understand, but for those on the receiving end of the clearly failing benefit.

There are plenty of reasons for this failure- the reports I have already linked to have more than enough detail, but to fully understand why this is so damaging (and to get some wider context into people’s lives rather than simplistic models often used by government) then you need to look no further than the JRF’s 2018 report on destitution in the UK.

Rather than rewrite a very sensible report, I want to try and unpick why people claiming universal credit might find themselves destitute in a bit more detail. If you want, all I’m doing here is fleshing out a couple of sentences closely and with some examples. Crucially I want to point out that this isn’t just “shocks” but in many ways the general running of the benefit that can lead to a spiral of debt and destitution.

The starting rates of universal credit are myriad, but a single person over 25 has a personal allowance of £395.20 a month, with any elements (including the housing element) paid on top. That’s £73.34 a week, roughly equivalent to other means tested benefits.

Private renters may find that their housing element doesn’t cover the rent, if this is seen as “too high” (ie. above the 30th percentile) in the area. Most under 35 year olds will be particularly hit by this, as they can only claim for a room in a shared house, no matter what their actual living circumstances are (or where they can reasonably move to). Social tenants will find their housing element may be reduced if the are seen to have a “spare” bedroom under the much loved bedroom tax. Homeowners will only be able to claim an interest only loan to cover some of their mortgage interest costs.

I’ve written elsewhere about the lack of a severe disability premium in universal credit. Needless to say, compared to the previous benefits system, those who live by themselves who have care needs are going to be significantly worse off.

As you can see, before we even get to the nitty gritty of people’s lives, the amount they receive is at or below a subsistence level. Those subject to the bedroom tax or living in higher rental properties (often because that was what was available when they moved and they could afford it) will be struggling to make ends meet from their remaining income.

So, let’s start at the beginning of a claim: the NAO report shows that 60% of people who claim universal credit also claim an advance. This is a loan from the DWP, that has to be repaid over the next 12 months (it used to be 6, but the government increased it last year following public outcry).  The NAO also stated that the average advance are around £43 a month, so that comes off before payment is made.

Of course the size of the debt (and therefore the size of repayments) is based on how long the household had to wait for the benefit. So it is worth pointing out that the NAO is expecting up to 338,000 households to be paid “late” (at the end of the first month-long assessment period) in 2018. So this is well over a month of having to rely on a DWP loan (or other begging/ borrowing) for a very large number of households.

Then payments get going, claimants might be paid in arrears, but they’ll spend it when they have the money. Payments will usually be based on the last month’s income (although woe betide anyone on very variable earnings subject to the surplus income rule) so what people get in one month and what they need in that same month may be two different things.

If people pay the rent (including any surplus bedroom tax or amount above the local housing allowance) then the money left after deductions and after rent may not be enough to see them through the month. They may be flush at the start, but even very careful spending is going to make the last weeks very difficult. So whilst the headline rates of universal credit may allow for a subsistence existence the sheer act of going through with the claim could be enough to push the household into destitution.

One way out of that trap, to smooth the curve, at least in the short run, is debt. Debt can happen in many ways- some less active than others. Households might not pay all of the rent. They may take out a short term, high cost loan. They might not pay their bills (those that they can not pay- prepayment meters abound).

They may get help from family or friends- a form of social debt. The ebb and flow of universal credit payments may mean that such support is reciprocal- if you’ve just received your payment and someone who loaned you £30 a week ago needs help, would you say no because you’ve got to get to the end of the month? They may also as a last resort look to the less friendly and scrupulous lenders you can find if you really need money quickly.

The other options are of course going without essentials (which is about as clear as destitution can be) or relying on charities or other non-reciprocal social giving.

Any debt taken on of course has to be paid off and if that comes with interest then you’ll have to pay more next month, leading to exactly the same (or worse) situation again in the next month. Give it a few months and reputable organisations (landlords, utility companies, council tax, etc.) can take repayments straight from your universal credit entitlement, meaning at least they get paid, but the amount the household receives gets smaller and smaller and the challenge of making ends meet becomes harder and harder. Just about managing becomes occasionally struggling becomes struggling all the time.

The point I’m trying to make is that whilst the actual allowances for universal credit are arguably slightly above the minimum level, the way that the system works means that households will actually be paid (or have after housing costs) puts them below what they need to fund their necessary expenses. Attempts to even stay afloat in those conditions is destined to make the situation worse in the long run.

This isn’t necessarily about monthly payments, but it is clear that on such a low daily income it is hard to manage a budget over a month. It isn’t also necessarily about paying rent to tenants- but again paying an amount less than their living costs including rent means that they have to make a hard choice-like it or not rent arrears are a choice people make to put food on the table for another week.

It also isn’t necessarily about shocks such as sanctions or payment hold-ups, but these no doubt cause destitution themselves. A sanction is enough to put many people into destitution and even if a hardship payment is authorised this is itself a debt, which has to be paid back- reducing payments when they do return.

So sanctions are one way into the destitution-spiral that can happen under universal credit, but it isn’t the only way by a long shot. According to the survey commissioned by the DWP, only a quarter of people say they do not struggle with financial commitments (a further 2% do not know). The rest, some 73% say that they struggle in one way or another. 35-36% of those surveyed stated that they were in housing arrears.

There is a contradiction at the heart of the DWP’s responses to all this. On waiting for payments they argue that advances are available, and they are- as a loan. On sanctions they argue that hardship payments are available, and they are- as a loan. On ‘extra’ housing costs such as the bedroom tax or above local housing allowance rent they argue (inaccurately, mostly) that people make a choice and can pay for this through their standard allowances. Finally, on payment amounts they argue that they are enough to cover basic living expense- and they possibly are unless there are other deductions, such as loan repayments or payments towards rent.

In very few cases are all of these things true at the same time- indeed, it needs someone not to have the first three for the fourth to be right. And that is why people end up somewhere below the safety net, wondering how the heck to get out.

The wood from the trees

If a tree falls somewhere other than a leafy lane, does anybody hear it? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a day or so, since the Sunday Times uncovered their “investigation” into municipal tree felling. I use the word investigation because they did, although I’m not convinced an FOI followed by a few interviews and statements actually counts.

Much like my earlier post on empty homes, I am easily frustrated by this kind of thing. You see, I’m really not sure what the numbers they have provided and the comparisons they have made really mean in context. At least the Sunday Times tried to give a bit of proportion by also asking for an estimate of the number of trees each council is responsible for. But after that it falls down quite a bit, leaving me scratching my head in trying to work out what they want to prove. Whatever it was, I’m not sure they have achieved it.

Councils are responsible for lots of trees. Trees at the side of the road, trees on school playing pitches, in parks, on unused land, on farms, in woods, between homes, on housing estates and some common land. Trees where it isn’t clear who owns them, but someone has definitely got to do something about them. So when we talk about big numbers (such as the number of trees felled) we also have to give the bigger number (how many tree there actually are). The report gives this for individual councils, but not the country as a whole, or even for those councils who replied to the FOI.

Councils are not an equal size and they don’t look the same. One might have lots of street trees but no woodland, another might have lots of woodland but no street trees. One might have sold off bits of their woodland to build houses years ago and so may not be felling many trees- keeping them out of this survey. Another might be using a patch of ill-kept land to build their own council housing, which will add to their number of trees felled but have a greater social benefit. Without greater context we don’t know.

Diseases can ravage areas and don’t (as you’d expect) respect local authority areas. But that doesn’t means they spread nationwide. So one area might be fighting a disease that others don’t currently have to worry about. The article even mentions Edinburgh are having just this issue with dutch elm disease.

So what are we really meant to understand by the outcome of the investigation? Councils -who have a responsibility for a huge number of trees- fell a large number but small proportion of those trees, with some felling more than others, as you would expect given the heterogeneity of landscapes, local authority boundaries, exposure to disease and previous policies. That’s a sentence with a lot of commas that doesn’t add up to much, let alone a scoop.

The accusation of the piece, which isn’t proved by the numbers (and I doubt can be proved by numbers) is that some councils are felling trees that others would not in order to save money. Well, there is quite a lot to unpack there as well. But let’s take a step back and think how we would actually try and look at that, given a numbers-first approach isn’t going to work.  This is where we actually get to looking at policies, not through a proxy like numbers, but by actually looking at the policy.

You see, guidelines for tree management are not usually hard to find. Keeping away from the controversial ones, here’s the one for Leeds, another for Worcester and here is Rutland’s. Of course there is plenty of wriggle room in there and that’s where implementation comes in. The person with the policy making the decision, whether they work for the council or a contractor. But if the Sunday Times wants to do some proper investigative work it would need to try and speak to people making the decisions or getting to the bottom of differences between areas, not just stating numerical differences as if they must mean something.

Hanging over all of this is Sheffield and whatever else it is quite clear that Amey and Sheffield City Council have not covered themselves in glory in the way they have approached dealing with local communities and the media over their tree felling antics. But the crude way of trying to assess if this is a national problem doesn’t help either. Indeed, it can tar other areas with someone else’s brush either by having an active tree management policy or a large number of trees under their care to begin with.

Of course the cheapest thing would be to do nothing and hope dangerous or dying trees don’t fall on individuals or property. I’m sure that’s not something anybody is agitating for, but that would have course kept a council out of the Sunday Times list.

What’s more, the issue of finances is danced over in the report, as if councils are choosing to save money for the kicks. In reality, councils have seen such significant reductions in finances that all decisions are hard. Try to nurse a potentially mortally wounded tree back to life for £3,000 or fell it and plant 3 replacement trees for £1,000 (these numbers are made up)- but know that for every 10 trees you “save” the local library has to close for an hour a week. How do you make those decisions?

That doesn’t matter for your one-issue-at-a-time journalist or single-issue pressure group. Everything can be seen in the context of this one matter. Next week, when you’ve sent around an FOI on how many children’s centres have been closed, you can mourn that there isn’t money from somewhere else. But balancing the books week in week out is exactly what councils have to do. Some do it better than others. Clearly, Sheffield is learning that outsourcing may not be the silver bullet they hoped it would be.

For all the words and bluster, it looks pretty clear to me that the central issue of the report is actually street trees- or at least trees in “more ‘leafy’ residential areas” as the representative from the Arboricultural Association calls them. So it is affluent people in affluent areas worrying that their are not seeing a full return on their council tax.

I suspect one popular answer (in those areas) is to throw more of the limited council resources at street trees. Another, perhaps more reasonable response is to try and do something about council funding- not only slowing the pace of cuts but reversing them and sorting council tax out in the process. Saving vital services like the childrens centre and library should come first, but if prime quality tree works can afforded after all the truly urgent spending then why not? To be blunt, given the regressive nature of the current council tax system any change should mean people in affluent areas paying more.

Another possibility would be for areas to volunteer to adopt their street trees, taking financial responsibility and collective risk. This will allow consenting areas to manage their own affairs will mean they can have checks as often as they like and decide what interventions to make with their own money. I’m sure councils will look to win the contract any work that they decide needs doing and if they want to give a tree palliative care instead of a quick coup de grace, then that can be their choice (and their risk). Of course councils will have to act (and charge for it) if there is damage to their property or a risk to pedestrians or road users. Perhaps as part of the process they could detail the historical costs of maintenance and repairs so that the areas know what they might have to pay in an average year.

This could end up being expensive for the individuals involved (it could be more than making council taxation much more sensible and progressive), but it would at least give them an option between what they think is a second rate service and what they would do themselves. I do wonder if it would turn out to be that different when it is their own money and their own opportunity cost to consider instead of council’s. Could they end up spending more of their own money to give themselves the same level of service?

Khan we fix it everywhere?

Yesterday was a busy day for housing all round, but the happiest news was in the capital; where Mayor Sadiq Khan has announced a huge investment in new council housing. This can only be a good thing, but it is worth looking through what is actually being proposed and, perhaps crucially for anyone interested in housing outside of London, see if this can be replicated elsewhere.

The document, Building Council Homes for Londoners is actually quite readable, for a technical briefing, so if you are interested it is worth having a look through. I will do my best to summarise, but it is rare I can suggest a general reader looking at a document like that, so feel free to.

There are two main legs to the funding side, a not-insignificant block of money (£1.67 billion) given to the capital from the Chancellor in the Spring Statement and an interesting wheeze about right to buy receipts.

Coming to the £1.67 billion first- I know I have mentioned seemingly big bits of money before and pleaded for people to understand them in context. But we can do that a little bit with this- compare this amount to the £2 billion added for all of England earlier this year. I was critical of the size of latter because per area because it didn’t actually amount to all that much. Spread thinly across the country (or even in centered on particular areas) it wasn’t going to amount to a huge amount of extra housebuilding. Plus as it was for both Council and Housing Association house building and it is the government at the end of the day who will be deciding who gets funds and who does not.

The Mayor has been given much more freedom with his (per head) much larger allocation of cash and the announcement yesterday shows how he is going to use it. He is choosing to spend this money unequivocally on Council housing. This isn’t just traditional social rent, but could also be London affordable rent, London living rent or shared ownership. What it clearly isn’t is affordable rent. Housing Associations aren’t completely out of the picture as there is another funding mechanism similar to the affordable housing programme for them to bid for.

In terms of what the Mayor will consider funding with this cash, for rents below the London affordable rent levels he will pay £100k per property. This looks positive compared to the “average” £80k paid under the affordable housing programme (although you’d expect London properties to be above average in that programme). For the other rental or shared ownership schemes he will pay £38k per unit for quick wins (started before April 2020) or £28k per unit for later starts. There is an emphasis on a programme approach, so we are talking about each borough putting in a sizable application and, if the worked example is anything to go by, a mixture of rent types.

So this looks like a more generous scheme than central government’s direct scheme focused on delivering only Council homes. It exists because:

  1. the government has decided to give a large block of capital funding to London
  2. the Mayor has the power to decide what to do with the money
  3. being directly elected he has a strong personal mandate and
  4. he has decided to do something linked wholly to council homes with it.

Without any of these rungs the scheme would not look like this. Other authorities, for example the metro mayor areas, may have the personal mandate but usually any funds they get from government are limited and very prescriptive. Just look at the housing deals announced for the West Midlands and Greater Manchester. They are both having to up their overall housing supply numbers just to get significantly smaller agreements from government and would be unlikely to be allowed to do anything like spend all of the extra cash on council housing.

Non metro-mayor areas (which we do have to remember is the vast majority of the country) will just have to take their share of the affordable housing programme, use up any housing revenue account headroom they have (and any extra they can grub from the government) and try to use up right to buy receipts as best they can.

Which brings me on to the second part of the Mayor’s announcement- the use of right to buy returns. This is a very clever little bit of circulating cash -I won’t go so far as to say laundering it- but certainly relies heavily on London having a different arrangement to the rest of the country.

You’ll probably know the issues relating to right to buy receipts- homes are sold at a discount, the Treasury takes some costs back straight away and, after all this, the money can only be used to fund 30% of a new housing association home. All this and councils have to use the money within 3 years or it disappears off to the Treasury.

But what happens then? For everywhere except London the money goes to the Homes and Communities Agency, who plough it back somewhere across the country- who knows where? In London the money goes to the GLA, who until now have been giving it out as part of their affordable housing programme.

What the Mayor is now proposing is London councils that wish to opt-in can give right to buy money back to the Treasury, who pass it on the GLA. So far, so the same. But then, the GLA will ring-fence the money to be spent in the council’s area and will allow the council to make the funding decisions. There will still be rules with this- the 30% rule and the housing association rules look like they will be the same. But it looks like the Mayor’s office will be much more flexible and open-minded about how this money can be shared out, particularly with regard to mixed sites (ie. where one house is funded through right to buy and another through a grant). It will also give councils more freedom to (within limits) move money about whilst construction is ongoing in order to deliver more homes.

The total amount of funding for this is much smaller than the £1.67 billion- London councils have so far given back to the Treasury £50 million. But the key issue is that instead of losing money because of a strict set of rules, councils in London will be able to in effect keep money to replace (to an extent) right to buy homes. With the government-enforced rules still in place it remains to be seen if 1:1 replacements can be achieved (I suspect not quite) but this is still much likely to be a better, friendlier scheme than the one overseen by the Treasury.

Again, this clever little circulation of cash can only works because of the powers held by the London Mayor and GLA. Nowhere else in the country has this arrangement and I doubt the HCA are going to suggest something similar for every other council.

So what the Mayor is doing is using his significant and unique powers (and personal mandate) to mitigate against what he (and I) see as central government’s failures. But it isn’t replicable elsewhere without those powers being devolved, something that was unlikely the day before yesterday and is perhaps incredibly unlikely now. I’m sure central government are smarting slightly at his actions, but the point is he alone is able to do this.

One of the challenges of devolution, particularly the uneven and deal-led devolution preferred by the government since 2010, is that different areas will have different agreements. London is always likely to do well out of this, especially if they have an activist Mayor who is unconcerned about his popularity with the Westminster government of the day. London has a huge number of challenges, especially in the provision of affordable housing, but it is also in a position of power. It is doing far better that other areas on insisting on affordable housing proportions through section 106 (again, due to the powers of the Mayor) and has the ability to gain investment from around the world.

So this is great news for London, but without rule changes it doesn’t mean much for anywhere else. That isn’t a criticism, it’s just a point to be made when celebrating the scheme. As discussed enough times here already, what would make the difference everywhere is a lifting of the HRA borrowing cap and further investment in council housing as a genuine alternative to the other tenure types available in the country. Labour’s green paper goes some way to moving ahead with that- if they were in power. We continue to wait for the government’s social housing green paper.

Presenting and incorrect?

Would you like a new job? The hours might be difficult, but you will get to meet judges, doctors and people with experiences of disabilities. You might have to get used to severe, crushing blows and knocks in your confidence for things that are not your fault. You may have to get used to judges, doctors and people with experience of disabilities justifiably haranguing you for the actions of others.

A recent parliamentary question has confirmed that the Department for Work and Pensions are recruiting presenting officers- those long fabled people who will turn up at tribunals to represent the decision making power of the Secretary of State. When I was a welfare rights worker the chance of a presenting officer turning up to appeal was somewhere lower than zero. Indeed, the answer confirms that not one presenting officer was recruited between 2012 and 2017, with more than 200 now recruited in 2017.

Now, if you’ve read my blog you’ll know I’ve shown a strong interest in this process and have suggested that the DWP need to be fronting up for appeals- so in a very limited way I support this change. What I want to look at this time is what impact it will have and whether the presenting officers will be allowed the kind of changes that will allow a real impact on decision making across the health related benefits.

But what will the role of presenting officers be? They’re very lucky (in one way) in that their role is government by a statutory instrument (a piece of secondary legislation) setting out their duties (and everyone else’s) in an appeal. There’s also, for universal credit and personal independence payments, a whole chapter on the decision makers guide which goes into great detail about what they should be doing. Let’s try and precis them!

Presenting officers aren’t lawyers- but they don’t necessarily need to be. What they need to have is a very good understanding of the benefit system and the operation of the tribunal. Their job is to:

  1. Check that the original decision was right in light of the evidence in hand. If it isn’t (and do remember than two thirds of ESA decisions are overturned at Tribunal) then they can and should change the decision- at the very least sending it back to the decision makers. For universal credit and personal independence payments the decision makers guide is very clear that the presenting officer must satisfy themselves that the decision is right before they attend the appeal.
  2. Attend the appeal and put explain the Secretary of State’s decision, including how the evidence has been weighed. The presenting officer can ask questions of other people present (including the claimant) but these shouldn’t be combative and should be focused on understanding any disagreement in the written submissions. In benefit appeals people aren’t there to win or lose, but to find the truth through collaboration. I know that sounds otherworldly, but it is an important point- if you do a victory dance at the end of an tribunal you are likely to be rebuked pretty quickly!
  3. After the appeal- reflect, consider and think on what happened and what could have been done better. In a way, this is simply number 1 restated- the next time they have a similar case they have to ask themselves if they should be taking it at all to appeal.

Now, anyone who has spent any time working with benefit claimants will know that there is often a gap between what the legislation and guidance says and what actually happens on the ground. If you’ve ever had to sit there (usually on the phone) whilst a decision maker pulls up the guidance (trying to talk legislation on the phone is often pointless), turns to the page you are talking about, looks at the paragraph you are talking to, reads it through, tries to justify their existing argument then grudgingly accepts you are correct will know that what happens on paper and in real life are two different things.

So what am I worried about? Primarily, that 1 and 3 above won’t happen. The presenting officers will not use their powers to spot cases that don’t stand a chance of winning, will go to the appeal, the decision will be overturned by the tribunal and they won’t learn anything about why this was. This is perhaps unfair, or even cynical. Perhaps I should give it a chance before I predict doom?

Well, in any case it won’t be long. For ESA alone the number of appeals attended by a presenting officer has shot up since April 2017. The number of attendances between April and December last year is nearly 10 times the total number for the year before, which we know again due to a parliamentary question! Perhaps in their early months presenting officers are there to comprehend and understand, but you’d hope that pretty soon they will get to grips with which cases have a chance at having the decision upheld and which should be overturned quickly now to save the bother of a failed appeal.

As they get better at this you would hope that the original decision makers understand which decisions are unlikely to get past the presenting officers (ie. those people who have to try and make the case) and start amending their decisions. You’d also hope that presenting officers would get better at spotting marginal cases (where their presence may make a difference) and start attending these- rather than being sent on fools errands either by decision makers or even worse an algorithm telling them which to attend.

If this change to the system worked perfectly it could have a huge impact. When I look at the stats in the next few months I’ll be looking for some big changes. If decision makers know they have to make fully reasoned cases then a lower proportion may be turned down in the first place, followed by a lower proportion of appeal cases making it to the tribunal (as they have been sent back by presenting officers) and finally a higher proportion of decisions being upheld (ie. staying the same) rather than overturned as the unwinnable cases have been weeded out and presenting officers have been able to argue the case in some cases successfully.

If the system doesn’t work perfectly the presenting officers will be receiving payment for turning up and being told off, which isn’t fair on them or anybody else. I’ll be looking through the stats as soon as they come out, and so should you.

What I’d prefer to see, instead of a separating out decision making into different sections is decision makers having responsibility for the whole process, holding onto a case and having to present it at appeal. As I’ve spoken about before, the process of decision making is becoming incredibly mechanistic. Indeed, some good soul has been able to winkle out of the DWP their set lines for appeals. Yes, we all knew they existed, but how can individual people with their individual health needs be reduced to set words? If decision makers actually saw what happened in cases that go to appeal they may think twice before making a sloppy decision a second time.

But, as a final point, all of this is essentially moot because of one thing. Mandatory reconsideration still means that a huge proportion of people being turned down for health related benefits are not formally appealing them. Whilst this is the case we won’t know if these claimants are genuinely entitled to benefit. I have no reason to believe those decisions aren’t as second rate as those getting to appeal.

So let’s hope the presenting officers make a big difference, far bigger than their relatively small numbers may show. But that will only happen if they are empowered to act and able to get the department to understand how obvious the failures of decision making are to tribunals and independent observers.

The first green paper of spring

Labour got there first. Their social housing green paper is out, with a not at all connected to the local elections launch at the LGA’s offices.

Anyone reading my blog over the last few months will not be surprised that much of what is in the paper is very welcome. But as a serious and relatively complete policy document there is always going to be some critique (rather than criticism, I hasten to add) to undertake in order to understand it fully. This is especially true as the paper reads like a set of policies that are, in a sense, shovel ready. So this critique is meant as a compliment- this is exactly what I would do if it was a green paper from a government.

I suspect that much of this has been due to the forensic and policy-focused approach of John Healey, who has both always been impressive in housing and has had the brief (on and off, slightly) for long enough time to really get to grips with it. There is an argument for giving ministers (and their shadow counterparts) long periods in posts in order to understand the deeper issues and John Healey is the proof that it can work. Perhaps the government should take note.

There is a huge amount of detail in the paper, so I want to pick out a few bits. Firstly I’ll look at some of the major positives (of which there are a few!) and then look at where there are gaps or opportunities to do things a little bit differently than suggested.

So, the positives. Labour have set a clear (if amazingly round) target for the delivery of new social housing. The government’s social housing green paper has mostly been framed around improving matters for existing tenants, not creating new tenants. That’s why the JRF have been so clear in trying to push for new homes alongside other changes- a battle I’m not sure they are winning with the current government.

Delivering 100,000 new affordable homes a year will be a challenge for any government and it will take a significant effort from local authorities, housing associations and other providers of social housing to achieve. I believe the will is there, even in areas not wholly committed to large scale housebuilding, but a target like this will require a herculean effort from the social and building sector to see through.

Moving on to the definition of “affordable housing”, the green paper suggests getting rid of the 80% of market rent test. Good. What replaces it is slightly more interesting. Whilst trumpeting a new average income based living rent the “core” of the affordable homes programme will be the good old formula rent. That’s not a bad starting place, but the formula only has loose ties with affordability, so it is worth considering if there are other options available.

The paper is positive about the role of housing associations, both as a not for profit service for their tenants and as one of the ways to create new social housing. There have been previously been concerns about Jeremy Corbyn’s support for housing associations, so it is good to see real inclusion of them in these plans. Yes, that comes with some additional requirements, inclusion in freedom of information legislation for one thing, but that seems to be a small price worth paying so that they can play a part in large scale social house building.

No-one will be surprised that suspending right to buy (preferably off a cliff) and scrapping the bedroom tax are welcome. Both create significant issues and cannot sensibly be justified- as the paper suggests- social housebuilding is likely to reduce the overall benefit bill.

Moving onto something the paper doesn’t do- I’m certainly relieved that it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to funding new social homes. The key issue is not that new homes are too expensive to be built by local authorities; they usually make a surplus over their lifespan. It is that there is an arbitrary limit on the amount councils can borrow, even though they are sat on huge assets (the very homes they currently let out!).

The current government has repeatedly, maddenly, tried to put forward different ways to fund selective council house building, usually through one off loans or grants, whilst keeping the purse strings themselves. This allows them to appear to be the ones making the decisions whilst touting a very big number (usually £X million, so not actually that big in housing terms!) and simultaneously refusing to allow local authorities to borrow off their existing assets. So it is great that the paper suggests the main way for new council homes to come about is through borrowing up to the prudential limit. That is, in a way, all that is required for stock owning local authorities with a desire to build.

Helping councils that have transferred their stock to a housing association to build a new generation of council housing is positive. Government loans will allow them to build up (literally) assets which they can then borrow against. What might be needed is provisions or guarantees that this new stock won’t itself be transferred at some point in the future, negating the whole process.

In terms of wider financing, the paper is sensible (but brief) in suggesting other sources of funding, including institutional schemes like pension funds, could be harnessed for housing associations. There is nothing wrong in any of that, but it is worth remembering that pension funds will put money where they can make money- if there is another, better opportunity for them then they will go elsewhere. Certainly funding affordable housebuilding is likely to be low risk, but will it have the returns of other investment opportunities?

Which brings us to things with (in my view) slight alternatives to the policies laid out. Firstly, the paper is looking to set targets for local authorities building social housing, almost as a subset of the objectively assessed need I’ve spoken about before. They’ve not outlined how that would take place and I worry that trying to force councils who don’t want to build affordable housing will take focus, time and money away from providing for councils who do. If they try and split the 100,000 a year based on some affordability calculation (as with the government’s proposed OAN measure) then areas who may be less able to find sites, have less recent experience of building to date and overall willing to build quickly may have a higher target.

It is unclear what the sanction would be for authorities that don’t meet their targets. The paper (rightly) talks more about incentives than threats, but if they are serious about every area delivering social housing then threats may eventually have to be issued, much as they are currently over local plan adoption. What the mechanism for this will be remains to be seen.

The best alternative for me, at least to begin with, is to work with those who want to build. Get up to scale with social house building in those areas who will relish the opportunity and hope that those remaining will be converted either by showing it can be done or by political pressure from their own residents who see it happening elsewhere.

The green paper is also a touch vague on how a Labour government would actually close the viability loophole. There’s talk about boosting support for councils to prove schemes are viable with affordable housing with independent viability experts to sweep in. I’d worry how liable those independent experts will be to regulatory capture, especially as you would expect that they will be drawn from and potentially looking for work from, existing builders.

It is worth remembering that the government has threatened (however idly) that it could go further and set affordable proportions or payments centrally. There is an opportunity for Labour to outmanoeuvre them and promise to shut the viability door once and for all. Perhaps there were concerns about appearing to knock big builders (something it is counterintuitively easier for the conservatives to do) but the outcome looks less like closing the loophole and more like bolstering one side against the other whilst keeping the rules by and large the same.

The clawback clause does do a bit of work to cover this, but balance sheets are often malleable to what the company creating them wishes to show. It would take either extremely well written rules or forensic auditing to check whether companies have made additional profits on individual sites or not.

Another way the paper is vaguer than I would like is on supported housing reform. Yes, the government’s current plans don’t have the support of the sector and yes, a period of talking to them again might be required. But we have been in this limbo for years and the can does keep being kicked down the road. I think any government has enough options laid out infront of them, it needs to make a decision and see it through. That’s going to annoy some people- potentially older people who may have to pay more either in life or in death. That’s politics.

Finally for this (short!) section on alternatives, the paper is clear that it wishes to see different households knitted together into a mixed community, but is short on a mechanism for how this is achieved. For private sites there are plenty of opportunities to achieve this, mostly around the rules governing how the affordable homes do not differ from the other homes and are not located in one cluster away from prying eyes. For new social housing sites, which will clearly be a growth industry if the society seen in the paper comes to pass, it is a little bit less clear.

Yes, having a range of the affordable tenure types mentioned in the paper will do a bit as will a supply of new council homes being available not just to those who desperately need a home, but without a mechanism to achieve mixed communities I think it is potentially over-optimistic to think they will appear organically. How this will be achieved, how large scale council or joint built sites can be attractive enough to want potential owner occupiers to move into will be a challenge and one that needs to be considered deeply before the concrete is mixed.

So, overall, lashings of positives and much for a future government to get their teeth stuck into. You can only hope the government are looking over their own draft social housing green paper and wondering if it matches this one in terms of its ambition and clarity (prediction: it won’t). Whilst deliverability is key I think there is enough substance in the paper to make many of the proposals possible and, frankly, aiming high is better than not aiming at all.

And still high rise

High rise blocks. For good or ill they are on the agenda. The tragedy at Grenfell has highlighted that at least some recent re-furbs have been done poorly and in a way that increases fire risk. But many thousand people live in high rise blocks across the country and, whatever some Birmingham Conservatives might think, the buildings are likely to be here to stay in the long run.

So, getting away from the need to ensure they can contain fires (something bare concrete blocks are actually quite good at!) what is the issue with high rises, particularly council and housing association blocks? Firstly, we have to admit that a minority of blocks were poorly designed and constructed and that no amount of refurbishment apart from complete gutting or demolishing will make them adequate to live in. Those blocks should not stand the test of time. Bodged refurbishments need to be improved and if risks have increased by refurbishment (as it appears they were at Grenfell) then this need to be reverse quickly.

Moving on from this, the upkeep of blocks is best described as “hit or miss”- some communal areas in blocks are well looked after, both by the tenants and the housing management and some, well, aren’t. Crucially, the need to foster both an active community spirit and adherence to fire regulations in communal areas is key to making blocks livable and safe.

Next, when blocks were built there was fewer qualms about families with children living high up. Most point blocks were built with at least two bedrooms with the expectation that a family would be living in them. Nowadays families with children quite rightly won’t usually seek this kind of accommodation and are likely to reject it if they are offered it, or stay there for a short time before moving to somewhere more appropriate. To be fair to the Brum Tories, it does sound like there is an issue with children being accommodated at height in the second city, but their approach seems to be knock them down and start again, rather than relocate and consider what else can be done with the blocks.

Thirdly, if families aren’t going to use the blocks then who will? Recognising the problems relating to families quite a few councils started putting single people into two bedroom high rise flats, but along came the bedroom tax and put anyone in this situation claiming benefits at a disadvantage. Who knows how long the bedroom tax will be in existence. Unlike the blocks themselves they are simply legislation- a government could overturn it very, very quickly if it chose to. But until that happens single claimants of working age are rightly pretty concerned about creating a liability they cannot afford.

Next and on to a more general point, but amplified by people living cheek by jowl and with communal spaces in high rises, is that with significant demand for affordable housing someone (usually under choice based lettings a computer) has been deciding who qualifies for the next available house. In many areas, this means most if not almost all lettings are to people with one form of priority need or another. Filling a dense space with people who, for one reason or another, have a vulnerability and many of whom who have experienced homelessness (in one form or another) is possibly not always great housing management.

Finally for this sketch, quite a few of the older high rise blocks were built in the middle of larger council estates. If people are tempted to move into them they either have to have no issues with that or overcome those issues, potentially by experience of the area at its best.

Over time these issues have interacted in order for some blocks to see a vicious circle. Families moved out and only those topping the housing queue could get a house. Those bidding (or, pre-CBL, those being placed) were likely to be relatively desperate for a home. Communal areas were neglected or vandalised, if not cleaned up then they would get worse. The sort of tenants who may act with community spirit eventually became and exasperated and moved out. Most flats were filled, but with the advent of the bedroom tax it became hard for working age people to consider moving in, so some were left empty. Empty flats led to concerns from neighbours, some of whom moved out. And so on.

It is worth remembering that a significant amount of money has been spent on many high rise blocks, firstly to get them up to decency standard and then to make them nicer places to live. But the logic I have until now outlined potentially shows that there is a need to treat high rise blocks as a bit of a special case that needs some special answers.

What I’m about to say next isn’t new and I certainly don’t want anyone thinking it is my idea. But there is an answer staring us in the face for at least some of the blocks. If households with children and single working age people cannot be accommodated, who does that leave?

I’ll ask another question: who is sitting in larger properties that could be used by families, perhaps as they have children who have moved out, who may have gardens they want to maintain but struggle, who would like to take part in communal activities close to their home and would by and large respect and maintain shared spaces? Who doesn’t need to worry about the bedroom tax?

Indeed there are plenty of examples of councils and housing associations using recently refurbished blocks as general accommodation for older people. Absolutely fundamentally, what doing this means is that you have to ensure the lifts keep going at all costs (lift engineers can be expensive!) and maintain communal spaces so that people can live and socialise under the same roof.

This shouldn’t be about forcibly moving people out of their homes, rather creating exactly the kind of private living space with communal facilities that many private providers are showing many older people want. If you can make high rise blocks desirable to live in for older people then you can free up other homes, provide a decent and long term place for people to live and ensure the co-location of services around those who need them and social activities for those who want to take part in them.

Another option (again, not my idea) is to let people be a bit more free with who will be renting with them. Allowing house-shares for younger people actually fits with what the government were trying (badly) to achieve with the bedroom tax. Yes, this doesn’t necessarily get away from some of the issues I’ve listed above but it does offer another opportunity rather than letting blocks dwindle away until a politician decides it is time to knock them all down and start again.

So let’s be clear, there are clear opportunities for what to do with high rise blocks that break the vicious circle. Just because they are not suitable for families doesn’t mean that they need to come down and be replaced. With a bit of lateral thinking and investment early in the process high rise blocks (excepting those too poorly built to last) can be something to be saved, lived in and cherished.

Since you are doing sensible things…

And hooray! The 18-21 year old restriction on housing costs in Universal Credit is gone! This seems to be a big win for common sense, backed up by major charities and other sensible folk who knew it was a ridiculous policy.

I worked for a young person’s charity a while back (when this possibility was first mooted) and it was clear even then what a nightmare it would cause. In fact, it was not only obvious, we had first hand (daily) experience of trying to convince the DWP that people were estranged from their families in order to claim income support whilst in education. This was usually young people who had been kicked out (sometimes literally) by their parents.

Sometimes getting these decisions made in the young person’s favour was easy, sometimes it was hard. But we almost always were successful. Why? Because a young person doesn’t swan off to a hostel, get accepted for housing association or council housing or sleep on the streets for no reason. They certainly didn’t do it for the pittance paid by income support, although that money meant that they could continue with their education and seek to overcome the challenges they’d met in their life so far.

I suspect this particular Easter present is a one-off, but in my own optimistic way, I hope this could be a time of government accepting sensible changes to policies for young people.

So here are some suggestions on what it can do next:

  • Increase the under 25 rate of universal credit to the same as the 25 and over rate. What happens when you reach 25 that suddenly means your expenses go up? Beats me, but the under 25/ 25 and over distinction in benefits has been around for ages. Too long. In 2018/19 the standard allowance for a single person under 25 is £251.77 a month. For someone 25 or over it is £317.82 a month. That’s £66 a month. The couples it is £103. This is for no other reason than tradition (well, and saving money, and some nonsense about needing to provide an incentive and the rates of national minimum wage). Which brings me on to…
  • Remove the minimum wage distinction for under 25s. The escalator on the minimum wage is about trying to allow companies to invest in new (young) staff. However, it can also look like a way to pay younger people less, even as they take on more and more responsibility. So having the same floor of post mandatory education income for all would be a great way to help young people get a start in life. And you know what- higher incomes means less dependency on benefits like universal credit and means potentially more taxes for the government: win win.
  • Restore the work allowances in universal credit for everyone, including young people in order to, in the words of someone I vaguely remember repeating ad nauseam, make work pay.
  • Remove the shared room rate cap for single private tenants under 35. Did you/ do you want to live in a shared property until you are 35? I thought not. The most worrying thing about this policy is that it forces young(ish) people to live cheek by jowl even if they are very vulnerable. This creates its own knock-on issues for landlords, social care, police etc. etc. The rate used to be 25, but the government made it 35 for reasons perhaps not related to sheer spite. It could be changed so the amount paid relates to the actual accommodation the person is living in- perhaps with a bedroom tax type reduction for young people on benefits who somehow convince a landlord to let them rent an 8 bedroom mansion to themselves. Oooh, someone mentioned the bedroom tax…
  • Get rid of it [the bedroom tax, weren’t you reading the last point?]. Of all the silly, pointless, nonsensical policies ever imagined, forcing people to pay because social landlords had historically not built one bedroom properties is about the worst. Or forcing them to pay because they have health problems and need to use a different bedroom to their partner. Or so on. Social landlords didn’t give young people (or not-young people) bigger homes because they were frittering away their stock, they did it because that was all they had and there was a housing need to be met. If the government wants people to live in the right size houses it could build some.
  • Get rid of the 2 child limit. Yes some younger people have more than two children. Do we even need to discuss this one? The one with the form to tell the government that your child is the outcome of a rape? No, good.
  • And the benefit cap. And the other benefit cap. Yup, both of them.
  • Do you have any you want to add? Let me know and I’ll think about putting them in.

Now, here comes the punchline. With the exception of the minimum wage change (which, I repeat may save the government money) each of these would end up costing the government -or at least the benefit budget- money. The thing about the under 22 housing rule was that it was so poorly thought through and so few people actually were caught in it that it most likely cost more to administer than it saved. It certainly will have cost more when looked over the whole of government’s budget, especially when social care, homelessness, family support, etc. budgets are considered.

This policy was one of those that was created to meet a perceived problem, not a real one. The government could say they were doing something about the legion of indolent young people who could simply just move home, without recognising that this was actually a tiny to non-existent part of the overall number of claimants.

So let’s celebrate that the government has seen sense. But the sense that they have seen is that this policy was costing them money. Until they start working their way through the list above I’ll not be convinced they have suddenly decided to support young people through the benefit system.

WRAGs or riches

What do you mean you don’t check the government’s statistical publication lists every few days? Well, you should be glad I do!

I was having a quick check through the most recent quarterly benefit summary release (as you do) and was reminded of an odd fact. Currently (well, August 2017- the closest we have to currently), about two thirds of people who receive Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) are in what is known as the support group, with 17% in the work related activity group (WRAG). I’m going to argue that this is pretty telling about decision making- I’ll explain why in a minute, but perhaps first I should remind everyone what I’m talking about.

[Skip to “Now, here” if you’re already more aware of ESA than you’d like to be]

Employment and Support Allowance tries to separate out claimants into three groups based on their symptoms:

  1. Those who are fit for work- who need to go back to work or claim another benefit like jobseekers allowance.
  2. Those who are not fit for work, but with some help may be able to move in that direction. This is the ‘work related activity group’.
  3. Those who are not fit for work and also cannot undertake activities to move them closer to being able to work. This is the ‘support group’.

There are different rates of payment between the bottom two groups, whereas the only option to stay on ESA for first time claimants put in the first group is an appeal, which whilst it is going through the motions comes with a rate of pay equal to jobseeker’s allowance.

People who made a new claim, or people who had made an appeal and were waiting for it to be heard were bundled together into something called the ‘assessment phase’, a sort of limbo where they waited for an outcome.

ESA has changed significantly, mostly via a series of incremental tweaks, in the 10 years it has been up and running, but these points have stayed the same.

Now, here (to me at least) is the interesting bit. When the government originally created ESA it thought that the number of claimants in the work related activity would be higher than the number in the support group. I’ll put that another way, the work related activity group was going to be the main group, with the support group being just for the smaller number who were too unwell to engage in classes and tutoring to get people closer to the labour market. The focus of policy making, the thing that made ESA different from the previous sickness benefits was this group.

Here’s what the explanatory memorandum to the legislation said:

Screenshot 2018-03-15 at 2.57.57 PM

I’ve had a little play on stat-xplore to show what actually happened- here are my sheets, which is all derived from the stat-xplore info.

Screenshot 2018-03-18 at 1.57.50 PM

Reliable information started coming out from early 2010. To begin with there were more people in the work related activity group, but the numbers placed into the support group started soaring through 2011 all the way up to late 2015 where, potentially as a result of the number of migrations moving to a trickle, it has now plateaued. The numbers in the work related activity group rise at first, but have been on a slight downward trend since the middle of 2013.

The number in the support group passed the number in the work related activity group in February 2013 and have never looked back.

If you look at the total caseload stacked together we can see that the growth of the support group really underpins the whole of the benefit:

Screenshot 2018-03-18 at 1.59.38 PM

This isn’t what it was supposed to look like. But what can be the cause of it?

This issue was actually flagged in the Year 5 independent review of the benefit from Dr Paul Litchfield. He was particularly interested in the number of young people coming forward with very high mental health needs, a situation he accepts ESA results will only reflect rather than necessarily being able to solve.

Following his report the government looked at the data. Their view was that a big part of the issue related to the widening of who was included in the support group. By incremental changes the scope of the support group has widened, but it still does not cover the vast majority of illnesses and disabilities people have when they claim a benefit.

A second issue pointed to by the government was due to the delays in assessments. The government got into a hole where they couldn’t process claims fast enough (this is an understatement), leading to claimants being in the assessment phase for far longer than originally planned. According to the government, many claims were closed in this period (ie. the people got better or stopped sending in sicknotes) which they believed was skewed towards claimantrs who would have failed the ESA. I don’t know on what evidential basis they have decided this- almost all welfare rights professionals I know have seen claimants with very strong cases having claims closed on them.

Finally and in connection with the delays, the government claimed that to clear the backlog they were making decisions on paper in some cases. Where this happened, the only things they could decide was to put someone in the support group or to let their claim continue on to a full assessment. The argument was that this inflates the proportional size of the support group whilst those who will eventually end up in the work related activity group linger in the assessment phase.

I’m not saying that any of these responses is inaccurate, but they don’t seem to capture the issue fully. The second and third issues relate to delays in assessment and we are not quite in the same place with this anymore. So if the delays and paper processing aren’t happening at the same rate, why are double the number of assessments leading to the support group than to the work related activity group- a circumstance the DWP’s own explanatory notes state is stabilising?

There are other possible explanations and I’m not surprised that the government aren’t dwelling on them. The first possibility is that the scheme was, or has become, badly designed for the purpose it was intending. I’ll put that another way- whilst the intention was for a majority of people to end up in the work related activity group, the actual scheme didn’t achieve this. Many claimants may have been more afflicted than was predicted- people had symptoms that placed them in the support group. Alternatively, and especially with the medical descriptors (the points-based test most claimants go through to quality for ESA) becoming harder over time, claimants who were originally envisaged to qualify for the benefit are turned down.

Another set of explanations relate to the application of the medical test by health care professionals and decision makers. We know that the majority of people who take their claim to appeal are successful. We know there are serious, long-lasting concerns about decision making and the medical assessments. I’d argue that a significant proportion of people turned down for ESA would, on balance (perhaps once they’ve sat down with a welf to talk it through), argue that they should be in the work related activity group. So is decision making part of the reason people aren’t getting into the work related activity group in the numbers originally predicted?

Add into this changes to manual reconsiderations, stopping many people from receiving payments if they apply again following a refusal and paying those in the work related activity group the same as jobseekers allowance and you start to see something that looks a lot like a squeeze on exactly the groups of people who might eventually end up in the work related activity group. With regular(ish) reviews of claims for people in the work related activity group (and less often in the support group) placement in this group looks difficult to achieve and then precarious once it is achieved, even if the claimant’s symptoms are unchanged.

Finally, the government did change the rules for people receiving the contribution based ESA, in order to limit the amount of time they could claim it. I thought this might be part of the issue but when you look at it, the numbers receiving contribution based ESA have been fairly stable over a long period (this doesn’t mean it is the same people claiming) so it’s not quite clear if this is a factor.

Maybe there’s another way to put all this. The original intention of ESA was to figure out who could, with support, move more towards work and provide them with extra help. In one sense it doesn’t matter whether this is a majority of claimants or not. But what does matter is whether or not people receive support relevant to their needs.

At the start of the post I referred to the difference between the intention and reality as “telling”. What I mean is it looks exactly like restricted and temporary access to the work related activity group seems to be the outcome the system as a whole produces. Having people with health conditions claim jobseekers allowance with all the expectations that entails isn’t necessarily helpful. Similarly, putting people on a carousel of assessment, reassessment and appeals isn’t helpful either.

So a system operating (by design or implementation) to exclude marginal cases means a significant skew towards those cases where there is no argument. A system intended to help people get closer to employment doesn’t work if it excludes precisely those people who would benefit most. I’d argue that’s exactly what we are seeing and that these statistics are just further evidence that something has gone very wrong with ESA.

Inviolable viability

Right, are we all enthused and ready to go? Viability is dead: long live, um, something that looks a lot like it.

Before I am accused (again) of cynicism approaching apocalyptic levels, let me first say, the fact that the government are trying to do something about viability is positive. I’ll try and get into what I think it means in a bit, but given the amount of bluster about the policies I think it is worth actually trying to get down on paper what the government are proposing.

Under the current system, many local plans include a brief sketch on what requirements a site might have for affordable housing, education facilities, green space and other bits of infrastructure. Nowadays this is split between in section 106 agreement (which is negotiable) and in many areas Community Infrastructure Levy (which isn’t). But the real tooth and nail side of what is required for a site comes during the planning application, where the need for infrastructure, followed closely by the developer’s ability to pay for it out of the eventual sale of homes is bashed out.

The developer gets to use the price they paid for the land (however inflated that is by the prospect of planning permission) and lots of other bits and bobs go into their very detailed spreadsheet to prove their point. The local authority then makes a decision based on the agreement. If agreement can’t be reached within a set timescale, or if the application is refused because the developer’s won’t budge then it can go to an appeal where an inspector and, eventually, the secretary of state can decide upon the merits of the application. Parties who feel (legally) hard done by can apply for judicial review, which can and does quash decisions and demand a rehearing.

In the new system, first proposed last year and now laid out in slightly more detail, the major discussions about the viability of sites will take place during the plan making process. I’ve written before about this process; one of the positive things about centrally suggested targets is that the massively long-winded process of establishing housing need can be removed, which would have made the local plan process quicker. But reaching an assessment of infrastructure need and viability for every site included during the process and coming to an agreement of this with developers, is going to be a huge and time consuming ask. Developers will no doubt (and quite understandably, from a business point of view) use the local plan process to try and extract the best deal for themselves at this point, rather than further down the track.

Yes, in the end it is the local authority that draws up the local plan, but developers will go into the local plan examination (where a planning inspector in effect decides whether it is “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”) with all of their legal arguments, expensive lawyers and fabby dabby spreadsheets ready to prove their point. Those spreadsheets will now be public and use something approaching a set methodology, which is a huge victory for transparency campaigners. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that a small band of local campaigners doing this in their spare time will be able to outwit a company whose profit levels are at least partly based on extracting just this kind of victory. Many council planning departments, often stung by large costs if they lose judicial reviews or appeal cases, will be very cautious of pushing hard if they know they may not win.

Another good(ish) thing is that the land value being proposed for viability assessments is not the price paid for the land, but some inbetween figure. As Shelter have commented, given recent land sales have possibly been inflated by the current market, the new assessments might be higher than you might hope. It is a step in the right direction, but the wording- particularly that the land value should be set at “the minimum price at which it is considered a rational landowner would be willing to sell their land” means this could all fall down rather quickly. If that’s the case there is nothing to stop landowners working collectively to ensure prices remain high.

This all means that the local plan process becomes longer than it would have been and there is no guarantee this will lead to additional affordable accommodation. The government may be hoping land prices will fall as a result of this change, which seems hopeful and best and naive at worst.

The government are stating that once the local plan process is complete (however long that takes) that will be that. But of course, they have to (and to their credit, have) considered the other situations, for example when a site outside of the local plan comes forward. Or, indeed, the economic world changes significantly and developers are suddenly significantly more or less able to pay. In that situation local authorities will have to work with developers to assess or reassess these agreements.

There will be disagreements, claims will be lodged and eventually a set of precedents will be made about what counts as a change and what doesn’t. Unless there has been a big change in developer’s business plans this will then become the new normal. They will use the precedent to turn the drip into a flood. That’s not a criticism of developers- they are acting rationally. It is a criticism of the proposed system. It gives them an inch of wiggle room and expects they won’t take a mile. As with my previous post, I confidently predict we’ll be back in the same situation with viability and affordable housing within a few years.

BUT! The government have added a backstop- with a not very discreet threat for a system where “contributions to affordable housing and infrastructure to be set nationally, and to be non-negotiable”. Given my previous comments you’ll not be surprised that I like the second part of that. I would much prefer a system where the connection between overall viability, developer’s expectations of tidy profits and affordable housing is broken. I don’t see why it would make sense for this to be set nationally, when practically everything else in local plan making is, um, local. Neither Theresa May or Sajid Javid mentioned it in detail in their speeches, so I think this was only planned for certain eyes only. It’s a threat to developers of what could happen if the system doesn’t work and in my opinion a pretty idle one, much like the threat to end help to buy.

The proposals I sketched out in my previous post would be stronger than those being threatened by government and they should feel free to use them if they would like. But given I don’t think they have much intention to actually do this I won’t hold my breath.

So we have been promised another revolution only to see some generally positive but not exactly world-shattering reforms. Before too long we have to ask ourselves why this is? Do ministers over-sell proposals that they know are milquetoast? Are they convinced that one more set of changes will push the housebuilders over the edge to become the sort of civil minded operators the government want them to be? Are they making comments based on what they hope newspapers will report rather than what will actually make a difference?

The key issue, in a way, is that government is stuck. Changes since the late 1970s mean that the major housebuilders are the only people who can deliver at scale. The government seems willing to pay lip service to other forms of building, but know that these can only take off with either significant government investment, underwriting loans and subsidy (for small builders, community housing, housing associations, etc) or local government debt (for council housing).

Another option would be development corporations, often used for new towns but theoretically usable anywhere. This would involve local authorities, builders, landowners and trades coming together to create new homes. The corporation could be structured to prevent perverse incentives (including a risk of chummy contract-giving between the partners) and provide incentives for actual building. The builders wouldn’t like this as it threatens their ownership of large parts of the process, but it is something more akin to a revolution than some (admittedly positive) tinkering with viability.

The government are right that there is no silver bullet to ending the housing affordability crisis, but I do wish they would put away the rubber ones.

As a final note, is it worth remembering that the government has consistently said that the first report from the Letwin review will be coming with the Spring Statement next week. This wasn’t mentioned in either speech (Sajid Javid referred to the publication of the full report at the (Autumn) Budget), so I will be very interested to know whether something will be released and what it says.

Build to rent or build to build?

Build to rent, is it a way to get some top quality new rental housing or just another brick in the wall? There’s plenty of chatter about this new type of development coming forward, but what is it, what does it mean for the planning system and affordable housing and what will happen as the market matures?

Build to rent is in many ways something new. Large scale investors like pensions schemes are seeking ways to find returns and have hit upon the idea of having their own property portfolios. These aren’t mom and pop landlords with a property here and there, but organisations who have the ability to buy and sell entire buildings and blocks on a whim. But there is part of the problem- they like the idea of rental income from assets that grow in value over time but don’t want to have to deal with the issues relating to having leaseholders or other owners to get in their way.

What they’d prefer is a nice clean, wholly owned asset that can be theirs outright, traded easily and the rental returns known. This kind of housing doesn’t exactly exist in the UK (or in many places in the world) and the most obvious way to create it is to build it. So yes, there is hundred of millions of pounds floating around right now looking for investment in housing- hooray!

But that money doesn’t particularly care where it is investing, as long as it can get the best return for the investors. Where the best deal is might relate to the rents that can be expected, the land cost, the costs associated with planning and who will let them build exactly the kind of block they’d like to see. Manchester of Salford, Leeds or Bradford, London or Colchester, Milan or Barcelona- what matters to them, quite reasonably, is where the net return is highest.

Of course all housebuilders are like this to an extent, but whereas traditional builders are looking for a pipeline of land across a range of sites, from city centre to the surrounding countryside, to buy develop and then sell, build to rent developers are looking for inner city properties where the principle of development has been agreed since Victoria was on the throne where they can buy the land, build the asset and then hold it as such, selling on the whole unit at the appropriate time.

With traditional housebuilders the key issue fought in the planning system is where homes will be built. With build to rent the key issue is what homes will be built. As I mentioned above, the need for a nicely packaged up unit precludes anything quite as messy as sales of flats to a housing association or even something as messy as shared ownership or even, shock horror, someone else owning a property in their building! It would be bad for the portfolio to have a couple of appendages and provisos thrown in with any sale and therefore reduce the market value of the asset.

Many authorities in the UK, including big cities need significant amounts of new housing. This is both due to a genuine requirement to meet the needs of their residents and because they have more or less objectively assessed needs that are required to keep their planning system ticking over. A developer, whoever they are, turning up and stating that they are interesting in building a few thousand homes on underused or unused city centre sites is a godsend.

So let’s say you work for the planning department and a developer comes in saying just that- they want to build thousands of properties to rent. But there is a catch. Firstly, they are also talking to a few other cities and can only really decide on one or two locations to build at the scale they want. Secondly, their business model doesn’t really allow them to have affordable housing on site, so could they pretty please just pay cash instead? Thirdly, like all other developers, costs are high and profits are low, so they might not be able to pay all that much towards affordable housing anyhow. Fourthly, they operate in a cut-throat market where information is king, so please could any negotiations and agreements be held in secret?

Now, generals are always fighting the last war, but you’d hope planning departments are a bit quicker off the bat than that. Because let’s be clear, the opportunities for significant new developments are enough for authorities to have to consider changing their rules to keep ahead.

Earlier this week I praised Jennifer Williams’s recent article on affordable housing in Manchester. One of the key things behind the continued growth of city centre housing in Manchester -but also the complete lack of on-site affordable housing- is the willingness to get in front of the curve for build to rent. You can’t apply planning rules just for certain types of investments though, so every developer gets to play the same game- offsite contributions for affordable housing (sometimes called commuted sums), confidential viability reports, excellent but private shared spaces without significant contributions to public spaces.

Perhaps “race to the bottom” is too strong a term, but I think we need to see that Manchester is the outrider for city centre housing outside of London and look at the impact build to rent is having there.

As I’ve mentioned before, commuted sums as opposed to affordable housing onsite isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although there is a need to prevent areas from becoming ghettos of either rich or poor households. Councils or housing associations can use that money to invest in their own large scale schemes rather than a smattering of housing here and there and the smart ones could create their own mixed schemes with market and affordable homes side by side.

But no payments, or money that disappears into the ether through a viability process or into an “affordable housing saving fund” that never gets spent is never a positive thing. Development after development in or near a city centre without public space is also not great.

As with my previous comments on viability, I’m coming round to the view that no process framed around negotiation will actually be able to put the genie back in the bottle. The changes to the national planning policy framework may make some temporary difference, but I am going to firmly predict that a small army of lawyers and consultants will put us back to where we are now within 5 years. Amending viability simply isn’t enough for affordable housing, the goal must be to remove the connection between the two.

What might be better is putting affordable housing into some form of tax like the existing Community Infrastructure Levy. An amount could be worked out from the average square footage of a proposed development (or sale price of properties if you’d rather) and this could be paid to the council for them to build affordable housing (either directly or by housing association grant), with clear accounting to show this is done. A developer who wants to reduce this bill could offer a number of homes in payment for their charge, but this would be at affordable house prices rather than the full purchase price of the property.

Another change would be for local authorities to work together to set clear boundaries on what they will and won’t accept. Hopefully I’ve shown that there is an oblique strategy, perhaps even an unintentional one, to change the planning system in order to fit it around build to rent. If larger local authorities, for example the metro mayoral cities and the English core cities came together to set out what they would like their planning system to look like, they could seek to insist on published viability statements and set affordable housing quotas. This could stop developers trying to play one city off against another, but it of course comes with a healthy reward for cities going back on the agreement.

It remains to be seen how this new market will mature. As I mentioned at the start of the piece, one of the reasons investors are looking to build is because there aren’t currently the type of properties available for them to invest in. Of course there are other benefits to putting value into a bare bit of earth, particularly the one shared by more traditional housebuilders that this will appreciate the value significantly.

But once there are a raft of new build to rent properties available, will investors keep on building, or will they be happy trading the buildings that exist between each other? I’ll put that another way- there are plenty of shares that come onto the stock exchange, but the vast majority of the role of the exchange is to trade existing shares. Buy low, sell high, or at least buy for a lower price than you sell for! It is fair to say pension schemes dabble in the markets, usually in long term investments, so they are likely to be quite happy to think this way about property as well.

Sure there will be property managers who actually do things like sort out repairs and they won’t be affected by these shenanigans. The average tenant won’t notice ownership changing, perhaps the brass plaque outside the door will occasionally morph overnight into something new. But from a housing supply issue, we have to consider whether build to rent will be a major builder for many years to come or -once there are enough properties to play the asset appreciation game- whether it will be a niche portfolio for certain schemes to hold and trade between themselves.

If it is to be a major source of new housing then the issues seen in Manchester might be heading to a town near you on a large scale. If it is the former, then are the changes (or resistance to changes, such as publishing viability reports) being made to local planning systems (for all developments, remember) worth accepting for a limited local reward?