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

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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?

 

The opposite

Fathers’ day is a disturbing time of year. Full of joy and cheer thanks to my wonderful wife and daft daughters but full of dread and despair thanks to the ghost of my father, who died before I was a teenager.

All ideas contain the idea of their opposite.

Housing policy has suddenly become a lot more newsworthy due to the horrific fire in Grenfell.
The images of confusion, anger and grief have touched many of us and left us deeply disturbed.
Questions come to mind but answers bring no respite. Even if we find out why the fire happened people will still have died and others will live the rest of their life haunted by grief and trauma.
The idea of social housing contains the idea of home ownership.
British people almost uniformly aspire to own their own home. Governments have responded to this desire in a range of broadly ineffective ways.
Both the desire and the response have done much to traduce the idea of social housing.
Everytime people say they want to own their own home they are also saying they do not want to live in social housing.
The coalition government put lots of money into subsidising mortgages and cut the amount of money spent on maintaining social housing.
When challenged on shoddy work contractors have often said to me “what’s it matter, it’s social housing”
But fewer and fewer people own their homes. It’s as though the very desire to own our homes makes it harder for us to own our homes.
Wanting something contains the idea of never getting it. Like sisyphus we push and we push but we get no closer to the top of the hill. All the while we’re haunted by horrors from the past, the shame of our unrealised dreams and the pity of our efforts.

What problem to solve?

I will start a new role as CEO of The Peel Institute in January 2017. The Peel is one of the ‘community hubs’ that operate within the London Borough of Islington.

What problems should organisations like the Peel attempt to address?

There are many answers to this question. For example, some would say community cohesion or ‘placemaking’.

No doubt these are both important issues to address. We have to continue to build good relationships between people from different backgrounds and neighbourhoods that people enjoy living in.

However, tremendous strides have been made in both these areas.

The chart below shows the percentage of people who say that people from different backgrounds get on well in their local area

screenshot-2016-12-30-at-7-48-20-pm

And this chart shows the percentage of people who are satisfied with their local area as a place to live.

screenshot-2016-12-30-at-7-48-54-pm

As you can see from both charts, people are, by and large, happy with the neighbourhoods they live in and believe that people from different backgrounds get on well together.

Contrast that with the chart below, which shows the percentage of people who think they can influence local decisions (and the percentage of people who think it’s important to be able to influence local decisions).

screenshot-2016-12-30-at-7-47-55-pm

The vast majority of people do not feel able to influence decisions, but think it’s important to be able to do so. What’s more, the percentage of people who do feel able to influence decisions has not increased at all in the last decade.

One of the reasons for this may be the focus on ‘involvement’. It’s often assumed that the way to give people a greater sense of control is to create mechanisms whereby their voice can be heard. These are often called things like “forums” or “panels” etc…

Actually, as the chart below shows, people are not that keen on being involved in the bureaucratic processes that surround council decision making.

screenshot-2016-12-30-at-7-48-04-pm

The conundrum could be summarised as:

  • People think it’s important to be able to influence local decisions
  • People do not feel able to influence local decisions
  • There is only minimal (and dwindling) appetite for one of the established solutions to this problem

Pioneering new approaches to solving this issue is as pressing a matter as building good relations and improving the quality of local places.

(Data here)