Friday 20 January 2017

New supply not enough to solve housing crisis

I spent quite a bit of the recent holiday season travelling, and with eight flights in 11 days it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s an airport metaphor that has come to mind as I write this article.

Housing associations seemed to have been hanging around in the departure lounge for much of the last parliament – our flight never being called – while homeowners and developers took the fast-track queue to their gates.

But towards the end of last year, we were called up – given our boarding passes, if you like. The encouraging words of the new government turned into some extra money in the Autumn Statement, and while we may not yet be on the plane, we’re clearly on the bus and heading out across the tarmac. Our destination: solving the housing crisis. A genuinely positive and exciting opportunity.

“We need a housing system that works for everyone.”

Nevertheless, I have an apprehension. I’m not sure yet that we all agree on what a solution looks like. There’s a lot of talk about building new homes and of course that has to happen. Government has committed funds and we must now respond with delivery.

Here in Manchester, the long-awaited city region Spatial Framework was finally published before Christmas, and it has already become a political lightning-conductor for the elected mayoral candidates as well as a focus of public protest and intense debate. We’ve had our say, and the National Housing Federation is also looking to lobby those standing for mayor to ensure that whoever is elected truly is a mayor for housing.

The argument that we need to double the output of new homes is won. The conversations now are about where we put them, what type of stock they are, and what infrastructure, services and amenities we need to surround them to ensure we create sustainable, safe and healthy communities.

At Trafford Housing Trust, with our joint venture with L&Q and the refinancing we have just completed, the rate at which we will build those new homes will increase from around 200 a year to 2,000 over the next four years. Many other housing associations are doing the same: stretching balance sheets, leveraging grant and using profits from market-facing homes to create more affordable homes without subsidy.

So we are on the way to increasing supply – and we would be even further if the forthcoming White Paper proposed some kind of “use it or lose it” on landholders and speculators. But for me, while more homes are a necessary part of the solution, we should not be persuaded by the development lobby that, on its own, this is sufficient. Other things must also be addressed.

First, we need a housing system that works for everyone, not just for aspirant families with steady incomes. Look hard enough, and from rough sleepers to sofa surfers, from families in bed and breakfasts to single people discharged from prison, from those with mental health needs to those leaving care, we see around us a damaged system that harms the most vulnerable.

Second, we need a housing system that is joined properly to the health and social care system. Only then will delayed transfers of care from overfull hospitals become a thing of the past. That is assuming the imposition of the Local Housing Allowance cap – the unintended consequences of which Clare Tickell spelled out so well – does not derail that joining up before it can get going.

And these things can only rightly be determined locally. So the third part of solving the crisis is more devolution, more freedom and more flexibility for local areas to determine their own future – and in areas that have been off limits up until now.

How different things would be if housing providers up and down the country could show to the government that freedom to set our own rents will lead to a reduced benefit bill for government and how freedom to select our own tenants, and the tenancy products they receive, will extend affordable housing solutions to those left behind in the current system, rather than erode local authorities’ ability to meet their statutory duty for homeless families.

So as we get on our plane and head off to solve the crisis, let’s remember that increasing supply – the first flight – is just one stop on our travels.

The onward flights will be into unknown territories, where government interests – and hence their financial support – do not exist and where the terrain may be difficult or even hostile. But solving the crisis requires us to go there and not sit comfortably in the land of new supply.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

That time of year

Anyone else noticed that there just aren’t enough hours in the day (or days in the week, weeks in the year etc)?  It’s the same with money – there’s just not enough to go round.  So I don’t know about you, but I find myself entering the traditional season of goodwill and time of new resolve pretty burned out and feeling more than a bit broke (metaphorically of course).  How will I have come out of it – or more pertinently how will the social housing world have come out of it - by the end of 2016?

As my brief for this blog was that it might be published before or after the festive season, you can view the following list both as what I want for Christmas and, because I’m sure it can’t all happen by then, my New Year’s resolutions.  But if by the year end we had all worked together to make a few simple1 things happen – wouldn’t the world look just a little bit better?

  1. We knew our customers – not just through their data, but through our shared humanity; that their hopes were our hopes;  that we provided a safety net when they are at their most vulnerable and that for those experiencing poverty we stood alongside them to help them escape. Something that would have to involve…
  2. …the replacement of the unworkable and catastrophic cap at LHA levels on rents with something developed between government and the sector which provides a different method of capping the Government’s exposure on benefit payments…
  3. …a cap that would be a good thing, because then the sector could be free to set rents at the levels we feel best suit our market and our purpose, not have government use rent levels as a proxy for controlling benefits.  And we might just find that then, as some went up, others would come down, alleviating hardship for many who find the term affordable rent an oxymoron.
  4. Hospitals with no patients awaiting suitable homes to be discharged to, because housing providers’ pivotal role in resettlement and re-ablement has finally been recognised.  You never know, we might even have Health, Housing and Social Care working together as some kind of trinity, as opposed to being, like Ancient Gaul, divided into three parts, none of which speak the same language.
  5. A strategy for land supply that keeps pace with the growing number of households and an obligation on the owners of that land to develop it in a reasonable timeframe or face financial penalty.  Surely 2016 should see the end to speculative land hoarding?
  6. The meaningful application of the principles of the Social Value Act to the sector’s supply chain so that it is made up of social businesses who share our passion and our values.  I’m particularly looking forward to the point when that applies to somebody in the IT supply chain because…
  7. ….2016 has to be the year when we get the sector out of the technology dark ages, and hook ourselves to IT suppliers who understand the meaning of the apparently difficult concepts of “customer”, “transformation” and “now”.
  8. An end to award dinners.  Nuff said I think, don’t you?
  9. And last on my list of wishes, could we have by the end of 2016 a sector that fully accepts a “profit for purpose” future, confident of our independence from Government, assertive of our right to be heard, proud of the profits we create, and unstinting in our commitment to use those profits in the service of those in greatest need?
Whether you’re suffering from a pre-Christmas burnout or a post New Year hangover, I hope at least one of these thoughts has cheered you up.

  1.  I lied about the simple.
Wishing you all a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year for 2016

Wednesday 19 August 2015

False dichotomy

You know that familiar part of radio interviews where some musician is posed contradictory alternatives and asked to choose quickly between them?  “Meat or fish?”; “United or City?”; “books or movies?”.  

picture showing one way signs pointing both left and right
Only two choices?
Of course, the answers are just what passes for entertainment, and while everyone knows that the real world is more complex, nobody is going to be amused by an answer that goes “Well, I love a good novel on a wet Sunday afternoon, but Orange Wednesday’s were fabulous and the cinema seats are so comfortable these days, so can I have both please?”

Celebrities have learned to play the game; it's called “False Dichotomy”.   And so it seems have we. You may have noticed that what passes for a row has broken out in the social housing world. 
Positions are being taken – with reported comments from Genesis and Aster on the one hand and SHOUT supporters on the other; views are being aired and shared; perhaps even destinies are being forged.

Strident headlines proclaiming that market-facing solutions are the only solutions are followed by equally vehement commitments to the values of social housing.  Of course, these respective positions stem from viewing our world through the always distorted lens of our binary-based political system.
Now don’t get me wrong, political parties are very important, especially ones in Government with every prospect of a decade of power.  So, practically, embracing their new agenda is a necessary step to secure organisational survival into the future.

A necessary step, yes.  Because Government holds, and can therefore withdraw, our licence to operate.

However, if the government lens is the only one through which we seek to develop our organisational strategy, then we are in our own minds already public bodies, just as, perhaps, we will be in the eyes of the Office for National Statistics once details of the Right to Buy are known.

And doing what is necessary is not the same as doing what is sufficient and right to develop a clear and lasting strategic direction.   Good strategy is derived from multiple perspectives and has a complexity and nuance that neither plays well into any political narrative nor is easy to portray clearly in the full glare of modern media – social or otherwise.

At Trafford Housing Trust we know we can and must up our game in the media if our great work is to be recognised and valued.

More importantly we have to have the right strategy to work to, one that balances the conflicting interests of current customers and those of would be customers; of those who view social housing as a springboard to something else, and those for whom it is a vital safety net; of those who want the right to buy their own social home and those who want to leave adequate social provision for the next generation. 

We know our strategy has to change if it is to remain relevant.  The questions we are asking are: how should it honour our heritage, respect our own values, acknowledge our context, articulate our charitable intent and paint a compelling vision of the future.  We know these can’t be answered satisfactorily by the false dichotomy posed by “social housing or market housing?”
Let’s all stop pretending that it can and move towards a positive debate about the essential part for both within any sustainable ‘one nation’ approach to housing in the UK.