Empty homes, vacant stats and a bugbear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.12.52 PM

And here is the proportion at 5 years:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.13.30 PM

And here it is at 10 years:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.14.10 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessed need and its objectification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please please please Letwin get what I want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supported housing- details, details, details

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.