No light, no tunnel

The British public are pessimistic about the direction the country is going in and feel powerless to change things. The situation is salvageable but the barriers are significant. Overcoming them will require a clear well resourced strategy. This blog is an attempt to outline what that strategy might look like.

The Challenge

The British public are among the most pessimistic in the world. A staggering number think the country is on the wrong track and things are only getting worse.

People haven’t believed that they are able to change the direction the country is heading in for quite some time. However, these profound feelings of powerlessness are intensifying

profound feelings of powerlessness are intensifying

The vision

We should aspire to not only be a country where people are positive about the future and our collective prospects, but also one in which people feel able to influence this future.

The barriers

Many aspects of our life leave us feeling isolated and dis-empowered. Our experiences of work and leisure do little to build optimism or our ability to influence our collective future.

People spend an average of 15 hours a week watching tv

Strategy

A strategy for overcoming these barriers and realising this vision of an optimistic country with an empowered citizenry should be based on using every available opportunity to build people’s collective efficacy.

This should be the principle objective for economic policy, and there is already a lot of good work being done in this area.

In addition, public services such as schools, GPs and Local Authorities should be re-designed so that they are focused on building people’s purpose and confidence, drawing on Cottam, Lent and Wilson‘s work.

This work should be organised around a government wide shared vision (similar to previous Public Service Agreements) with responsibility ultimately sitting with a cabinet committee with a structure similar to that being pursued in New Zealand with their Executive Boards

Our leisure time is individualised and commercialised. This should be consistently challenged and institutions which show potential to engage large numbers of people in collective endeavours should be supported.

Tactics

A variety of approaches would be required to make this strategy sucessful, including:

  • Introducing radical new forms of citizen involvement, such as citizen juries, to the heart of public services.
  • Community anchors in each neighbourhood and networks based around identity should be supported to develop community platforms, as David Wilcox has suggested

The scale of the challenge is awesome. The forces acting against collective efficacy and optimism are huge. At present those who are trying to remedy this situation are hopelessly over matched. Only a strategy with ambition and resources will have a chance of success.

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Give us bread but give us roses too

Labour’s thinking on changing the economy to empower communities is impressive. The work on how public services will achieve the same, is far less notable. But the seeds for a new approach are out there. Hopefully they will start to listen.

As a case in point look at this recent-ish Labour political broadcast:

On the face of it this is quite a standard anti-austerity message, with calls for more money for education, housing and regional development. But there is another message which is struggling to get out.

The critique which the video opens with isn’t just that our public services need more cash, it’s that our communities have lost their “spirit”, their “hope” and that “we lost control”

What’s Labour’s response to this? Public ownership and public investment.

Bringing “essential services” such as trains and utilities “back into public ownership” is the way Labour will “give control back to local people”.

As James Meadway, formerly advisor to the Shadow Chancellor, recently argued, one difficulty with this line of thinking is that many of the previous attempts to bring services into public ownership created distant, bureaucracies.

This is the context for the new wave of thinkers who are making waves in left wing circles by arguing for new approaches to economic policy. The Guardian recently ran a balanced and interesting long read on some of the runners and riders.

The energy that’s going into thinking about how economic policy can be used to empower communities is in striking contrast to the dearth of ideas on how public services can do the same.

There are plenty of people doing interesting work in this area. I’d recommend people look at the work of Adam Lent, Hilary Cottam, Richard Wilson, Cormac Russell & Tessy Britton.

They are all coming at different questions from different perspectives but they’ve got lots in common. For example, I think they would all agree that the institutions we currently rely on to deliver public policy (Local Authorities, Schools, CCGs and so on) are not set up to build “spirit” “hope” and “control”.

This is not to say that a Labour government that invested a lot of money in public services and brought things in-house wouldn’t achieve any good. It is to say that less tangible but no less important community level outcomes such as “hope” and “control” need a different approach.

One of the ironies of the way Brexit has played out is that we’ve seen both how powerful a message about “control” can be and how our politicians and policy makers are not yet able to offer any solutions which live up to the challenge. As the old union song has it “give us bread, but give us roses too”

The benefits are too low and people are dying

People are suffering and dying early deaths because government benefits are too low.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that there were 597 deaths of homeless people in England and Wales in 2017, up by 24 per cent over the last 5 years.

What else has happened in the last 5 years? The government has decided to stop covering people’s rent. Here’s a potted history:

  • Prior to 2011 households were given benefits to cover rents at up to half of of the market, with under 25s being given a lower level (on the assumption that they’d share a house with others).
  • The coalition government changed this so that in 2011 Local Housing Allowance covered just under a third of the cheapest rents in an area.
  • From 2013, rates were only increased by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). In 2014 and 2015, the rates were increased by one per cent.
  • In 2015, the Shared Accommodation Rate was extended from under 25s to under 35s.
  • In 2016, Local Housing Allowance rates were frozen completely for four years.

As Crisis argue

“The cumulative effect of policy changes to Local Housing Allowance rates since 2011 has resulted in a significant erosion of the support people can receive from the government to help with the cost of their rent.”

How bad has it got? The table below tells its own story. If you live in London benefits no longer cover the full cost of rent.

For many households this means making sacrifices, for example, reducing spending on food or utilities. We know that people who end up sleeping on the streets often do not have support networks they can rely on when times get tough. They may have support needs around drug or alcohol use or mental health.

For these people, the current situation is particularly tough. Dealing with the stress of trying to find extra money to make rent on top of the other things they have to worry about inevitably means a percentage end up sleeping on the streets.

The Government recently published a rough sleeping strategy in which they committed

to look at affordability in the private rented sector, with a view to developing policy options for post-2020 when the current Local Housing Allowance freeze ends.

In their 2017 housing manifesto Labour committed to:

undertake a review of the adequacy of support for housing costs through the social security system

These are astonishingly complacent statements given the scale of the situation. If you think that the government should provide a safety net so that no one becomes homeless, you can join Crisis’ campaign to ‘Cover the Cost’ here

Too civil about society

Labour’s newly published civil society strategy “From paternalism to participation” has got a glowing response from various sector bodies despite it quite clearly having no chance of achieving it’s stated objectives.

At the heart of the strategy is a bleak almost overpowering diagnosis of the state of the UK:

“relationships have been weakened and communities atomised as society has been made to serve the economy rather than the other way round. Families are broken up as family members who would prefer to stay close move away to look for opportunities that don’t exist nearer home. Older people are left isolated as society fragments around them. Young people feel their future is being taken away. Too many public services treat people as problems to be managed in isolation”

Which is juxtaposed with a vision of a better world

“We want to deepen democracy and transfer real power to the people of this country so they can take control of the decisions that affect them.”

What policies will get us to these sunny uplands? The answer, as they say, may surprise you:

“a Community Innovation Fund using funds from dormant assets and philanthropic giving to provide money for communities to run activities and projects in them”

Contrast this tremendously modest policy with the detailed, radical plan outlined in the recently published Land for the many which included:

  • free and open access to data on land ownership
  • an explicit government goal to stabilise house prices to improve the long-term house-price-to-income ratio.
  • redirect bank lending to productive sectors and reduce speculative demand for land.
  • proposals for a Common Ground Trust to buy land underlying a house, to reduce house prices and bring in the idea of socialised land rents.
  • major reforms to private renting with a cap on rent increases and an ambitious social housing programme.
  • replace council tax with a progressive property tax payable by owners not tenants – with surcharges for empty and second homes and non-UK residents.
  • phase out stamp duty land tax for owner occupiers.
  • replace business rates with a commercial Land Value Tax.
  • new Development Corporations buy sell and develop land to create new towns.
  • enable public bodies to buy land at closer to current use value
  • remove permitted development rights that allow offices to be converted to homes without needing planning permission.

The ambition and coherence of this list is breathtaking and stands in stark relief with the small scale and piecemeal nature of the inoffensive and cautious ideas in the civil society strategy.

This is an opportunity. Labour does not currently have a radical detailed road-map for building a stronger civil society. Let’s give them some ideas!

Rough sleeping

How bad of a problem is “rough sleeping” (people without a home sleeping outside for example on the pavement, in a park or in a car park) in England? And can anything be done to reduce the number of people who sleep rough?

It’s bad and the government could remdy it quite quickly.

The scale of the problem

The number of people sleeping rough has risen considerably since 2010. It’s happening all across the country. There are more people sleeping rough who are born in the UK than there used to be and an increase in the number of people from East Europe sleeping rough.

There are debates around the best way to count who sleeps rough but the trend is clear: a significant sustained increase in the number of people sleeping rough.

The increase in the number of people sleeping rough is happening all across England, not just in London, as the chart below shows.

Screenshot 2018-03-17 at 7.55.38 PM

The increase is only partly due to more people from Central and Eastern European sleeping rough. It’s true that, in London since 2010 the number of people from Central and Eastern European London sleeping rough has grown by 182 per cent, but the number of people who were born in the UK who are sleeping rough has also increased (by 84 per cent), as the chart below shows:Screenshot 2018-03-17 at 7.57.55 PM

What can be done?

Government policy could quickly reduce the number of people sleeping rough in England by giving low income households more money to pay their rent.

There is a lively debate around how to respond to the increased number of people sleeping rough. Many people’s instinct is to increase the number of emergency shelters. These can be effective in some cases (although it’s worth bearing in mind that surveys show that few homeless people want to move into hostels). Similarly, some (myself included) have been very impressed with the so-called  ‘housing first‘ approach or the ‘No First Night Out‘ pilot in East London.

These approaches might be part of a solution, but it would be preferable if fewer people were being made homeless in the first place. Being made homeless is traumatic. There need to be preventative measures taken, which would mean that people didn’t become homeless and didn’t need a hostel.

The quickest and most straightfoward way of reducing the number of people sleeping rough in England would be to give low income households more money to help them to meet the cost of their rent.

The ‘Local Housing Allowance’ (money given to low income families who rent privately) is too low to stop a significant number of people each year from finding themselves with no alternative but to sleep rough.

Most households who recieve the Local Housing Allowance will not become homeless, but the amount paid is now so low that homelessness is a risk for a significant number of households.

To join Shelter’s campaign to raise the Local Housing Allowance, click here

All charts from the excellent https://crisis.org.uk/media/236823/homelessness_monitor_england_2017.pdf

Housing crisis? What crisis?

Is there a housing crisis in the UK? If so, would building more homes fix the problem?

This debate has been sparked by Ian’s blog arguing that house prices are determined by the supply of credit more than the supply of housing (I’m probably summarising his piece poorly, so you should check it out yourself).

This argument has been met with several responses. These highlight the fact that ‘housing crisis’ has become a useful slogan for a range of interests who disagree both on the nature of the crisis and the reasons for solving it, but are united in believing that there is a crisis and that an increasing in the supply of new houses would solve the crisis.

We can usefully distinguish between a few different interpretations of the housing crisis and ask whether each would be solved by building more homes.

Rising numbers of people who are homeless and falling rates of home ownership are probably not best solved by building new houses.

Whereas, overcrowding, the very high rents paid by some households and the failure of high productivity places to expand are probably best solved by building new houses.

However, in these cases the solution is not as straightforward as building any type of housing and in fact probably come into tension. For example, overcrowding is probably best solved by building more council housing whereas high productivity places probably want to build more private housing.

1. Homelessness

The number of people who are homeless (either sleeping rough, in temporary accomodation or ‘hidden homeless’) is up dramatically since 2010 (see e.g. here or here).

If some new housing was allocated to homeless households this would reduce the amount of time these households spend being homeless. However, benefits changes and security of tenure would be more effective ways of stopping people becoming homeless than building new homes

2. Overcrowding

Over a million households live in overcrowded homes (see e.g. here).

Overcrowding is much more common in social and private rented accomodation. If there were more houses these households could move into these new houses. However, that relies on the new houses being of a certain type and these households getting priority

3. Generation rent

The percentage of households who own their own home is declining. This trend is particuarly prevalent amongst younger people (see e.g. here).

Kate Barker argues that the impact of housing supply on the cost of buying houses is limited and other factors (e.g. interest rates) have a bigger impact. To significantly reduce house prices through a housebuilding programme would require an enormous programme.

4. Housing headwind

Over the past couple of decades there has been an increase in both the number of households who rent privately and the percentage of households who are paying more than a third of their income for housing costs (see e.g. here)

Not all households have seen their rents dramatically increase. The situation is localised. A large increase in the supply of housing in areas with high rents would reduce rents in those areas

5. Productive places

Areas such as London and Oxford have high productivity and have been creating jobs in the past few decades. If they built more homes, more households could move to these areas and get work in these sectors. However, these areas have not created new homes at the rate that some would like (see e.g. here).

If there were more houses in places like Oxford, then more people could work there.

Give me Shelter

Quite the day in the world of housing policy. Here is what we know:

  • Jeremy Corbyn promised that a Labour government would introduce some form of rent controls
  • Shelter produce a blog aruging that “setting the entire rent can cause big problems”
  • Paul Mason wrote a twitter thread calling Shelter’s integrity into question
  • Shelter announced that they have hired Greg Beales (Former Labour Party Strategist) as their new Director of Policy & Comms

Why does any of this matter?

  • Shelter produced a thought provoking piece last year, arguing that advocates for social housing had got themselves into a situation where they were calling for policies that do not command significant public support and which politicians can easily ignore
  • Rent caps (whatever their policy merits, on which there is much debate) are popular

It will be interesting to see which line Shelter’s new CEO takes in her Today Show interview. Will Shelter try and follow the logic of their piece last year and try and attach their cause to a more populist policy or stick more closely to a policy based response that focuses on the mixed evidence base around rent controls?