Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Time to deliver

It was sad to read recently that 165,000 homes for social rent have been lost across England in just six years, largely as a consequence of the Government’s Right to Buy scheme.

And the Chartered Institute of Housing is predicting that this will rise to just shy of 200,000 by 2020, making it even harder for people on lower incomes to access decent homes at a price they can afford.

In 2017/18, just 6,463 homes were built in England for social rent. In the 1970s, councils built more than 100,000 homes a year, but Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy, along with a cutback on local authority spending, put paid to this and we have never caught up – despite countless Governments pledging to tackle the housing crisis.

The whole focus now is on Brexit, so housing has once again slipped off the agenda, and you do worry whether it will ever get the priority it deserves.

In the meantime, it is once again up to housing associations to deliver what they can.

I am pleased to say that after a quiet year, by our standards, my own small housing association will be doing its part over the next 12 months.

We have 60-plus new homes planned in 2019 and into 2020, which for an organisation our size is substantial.

We are again focusing on older person’s bungalows, something which is in very short supply in our part of the world here in the Durham coalfield area. This will mean that we will be able to provide high quality, two-bedroom homes for people living in areas such as Consett, Houghton-le-Spring and Philadelphia – former coalfield communities undergoing regeneration.

We do need support to keep this going though and the removal of the Housing Revenue Account borrowing cap to help councils build more homes and the new investment partnerships between housing associations and Homes England will definitely help.

But government investment needs to move away from the private market, and I endorse the CIH’s call for right to buy to be suspended, so the amount of new affordable homes being built can catch up with those that have been lost.

This would be the very best case, but you can’t help feeling we have been here before……….

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

All that glitters is not Gold

Whilst I think it is important to acknowledge that the Government's recent Green Paper was the first positive report about Social Housing from a Conservative administration that I can ever remember seeing, one of the more concerning aspects, at least from the perspective of those of us interested in providing housing for older people in the North of England, is that there is still an observation that home ownership is some sort of Gold Standard that everyone would want if they could have it.

The reality though is that this is a very South-centric view, and is certainly not the case in many areas of the North East, and for many older people here in particular.  For many, access to the housing market via right to buy in the 1980’s and 90‘s was not the best experience as they ended up owning a home they could not afford to maintain well, and which perhaps was located in an area where house prices declined rather than increased as they did in other areas.  For DAMHA we find over 40% of our applicants on our waiting list already own their own home, and it is certainly NOT the gold standard at all, and they can’t wait to enter the “social rented sector” where they will have access to an accessible, comfortable and well maintained property that suits their needs and will not represent a drain on their finances in their later years!

Monday, 17 September 2018

Housing interventions

I read lots of blogs and sometimes you have to take your hat off when people get something so spot on.

This is the case in a blog written by Dr Andrew Furber from Public Health England (Yorkshire and the Humber) who asked whether housing interventions can improve health outcomes.

He cites research which includes evidence that there was a 39% reduction in hospital admissions from living in homes which had been upgraded to meet national housing quality standards.

As the head of a housing association which exists to provide high quality, affordable housing to older people, this resonated with me because there's few things more important than ensuring the health and well-being of those who have contributed so much to our society over the years.

Anyway, I don't want to steal Dr Furber's thunder any further, so here's the link to his blog it's well worth a read.

Monday, 20 August 2018

A welcome U-turn

U-turns are nothing new in politics, but I am particularly pleased about the one performed by the Government following the publication of its housing green paper last week,

Where as once the Government seems to be waging war with housing associations, it appears that we have now become allied again in the struggle to provide enough, good quality housing for the people of the UK and in particular those that are not adequately served by the inadequate supply of new homes coming from the private sector.

Whilst it is a shame that it took the Grenfell Tower tragedy to bring the seriousness of the issue to the government’s attention, it's now good that they are re-looking at the issue of quality in housing provision and perhaps they are regretting demolishing the Tenants Services Agency in 2010 which has the remit to do just that?

DAMHA has always had this belief in quality and as a result we are the largest provider of two-bedroom bungalows in County Durham, and largest builder of new ones in a county that is oversupplied with poor quality housing that is often unsuitable to the needs of older people and can prove detrimental to their health and wellbeing.

Much has been made of the 'league tables' but good quality housing associations have nothing to directly fear from this. However looking at what league tables have achieved (or not achieved!) in schools, I wonder whether league tables are really going to achieve anything in a market where very often customers have very little real choice as to what home they have access to as social tenants.  Very often there is a choice of one for them, which of course is no choice, and in that case league tables are irrelevant.  However the devil is in the detail, and if out of this comes some sort of measurable objective standard of quality to make sure that rogue organisations cannot fall too low below it, then that will be a good thing.

There is  of course, no new money.  Without new money the Government can talk all it wants and blame whoever it wants, but it will stand zero chance of building the tens of thousands of new, good quality, homes that the country needs.  Hopefully before the green paper becomes a white paper, and Brexit has been and gone, which is proving so distracting for ministers, some serious new money will be found, to reflect the importance with which the Government now claim to be treating the housing crisis.

Sajid Javid, former housing secretary, trailed this as “the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”.  So far this seems to be a bit sensational. But hopefully in its response to feedback the government will yet achieve that aspiration.

Friday, 22 June 2018

A kick up the backside

When I read that Durham County Council is hoping to become the first in the UK to include guidelines on how much housing suitable for older people should be included in new developments, it's fair to say I was very pleased.

The authority wants to make at least 10% of residential developments suitable for older people. This is not surprising given a snap survey they did a few years ago which found only 2 bungalows on the market for private sale across the whole county!

The private sector is massively under-providing for the over-50's market and frankly needs a good kick up the backside, so this may be what it takes to do this.

They always make the excuse that “bungalows are land hungry”, but that needn’t be the case (look at our schemes which are well designed and have adequate parking and small gardens) and there is MASSIVE demand for new 2-bedroom bungalows.

Durham’s “demographic timebomb” is more exaggerated than the national average according to the 2011 census, and the proportion of people over retirement age is forecast to rise faster than the national average too.  A lot of those people own their own home already and just need a more appropriate design now their children have moved out and they are finding stairs a challenge.

I don’t like the phrase “timebomb” as it implies this is a problem, when the reality is that if you facilitate and accommodate the changing needs of us all as we get older, then the contribution to society of older people balances out the costs of their extra needs, and it is an opportunity, not a problem!  So for instance think of all the hours of free child care provided by grandparents that otherwise would have to come out of someone’s pockets and be unavailable for them to spend!

Investing in appropriate housing so that older people can access it and live independently for longer, means that the time-bomb becomes a time-benefit and everyone is better off.

Decent, age-appropriate, affordable housing for older people is absolutely key to preventing falls, illnesses caused by damp, stress caused by worrying about repairs etc.  And in general the older people can afford to pay for it, if the product is there to be bought.  We endlessly hear about how the “baby boomers” are wealthier than millennials, so it makes no sense that private sector builders are ignoring that sector of the market.

Its about time frankly that more public sector organisations took a leadership role on this issue like Durham County Council have, and encouraged the private sector to start providing the homes that the country really needs, and not just cherry pick the elements that they think they want to build.

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Part of the fabric

As Chief Executive of the largest Almshouse charity in the UK it was with great pleasure that I accepted a position on the Board of the National Almshouse Association (NAA) in 2016.

Almshouses have been a part of the fabric of social responsibility in the UK for centuries, with some dating back to medieval times when religious orders cared for the poor, so being on the Board carries a lot of responsibility.

As a Trustee, I represent Northumberland and Durham on the Board, with other Trustees representing other geographical areas. This has involved hosting a seminar for clerks and trustees in and giving formal advice and assistance to almshouse clerks and trustees who may be looking to develop, repair or expand their provision.

I attend four meetings annually in London, which involves catching the 6am train from Newcastle and getting back around 9pm. It’s hard work, but also very exciting and interesting working with people with a very similar ethos throughout England and Wales in very different situations.

The NAA represents 1,600 charities providing 65,000 homes. DAMHA is the largest with 1,800 homes in management, while some charities have only a small handful of properties.

Some, like DAMHA, are still providing newly built properties and on the whole homes are allocated to older people or those and/or those who have difficulty accessing appropriate market-provided housing, e.g. retired mineworkers, soldiers, estate workers, and “spinsters of the parish”.

Most have widened their remit as circumstances have changed to make sure they remain relevant to the current needs in society, so in our case, for example, you no longer need a mining background to get one of our homes. Other charities also specialise in homes for key workers in cities like London where property prices make it nigh on impossible to get on the property ladder.

Recently the NAA has been working hard lobbying government on behalf of all almshouses at a time when social housing has been under attack – particularly under the previous (Conservative) government, making legal arguments as to why key elements (e.g. Right to Buy, LHA cap on housing benefit, etc) either were not legal (Right to Buy), or would result in undue hardship to vulnerable residents (LHA cap on housing benefit).

The campaigning aspect of the NAA is just one of the many reasons why I am proud to serve on its Board and through this blog I will update on the work we are doing to provide equality for all when it comes to housing and social responsibility.

In the meantime, please also have a look at the new NAA website – www.almshouses.org

Monday, 4 December 2017

A (retrospective) Gold star

So, it was the budget that promised so much for the social housing sector, something we have pressing for so many years, but did it deliver?

On the whole I would say yes. Overall, the budget formalised a welcome change of heart from this Conservative  Administration, compared to the last one headed by David Cameron and George Osborne which was decidedly antipathetic towards social housing. 

Theresa May’s Government has recognised that social housing contributes a very important part of the housing needs of the UK, particularly as a large proportion of the population still cannot, and probably never will, be able to buy their own homes.

There’s has been very little funding for affordable social housing to rent but over the past few months, we have seen a huge change in direction, and now we see mention of several billion pound being allocated again to supply new homes of this tenure type.

A (retrospective) gold star to the government for finally listening and responding to what a lot of people and organisations have been telling them for years!

It’s good to see the need for “regeneration” (demolition of old stock and replacement with admittedly fewer, but unarguably better, homes) in the North East has at last been recognised again, having been a dirty word since 2010. There are even stories of ministers and Whitehall mandarins getting out of their ivory towers and being taken around housing estates in the North and shown what exactly is needed up here and how it is so very different from what is needed in the South East where they live. Let’s hope this happens.

Another measure that is welcome is the announcement of £42m new money to support Disabled Facilities grants.  These are grants administered by the Local Authorities to fund adaptations in peoples’ homes so that they can continue to live there and not move into hospital, specialist accommodation or a care home.  Clearly this makes an awful lot of sense and the backlogs that have been building up because of recent cuts to LA budgets in this area are scandalous and make no economic sense.  Clearly it is in everyone’s interest, taxpayer included, if people can continue to live in their own home, rather than move into expensive and unfamiliar accommodation, or stay in hospital “bed blocking”  following the onset of a disability!  Is £42m enough?  Again, we shall see!

Whilst the Government has announced changes in Universal Credit, they don’t quite go far enough for me.  The administrative problems of the UC system have always been “unfit for purpose”, with smaller housing associations and almshouses in particular being vulnerable to the negative cash flows that were caused due to a high level of rent arrears in pilot areas.

It appears that the designers of the original system were not appropriately trained in the facts of housing law and practice in the UK, so these late stage fixes are welcome, but should never have been necessary in the first place if the DWP and the Treasury had actually consulted properly in the first place 7 years ago! 

The LHA cap removal is of course the biggest thing, and a very, very positive step.  As is the previously announced rent settlement post-2020.  This is hugely welcome, however only restores us to the position we were in in 2015 before George Osborne announced his war on housing associations! More needs to be done in relation to long term funding for supported and sheltered housing, and the government is consulting well and wisely on this.  We are participating in the consultation and trust that the government will listen well and come up with a workable system for the long term to secure accommodation of sufficient quantity and quality for this vital sector.