Friday, 27 January 2012

Is The Right To Buy A Win-Win?

Why is it that alarm bells start ringing when the phrase win-win is used? Perhaps it’s from a sense of latent cynicism, or perhaps it’s simply that we’re conditioned from birth to accept that something which seems too good to be true, almost certainly is. So what is it that makes me class a workable right to buy scheme for Housing Associations in the same category as perpetual motion machines? Namely, as something to be pursued and desired, but not the sort of thing that you should be holding your breath for. In my opinion it's because a more accurate description for this particular win-win would a win-win-huh? situation - and that's far less catchy.

Launch of the original Right To Buy scheme - Source
From a tenant's point of view I can easily see why the idea of the right to buy scheme being extended to Housing Association properties would constitute a win. After all exercising your right to buy can be the equivalent of being given a discount on the property value of tens of thousands of pounds – anywhere up to £50,000, and it’s money from the Government! That sort of thing doesn’t happen every day. This in part explains why more than two million people have exercised their right to buy since Margaret Thatcher introduced the scheme in in 1980.

Equally, I can understand that potential tenants – those people currently living only on waiting lists – are keen observers of a scheme that promises a one-to-one re-provision of housing. They are anticipating an impending flood of new homes becoming available. We know that not everyone who bought their council house found it led to lasting prosperity and others found it became a millstone around their necks, but on the whole it’s been well documented that there are a legion of benefits to home ownership – from lower crime rates, increased educational attainment and greater community involvement.

From a governmental point of view extending and re-invigorating the right to buy scheme is a potential panacea for their housing ills. The idea of direct private ownership rather than relying on the Government fits with the Cameron government's ideology. Ministers can explain that they are empowering a generation of tenants, whilst simultaneously creating new homes that other tenants can fill. Best of all the record books will show that they’ve been building houses and as a nice side-effect the gradual churn of development creates jobs.

So what about Housing Associations? As the barman said to the horse – why the long face? Well, it’s all to do with the BODs: the Boring Old Details. While we can see the win-win in the offing and hear the perpetual motion machine starting to hum*, we are still left with a significant amount of “huh?” to deal with. Could someone supply us with the BODs of how we can achieve a one-for-one re-provision and make the figures work? Would someone be so kind as to tweet me the BODs on how we are to stay true to our promise to treat all tenants – past, present and future – fairly, whilst potentially offering something to current tenants that we denied to previous residents and can't promise to future ones? With the BODs in hand I could dispell the huh and evaluate the likelihood of us actually being able to make this win-win come into existence.

Believe me, there is no shortage of support within housing for innovation, for original thinking, for daring new schemes. We work on the front line of supply, so we know how badly the nation needs some bold thinking to address the housing crisis. That said what we must try and avoid are a slew of will-o’-the-wisp ideas emanating from Whitehall. These enchanting prospects draw us all in, away from more solid footing and as our hands close around the shape it disapparates, leaving us far from the path with nothing to show for our efforts – and in that sort of situation, no one wins.

*or crackle, or fizz, or whatever noises a perpetual motion machine might make.

Friday, 20 January 2012

My Predictions For 2012

When it comes to predicting the future, I'm sure I don't have the unnervingly accurate prophetic powers of John Elfreth Watkins who was recently feted across the internet for his ten 100-year predictions that mostly came true (Watkins’ hits: digital photography, the internet, tanks. Watkins’ misses: the end of the letters C, X and Q, predicting everyone will walk 10 miles a day). Disclaimers of accuracy aside as it seems traditional for blog posts in January to indulge in some soothsaying I’d like to add my own list of predictions for 2012.

Prediction One. Grim is about to get grimmer, and we're not all in this together.
The gloomy economic news is not going away any time soon and as a result the inequalities in our society (which according to some measures are now higher than they have been for the last three decades) will get wider still. This economic instability will continue to cause turmoil in the housing industry and at least one major RSL will rue some of its decisions, as over-stretched reaches breaking point.

You've got to have a dream...
The dire financial straits have tested the sense of fairness on which British society rests, with those at both extremes of the wealth spectrum vilified by their political opponents. A plague on both their houses, I say. Despite the pernicious effect of the financial divide I am not holding my breath for equitable corrective measures from the government. The 2012 forecast is for protests and further riots.

Prediction Two. Localism will clog up the planning machinery and expected homes will be delayed.
One of The Localism Bill’s key aspects is to give communities greater powers when it comes to planning permission. So far, so sensible. However, we’re going to see in 2012 that power to the people is one thing, but a natural consequence is that it gives more power to the Nimbyists. The Government has to decide whether it wants to address the critical housing shortage, if so we need resolution.

Prediction Three. Homelessness will increase and the "sticking plaster" policies will come unstuck.
Against the backdrop of the housing crisis, the issue of homelessness seems to have dropped down the news agenda. This will change as further financial constraints put more at risk of losing their houses, as well as increased unemployment meaning that taking to the streets is the only option for some. Again, this is an area where policy needs to be stronger to deal with a mounting problem. It’s certainly not something that the Government will want to be visible as the world’s attention turns on London for the Olympics.

Prediction Four. Housing associations will diversify in nature.
This is less of a prediction, and more of an extrapolation of the trends that many of us are seeing. As the dead hand of regulation has been lifted from HA’s shoulders, we are still yet to see the full implications of where we will go with this new freedom. I suggest that this will see an expansion of the spectrum within which HAs move. The real question is where will they go and what will they do? It should be an interesting year to observe the movements, as a range of HAs take the first tentative steps into any number of brave new worlds.

Prediction Five. Spurs will win the Premier League
A man can dream can’t he?

Friday, 6 January 2012

It's A Wonderful Life

“It’s A Wonderful Life” is the Christmas feel-good film. In case you’ve not seen it I won’t spoil the plot (although as you might expect it can be found on YouTube) but it’s really about how we don’t always see the good in ourselves. In ruminating a little wider on that thought, I came back to the universal truth of how we also need to see the good in others, that ordinary people do extraordinary things and how, as people live longer, the scope for them to have done more extraordinary things just gets bigger and bigger.

Do we face a bleak future for care?
For one reason and another, this Christmas and New Year I have had rather more need for contact with the caring and medical professions than I would have liked. All of it relating to people who are, by any definition, now old. Nothing could have dispelled the warm “Wonderful Life” feeling more quickly, as I became incensed at how, in our society, old people are ignored because of what they have become, rather than venerated for what they have done.

I’ve visited residential care homes, where Christmas preparations were in full swing - but only for the staff. While they bedecked the staff room with lively banter and livelier music, the residents sat in an adjacent room in glum silence watching a muted TV. And the staff knew I was coming; and they knew I was looking for a place for respite care for my Dad. Then there was the home where a resident was banging on a locked door for the entire 10 minutes it took the deputy manager to explain that they couldn’t provide any respite places at that time – as if their patent lack of care for the resident wouldn’t already have put me off.

And don’t get me started about the hospital – where boorish consultants don’t listen, where nurses would rather clean up a messy bed than help a patient to the bathroom, and where silo-working is as endemic as visiting times are antiquated. The hospital systems that do work? Well, that will be the car parking, with its usurious pricing and fearsome ticketing and the exorbitant TV and phone system. Both systems where money matters more than care and dignity.

People say that the problem is how to fund this difficult area of social policy and that’s true. But it's not everything – in the end care is delivered by people and it's their attitude that determines the care someone actually receives. Working within that system, I didn’t meet a single person who wasn’t pleasant, attentive or even charming to me. But I could walk to where they were to get their attention, I didn’t have moments of forgetfulness, and I didn’t have machines strapped to me. Their attitude to those less able, was quite, quite different.

But I am not entirely without hope. I met some truly exceptional people – the nurse who kissed my Dad’s forehead when she left for Christmas, the manager of the (charitable, not private) care home where we found him respite who had a kind word for everyone. These people are fabulous examples of how care should be delivered and how it is possible to retain the right attitude in the most unpromising of environments.

Last year, our Board away day spent time exploring how we might extend the range of services we provide to older people beyond support and into care. One of our Board asked what the justification for us seeking to do that was and at the time, I didn’t have a ready answer. After the experience of the last month, I now do – if we do it, we’ll have the right attitude.