Guardian Editorial | The Guardian view on housing policy: a rethink is needed

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11 August 2016

EDITORIAL | The Guardian view on housing policy: a rethink is needed

The government has boosted demand but not supply. There are too few new homes, and too many penalties on social housing. It’s not a policy, it’s a disaster
Terraced houses.
‘In the past six years, the party of home ownership has failed to revive home ownership.’ Composite: Alamy

It is very hard to detect what this government thinks a successful housing policy looks like. In the past six years, the party of home ownership has failed to revive home ownership. Far from the Tory dream of a Britain transformed into a property-owning democracy, the median price for a house is now nearly nine times the median income and generation rent struggles to put so much as a toe on the property ladder at all.

Meanwhile, the long war of attrition against social housing goes on: right to buy, almost moribund by 2010, was fanned back into life with new and bigger discounts in the early coalition years. Council receipts from the discounted sales were cut to a third of the sale price, which has to be reclaimed in a slow and bureaucratic process from central government to meet the obligation imposed by Whitehall to replace all right to buy sales. In fact, councils are now building just one new home for every nine sold.

The Local Government Association, representing councils in England and Wales, says a rethink is essential if the right to buy is going to benefit more than this generation. Soon, higher-value council properties will have to be sold too, to fund a new assault on social housing, the introduction of the right to buy for housing association tenants. The latest English Housing Survey found that tenants were paying up to half their income on rent – even more in London. Meanwhile the rent councils receive is being cut year on year. The LGA foresees a £2bn hole in council finances by 2020.

An era of very low interest rates, and the new ability of people with pension pots to invest in property rather than buy an annuity with it, is propelling a huge market in buy-to-let. It has slowed with new higher stamp duty, but the grants designed to support first-time buyers have had only a limited effect as the supply of new homes continues to lag far behind demand, putting the next move out of reach. There are already 1.4 million people on council waiting lists. The cost of housing benefit for tenants in private accommodation is soaring along with rents – and homelessness. Earlier this month, the Resolution Foundation published research showing unaffordable home ownership is not just a London problem but affects people across the whole of the United Kingdom. It is at its lowest level since the early 2000s. The number of new homes started was less than 150,000 last year, the average house price has risen 60% in 13 years, while pay for many people has risen at only a fraction of that rate. On some estimates, in less than a decade there will be a shortfall of at least 4m affordable homes. Whatever its intentions, the government appears to have created a housing catastrophe.

The Local Government Association is controlled by Conservative councillors. It is not a radical organisation trying to challenge government. It merely wants voters able to live in homes they can afford to buy or rent. They know how to do it. Theresa May promised a country that did not entrench privilege. Housing is a good place to start.

 

Guardian | Right-to-buy reform urged as council leaders fear for social housing

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11 August 2016

Right-to-buy reform urged as council leaders fear for social housing

Figures show that replacements for homes sold under the right-to-buy scheme fell by 27% last year, worsening the housing crisis

Hilary Osborne
Matilda House in Wapping, London, which is made up of private tenancy and housing association homes
The promise to make discounts available to 1.3 million housing association tenants was part of the Conservative manifesto at last year’s general election. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Analysis by the Local Government Association (LGA) showed that 12,246 council homes were sold to tenants under right to buy in England in 2015-16, but just 2,055 replacements were started by councils – a drop of 27% on the previous year.

The right-to-buy scheme allows low-income tenants to buy their council-owned home at a sizeable discount to market value. Since it was launched by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s, almost 2m properties have been sold by councils across England and the proportion of homes that are social housing has fallen from 31% to 17%. Use of the scheme was slowing until the Conservative government relaunched the scheme in 2012 and quadrupled the discounts available to London tenants.

Right to buy has been scrapped in Scotland and the Welsh assembly last week confirmed that it planned to do the same. The LGA said the scheme could become a thing of the past in England, too, if councils were not helped to fund replacement homes.

The organisation, which represents 370 local authorities across England and Wales, said it expected 66,000 council homes to be sold to tenants by 2020 and that councils would struggle to replace the majority of them.

A further 22,000 homes will be sold if councils are forced to offload higher-value properties to fund the extension of right to buy to housing associations. The promise to make discounts available to 1.3 million housing association tenants was a key part of the Conservative manifesto at last year’s general election.

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The LGA warned that the fall in the number of much-needed council homes would exacerbate the housing crisis and increase homelessness and spending on housing benefit at a time when there were 1.4 million people on waiting lists.

The government has committed to one-for-one replacements for all additional homes sold since the scheme was relaunched. However, the LGA said urgent reform was needed to ensure councils could replace housing quickly and effectively.

It said authorities needed to keep 100% of receipts from sales, rather than the one-third they can currently retain, and that discounts should be set locally to reflect regional variations in house prices. Under the existing system, London tenants can get a discount of up to £103,900, while outside the capital homes are sold for up to £77,900 below market value.

The LGA’s senior vice chair, Nick Forbes, said current arrangements were restricting councils’ ability to replace homes and suggested this would mean that eventually there were no more properties to sell. “Right to buy will quickly become a thing of the past in England if councils continue to be prevented from building new homes,” he said.

“Housing reforms that reduce rents and force councils to sell homes will make building new properties and replacing those sold even more difficult. Such a loss in social housing risks pushing more people into the more expensive private rented sector, increasing homelessness and housing benefit spending.”

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) said the government was prepared to take action to ensure replacement homes were built.

It said: “We’re committed to building the homes this country needs and investing £8bn to build 400,000 more affordable homes. There is a rolling three-year deadline for local authorities to deliver an additional affordable home and so far they have delivered well within their sales profile.

“However, we have always been clear that if local authorities don’t start building replacement homes within the three-year deadline, then we will step in and build them for them.”

Around 40% of council flats sold through right to buy are thought to be owned by property investors now and are likely to be rented out at market rates. Some local authorities have attempted to stave off sales of social housing with new schemes for tenants. Recently, Barking and Dagenham council said it would allow tenants to buy a stake in their homes but would retain a share in each property.

Guardian | In a new era of official nastiness, it’s suddenly a crime to be homeless

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10 March 2016

In a new era of official nastiness, it’s suddenly a crime to be homeless

 

by John Harris

Instead of addressing the causes of homelessness, local authorities are using public space protection orders to displace, fine and punish the vulnerable.

Illustration of person sleeping on bench

 ‘All over the country, police and local councils are criminalising begging and rough sleeping, seemingly trying to push such mounting problems out of sight.’ Photograph: Nate Kitch

week ago, a case involving a homeless man called Ashley Hackett was thrown out of court in Brighton. He had been arrested by a plain-clothes police officer for asking a passer-by for 10p, an episode that triggered reports about Sussex police arresting 60 people on similar grounds in 2015 alone.

The story exploded in the pages of the Brighton Argus: local MP Caroline Lucas said she could not see “how criminalising desperate people for begging is helpful”; 30,000 people signed a petition decrying the policy responsible – and then, in the final denouement, prosecutors decided that the case was not in the public interest, and a district judge called time on the whole pathetic affair. In among the small print, there lurked truly Kafkaesque details, such as Hackett’s lawyer’s insistence that “he pleaded not guilty to begging because the offence says you’ve got to place yourself in that location to beg. He says he’s homeless and that’s where he lives.”

Unfortunately, the end of that case will probably have no effect on a monstrous shift in policy and official attitudes towards homeless people being rolled out around the country. As in-depth reporting in the Guardian this week has highlighted, rough-sleeping in England is up nearly a third year-on-year, and the figures have doubled since 2010: a plainly shameful fact that underlines the sense of a government locked into a grim re-enactment of the 1980s. Meanwhile, all over the country, police and local councils are criminalising begging and rough sleeping, seemingly trying to push such mounting problems out of sight.

Which brings us to a particularly horrible policy instrument known as public space protection orders (or PSPOs), brought in by the coalition government in 2014. As with New Labour’s antisocial behaviour orders, this new legal invention creates opportunities to criminalise hitherto non-criminal behaviour – but instead of Asbos’ focus on individuals, PSPOs are defined by particular areas.

The basic idea is simple enough. Designate a particular area, specify the behaviour you want to outlaw, and you’re off. In certain areas of Nottinghamshire, Bassetlaw’s Labour council has prohibited people under 16 “gathering in groups of three or more”; in Hillingdon, the Tories who run the borough have criminalised feeding pigeons in the park and, for young people in certain places, “gathering in groups of two or more persons unless going to or from a parked vehicle or waiting for a scheduled bus at a designated bus stop”. Obviously, those actions look comically draconian. But when PSPOs are applied to homeless people, the sense of punitive nastiness goes off the scale.

We are essentially talking about the policy equivalent of those spikes now affixed to modern buildings as a matter of course, in case anyone thinks of bedding down for the night. In Folkestone in Kent, a PSPO covers drinking, rough sleeping and begging; the latter is also a potential criminal act in Corby, Swindon and Oxford (where the council says it only applies to “aggressive” begging, though that includes simply asking for money near a cashpoint). In Wrexham, similar sanctions now apply to sleeping in a town centre park. Failure to comply entails a possible on-the-spot fine of £100 – this is for homeless people, let’s not forget – and, if the case goes to court, a penalty of up to £1,000. It is seemingly too early for cases to start colliding with the judicial system, but when they do, the waste of public money and chaotic fallout will speak for itself.

Nonetheless, the idea is catching on. Recent Freedom of Information requests by the Vice website discovered that at least 36 local councils in England and Wales “have introduced or are working on PSPOs which criminalise activities linked to homelessness”. In some places, there has been loud controversy about what is afoot: protests in Exeter, a U-turn in Newport, and another successful campaign in Hackney, east London, that last year forced the councilto back down.

But all too often there’s a sense of dull inevitability: in the absence of any real local or national scrutiny, councils do what they like, and no one really cares. Put another way: these days, if something happens in Corby, Swindon or Wrexham, can it really be said to have happened at all?

Moreover, as the Brighton case proves, the story runs much wider than PSPOs. Aside from London and Bristol, the city I visit most often is Manchester, where rough sleeping has exploded and, despite a more enlightened attitude to homeless people than you see in some other places, the city council and local landlords spent some of 2015 locked into an on-off game of injunctions, clearances, and ongoing bad feeling.

As a dry space long used by homeless people was suddenly cleared and fenced off – which is how it remains – and protest camps set up by homeless people spread across the city, the council won an injunction against anyone pitching a tent, which went as far as listing the items (sleeping bags, cardboard boxes) that were still permitted, and led to homeless people facing fines of up to £5,000. When I last visited, a new canvas encampment had sprung up on land owned by Manchester University, close to Piccadilly station: a fragile mini-shanty town, symbolising the fact that in the surrounding regenerated wonderland, scores of homeless people seem to have been reduced to an inconvenience.

At the heart of all this, there is often a kind of municipal Trump-ism, whereby police and crime commissioners, senior officers and politicians of all parties affect a crass language of crackdowns and zero tolerance, while doing little to get to grips with the actual issue. Obviously, they can account for their actions in terms of austerity: if average local authority funding for services helping people avoid homelessness was cut by 45% between 2010 and 2015, and homelessness and rough-sleeping are reaching such uncontrollable heights, what else can they do?

The answer to that is simple enough: whatever your intentions, once you start blankly criminalising people who need serious and wide-ranging help, you surely risk shutting down any argument for that kind of assistance ever returning. Fines and arrests back up the rightwing idea of character failure; George Osborne sleeps that bit more easily.

Here, though, is perhaps the most awful aspect of what’s happening. If the official attitude to people who sleep on the streets looks like cold contempt, we shouldn’t be all that surprised if that is reflected not just in public indifference and hostility, but in outright acts of inhumanity.

Back in Brighton, this week brought news of a homeless man suffering burnsafter his sleeping bag and cardboard shelter were set on fire. Vulnerability to violence is often at the heart of living without a home: if we reduce people to being annoying untouchables, maybe that’s the kind of terrible thing that will happen more often.