Blimey- build, councils, build!

I went to a soft play this morning, fresh with the idea that whatever anyone else has been saying at the party conferences, one person I probably didn’t need to listen to very hard was the current Prime Minister. Well, that’s me schooled.

Details are still light on the PM’s pledge to scrap the housing revenue account borrowing cap, but for those of us who have been pushing for this change it is certainly welcome. Certainly a major sea change was that councils (both individually and through the LGA) started talking in unison. It shows what can be achieved when councils are united instead of being divided and ruled. Could a similar thing happen with social care or fiscal devolution, I wonder?

The SHOUT campaign should also get some of the credit for making the intellectual case so clearly and I suspect that the presence of Toby Lloyd in number 10 has managed to make a positive difference in entrenched thinking.

In my post before last year’s budget I went through why it is a difficult sell to the Treasury. Essentially, in letting councils (and financial markets) choose when they can borrow to build new homes they are spreading macroeconomic power around. The Treasury is not always good at trusting other people with economic levers. Councils may choose to borrow at the wrong time, both for the real economy or for the government’s accounting. Councils are also unlikely to spread around the kudos when they are allowed do something off their own bat. So it looks like the Treasury has been overruled, which can only really happen by very senior ministers (PM or Chancellor) making the decision above permanent civil servant advice.

There is also the issue that past this first flurry, central government won’t get the plaudits for allowing councils to build. I doubt the housing minister will be invited to cut the ribbon on housing that councils have built with debts they have taken on against their own assets.

The important thing now for stock owning councils is to prepare their plans quickly. It is not yet clear when this change will actually be made (it wouldn’t take much time, but I wonder if there is some small print about the start of the next financial year or even the next spending review to come). Given what certain other leadership wannabes said about social housing, it will be interesting to see if the timescale means the change could get lost in conservative internecine warfare. Labour have already stated that they will raise the cap to the prudential limit, so there is, for now, cross party support for this change.

But it is worth remembering that many councils have transferred their housing stock, so if they wish to build again they may have to either consider borrowing off other assets (maybe not quite remortgaging the town hall!) which might be tricky in accounting terms or seeing whether the government can provide some starter funding or borrowing to set the ball rolling. Let’s make no mistake, this is a policy that pays for itself relatively quickly, but a nudge might be required to help some on the way.

Another issue is the vexing role of land. Many local authorities have land, but are being pushed into selling land thought of as ‘surplus’. Indeed, the planning changes proposed earlier in the week (from the same lectern) include further speeding up of that process. If councils are going to be able to utilise the extra borrowing capacity well then building on their own land would be the cheapest way to do it. Otherwise, they will be competing with private builders and housing associations with strategic partnership funds and who knows who else for the same bits of land. Escalation of the bidding war is the last thing our land market needs- councils with land suitable for housing should be encouraged to use this first, not sell it quickly under duress and use the cash to buy part of a smaller site elsewhere.

Then of course there is right to buy. If councils are building a new load of affordable homes -let’s hope truly affordable homes– then they need to be able to do so in the confidence that they will still own them when the loan is paid off. Indeed, this is something funders or economic sense might insist upon. Building homes for a low rent works because the home lasts longer than repaying the borrowing costs- eventually they provide a surplus to fund housing management, repairs and, you guessed it, more building. Right to buy cuts that off at the knees, especially as new homes are more likely to be attractive to borrowers (especially with a higher eventual sales price) to lend to council tenants than older properties. Flogging them off with a discount makes no sense for society and it needs to be stopped. Yes, right to buy is a conservative shibboleth, but times change and if they are interested in seeing more council homes then right to buy needs to end.

Many councils haven’t really been in the building game for a generation. A few homes here and there have been the preserve of even some of the larger local authorities. So if everything happens according to plan they will need to build up their capacity in planning and construction, whether this is through directly managing projects (my preference) or outsourcing and contract management. There is an opportunity here for councils to really get back into a key part of building a more mixed and egalitarian society. Those who are slow off the ground risk either missing their chance or lagging behind whilst others benefit.

I say ‘missing their chance’ because a change on paper can be changed back very easily. Whatever else, Theresa May is still desperately weak and if this is something that has her name alone on it then it could fall when she does. I do not doubt that the true believers in the Treasury would like to change this back as soon as possible. As I’ve said, this is not just for the accounting reasons but because giving macroeconomic power to a bunch of town halls is simply not the change they want to see.

I think we have to be clear that if councils are not seen to take this opportunity they could face losing it. The case, to so many so obvious for so long, has been won for the present but there are dangers that it could be either undermined or lost in the future. The best way to prevent this is to show what can be done to create genuinely high quality homes for a sensible rent that pays for themselves. It has been done before. Councils just need to be ready, dust off those plans, make some more and get going.

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.

Empty homes, vacant stats and a bugbear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.12.52 PM

And here is the proportion at 5 years:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.13.30 PM

And here it is at 10 years:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.14.10 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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