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20 June, 2014

Councils' raids on housing budgets are endemic, research reveals

This article first appeared in the magazine Inside Housing

When seven local authorities raided £40 million from their housing budgets through a legal loophole last year, they faced flak from housing professionals and the government alike.

Each housing revenue account was ‘ring-fenced’ for a reason, the shamed few were reminded: the HRA was protected by law so rents and benefits are used only to keep council homes in good nick.

But are HRA raids really a minority sport? An investigation by Inside Housing has found out town halls across England are quietly disinvesting on a much larger scale.
HRA-raids2014
As local authorities buckle under the weight of Treasury cuts, assaults on HRAs have become widespread, choking resources for essential repairs.

Experts with sight of our findings warn of a return to the bad old days of insidious neglect that led to the £19 billion repairs backlog of the 1990s and ended with rotten estates, good only for wrecking machines.
13 March, 2014

The £155m hardship fund that local councils fail to spend

This article first appeared on the Guardian's Housing Network

Allegations that welfare cuts cause unnecessary suffering are batted away by ministers with what looks like a killer riposte. The council-run hardship fund, the government calls discretionary housing payments, has proven a good enough shield from the harmful financial hits of welfare reforms, the work and pension secretary has argued.

Discretionary-payments
Despite claims the £155m fund would be woefully inadequate to prevent the damage caused by £2.6bn of cuts, Iain Duncan Smith said most authorities spent less than half their budgets in the six months following the introduction of the bedroom tax and other reductions in April 2013. Some councils, such as Manchester and Nottingham, spent less than a third. With these signs of the safety net's strength, critics should be wary of "making political capital" from human tragedy, he warned.

Analysis of English council spending patterns since 2011 by the Guardian Housing Network has, however, uncovered a more complex and worrying picture behind these headline figures. One that points to potential weaknesses in this essential safeguard.
4 November, 2013

Not the answer

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The opinion piece first appeared in Inside Housing magazine

Local authorities never tire of demanding the Treasury abolish the so-called ‘borrowing caps’ imposed on council housing budgets. Abandon this arbitrary ceiling, trust in us, and we’ll build you 60,000 homes with the cash your abandonment helps raise. No cost to you Mr Osborne, thanks very much.

Authorities have even – impressively – attracted champions in mainstream press to their campaign. Independent and New Statesman bloggers Owen Jones and George Eaton have both shifted their considerable rhetorical weight behind the kill-the-cap cause. Even Conservative London mayor Boris Johnson has lent his support.

Swelling council housing budgets with borrowed cash is a great way to build our way out the housing crisis. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, I would say.

Over the past few weeks and months, I’ve uncovered case after case of authorities milking their housing budgets with the express purpose of feeding their ‘general funds’ – with no intention to build new housing. In September alone, £37.5 million was sucked out of five councils’ housing budgets through a loophole which has now been thankfully sealed. Only one tenant I know of was ‘consulted’ over the transfers.

This money, raised largely by collecting rents and through housing benefit claims, will now be spent on whatsoever these authorities wish. As long as it doesn’t bear the tag ‘social housing’- that’s not allowed once it’s tucked away in the general fund.

Social services, rubbish removal and street cleaning could all benefit. Or as in the case of Medway Council last month, a spanking new library will be paid for by the £2 million it pulled out of its tenant rent account. All such things are normally paid for by council tax and other service charges; not tenants’ rents or housing benefit.

And these cases, while extreme, are merely the tip of an iceberg that will only become more treacherous to council housing budgets. At a time when housing income is looking increasingly peachy, the general fund is gearing up for Armageddon.

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As cuts bite deeper and care costs escalate, the temptation to mount further raids on housing budgets will become even more irresistible
As housing accounts creep into surplus, authorities’ overall budgets are struggling with cuts of 33 per cent. Some authorities face bankruptcy. And for anyone still ignorant of the ‘Barnet graph of doom’, here’s the skinny: burgeoning demand for social care will soon eat up councils’ withered budgets entirely.

With such dire financial straits on the map, it is understandable that councils have and are turning to their one healthy (housing) budget for help. Though the loophole used in September is sealed, there remain legion other means of hauling rents and housing benefit through what is often, but now inaccurately, described as the housing revenue account ‘ring fence’.

Authorities have already started charging housing budgets for services usually paid for by the general fund. Such as street lighting, industrial-sized rubbish bins, and the upkeep of community centres and car parks.

As cuts bite deeper and care costs escalate, the temptation to mount further raids on housing budgets will become even more irresistible and widespread. And they are incredibly tricky to spot. Council reports on HRA business plans are about as opaque as you can get.
Against this background, can it really be wise to hand councils unfettered borrowing powers?

Given the increasing frequency of these irresistible raids on housing budgets, the answer must be a qualified ‘no’. Until the HRA is afforded adequate protection, it would be unwise to open the gates to unbridled borrowing. There remains no guarantee the extra cash would be used for new homes, even when desperately needed. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest the extra cash will be funnelled elsewhere: to prop up general fund services.

The ring fence around council housing budgets must be made of convincing stuff. Only then should the borrowing caps be lifted.

Click here for my in-depth examination at the big three drains on housing finance.
23 September, 2013

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The opinion piece first appeared in Local Government Chronicle magazine (£).

Ministers love waxing lyrical about how they freed housing finance from Whitehall control.
LGC-view
The coalition’s reform of the housing revenue account presents an “unparalleled opportunity” for authorities, housing minister Mark Prisk has said.

This “council housing revolution” would allow authorities to better meet the needs of their tenants, according to his predecessor Grant Shapps back in 2011.

Such political rhetoric often rings hollow when policies are put into practice. In the case of housing finance, this charge is beginning to stick.

Since April last year when all 171 council landlords in England were allowed to hold on to their rents, their new-found ‘freedom’ and budgets have been gradually drained. “Chipped away,” as the Chartered Institute of Housing says.

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While councils keep control over their rental stream, it is increasingly being diverted by central government impositions over which they have little say.
Huge and sustained cuts to grants have forced several authorities to shift cost from general funds to their housing budgets

While councils keep control over their rental stream, it is increasingly being diverted by central government impositions over which they have little say.

In a very real sense, the HRA is a characteristic case study of coalition localism.

Huge and sustained cuts to grants have forced several authorities to shift cost from general funds to their housing budgets. A battery of unprecedented social security reforms threatens to escalate rent arrears.
And, to top it all off, the Treasury ended one year early its ‘rent convergence’ policy, a move that could unceremoniously slice £1.2bn from HRA income.

What kind of freedom and localism is his? Sadly, the brand that local authorities have come to expect.

Click here for my in-depth examination at the big three drains on housing finance.
23 September, 2013

Labour’s claim as being the party of council housing is in tatters

This comment piece first appeared on The Spectator's coffee house blog.

As part of the Labour conference focus on the cost of living, the party will be going to great efforts this week to reclaim its presumed title as the party of ‘council housing’.
Spectator-housing

Expect to hear private builders bashed for squirrelling away land plots rather than piling ‘em high with apartments as they should. And the pillorying of the right to buy policy, ritually chastised as it is each conference as the chief reason for the country’s interminable descent into social housing drought.

What you’re unlikely to hear is a serious admission by Labour of its appalling track record on council housing supply. That local authority housing passed into private hands far faster under Labour than Conservative prime ministers. Or that the true title of council housing champion sits more comfortably in Conservative hands.
19 September, 2013

The three holes in housing finance

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The opinion piece first appeared in Local Government Chronicle magazine (£).

Ministers love waxing lyrical about how they freed housing finance from Whitehall control.
LGC-view
The coalition’s reform of the housing revenue account presents an “unparalleled opportunity” for authorities, housing minister Mark Prisk has said.

This “council housing revolution” would allow authorities to better meet the needs of their tenants, according to his predecessor Grant Shapps back in 2011.

Such political rhetoric often rings hollow when policies are put into practice. In the case of housing finance, this charge is beginning to stick.

Since April last year when all 171 council landlords in England were allowed to hold on to their rents, their new-found ‘freedom’ and budgets have been gradually drained. “Chipped away,” as the Chartered Institute of Housing says.

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While councils keep control over their rental stream, it is increasingly being diverted by central government impositions over which they have little say.
Huge and sustained cuts to grants have forced several authorities to shift cost from general funds to their housing budgets

While councils keep control over their rental stream, it is increasingly being diverted by central government impositions over which they have little say.

In a very real sense, the HRA is a characteristic case study of coalition localism.

Huge and sustained cuts to grants have forced several authorities to shift cost from general funds to their housing budgets. A battery of unprecedented social security reforms threatens to escalate rent arrears.
And, to top it all off, the Treasury ended one year early its ‘rent convergence’ policy, a move that could unceremoniously slice £1.2bn from HRA income.

What kind of freedom and localism is his? Sadly, the brand that local authorities have come to expect.

Click here for my in-depth examination at the big three drains on housing finance.
22 August, 2013

Treasury rent control threatens house building

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The news article first appeared in Local Government Chronicle magazine (£).

Some of the most ambitious council housing building programmes for decades have been put into jeopardy by the surprise Treasury plan to seize control of local authority rent levels.

Officials have been warned by the Chartered Institute of Housing that the shake-up of ‘social rent’ policy unveiled during the spending period announcement will pull £1.2bn out of council housing budgets over the next decade. The policy will cut short an arrangement that allowed councils to align rents with those charged by housing associations and undermines key assumptions in their 30-year housing budget plans.

LGC-housing
LGC (left) understands ministers are preparing to take a hard line on enforcing the rent policy as the Treasury is concerned that councils will refuse to comply. This includes the option of central regulation of council rents for the refuseniks.

CIH analysis predicts that the authority hardest hit by the policy will see £300m stripped out of its housing revenue account, a budget councils have only controlled since April last year. Until then the HRA had been in the Treasury’s hands.

Croydon LBC, which is hoping to build almost 2,000 homes a year, has calculated that the changes could suck £254.8m out of its HRA. Such a loss would force it to “fundamentally review” its business plan, according to Richard Simpson, its director of finance and assets.

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Camden LBC has warned that the new policy could substantially heighten the risk of its 1,100 house building programme. Its £400m plan to refurbish existing stock might also have to be put back, a spokeswoman said. Investment decisions would become “more difficult and risky”, she added. “The potential loss of revenue has been estimated at £75m over a 10 year period.”

The threat of centrally imposed rent controls comes at time when councils have just begun gearing up for large-scale house building schemes. Camden and Croydon’s house building plans would dwarf the tiny numbers of new local authority homes built during the past two decades.

Reliable evidence of the new rent policy’s impact has only just emerged, following detailed analysis of the proposals by the Chartered Institute of Housing and consultancy Sector. Abigail Davies, assistant director of policy and practice at the institute, said the changes would over 10 years cost around 125 authorities £1.2bn in ‘net present value’.

This takes into account economic projections and is understood to be the most accurate representation of the impact to date. The hardest hit authorities are in London and the southeast, with around 24 authorities losing more than £10m each, according to the CIH. “There are some councils which will be very severely affected,” Ms Davies said.

Sector’s analysis of the government’s new ‘rent guarantee’ suggests that it could see £250m pulled out of many councils’ housing budgets. The guarantee expects all social landlords to increase rents by the consumer price index +1% for 10 years from 2015-16. Until now, councils assumed rents would rise by the retail price index +0.5% for three decades, as government policy papers had indicated.

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Ian Green, a manager at Sector, said it was acting for several concerned councils.
“The worry for local authorities is that at the end of 10 years, the government will change it to CPI only,” he added. “If they do that, it will have a substantial impact.”

Ms Davies urged ministers not to undermine council housing investment so soon after local authorities had regained control of their budgets. A spokeswoman for the DCLG described the new rent policy as a “fair deal for tenants and landlords”.

Background

The Treasury’s new social rent policy has two key elements. The first cuts short ‘rent convergence policy’ one year early. Introduced by the previous Labour administration, this had allowed councils to bring their rent levels into line with those of higher cost housing associations. Without the extra year, most authorities will be left out of pocket.

The second change is a new ‘rent formula’ which states that social rents should increase by CPI +1% for 10 years from 2015-16. Both policies could save the exchequer £1bn between 2015-16 and 2017-18, a sum which depends on whether councils will toe the policy line.

“The main uncertainty [about the savings] is the behavioural response from local authority landlords,” Treasury documents say. The DCLG is therefore considering rent regulation.

28 June, 2013

Growing Pains

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The feature first appeared in Inside Housing magazine.

growing-pains
THE HEDGEROWS criss crossing Mawsley are alive with the chatter of birds, ecstatic now spring has alighted on this Northamptonshire village. They offer a clue to the previous life of this bustling settlement of 900 or so homes. For more than a decade ago, these hedgerows bounded acres of farmland instead of the thriving human community which now thrums in its place.

After decades of undersupply, Kettering desperately needs new rural housing, but Mawsley’s transition from a muddy field to popular, picture-perfect village has not been an easy one. Like scores of rapidly expanding communities across England, its builders downed tools as dark economic clouds gathered in 2008/09.
After much delay, the last few bricks are now finally being laid, 12 years after its first residents moved into the ‘windswept sea of mud’ it once was.

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I visited Mawsley to speak to residents and other locals about what it has been like to live alongside a building site all these years. We’re not the first people to show an interest. A group of academics spent two years researching the site from 2009. We also wanted to find out how this brush with academia has helped the community to understand and tackle problems the planners did not foresee. The research shows that Mawsley, now viewed as a local success story, has not been completely immune to the challenges posed by stalled development.

The academics, from the universities of Leicester, Northampton and Leeds, were working on a project called ‘New Urbanisms, New Citizens’. They have found that building sites are becoming a fixture of everyday life in settlements arising from Labour’s 2003 big development dream: the sustainable communities plan.

Their study was launched in 2009 with a £700,000 Economic and Social Research Council award to investigate young people’s experience of ‘rapidly expanding’ communities. They chose the so-called Milton Keynes/south midlands ‘growth area’ - in which Mawsley is situated - to study because it is one of the four zones the then Labour administration wanted quickly dotted with big new settlements.

By the time the academics’ investigation began in 2009, this speedy new build ambition had been all but extinguished. Many young people in the growth area no longer contended with rapidly rising estates but with life on half-finished streets, where unmade roads and boarded-up building sites were the only community ‘facilities’.

‘Some [developments] are not those brand new, shiny communities that were promised,’ says one of the researchers, Dr Peter Kraftl, a reader in human geography at the University of Leicester. ‘There are large areas that have been razed and are just mud and earth. Some children say they can’t imagine a life without building work.’

Mawsley, however, has clearly avoided this fate - and its popularity with residents who have lived here throughout the delays is obvious. So what can explain this?

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I met Jim Hakewell, a Conservative councillor at Kettering Council for the past 25 years, who explains just how much the new homes at Mawsley were needed. Just two dozen affordable homes were built in the borough during his first two decades on the council, he admits. With Mawsley, the authority has boosted its supply by 120.

Mr Hakewell hopes this development will help convince Kettering residents to support a 5,500-home urban extension which is planned for the east of the town.From the start, emphasis was placed on the need to create a new community, explains Mr Hakewell. ‘When nine developers vied for Mawsley, the one which won [Alfred McAlpine, now part of Taylor Wimpey] had put thought into creating a community,’ he says. ‘For society as a whole, you have to get certain things right. Mental health and well-being are important. If people aren’t socially isolated, they feel much better.’

Despite its relatively small size, the village has its own primary school, doctor’s surgery, dentist, nursery and a central square lined with shops, cafés and takeaways. At Kettering Council’s insistence, the developers worked to dozens of home designs, lending the look of a traditional Northamptonshire village. Most striking are those constructed with rust-coloured ironstone, a material quarried in the county. Some homes even have bricked-up windows built in, a nod to the wiles of villagers past who dodged the infamous window tax.

While they waited for their village to be completed, Mawsley’s residents recall how they banded together. ‘There is a sense of community. People know their neighbours. We all look after each other,’ says Kelly Fardon, 29, who bought a house here with her partner six years ago.

Sense of community
‘It has a fabulously good community,’ adds Ian Richardson, a 43-year-old management consultant, while dropping his daughter off for a dance class at the community centre.
‘Everyone looks after each other. People help,’ says Kirsty Wilcox, 33, an office worker and tenant of 16,000-home Bpha, the housing association which manages Mawsley’s 120 social rent and shared ownership homes.

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This ‘community feel’ was in fact something the first Mawslians were invited to conjure when tempted in by Taylor Wimpey, one of the developers working on the village in its marketing pitch. ‘It was the way it was marketed,’ says Bob Littler, the seventh person to buy a home. ‘The sales pitch was “come and create your own community”, and that was the interesting part for me,’ he adds. ‘When I moved in it was a windswept sea of mud. We had to put in a lot of work but it has been very successful.’
We started our own social club. It became barbecues and chardonnay city.
Bob Littler
For want of facilities, these ‘pioneers’ mixed and mingled in each other’s homes. ‘The people who moved in here told me they wanted to use my house for the new year’s eve party,’ says Mr Littler ‘Eventually, we started our own social club. It became barbecues and chardonnay city.’

These early adopters were roped in to design Mawsley’s community centre, something Taylor Wimpey committed to creating in the section 106 planning deal with Kettering Council. This now serves as the base for the Mawsley Villagers Association, the registered charity resulting from those early chardonnay days and which Mr Littler currently chairs. The association has a healthy annual turnover of £250,000. However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing.

When the new urbanist researchers first started studying Mawsley, they found the adult community was failing to engage properly with the burgeoning population of young residents who were making the most of life in this isolated village, seven miles from the nearest town.

With no proper play areas, they adopted the areas the developers abandoned. Finding dens in the building sites, they freewheeled their bikes down unfinished roads and fashioned skateboard ramps from planks and rubble left lying around. Some hung around the children’s playground, fuelling anxiety among their neighbours. The words ‘anti-social behaviour’ were raised. Professor Pia Christensen, the New Urbanisms, New Citizens project’s principal investigator, ascribes these tensions to the youngsters’ lack of their ‘own place’ and the adults’ failure to communicate properly.

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Around 400 of children living in Mawsley will become teenagers in the next two years. ‘There is a very large population of young people,’ says Professor Christensen. ‘They couldn’t use the squares for their skateboards and didn’t have any alternative in the community. They were moved on. They didn’t have a place.’New communities had to find ways of engaging properly with their young people, Professor Christensen adds. ‘There isn’t an unwillingness. People just need to know how to do it.’

The New Urbanisms, New Citizens researchers’ studies of nine to 16-year-olds living in these stunted developments, have revealed important insights into the tensions taking root in these new communities. In Mawsley, the academics interviewed its young people in workshops, facilitated meetings with adult inhabitants and tracked some young people’s movements with GPS tags.

The new urbanists helped ease these tensions by holding workshops with the young residents where they could speak freely before inviting the adults to join in. ‘We created a situation where there could be a dialogue,’ Professor Christensen says. ‘The young people said “wow, that was great” to work with adults. They felt listened to when they often feel dismissed.’

The new urbanists helped ease these tensions by holding workshops with the young residents where they could speak freely before inviting the adults to join in. ‘We created a situation where there could be a dialogue,’ Professor Christensen says. ‘The young people said “wow, that was great” to work with adults. They felt listened to when they often feel dismissed.’

When the new urbanist researchers first started studying Mawsley, they found the adult community was failing to engage properly with the burgeoning population of young residents who were making the most of life in this isolated village, seven miles from the nearest town.

With no proper play areas, they adopted the areas the developers abandoned. Finding dens in the building sites, they freewheeled their bikes down unfinished roads and fashioned skateboard ramps from planks and rubble left lying around. Some hung around the children’s playground, fuelling anxiety among their neighbours. The words ‘anti-social behaviour’ were raised. Professor Pia Christensen, the New Urbanisms, New Citizens project’s principal investigator, ascribes these tensions to the youngsters’ lack of their ‘own place’ and the adults’ failure to communicate properly.

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Around 400 of children living in Mawsley will become teenagers in the next two years. ‘There is a very large population of young people,’ says Professor Christensen. ‘They couldn’t use the squares for their skateboards and didn’t have any alternative in the community. They were moved on. They didn’t have a place.’ New communities had to find ways of engaging properly with their young people, Professor Christensen adds. ‘There isn’t an unwillingness. People just need to know how to do it.’
The young people couldn't use the squares for their skateboards. They were moved on. They didn’t have a place.’
Professor Christensen
The New Urbanisms, New Citizens researchers’ studies of nine to 16-year-olds living in these stunted developments, have revealed important insights into the tensions taking root in these new communities. In Mawsley, the academics interviewed its young people in workshops, facilitated meetings with adult inhabitants and tracked some young people’s movements with GPS tags.

Around 400 of children living in Mawsley will become teenagers in the next two years. ‘There is a very large population of young people,’ says Professor Christensen. ‘They couldn’t use the squares for their skateboards and didn’t have any alternative in the community. They were moved on. They didn’t have a place.’ New communities had to find ways of engaging properly with their young people, Professor Christensen adds. ‘There isn’t an unwillingness. People just need to know how to do it.’

The New Urbanisms, New Citizens researchers’ studies of nine to 16-year-olds living in these stunted developments, have revealed important insights into the tensions taking root in these new communities. In Mawsley, the academics interviewed its young people in workshops, facilitated meetings with adult inhabitants and tracked some young people’s movements with GPS tags.

The new urbanists helped ease these tensions by holding workshops with the young residents where they could speak freely before inviting the adults to join in. ‘We created a situation where there could be a dialogue,’ Professor Christensen says. ‘The young people said “wow, that was great” to work with adults. They felt listened to when they often feel dismissed.’

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The young people told the researchers that they wanted a ‘tree house or a hut to hang out in and watch things like clouds and nature’. They asked for a ‘youth council’ to be set up and that young people should be allowed to organise events. They also welcomed the meetings with the adults. ‘I hope in the future that the issues discussed in the workshop will be resolved and that from it the youth of the village will develop a good relationship with the ruling adults,’ one 14-year-old boy said.

Integration
The research team claims also to have identified further cracks in Mawsley’s seemingly peaceful facade. ‘There are tensions between social housing tenants and people who buy their own homes and between new and older residents,’ says Professor Christensen. ‘The children mix at school but there is apprehension about certain parts of the community. There is a stereotyping of people that goes on. There is work to be done.’

Mr Littler insists the Mawsley Villagers Association has made great efforts to integrate the social and private housing. It successfully pushed developers to improve its social housing designs, he added. ‘We looked at the plans and we said those are not right. Those look like cheaper houses. We said we want to be an inclusive community.’ Using the academics’ research, the association has now secured funding - a Biffa award - and installed dedicated play areas for its young residents.

Bpha also claims to have made efforts to maintain the peace between its residents and the wider community. ‘Because it is a new community it is going to have teething problems,’ says Sue Davis, senior programme manager at the housing association. ‘If there were tenancy issues, the residents could come to us with any problems so we could deal with the situation quickly.’

New Urbanisms, New Citizens researcher Dr Kraftl believes the key lesson from the project is that communities should not be ‘over designed’. Truly sustainable places depend on continual engagement with residents of all ages, he adds.
‘Both children and adults had a very keen sense of what needed to be built,’ he states. Or, to put it another way, it’s all in the planning.
21 June, 2013

Driven to Despair

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This investigation into the failures of anti-social behaviour practice first appeared in Inside Housing magazine.

‘He pointed at me, calling me a “f***ing slag” and said: “Suzie you’d better f***ing watch yourself”.’ So begins an obviously anxious email from Suzanne Dow, alerting a housing officer to yet another verbal attack from a tenant of a neighbouring social home. ‘I do not feel safe in my house,’ she continues. ‘I am at my wits’ end.’

‘He pointed at me, calling me a “f***ing slag” and said: “Suzie you’d better f***ing watch yourself”.’
Suzanne Dow's e-mail to Broxtowe Council
Tragically, this final phrase turned out to be all too prophetic. In just under a month, Dr Dow, an Oxford-educated academic, much loved by colleagues and friends, killed herself by overdosing on pills. She was 33.

At an inquest this year, the coroner laid into that housing officer’s employer, Broxtowe Council, in Nottinghamshire. Its efforts to deal with Dr Dow’s neighbours’ persistent anti-social behaviour – and that of visitors to the house – were condemned as ‘idle, empty threats’ as she ordered the authority to take action to avoid similar tragedies.

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Immediately after the hearing, Broxtowe insisted it only discovered ‘the extent of Dr Dow’s vulnerability’ – she had a previous history of mental health problems, including suicide attempts – two weeks before her death on 4 October, 2011. Emails released to Inside Housing under the Freedom of Information Act, however, raise serious questions about the authority’s account of events leading up to her suicide.

My investigation also uncovers other worrying and far-reaching findings. Despite big pushes to better identify vulnerable victims after the high-profile suicide of Fiona Pilkington in 2007, good practice remains patchy among both social landlords and police. Councils’ and housing associations’ performance has been largely unchecked since 2010. And reports prepared for new police and crime commissioners have uncovered case after case of distressed ASB victims, forced to endure years of suffering because of ‘foot-dragging’ landlords.

So how should councils and housing associations detect the vulnerability of ASB victims? And what lessons can and have been learned from the Suzanne Dow case?

Fighting to be heard
One very clear lesson is that ASB victims still struggle to get their concerns and state of mind taken seriously, despite the post-Pilkington reform. ASB should not be dismissed as ‘trivial’, a Home Office report from 2011, states. ‘[It] has a huge impact on victims’ quality of life.’

Dr Dow, a homeowner, had been plagued by persistent ASB by neighbours from a next-door property since moving into her home in June 2008. Nottinghamshire Police had twice arrested and charged one of her neighbours with threatening behaviour. When telephone wires to her house were cut in 2010, police dropped the case after two weeks after failing to find witnesses.

Her contact with Broxtowe Council escalated in early August 2011, almost two months before the authority claims it became aware of the ‘extent of her vulnerability’ via a letter, received on 21 September. But emails seen by Inside Housing show Dr Dow had alerted housing officers to her vulnerable state no fewer than six times prior to this official recognition.

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Numerous complaints
In her first email to a housing officer on 3 August, Dr Dow complains of abusive language from her neighbour, stones thrown at her open window and shouts of ‘when I found what c**t has called the police they’ll be sorry’. It ends with the explicit alert: ‘I feel very vulnerable and desperate about this situation’.

The second email is sent two weeks later, while she still awaits a response. ‘As you know, I have been despairing of this situation. Every time I set foot [in my own garden] I am subject to a barrage of abuse. Could you at least acknowledge receipt of my emails?’

DOW_IH
Her tone becomes even more desperate in early September. ‘I really don’t think I ought to have to put up with this for any longer,’ she says on 3 September. A week later: ‘I am at my wits’ end’. Another one ends: ‘My life is being made unbearable by this situation and it is having a serious effect on my health, [both] mental and physical.’ Such language should have immediately triggered alarm bells and a thorough assessment of her vulnerability status, one victim support expert says.

Just one day later – a week before official recognition of the extent of Dr Dow’s difficulties – the authority’s housing officer directly acknowledges the seriousness of her suffering in an email. ‘I understand that this situation is causing you unnecessary distress and anguish,’ it says. Her case had even been discussed with management, the officer adds in an email. This was no case of an isolated officer acting alone.

So why did Broxtowe fail to respond to the alarm bells clanging in these emails?

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Passing the buck
In its response, the authority appears to play down its responsibility by pointing out Dr Dow’s previous mental health problems. The inquest revealed she had been abused as a child, previously attempted suicide twice, and had been sectioned, Broxtowe says. Dr Dow had also suffered a recent relationship break-up, according to Nottinghamshire Police. ‘The coroner has not found that the council’s actions led to the suicide but rather it was Dr Dow’s unfortunate personal history that was the direct cause of death,’ a spokesperson for Broxtowe says.

The authority does admit, however, that it had been unaware of Dr Dow’s mental health problems until the inquest. Despite repeated and explicit emails alerting the authority to her vulnerable state, no proper assessment of her situation appears to have been carried out. The importance of such checks were one of the chief lessons supposedly learned in the fallout from the 2007 Fiona Pilkington case. Such assessments are now widely regarded as essential practice and could well have picked up her personal and mental health problems.

Since Dr Dow’s suicide, Broxtowe claims to have introduced ‘wide-ranging’ changes. Housing officers now have extra time, training and a new ‘matrix’ to help them identify vulnerable people. A computerised recording system has been installed to track ASB incidents. Residents can expect an ‘efficient service’ which prioritises the ‘issues of vulnerable people,’ it said in a statement.

Such improvements are commonly triggered by tragedies such as this. Our investigation however indicates that social landlords and police forces have some way to go if the risk of more tragedies is to be reduced. A wide-ranging review of ASB by Nottinghamshire Police last year uncovered case after case of vulnerable victims let down by ‘foot-dragging’ landlords.

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A common problem
Many bore striking similarities to Dr Dow’s situation. Immediate neighbours were found to be principal perpetrators of bad behaviour including loud music, foul language and harassment. Victims’ health became badly affected, leaving them ‘feeling suicidal’ or ‘suffering long-term depression,’ the review states. ‘Many cited lack of sleep, feeling house-bound and feelings of hopelessness.’
A number of [the ASB victims] became very emotional, crying and needing to leave the room before being able to recompose themselves
Nottinghamshire Police Review of ASB victims

The reviewers were taken aback by the victims’ spontaneous outpourings of grief during review hearings. ‘A number of them became very emotional, crying and needing to leave the room before being able to recompose themselves,’ the official report states. ‘There were others who were highly emotional, raising their voices almost in despair of their circumstances and lack of hope.’

In one case, a victim only found peace by moving home after 12 years of poor sleep and bad health brought on by her neighbour’s ASB. Such an extreme means of escape is not an option for all victims, according to Olwen Edwards, divisional manager for Nottinghamshire at Victim Support, who was involved in the review.

‘If you are in council housing you have the option to be moved but in private housing you have to sell your house.’ And even then, sellers can become trapped in their homes, says Ms Edwards, as sales are effectively blighted by legal obligations to warn buyers of problem neighbours.

No escape
Such was Dr Dow’s situation, according to an official complaint letter she sent Broxtowe the month before she died. ‘I would move house if I could, but have already been advised by an estate agent that my house is all but unsaleable given the neighbours,’ it stated. ‘I find this situation to be intolerable.’

6

With all apparent means of escape blocked off, Dr Dow believed her only hope was for her next-door neighbour to be evicted. This idea was resisted by the housing department, which stuck slavishly to its step-by-step ‘traffic light’ warning system.

‘We only apply to the court for possession of a property when every other single attempt we have tried fails,’ a housing officer told Dr Dow in an email, five days after police had arrested and charged a neighbour for threatening behaviour for the second time. ‘As a housing provider, we are here to provide homes for people, not to take them away unless the circumstances are severe,’ the email adds.

But not every social landlord is shy to take tough action when vulnerable residents are at risk. Richmond Housing Partnership, as part of a government sponsored trial, has developed what it claims to be a truly ‘victim-centred’ approach which is applied to every complaint.

All new callers are immediately assessed on a ‘risk assessment matrix’ and automatically labelled vulnerable when the ASB is personal or repetitive, the textbook hallmarks of vulnerability. These victims are then interviewed in their homes by officers. Case histories are reviewed and their vulnerability and support networks checked.

This more intensive approach to vulnerability checks appears not to be the norm among social landlords or the police, however. Eamon Lynch, managing director of the Social Landlords Crime and Nuisance Group, admits RHP is at the ‘upper end of the curve’ of good practice. Just 30 out of 300 large, general needs landlords have put their vulnerability assessments through his group’s accreditation service.

Exactly how well social landlords perform on vulnerability checks is, however, a so-called ‘known unknown’. No organisation has kept track of its performance in this area since the government axed housing inspections in 2010. It is now ‘nigh on impossible to get a picture across the sector’ of how well social landlords identify vulnerability, Mr Lynch admits.

‘The Broxtowe example is clear evidence that this is something that needs to be continuously pushed and developed,’ he adds. The otherwise well-respected survey of landlords’ ASB performance by consultancy Housemark includes no measure of vulnerability detection or assessment, despite recognising its relevance.

7

By contrast, scrutiny of the police service has increased and found good reason to continue. In 2010, the Stop the rot report by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary admitted to a series of ‘systemic problems’ in the way the forces tackled ASB. Since then each force’s performance has been subjected to rigorous checks. This first found just 16 out of 43 forces effectively identified vulnerability.
If you don’t listen to people when they indicate they are at their wits’ end, you may miss your opportunity to get them back from the abyss.’
Olwen Edwards, Victim Support

Little improvement
But despite a massive push, the majority of forces across England and Wales are still failing. The inspectorate’s latest commissioned assessment from this year ranked Nottinghamshire, where Broxtowe is based, as one of seven which are ‘poor’ at pinpointing vulnerable complainants. The majority of 32 ranked ‘fair’, and just two out of the 43 were found to be ‘excellent’.

With such a mediocre performance in the police service and no one keeping tabs on the landlords, the chances of avoiding another ASB-related suicide look slim.

If the string of ‘wits’ end’ pleas of a highly articulate academic cannot convince her local authority, what chance does any one else have? At times, the clear window of opportunity will be muddier and narrower than the nine weeks of explicit email correspondence on which Broxtowe failed to seize.

As Victim Support’s Ms Edwards advises: ‘If you don’t listen to people when they indicate they are at their wits’ end, you may miss your opportunity to get them back from the abyss.’ For when the vulnerable get serious about suicide, they stop complaining.
20 June, 2013

There’s more to fixing the NHS than chasing A&E waiting times

This comment piece first appeared on The Spectator's coffee house blog.

NHS workers used to enjoy hearty backslaps for their ‘jolly hard work’ to bring down accident & emergency waiting times. Such praise was delivered by the Labour government’s chief nursing officer at a conference I covered back in 2003. Back then, talk was of shrinking queues rather than impending ‘A&E crisis’. Nurses should congratulate themselves, she beamed, for helping speed patients through casualty in fewer than four hours.
LabourA&E copy
This apparent success was just the beginning, if this graph, circulated in a campaign e-mail by Labour’s shadow health secretary recently (left) is to be believed.

‘This is what three years of David Cameron running the NHS looks like: a crisis in A&E,’ it rails. ‘Patients waiting in the back of ambulances and over 4,000 nurses lost. He has broken all of his promises on the NHS and patients are paying the price.’

This rhetoric of success sounds a bit hollow to me. As a former NHS worker, I witnessed first hand how waiting times were reduced under Labour.
26 April, 2013

Back to the Poor Law: How UK Government reforms take us back to the 19th Century

Page 1

This analysis of the welfare reforms policy first appeared in Inside Housing magazine.

Time was when people knew where they stood with welfare. The UK government offered equal support to all, wherever they lived. Needy masses correctly expected the same level of help to pay rent or council tax bills whether they laid their hat in Newcastle, Norwich, or Neath. And for those hitting particularly hard times, a crisis loan scheme was open to Glaswegians, Mancunians and Bristolians and everyone else in between on exactly the same terms.

Not anymore.
Poor-law-pic

Welfare changes and the government’s localism agenda have coalesced to create an increasingly patchy support structure which will, from this month, hit social tenants’ finances to different degrees, depending on where they live.

The so-called ‘bedroom tax’ under-occupation penalty and welfare cap leaves northerners more out of pocket than their fellow citizens in the south west. The switch from a single national council tax benefit scheme to 326 individual local authority programmes costs east England more dearly than the west midlands. And the desperate, in search of emergency financial support, will get vouchers in Birmingham but hard currency in Portsmouth.

2

Taken together, these changes are effecting what policy experts say is a shift back in time to the 19th century ‘poor law’. Under one of the principles of this much-derided regime, welfare plans were drawn up by groups of parishes rather than central government, creating an incredibly fragmented and diverse set of local welfare practices. With localism and welfare reforms, this principle seems resurrected.

The poor law welfare regime grew up in a higgledy-piggledy way, producing this very messy patchwork
Becky Tunstall, professor, University of York
Patchwork cover
Such a characterisation is more than just ‘shroud waving’ insists Becky Tunstall, a professor of housing policy at the University of York, who thinks it’s a reasonable description of some recent reforms. ‘The poor law welfare regime grew up in a higgledy-piggledy way, producing this very messy patchwork,’ she says. ‘We are now seeing a localisation of the welfare system and of council tax benefit. There will be differences between local authorities and landlords as they react differently to shortfalls. We are at the thin end of the wedge of some dramatic changes.’

So what does the shift back to the poor law principle mean for social landlords and their tenants? And how are authorities taking to their roles as designers and providers of local support?

As the poor law dictates, the answer to both of these questions now largely depends on where social landlords and their tenants are based. At the beginning of April, local authorities took control of the council tax benefit and discretionary social fund schemes. Both were previously run at a national level and detailed studies reveal big differences among local attempts to replace the national system.

3

The localisation of the social fund has replaced a single £215 million government scheme with one which has more than 100 local variations in England, alongside a 16 per cent funding cut this year. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales are running national schemes. A study of 25 of the new local discretionary welfare regimes - which the Centre for Responsible Credit claims reflects the national picture - concludes that tenants now face a ‘postcode lottery’.

Eligibility criteria
Damon Gibbons, director at the not-for-profit policy unit, says many councils are restricting access to crisis payments as they prepare to cope with an increase in demand but a decrease in funding. ‘They have put in place quite tight eligibility criteria restricting the type of help to things like voucher schemes that can be used at foodbanks rather than cash.’

Some authorities have also introduced ‘local connection’ criteria, a move Mr Gibbons says harks back to the poor law.

The overall outlook for welfare recipients could be quite bleak, Mr Gibbons predicts. ‘I can see that the shift to local welfare provision will increase hardship.’ One in five unsuccessful social fund applicants will turn to loan sharks, he suggests.

A far more significant shift towards the poor law will take shape as councils take control of the government’s £4.9 billion council tax benefit regime. Control of this welfare scheme is, from this month, in the hands of the 326 local authorities which administer the levy. All have had to devise their own individual schemes with 10 per cent less funding than last year.

Hugh Owen, director of policy and communications at Riverside, a housing association operating across 160 local authority areas, warns social landlords against underestimating the ‘indirect’ effect of the localisation of council tax benefit. ‘It is a huge challenge,’ he adds. ‘The sector’s focus has been on things which directly affect us, such as bedroom tax, while other factors, such as council tax benefit, actually affect us too.’

4

Some council tax benefit schemes have sliced £4 a week from Riverside tenants’ income, Mr Owen adds. ‘In Riverside, the average bedroom tax is £14.20,’ he adds. ‘If you add the two together you are looking at closer to £20 a week, which is quite a lot.’

Analysis of the 326 new council tax benefit schemes by think tank New Policy Institute has uncovered evidence of fractures in the support system. Tenants in the south west who qualify for the benefit will now be expected to pay £16 a month more towards their council tax, while those in the south east must pay just £8 extra on average (see table: Counting the cost). Across England, 2.4 million more non-working families will be expected to pay a proportion of the levy for the first time as 82 per cent of councils cut benefit levels.

Risk shift
Peter Kenway, director of New Policy Institute, believes comparisons of the poor law to the localisation of council tax benefit are ‘spot on’. He points out that the parallel extends beyond the idea of a postcode lottery. When the government handed councils control of this benefit, it also fundamentally altered the way it was funded, he says. Instead of councils claiming the benefit back from the Treasury’s open-ended, annually managed expenditure account, each council is now allocated an annual grant from the government’s fixed departmental budget.Such a change shifts the burden of risk onto local councils’ shoulders, leaving them vulnerable to shocks in the local economy such as mass redundancies, Mr Kenway says.

‘Previously, when a factory closed down, the people who lost their jobs would get council tax benefit and the local authority would get it all back from central government,’ he explains. ‘Now, if a factory closes, it will be the taxpayer in that district who pays.’ Making authorities weather the impact of welfare demands is another point in common with poor law principles, Mr Kenway says. ‘That is what is so wrong about it. National council tax benefit was like a shock absorber. As it was spread widely, it wasn’t felt.’

5

Professor Tunstall compares this fixed grant system switch to the way housing benefit is funded in the US. ‘The money is allocated in dollops, but when it runs out, it runs out. You can queue up all you like, but you won’t get any,’ she says. ‘It is a very different understanding to other welfare systems. It isn’t about rights and eligibility.’

The bedroom tax
The now notorious bedroom tax is another reform which creates major regional differences in welfare support, as the government’s own impact assessment admits. It shows that Londoners are more likely to lose out from the bedroom tax, suffering a monthly loss of £91 compared with an average of £52 in the east midlands. When council tax benefit changes are factored in, these losses mount up significantly: by more than 20 per cent in the south west, east, Yorkshire and Humber, and west midlands regions.

While tenants’ incomes have always depended on local rent and council tax levels, one effect of the welfare reforms make where you live matter much more: the dissolution of the historic principle that housing support should cover rent completely. With this guarantee gone, tenants’ capacity to pay their rent will increasingly rely on local support.

Research by Riverside indicates the effect of the bedroom tax will be even more localised than government figures predict. As the national welfare regime stops covering rents completely this month, tenants’ incomes will also depend on the suburb of the town or city in which they live, Mr Owen says.

‘In the Department for Work and Pensions’ bedroom tax assessment, it looks like there is a north-south divide, but if you map our bedroom tax victims, it is not the same pattern,’ says Mr Owen. ‘It’s very localised and depends on the nature of the stock in an area.’

6

Housing associations’ ability to help tenants hit by the bedroom tax has also been found to be subject to significant regional variations, according to a study by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research and market research company IPSOS Mori. This National Housing Federation-sponsored study concluded that associations had ‘very different capacities to transfer under-occupying households’.

Report author Anna Clarke, a senior research associate at CCHPR, says housing associations in the north west are most likely to struggle to help their tenants downsize. ‘In London, there is a reasonable prospect of moving to a smaller property and there is a lot more pressure to move,’ she explains. ‘But in the north west, the chance of moving somewhere smaller is very slim indeed because housing associations don’t have many one-bedroom properties in the region.’

Discretionary payments
The government’s solution for smoothing these regional bumps, has been to beef up the discretionary housing payments it distributes to authorities each year. These have now been significantly increased to help councils mitigate potential harm caused by the bedroom tax and the £26,000-a-year overall benefit cap, which rolls out in four London boroughs this month and is expected to launch nationwide by the end of September.

My analysis of this hardship fund shows just how uneven the impacts are predicted to be. London councils have seen their allocations increase by six-fold on average, from £8.2 million in 2011/12 - the last year before welfare changes were introduced - to £56 million this year. The north east experienced the smallest increase of £3.5 million.

But despite this attempt to smooth out differences, the poor law’s imprint can still be traced in its application by some councils. The north west London borough of Brent has agreed to use almost £1 million of its DHP budget to pay large families £6,500 to move out of the borough. And Manchester Council is effectively barring lone parents who are not the main carer from accessing its discretionary fund.

7

Mike Donaldson, director of strategy and operations at 67,000-home housing association London & Quadrant, says councils across the 35 areas where his organisation operates are adopting different approaches to DHP. ‘It is a patchwork. You have to know what is going on in each borough and how much DHP is available. You are not working with a national scheme.’

New homes bonus
The regional difference in welfare support introduced by all of these changes is compounded by one further reform in England: the new homes bonus. Figures compiled in March by the National Audit Office show the north east and north west are the biggest losers under this centrally run bonus scheme. Northern councils are receiving just £19 per household compared with £45 in London and £36 in the south west.

While the bonus aims to reward authorities for encouraging development, it has effectively drained much-needed funding away from the kinds of deprived areas developers shun. The rising bonus excess is funded by the redistribution from the formula grant - the main departmental funding for local government. According to the NAO’s figures, the NHB’s ‘unfair’ effect is significant: income from the bonus accounted for up to 17 per cent of councils’ spending power last year.

The NHB will only ensure that ‘poor areas continue to lose out’, according to Rob Warm, lead manager for Yorkshire and Humber at the NHF.

It is just another piece in a wider jigsaw of reforms which make up the welfare regime, he says. And like Professor Tunstall, Mr Warm believes social landlords are only now seeing the thin end of the wedge. ‘What we are going to end up with is a fairly complex, fragmented local system,’ he says. ‘And we are only now feeling the ripples.’
14 March, 2013

New ruling favours Goliath over David in leaseholder battle

This news story first appeared on the Guardian Housing Network on-line

A controversial ruling by England's most senior judge will significantly alter the way courtroom battles over large leaseholder repair bills are fought, lost and won.

neuberger
Lord Neuberger (left) last week found that three lower courts had wrongly awarded five leaseholders a "windfall" by slashing their share of a £280,000 bill, from an average £56,000 each to a mere £250.

While agreeing their landlord had failed to consult properly on the cost of the works, his judgement concludes that such a "disproportionate" discount was unfair and risked bringing the whole legal system into "disrepute".

Previous leaseholder pieces

24 July, 2012
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4 September, 2012
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23 January, 2013

Supporting People boost is mirage for cash-strapped councils

This news analysis first appeared on the Guardian Local Government Network

AMID the gloom of last year's local government settlement, one small ray of light appeared to shine on some authorities. Almost half of all top-tier councils received an increase in their allocation for Supporting People (SP), a funding programme that helps vulnerable residents to live independently.

SP-capture
As this new analysis of official figures for the Guardian Local Government Network (see right) shows, Leicester was the biggest beneficiary of 79 authorities allotted more for 2013-14 than the previous year; on the face of it, this was an increase of 26%, pushing its share of the £1.6bn pot up £2.6m to £12.7m.

Similarly, Havering, Luton and Coventry saw their allocations substantially boosted – all by almost 20%. With the size of the SP programme static at £1.6bn, these apparently favourable swings inevitably created some casualties. Newham saw its SP share seemingly slashed by 25% from £16m to £11m, while Plymouth's, Liverpool's and Oldham's all plunged by an apparent 20%. In all, 73 councils suffered such losses.
18 January, 2013

Destitution known

This investigation first appeared in Inside Housing magazine.

Official investigations into child deaths commonly spur governments to fix any identified flaws in their welfare regimes. In the case of ‘child EG’, a one-year old refugee who died of starvation in 2010 in temporary housing in Westminster, the opposite seems true.

destitition-grab
My new investigation for Inside Housing (left) reveals that a hole in the safety net for new refugees, pinpointed by a serious case review into the child’s death, seems to have gaped wider rather than been sealed.

Child EG and his mother died in destitution because of ‘significant problems’ transferring the family from asylum to mainstream support.

I found that such hold-ups are not only unresolved, they are now commonplace and increasing – despite a direct plea to Whitehall by child safety professionals connected to the EG case that the problem be tackled with urgency.

Opinion pieces

6 July, 2012

Join our club: how 'club-like' services promote social values

Since the credit crunch we've been force-fed a daily diet of fiscal speak. We're now so familiar with terms such as "quantitative easing" that they slip into our conversations as we lament the cost of fixing the financial markets.
22 May, 2012

Violent offenders forced into shared accommodation by welfare changes

Newham council's bid to ship hundreds of housing benefit recipients out of London was met with a wave of shock and "moral outrage" last month.