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.

Delving into devolution

Never plan ahead unless you are prepared to throw away. That’s a lesson I have had to learn over and over again.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I had a plan to talk about the trend of government “doing deals” instead of offering the same policy options to everywhere, both through devolution and for new council housing.

Never mind that the letters were falling off from behind Theresa May, her housing policy proposals didn’t once mention the deals government have been working on with some councils for many months now.

I don’t think that means that the deals are not going to happen, just that government thinking has bypassed them for now. Rather than hark on about something that is on the back burner, I will try and talk about devolution more widely, in particular a wide view of what it could mean for the country (and by that I mean England) as a whole.

Now that the dust is settling on the first tranche of devolution deals, with elected metro mayors in a number of larger city regions, I think we need to calmly and reasonably look at where devolution could be leading us as a country and comprehend what this new multi-speed system is going to look like.

We should first take a couple of steps back. Right back to 1974 in fact and forward through many acts to the creation of many of the local government systems we see today. What we need to understand is that England is already a diverse system, with London having its own rules and the rest of the country being split into unitary systems, two tier systems, metropolitan boroughs, non-metropolitan boroughs. Some authorities have a committee system, some a cabinet system and some elected mayors.

The impact of these different systems and the negotiations that brought them about means that councils can be big or small, self contained or not. In just one example, Leeds City Council covers a huge, diverse area. You can walk around the edges of the Leeds district, only very occasionally interacting with something that isn’t countryside or a village. Even the urban join with Bradford isn’t that wide, when you look at it or walk it. Manchester City Council covers a much smaller area, is bordered by Salford and Trafford, both themselves large urban areas part of what the layman would call “Manchester”, although be careful doing that in some parts of Salford!

The reasons behind this are tied up with history and practically ancient politics. Yes, it happened that Manchester and Salford centres grew up next to each other, and Newcastle and Gateshead for that matter. There are historical and political reasons Herefordshire is a unitary authority and Worcestershire isn’t and why it is Herefordshire and Worcestershire, not “Hereford and Worcester”.

The point is, the structure of local government has evolved to both reflect and create very different areas and has done so because government has usually been remarkably pragmatic and open to what they perceive to be the requirements of the local area. But most powers given to councils have been across the board, with only tinkering or one off payments between them. Authorities have often been able to come to their own conclusion on how they wish to run services, but not which services they choose to run.

This was even the case in local authorities that opted to have elected mayors; it was simply another way of administering the same services. In the early 2010s two things changed. One is very techie but could be important in all number of ways- in 2011 councils became able to do anything an individual could do. So they could set up companies more freely, take on other non-statutory responsibilities and were generally more free to act. It is worth pointing this out because really there is nothing apart from finances stopping many authorities from doing what they want- as long as it isn’t creating taxes or go to war. But finance is the key one and we will come back to it!

The other was wider devolution- multiple authorities working together to create a combined authority. This is especially true as this often meant taking responsibility for central government functions and delivering them locally. The list of potential responsibilities is long, but let’s for the sake of brevity state that anything apart from taxing and warring was on the table. Everything was up for grabs, but that’s where the deal comes in. Each different set of authorities taking part had to come to an agreement first with each other and then secondly with central government about what they would like to control and how they were going to be measured on whether they have succeeded.

This means, especially as more areas catch up with the outriders on devolution, that different places have different deals. One place may have a deal to look after health and social care funding, whilst another may not. One may put the oversight of Police into the metro mayor’s hands, another may stick with a police and crime commissioner (for as long as they last). One may have an intricate deal on new housing delivery, another may have just received a cash amount to unlock housing sites. A third may not have considered housing at all in their deal. Many may soon try to franchise bus services, but others may choose to leave that alone.

All this means policy making at the national level will have to become a lot more cautious about what and where central government can make changes- law and guidance will have to be clear about where it applies- which probably means exemptions coming out of your ears. It also means people moving from one devolved area to another will not necessarily have the same entitlements, support or interactions with their local representatives.

Areas that do not have a deal will still be covered by policy decisions made at Westminster, but with fewer and fewer areas covered (particularly populated areas) this is going to mean a very different type of policy making. It could, over time, mean that some Westminster policies and debates become quite tailored to the needs of some of those areas. Assuming it will mostly be rural and semi-rural areas left un-devolved it may mean that some debates in Westminster become focused on those areas.

Indeed, this could even mean that smaller urban areas not in devolution deals will be ignored because the “non devolved areas” are seemingly represented by the views of rural and semi-rural areas. It may also lead to some strange variant of the West Lothian Question- why should Greater Manchester MPs vote on a topic that doesn’t affect their area?

Those on the outside of devolved areas may well look at the extra funding being received with envious eyes. Indeed, this is arguably one of the reasons the Leeds City Region has ended up in the quagmire it has. Those who want to say “me too!” or “me as well!” need to have their cases looked at, but there needs to be some clear and consistent direction from government about who can be involved in devolution and who cannot.

In whatever scheme there will be places outside of devolution. Jonn Elledge’s piece on Herefordshire neatly illustrates that they can and probably will feel left out and something may need to be created for them- I’m suggesting calling it devo-min.

To put that another way, if devolution isn’t for everybody (and that is the mood music out of the government) then the government does have to be clear how the world will work for those left outside the devolved areas as well as accept that their decision making power has been reduced for large parts of the country. Politically, it would be better if this looked like an offer rather than telling them “things will stay the same”, but that’s for the politicians to decide.

I want to come back to finances, because it is clear that the next step for devolution is going to be fiscal. Metro mayors are not going to be happy with a begging bowl approach for long- they are going to want to set taxes. Given the rather terrible state of council tax this isn’t exactly unreasonable; practically anything save a poll tax would be better than further tinkering with council tax.

So we may see different tax rates and indeed different tax styles in different areas. Maybe a land value tax somewhere and an additional income tax somewhere else. This doesn’t necessarily mean the overall tax burden will increase, but there will be pressure to allow metro mayors to levy their own funds to pay for the services they feel people want.

I can imagine the Treasury in particular will try hard not to accept this, but past a certain point it is going to be hard to resist. It will be fiscally hard to control (isn’t that the point?) but could lead to significant buy-in if people recognise the links between their payments and the services they receive. I suspect as a final statement, the Treasury will argue that any authority with fiscal powers should be allowed to fail.

So a system where devolution has reached its apex will be characterised by diversity, but we have to remember that we had a diverse system to begin with. We’ve coped with it well enough so far. Policies in one place may simply not apply in another- I think we can probably cope with that, although newspapers will no doubt be up in arms about postcode lotteries. It certainly won’t look federal, because there will be swathes of the country where devolution doesn’t apply. Those areas may feel hard done by unless they have some individual offer-whether it is a form of control or a guarantee of only their MPs setting the rules for those areas.

If the government doesn’t like the look of that they could try and put the genie back in the bottle by limiting the ambitions of devolved areas. If that’s the case, we could see something much more like the old metropolitan county councils, which would be a crying shame. This would be a two-tier system, with perhaps limited additional powers (the current agreements plus a few more, if they’re lucky), but mostly just conglomerated powers from the existing councils underneath them.

Diversity is not a bad thing, it can lead to experimentation and finding out what works. Areas that are not the same shouldn’t be treated the same (that would be an oversimplification). Some slight form of competition might be beneficial.

But we do need to have a sensible discussion about where we want to set the limits and what we need to do with the areas where devolution doesn’t apply. If nothing else, that will let the areas ripe for devolution go for it without being held back by a small number of interested parties.

Help (for whom?) to buy (what?)

I know I said I wouldn’t go on a rant about help to buy, but all the music out of Conservative Party conference is pointing at pouring more money (£10 billion, but we’ll get into that below) into the scheme will be a centrepiece pledge.

Put simply, help to buy isn’t a terrible scheme, but it only helps a small number of people, who are able to save and could probably buy a property either immediately or after a period of further saving and does very little to add to the solve the need for truly affordable homes to buy or rent.

If it was one of a number of housing creation policies the government were progressing then I think we could live with it, but it’s not and trying to make it (again) the centrepiece of government housing policy is very worrying.

But first of all, let’s quickly run through what help to buy is. Originally, help to buy had two main components, a loan from the government of up to 20% of the value of the property and a guarantee that the government would underwrite part of the mortgage in the case of default. The government has got rid of the underwriting part and set up a help to buy ISA, where they will add 25% to your savings until you have saved £12,000 and they have put in an extra £3,000.

The loan means that those people who can gather a 5% deposit (so £10,000 for a £200,000 house) would be able to take a 75% mortgage on a newbuild home, with the government loan covering up the remaining 20%. This is interest free for 5 years, at which point a supposedly low rate of interest would be applied. As it happens, we have had years of low interest rates, but even now, the rate isn’t exorbitant.

Let’s take a couple of who scrimped and saved and got £10k in savings. Under a regular mortgage and using a 10% deposit scheme they could have purchased a house for £100k, and paid a commercial rate of interest whilst paying off the £90k. Under the help to buy they can turn their £10k savings into a £200k house, have a commercial loan of £150k and owe the government £40k. They get a nicer house, almost certainly in a nicer area and they get it quicker than if they had to save twice the amount. They’ll have to pay more for longer, but they are probably happy to take that- assuming they can keep up repayments. The house grows in value more or less in line with the market, which we are led to believe will keep on growing above inflation forever.

Indeed, the government’s own analysis shows 61% of people bought a bigger property and 60% of people bought in a better area than they would have done without the support. 61% said that the scheme helped them buy a property more quickly than they would have been able to do otherwise.

There is a but, however. Those in smaller homes and flats (ie. those on the lowest incomes) now feel trapped as they are unable to move to the next step of the ladder as they won’t have the support again. Their income and savings were enough to buy a home with government support, but not to allow them to fully access the housing ladder with all of its implied (and unearned) riches.

What does it mean to the government? Well, in this example they have passed £40k to the housebuilders, who will no doubt be happy. It seems incredibly likely that the new homeowners will pay the government back, so the money the government has invested will be returned and can either be recycled into the scheme or used for something else. So when you hear about the government “spending” money (in this case £10 billion) on help to buy loans, what it really means is investing money where it knows it isn’t getting the best rates of return.

And what does this mean for the housebuilding sector? Newbuild homes can be built with some degree of certainty that some people will be able to afford them. Housebuilders can look forward to higher prices than might otherwise have been the case, helping their profit levels and making sure they can please their shareholders or owners. They might build more homes, but they will be careful to only do so at a rate that allows them to maximise their profits.

Lenders see higher returns because more and bigger mortgages are being taken out. They’re happy.

As for existing homeowners, property prices can keep on going up and up as there isn’t a pressure to reduce prices from people unable to afford new homes.

Finally, what does it mean for people who can’t scrape together a mortgage, particularly as prices increase? It means nothing to them, it doesn’t help them one jot. The government are also looking at extra support for private rented tenants, but this looks to be effectively ensuring they have basic rights and perhaps doubling the usual length of an assured shorthold to 12 months. The social housing green paper will come out at some point, perhaps, and at that point we’ll get to see what government wants to do for social housing tenants and those who can only truly afford social rents.

Similar to the loans, the guarantee scheme meant that lenders could provide mortgages with confidence that they would get some of their money back. The government wasn’t giving lenders money, simply underwriting the scheme (up to £600,000 which, round here, would buy you something like this) and the more creditworthy you could show you were meant you could borrow more.

The help to buy ISA gives money to those who can save money. So, to be blunt, it’s nice free money for people who can save money.

Which leads me back to the point: whom is this policy -this flagship policy- for? It’s for people who need a nudge to get over the line, or who need a hand to buy now rather than in a few years time. It doesn’t disrupt the housebuilding market or the demands from existing homeowners that their house price grows in relative value over time.

In essence, it makes buying a first home conditional on government support for middle income households. It takes the market as it is, makes it slightly worse and then offers a solution for the lucky few.

Much like my comments on the proposed changes to assessed need, it means housebuilders are still in the driving seat when it comes to housing supply. They control it, they will (understandably!) use it to their advantage in order to maximise their profits.

The government needs to recognise that it is in a position of power when it comes to the regulation and control of markets. It is an actor, where choosing not to act is still an action.

It is no good trying to tinker around the edges with failing markets, hoping to add to the apples on the applecart without upsetting it. Any solution to the housing crisis will, by definition, be disruptive. Not only to local communities (who may not wish to see housebuilding on a scale that is required) and existing homeowners (who may see a slowing of the housing bubble) but also to the housebuilders themselves, who have had a position of power in the market for too long.

It will take will and judgement to see that through.

The choke chain

It is a provocative title, but give me a few minutes and I’ll try and explain why I think there is a worrying trend in policy making.

Why am I comparing a government policy to to a particularly nasty type of canine control? Well, a choke chain gives a dog the sense of freedom, but the owner can at any time pull the chain and bring them to heel.

In the policy version of the choke chain, one part of government gives power to create a policy to another bit of government, but retains a power of oversight and strict, almost self-defeating, conditions. This allows them to argue that they have also passed responsibility to the other party, but I’m going to try and show that this isn’t really the case.

It is probably best to give you some examples early in this one, as without them it can sound pretty theoretical.

As part of their long-ranging (and failing) attempts to reduce the overall benefits bill, one of the measures put forward by DWP was the localisation of Council Tax Benefit. Under the old Council Tax Benefit scheme any household could receive a discount on their Council Tax up to 100% of the bill.  Under the replacement, each individual local authority has been given the ability to design its own Council Tax Support scheme.

Now, councils are often asking for powers to do things. The LGA’s unofficial motto is “Council’s could do this better, just give us the money”. And herein lies the rub, because the government didn’t fund Council Tax Support at the same rate as Council Tax Benefit. In the first year they took a 10% cut.

This meant local authorities had to not only design their own scheme, but that scheme had to cost less than the previous one. What’s more, central government insisted pensioners had to be protected and couldn’t lose one penny compared to the previous scheme.

This was a challenge every local authority had to grapple with. Who is the cut passed on to? Those looking for work? Those in work but on low incomes? Those unable to work due to an illness or disability? Councils could have chosen to put extra resources into Council Tax Support, but where would that money have come from?

At the end of it central government could step back, see the mess and pain the policies had caused and criticise local government for what they themselves have created. They stated they had given away policy making power, but the conditions that they set doomed it to failure (or at least increased hardship for somebody) from the start.

In the second example, I’ll need you to cast your mind all the way back to early 2017. The government at the time, in between Brexit court cases, was compiling a housing White Paper. Every so often there was a flutter of suggestion that policy on the green belt might change. Indeed, in November 2016 Sajid Javid –in front of assembled housebuilders– announced that the Birmingham local plan had been released from department imposed purgatory, even though it used a small amount of green belt land.

The government could have chosen to undertake a review of the greenbelt. It could have issued clear guidance that it would accept greenbelt reductions or replacement across the board, effectively (prepare yourself for the metaphor) unbuttoning the belt one notch. It could have set a clear test for the quality of greenbelt land, removing some of the lower quality scrubland and replacing it with decent land that is worth saving. The rumours persisted, and therefore we must presume so did the discussions in central government, right up until the white paper was published.

Now, I’ve tweeted recently on the green belt and I can understand it isn’t the topic where the most rational and reasonable debates take place. I can only imagine what it is like in central government, particularly between Conservative ministers who represent rural, semi-rural and suburban areas. Actually making a decision on changing the green belt would be brave, but those were the rumours.

The final answer in the white paper was boring and unhelpful: only councils can set their green belt boundaries and they can only change this if they have considered everything else. In essence this was a clarification of the existing policy.

But they added something else: woe betide any council that is considering even Birmingham-style green belt changes, they are unlikely to get the support they require from the Inspector and the Secretary of State unless they can show a lot of their working, catch them on a good day, have support of the local MPs and local planning groups, etc.

So councils have a duty to assess the housing need in their area and set what land should be used to meet it. But with only a very limited power to change greenbelt boundaries all they can do is push harder and harder on every other area (including land that is green field but not green belt), intensifying proposed development and increasing density until something pops. It can look like rearranging the deckchairs.

What central government has retained is the ability to sit in judgement of plans, perhaps occasionally letting the odd very hard case through, but can argue that failures to meet housing need are council’s fault, denying them one thing (a thorough, national review of the green belt) that could make a difference. They can play one council off against another whilst maintaining a holier than thou attitude to green belt use. Local authorities have to make the hard decisions and central government is there to chime in with any criticism for a scheme they have effectively implemented. When councils don’t have enough land for development, this will allow the planning inspectors and Secretary of State to open the floodgates for all “sustainable” development short of green belt use.

That said, and as a postscript to this example, with so many councils now looking at a higher housing need, we could see this issue re-emerging on a national scale, even in conservative areas.

The final example is the most up to date and one of the most fundamental failures of central government to live up to their responsibility. Court after court after court have told the government it needs a clear plan on improving the air we breathe.

With a self imposed election looming central government tried to get out of publishing their detailed plans but eventually had to give something.

Why is this so hard? Well, the only policy many people think will make a difference on congested roads is limiting or charging for vehicle use in the worst areas. So it may be the only option in policy terms, but it is ironically toxic to political popularity. Telling people they cannot drive their cars where they want (or, more accurately cannot drive their cars without being charged for it) is understood politically to be almost anathema to a wide variety of voters.

So what did central government do? Instead of biting the bullet itself it demanded councils come up with a plan, but made it clear that banning or charging for private cars (in particular diesel cars) are the very last thing they want to see. They’ve said they will only accept that if they can be convinced there are no other solutions.

In essence, the government is trying to both insist on the only practicable policy but also prevent it from taking place. They certainly want to be able to criticise anyone brave enough to make a decision that could make a difference. All because they don’t want to be the people to upset car users. This is, I predict, going to lead to more court cases (which even the government will expect to lose), more time wasted playing pass the parcel and more damage to the environment.

Each of these policies on their own are interesting. But as a whole they add up to something concerning. Setting other people up to fail is one thing, and should probably be expected in politics, but the consequences of these policies are, respectively, increased poverty, inadequate housing and environmental destruction.

Pretending to give away power but setting significant and insurmountable conditions, and retaining oversight to stop those brave enough to try and call their bluff, means the most likely outcome is failure. Benefit cuts will be passed on to hard pressed residents, who will then rely on handouts (because reality is complicated), councils will shy away from changes to the green belt , meaning homes either won’t be built or already densely packed areas will become more so, more time will be wasted going backwards and forwards trying to get decent environmental policies that may make a difference.

Right now I would be highly cautious of government ministers bearing gifts. This even goes so far as to be a little cautious of devolution, which to be fair doesn’t usually come with such significant constraints as the policies I have been talking about.

If government is serious about passing policy making power to other groups it also has to be serious about giving them the free hand to make the changes that are required. If it only wants people to implement its decisions (benefit cuts, maintenance of the green belt, limited action on climate change) then it should be honest and open about it.

You break it, you OAN it

It’s almost as if someone in DCLG was reading my blog. No sooner had I written on how the government made planning significantly more complicated by “simplifying” the regulations and guidance on objectively assessed housing need (OAN), do they turn around and announce they are proposing to change the way housing need is calculated.

There are effectively two problems I am going to look at in this post. The first is societal- not enough homes being built, in the places where people want to live in them, for a price they can afford to buy, or in many cases even rent. One of the positive things to have happened in politics in the last couple of years (and this is through significant campaigning from organisations and journalists) is that this is no longer any serious political disagreement on this point.

The second problem, as I mentioned in my previous post, is that the assessment of housing need is currently mired in ambiguity and complexity and can lead to bitter and acrimonious disputes lasting years and taking millions of pounds of public money to resolve, and then only temporarily.

I’m going to argue that resolving the second problem is a step in the right direction, but without other significant changes it will not go far enough to relieve the real-world problems caused by a lack of housing supply.

To properly understand this issue, we need to understand what roles councils currently play in creating new housing. Sometimes media reporting on this issue suggests that councils are going to be “forced to build more homes”. For Local Authorities demanding to be given the powers to actually build a decent amount of council homes that’s a pretty hackle raising misunderstanding!

Local planning authorities (for the most part local authorities, but there are some National Parks and the Council of the Isles of Scilly thrown in for good measure) have, as part of the local plan process, to objectively assess the amount of housing need required in their area. As I’ve already spoken about, they weren’t given clear direction on how to do this, so many went off and did the best they could with limited information from central government. What they were given was a thorough inspection by the independent Planning Inspectorate and then the Secretary of State at the end of the process. Councils who had picked a number out of the air or used a dodgy methodology were sent away to have another go, at considerable expense.

This open ended process meant that any Thomas, Richard or Harold could, with the help of the back of an envelope, come up with what they believed to be a convincing methodology and assessment of need. On the other hand, many community groups go to significant lengths to come out with something just as detailed and intricate as the local authorities, just with a different end result. The housebuilders, unsurprisingly, often had their own ideas about how many homes were needed in an area and the resources to employ both demographers and legal representation at the Inspection. Inspectors were therefore having to consider, reflect upon and decide whether the Local Authorities version was sound, or whether someone else had come up with something better.

The system (or lack thereof) didn’t work, it created acrimony wherever it went. A large number of authorities, particularly in rural areas, simply played for time to avoid getting round to making a decision.

Councils also had to make sure that there was enough land available (effectively set aside for housing) to build the proposed new homes. But this wasn’t just their own land and indeed there are lots of landowners who would be happy to see a significant increase in the price of their land if it was designated for housing. Community groups were, by and large, less happy with development in their area and generally wanted development limited to only the most obvious places, such as brownfield land.

But planning decisions haven’t been on hold through this period and developers, as is in line with their economic interest, have been using the uncertainty and disagreements to push forward on planning permissions for sites that aren’t currently designated for housing. In actual fact, the ambiguity in methodologies and vulnerability of authorities when they don’t have a plan means precisely that developers have had more power than they would have otherwise. I’ll leave a question here for later- if that’s the case why doesn’t that mean more homes are being built?

The new proposals replace the process of each planning authority setting its own methodology with one unified way of setting the objectively assessed need. It’s still complex, but you need GCSE level algebra to understand it, rather than the highly specific postgraduate education required to understand some of the methodologies under the old scheme. It only requires statistical information that is publicly available, so anyone can double check a council’s working out.

It matters that the government have used affordability (the ratio between house prices and average full time earnings) in the area as one of the key determinators of the new numbers. In all honesty, I don’t think this is a methodology that would have passed muster with the inspectors under the current scheme. It is very definitely a very different calculation and comparisons between these and the current figures aren’t really possible. This means it’s not that the old figures were “wrong” and these are “right”, they have just been calculated differently.

The government’s proposal flat out states that this is to boost overall homebuilding across England to over 266,000 new homes a year. They’ve worked backwards from this, using household growth statistics and the affordability ratio to come to the figures they have announced. They’ve effectively distributed the 226,000 around the country based on household creation and a proxy for housing affordability.

What this way of doing it means is that the government can publish (and indeed have published) their own estimations of what this means for each local authority. It makes for interesting reading.

(I’ve had a little play with some of the information. There is a little bit of complexity with the data in that some of the authorities current needs are ranges. In these cases I have taken the higher amount, as I somewhat cynically believe this is what developers would be arguing for at appeal.)

Because of the way the government have compiled the statistics, local authority areas that have relatively low house prices and/or higher relative incomes end up needing to provide fewer houses than they may have thought. This is particularly clear where authorities have previously used employment growth as part of their methodology, as it plays no part in the new proposed calculations. Big decreases in compared to the previous plans are seen in the outer London Boroughs of Hillingdon  (2,846 a year lower) and Croydon (1,036 a year lower). Large towns and cities with growing economies and people commuting in such as Birmingham (Council- not the whole city, 837 a year lower), Oxford (854 a year lower, halving their housing need) and Leeds (1,011 lower a year) also have big reductions as employment growth is no longer a direct consideration.

The areas with major increases are mostly in London and the South East. The top 11 authorities for increases are in London, from Brent (an extra 1,029 homes a year) to Greenwich (a whopping 2,967 more homes required a year). As you’d expect, high house prices and mixed incomes seems to be the order of the day as you look at the areas with large extra allowance. It’s a quirk of the methodology that Croydon is in the areas with the biggest reductions, but neighbouring Bromley has one of the highest gains.

It’s also worth stating that there are a fair few authorities that don’t see a significant change. Around 130 authorities (out of the just over 300 that are countable) have a change that is less than a hundred homes per year, either as an increase or decrease.

Overall, there’s a mixed picture, with approaching half of the authorities actually seeing a decrease. More Northern areas are seeing an decrease and those in the South East particularly are looking at an increase. This isn’t hard and fast, but it is noticeable enough when you look through the list. So we have to ask if trying to push more and more homes into a limited space in the South is a sound policy, especially when compared to working harder to rebalance the economy so demand is more spread through the country.

But what does this mean for housebuilding? Well, local authorities will still have to allocate sites to meet this new housing need. This is still going to lead to upset amongst local communities and it may fracture joint working between community groups. Under the proposals there would be no way they could work together to claim the OAN is wrong. It’ll be a case of which land should be allocated. The residents of Petertown and nearby Paulville will be in competition to avoid housebuilding in their patch, not working together.

But even then, if land allocations and planning permissions go through the roof, does that mean we’ll see new housing?

My short answer is no. Planning permission in England is a right, not a responsibility. Buying a book doesn’t mean you have to read it. Gaining planning permission doesn’t mean you’ll build homes immediately on a site. Other countries do it differently and I wonder if we should be more willing to look at what has evolved elsewhere, rather than tinkering at the edges of our own system.

Back in the bookshop, you might find there’s an offer on and buy quite a few of the larger tomes. You won’t worry that you can’t read them all at once, they can sit on the shelf until a time of your choosing. Similarly, get the principle of development agreed for a site and you can sit on it for as long as you like, until one day, when the time is right, you can cash it in.

Indeed, there’s plenty of reasons housebuilders don’t build at the rate the country needs. Some of them are wholly justified- land remediation, skills shortages, capacity of the individual company and whole sector.  Anyone looking to develop the site would have these issues.

Some of the reasons are totally logical and rational from the point of view of the company- they want to maximise their profits, they want a long term pipeline of developments so they can plan ahead, they bought when there was a sale to be had and will build when the price is right.

To put it another way, land supply is a factor of housing supply, but it isn’t the only one. With relatively few very large housebuilders the housing market looks nothing like the “perfect” competition found only in economics textbooks. This means an increase in a factor of production won’t necessarily mean anything to the amount of new homes actually brought to market. Housebuilders control the supply and housebuilders have a significant incentive to keep prices high in order to maximise their profits. What about this change is going to affect that?

What’s more, because house prices are part of the proposed calculation, by building slowly and keeping prices high they will be able to keep the floodgates of planning permission open. I’m not saying this will make a massive difference, but this change tips the balance even further towards the developers.

The need to actually build homes discussed, at length, in the government’s White Paper from earlier this year.  The White Paper sketched some minimal ways of trying to do something about the issue, including using applicant’s track record on similar sites to make a decision and some compulsory purchase powers for councils to use when sites are stalled. These ideas, as minimal as they are, are not included in the current consultation and it will be interesting to see if they think they can bring them forward at the current time. The consultation does ask for ideas for what they can do to achieve this, so feel free to tell them!

These are still proposals and up and down the country there are going to be some elected members, community groups and individuals, many of them Conservatives who won’t be happy about it. Pressure, both formally through the consultation process and informally at constituency meetings and in Westminster will add up. How likely you think this is actually going to happen depends on how likely you think the current government can push through changes that alienate their own base. If it falls and we are back to square one, we are back with the messy, frustrating and endlessly complex system of competing methodologies. It seems to be risking a lot on a low chance of success.

So, for me, it’s the sound of one hand clapping. Sorting out objectively assessed need is important and it is right for the government to resolve this. But trying to link it directly with new housebuilding is making the same old mistake of linking land supply and housing supply. It isn’t that simple and no-one should think it is.

It looks like they have been simultaneously too ambitious for what can be achieved by amending the OAN and not ambitious enough when it comes to other measures to actually build the homes we need. I’ll be happy if they prove me wrong.

 

Complexity, simplification and reality

As I mentioned in my “hello!” post, I’m going to start this blog by talking about a few key issues and trends I have noticed creeping into public policies and try to explain why I think they need to be more thoroughly understood.

First up, I want to talk about the trend of making policies “simpler”, through a process central government likes to call “simplification”. This usually comes with some sort of statement about how many pages of legislation and guidance have been ripped up, how jargon has been removed and how the law is changing so it can be understood by the person on the bus to somewhere, rather than a self selecting clique or claque of professionals, legal professors, judges or advocates.

But let’s get something out of the way quickly- simplification is a complex job.

I could “simplify” this post by reducing it to 10 words, but it probably wouldn’t make sense. I could “simplify” the monitor you are reading it on by reducing it to two colours and a handful of pixels, but instead of my words all you’d see is something resembling a chess board. I could “simplify” my language to the point that the definition and meaning of what I am trying to explain would be lost.

None of this would actually be simplification, but if I used crude measurements like the number of words used or how easily read each word was then I might think I had made a huge improvement when in actual fact I had made something much worse.

It’s also important to understand what a complex policy is and what ways they can come about. No, I’m not going to get into different theories of policy creation (we’d be here all day!) but try and sketch out where complexity can hide in a policy.

Most obviously, the legislation (primary or secondary, new or amendments) can be filled with clauses, sub-clauses, exceptions, exemptions and contradictions. My go to example (yes, I am sad enough to have such a thing) is Schedule 5 of the Housing Benefit Regulations 2006– that’s 10 pages and 63 clauses on what “income other than earnings” should be ignored for calculating Housing Benefit.

Even if the original law is neat, tidy and short, the guidance or procedures government have created based on the legislation could add complexity. The classic example of this is homelessness decision making. Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 is relatively brief, has a lot of terms that are open to interpretation and can be neatly summarised into something not much longer than a page. But the guidance, all 268 pages of it, goes into much more detail, actually explains what some of the terms might mean and makes it clear what kind of things authorities have to do if they don’t want to fall afoul of the housing ombudsman and judiciary.

Finally for this sketch, the roles of applying a policy and defending it against other interpretations, especially in courts of law and justice, can add layer after layer of complexity. A government devising a policy may choose to go with little to no detail in the law and little to no guidance. These are, in the UK, very few and far between- it would potentially look something like an enabling act or the measures in the current draft of the European Union (Withdrawal Bill). But, just as that Bill and the article 50 notification before it found, even a very simple bill can become incredibly complicated as it transforms its way towards becoming policy.

The role of the courts is to act as an arbiter in cases of poor or ambiguous wording, to decide on whether other legislation is being breached and compare the policy with the rights enshrined in domestic, European and international law all come into play. Pages of caselaw, precedent, distinguished cases and decisions on reasonableness can make a supposedly simple policy hugely complex.

So whilst a government may say “I have made the law simpler” that does not automatically mean that the policy is any less complex. Indeed, it may mean that the guidance has to become more complex to cope for ambiguities in the law. Alternatively, a government could cut hundreds of pages of guidance, but this could mean there are huge gaps and uncertainties. Those making decisions would have to guess which way to read something and, if someone else disagreed, could end up with a court deciding between the interpretations. That, assuming it sets precedence, then gets written up into caselaw. The policy, no matter how simple to start with, takes another step towards becoming complicated.

This has all been quite theoretical so far, but let’s look at a couple of times governments have tried to introduce complexity and what has happened as a result.

When the 2010 government decided to cut planning guidance from 1,000 pages to “just 52” they didn’t say any of this. They also didn’t state that they were putting much of the onus of creating enforceable planning policies on local authorities, effectively vesting more powers in the local plan process and in turn expecting the planning inspectorate and courts to decide on any resulting disagreements. They don’t count the hundreds of pages each individual planning authority has to produce as “guidance” in their local plans, just that they had cut their own overarching guidance. They also don’t look at the planning inspectors and courts scratching their heads wondering where to start with appeals, let alone trying to be consistent and reasonable between different authorities.

It’s exactly these ambiguities that have led to different methodologies appearing, including how to set the overall housing targets, which is now a local authority role. Some authorities have done it one way, coming out with one result and others another way. Which is right? Let’s check the government’s guidance. There isn’t anything to confirm it, so it is left those signing off the document (the Inspector and Secretary of State) to make a decision. Has “simplification”, in this case significantly cutting down guidance, made this process more simple? Short answer: no.

In another example, at least a few politicians in central government have met their match in trying to “simplify” benefits. Most notably, the creation of Universal Credit to weld together an array of means tested benefits into one “simpler” whole. There’s plenty to be said about many parts of this approach (and I’m sure I’ll come back to it in the future), but on this occasion I want to look at just one small but important component.

The Severe Disability Premium is one of those welfare rights shibboleths (if you understand it you are a “welfare rights person”) and exists in almost all means tested benefits created in the last 30 years. It’s infuriatingly complicated, but in as few words as possible, it is intended to help people who live by themselves and due to a disability need to be cared from another person, but nobody gets paid carers allowance for looking after them. It helped single people with disabilities, those who live in households with many people with disabilities (the “living by yourself” test doesn’t include other severely disabled people- I told you it was complex!), those whose partners and carers have gone to live permanently in nursing homes and those who have been bereaved.

So it is devilishly complicated to administer correctly, but it attempts to meet a clear need that some people genuinely have. Whoever designed this part of Universal Credit clearly thought it was far too complicated for these days of benefit simplification and decided not to include it.

Someone claiming Universal Credit with these needs will have to find other ways to get the additional support they may require to look after themselves or go without something they could have otherwise afforded, such as food, heating, etc.  It’s as simple as this- the person with a severe disability and no-one caring for them now has a life that is significantly more complicated as a result of the government’s “simplification”.

Coming back to the wider picture of Universal Credit, can we therefore be surprised that the Trussell Trust claim there is a spike in food bank whenever an area rolls out the benefit? Perhaps when the government talks of a “simplification” the first response from everyone else should be “who does this simplify things for?”.

Or, to put it another way, perhaps trying to make life “simpler” is why rough sleeping has increased 134% since 2011?

Which brings me to the point of this admittedly long-winded article. Simplification is great if it cuts out needless complications. But policies are often complex because people’s lives are complicated. The laws on the statute book, the current guidance and the body of caselaw are all there, at least in part, in order to respond to this reality.

Trying to wish away social complexity may make government and administration smoother, but it almost certainly won’t help society. Lines outside food banks, many including working people, may suggest a simple welfare policy, but they do not suggest an effective one. They also do not suggest people’s lives are simple.

A simple policy is one that is straightforward to navigate. But part of that is clarity, part of it is a lack of ambiguity (and a need not to go to court to reconcile any ambiguities!) and part of it is that the resulting policy actually reflects reality.

To put it another way, oversimplification can lead to all sorts of complexity.

Hello! Hej! Hi!

Welcome to my blog of policy analysis!

Until very recently I have been working for public and third sector bodies. Most recently I have been supporting politicians in a large northern Local Authority.

I’m taking some time away from the world of work to look after my daughter as she literally takes her first steps in the world, but I can’t quite turn off the part of my brain that wants to think about, consider, discuss and reflect on policy.

Rather than spend the time talking to myself (although there’s a fair bit of that as well), I thought I would put some of these thoughts online for everyone to share. Feel free to comment, tell me I’m wrong, demand to see evidence about my assertions and so forth. As you can imagine, I’m used to critical challenge!

In recent years I’ve worked across wide parts of Local Authority policy, but my main interests are in housing, social security and welfare, economy and regeneration.

My contact details are available here and more information about me is available here. My writing times are limited to my daughter’s naptimes and more generally quiet moments- apologies if you contact me and don’t get an immediate response, but I will try and reply as soon as I can.

For my first few posts I will be talking about more general points and trends I have noticed over the last few years; things that I believe I will keep coming back to when I write posts that are more specifically related to a individual policy. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but hopefully I can ask some interesting questions!