A Week in Housing

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Struggling to buy your own home? Why not move to Sicily and buy one for 80p? Baffled? Thrilled? Scared? Keep reading – I’ll try to explain.

A city called Sambuca has decided to drastically cut the prices of houses in an attempt to get people to move to the area.

Why? Because too many people have fled the bucolic paradise on the hunt for adventure and opportunity in so-called ‘urban metropolises’, which are becoming increasingly popular.

Speaking to CNN, the lonely town’s deputy mayor said: ‘As opposed to other towns that have merely done this for propaganda, this city hall owns all €1 houses on sale.

‘We’re not intermediaries who liaise between old and new owners. You want that house, you’ll get it no time.’

But before you bolt off with an Italian language book and hastily packed suitcase, keen to leave this rapidly disintegrating isle behind, there are some conditions.

Firstly, after handing over your 80p (or one Euro as they call it over there) you’ll be expected to fix your new home up within three years, with a minimum spend of £13,200, which makes one wonder what sort of state these ‘houses’ are in.

Secondly, as far as I can make out from the vague reportage, it looks like you might need a job as well, so lazy romantic types looking to drop out early may have to think again.

Thirdly, I’m no expert but isn’t Sicily kind of run by the mafia? Thus you may be paying ‘additional fees’ for ‘insurance’ on your property indefinitely.

Anyway, according to the deputy mayor ‘this fertile patch of land is dubbed the “earthly paradise”. We’re located inside a nature reserve, packed with history. Gorgeous beaches, woods and mountains surround us. It’s silent and peaceful, an idyllic retreat for a detox stay.’

Sounds a bit desperate, doesn’t he?

I’d like to provide you with a link should you be interested in pursuing this dreamy yet dubious offer but I can’t find one. Try international directory enquiries?

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Britain’s favourite cliched terrible landlord, Fergus Wilson, has suddenly issued eviction notices to nearly 100 households – the latest step in his strategy to become the country’s most comically unpleasant character.

The 90 households in Ashford, Kent have two months to find somewhere else to live as the burly property baron looks to sell off his 700-home portfolio – perhaps to spend more time with the balloons he appears to have started shoving under his shirt for some reason.

The Dickensian parody said: ‘I feel remorse but, at the same time, I am going to have to do it. If I give them six months, so what? Unless somebody is going to rapidly build a lot more houses, where do the people live in the meantime?’

However, the corpulent freeholder blamed the lack of homes for his soon to be jettisoned human cargo to move into on national policy and, naturally, immigration from the hated eastern Europe.

(Sun and Daily Mail writers and readers: it’s stuff like this that makes Jeremy Corbyn popular, if you’re still scratching your heads.)

Anyhow, Fergus and his equally admired wife, Judith, can expect to net £200 million if they sell off their whole portfolio. The system works!

***

From housing news of the worst kind to housing news of a very good kind: apparently, a social landlord’s efforts to improve its stock has boosted the Scottish economy by £2 billion (a figure I suspect the Wilsons eye greedily while long spools of saliva disgorge from their agape cakeholes).

Since 2003, Glasgow Housing Association has transformed over 70,000 properties and built 2,485 affordable homes.

Now the Fraser of Allander Institute, whatever that is, has found that the gigantic project has supported nearly 2,500 full-time jobs per year and helped create tonnes of cash for the economy.

GHA’s tenant chairwoman Bernadette Hewitt said: ‘The transformation of social housing in Glasgow has been a key element in the resurgence of this great city over the past 15 years.

‘GHA’s massive modernisation, demolition and re-provisioning programme has changed not only the Glasgow skyline, it has ensured tens-of-thousands of families across the city are living in modern, warm, safe and fuel-efficient homes.’

You see – good things still happen, sometimes. Here’s the whole story.

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Events, events, events, events, events – we’ve got events!

And the first event I’m going to tell you about today is…Amazing workspaces.

Is your workspace amazing? I work at home, in a shed, thus I don’t have to put up with the nuisance of other people and their opinions – though I’m also crushingly lonely and sad. But I digress.

In association with Great Places to Work, the event will look at:

  • Amazing workplaces – what they look and feel like
  • How good office design can attract and retain the best employees
  • Great places to work – hear from housing providers who are up there with the top employers
  • How technology will shape the workplace of tomorrow
  • The importance of getting the right culture
  • Employee health and wellbeing – how we can make a difference.

Lots and lots of other interesting info can be accessed by clicking this link – which is for Manchester, I’ve just realised. If you live closer to or actually in the borough of London, click this link for that event.

Good governance. Sounds like the conceptual title for a new BBC Two sitcom about the capers in some low-level government department – but more the gentle nonsense of ‘”Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em” than the scathing hostility of “The Thick of It”. Where was I?

Oh yes: Good governance. Daunted by IDAs? Fearful of governance reviews? Lost in the undergrowth of regulatory standards and codes of governance?

Then you should be all over this event what we have planned, dripping as it will be with the following:

  • What’s the purpose of governance?
  • What should a board do, and what shouldn’t it do?
  • What’s the best governance structure and framework for your organisation?
  • How do you attract and retain high quality board members with the right skills?
  • How to listen to the resident voice in governance – and act on it?
  • How can you maximise the effectiveness of the board as a team?
  • Beyond the boardroom – what should happen between meetings?
  • Supporting governance – what’s the role of the company secretary
  • What does the regulator expect, and how might it change in the future?

We’re holding it in the parishes of London, Manchester and Birmingham. And here’s a link to find out more and book tickets, which you’ll need if you want to come.

Shelter commission: The implications for social housing

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By Rob Gershon, HQN Residents’ Network Lead Associate

Last week’s Shelter commission report on the future of social housing featured a number of sound bites about how many homes England should build to meet housing need, and how much it would cost to make these genuinely affordable.

This debate continues to be important – especially at a time when the results of recent Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government ministerial roadshows indicate that tenants are acutely aware of the difference between rents set at a council/social/living rent level, and more recent additions to housing products like so-called ‘affordable rents’ and shared ownership.

Leading the recommendations at the back of the report, however, are the commission’s views on what needs to change in the regulation of social housing. The commission only came about as a result of the fire at Grenfell Tower and was in part a response to the community in North Kensington consulting Shelter on what could ensure change.

To this end, the commission looked at a range of issues around how to ensure tenants are not ignored, and how to implement an effective system of regulation when the imbalance in power between landlords and tenants requires action to ensure neighbourhoods and communities have a say in how their homes are run, and ultimately protected from harm.

Here we take a look at some of those recommendations and interpret what they could mean. Alongside the commission report of course, the government is still expected to produce responses to the Social Housing Green Paper, and a separate consultation on the regulation of social housing that was held at the same time in 2018.

Recommendation

 The government should create a new consumer regulator to protect renters and ensure their voices are heard. This should operate alongside the Regulator of Social Housing, focused on its core economic brief.

Part of the Shelter position on changing regulation is driven by the ideas coming from Grenfell United about changes to the regulator.

In other sectors when there have been disasters, such as in banking, new regulators have been created to protect consumers. Much like in the housing sector today, banking used to only have a regulator that dealt with governance and financial viability.

After the financial crash and a range of scandals where banks were failing to protect their customers, the regulator was effectively split in two. One half continued to look at the operational governance and viability of banks, but the other made them responsible for the policies they operate and the actions they take.

Under the system of financial regulation, senior managers and executives at banks have to put their names to the policies and actions of their departments and businesses, and where they breach regulatory standards individuals are expected to resign, and if they have broken any laws will be prosecuted. It is too early to say whether changes to the housing regulator will follow these principles.

Recommendation

Social housing residents need better protection. Government should require standards of social housing to be proactively inspected, publicly reported, and strongly enforced in order to hold failing landlords to account.

Currently, the ‘consumer standards’ expected of landlords are not reviewed or enforced in any way. This ‘light touch’ approach to regulation means that ensuring home, tenancy, involvement and engagement, and neighbourhood and community standards are upheld is a voluntary exercise on the part of landlords themselves.

Recommendation:

If residents are to be protected and given a voice, there must be clearer standards for social housing providers. The government should direct the regulator to make consumer standards more specific; setting clear, minimum expectations, like timescales for dealing with complaints.

This recommendation would mean a return to some form of inspectorate, perhaps along the lines of an audit commission, which would measure whether or not landlords were meeting their responsibilities set against some clearly published expectations.

Landlords who classify tenants as vexatious would not be able to do so when tenants were merely trying to resolve issues that have gone unheard. Guidance for complaints handling would mean tenants could escalate issues if landlords fail to respond to them within a timescale and in a clear enough manner expected by the regulator.

Recommendation:

All groups of residents (whether recognised by their landlords or not) should be able to refer their concerns directly to the new regulator where they have common concerns they believe are caused by a systemic failing in the landlord’s services.

After the closure of the Tenant Services Authority and National Tenant Voice, the then Department of Communities and Local Government laid out a plan to suggest tenant and resident associations and panels could scrutinise the actions of their landlords. This has not led to a wide adoption of the model, and tenants who cannot get their residents to recognise them – often as a result of a failure of complaint or dispute resolution – have no way to have their voices heard.

This recommendation would mean that tenants do not have to be hand-picked by their landlords or approved by them to raise their valid concerns with the regulator.

Recommendation

Residents should not have to prove they might be at risk of serious detriment for the regulator to intervene. The government should remove the ‘serious detriment’ test for intervention in complaints about social housing, which is a barrier to proper enforcement of consumer standards.

This calls for the ‘serious detriment’ test – a meaningless bar for referral to the regulator at the best of times – to be removed. Tenants should not have to prove that a failing is systemic at an organisation, or essentially life-threatening, for the regulator to act to protect them.

Recommendation:

To make it easier for social renters to get redress on individual complaints, barriers to complaining must be removed. The government should remove the democratic filter for referral to the Housing Ombudsman.

This recommendation is specific to the escalation of complaints by tenants to the Housing Ombudsman. Under current rules, a tenant cannot take their complaint to the ombudsman immediately unless they have the approval of their local MP or a local councillor. This ‘democratic filter’ has not prevented the average resolution time by the ombudsman from being eight months.

Tenants who do not refer their complaints through the local MP or councillor – where councils can sometimes also be the landlord – are expected to wait eight weeks for no apparent reason before their complaint is even looked at by the ombudsman.

In conclusion…

Each of these recommendations looks at one aspect of the way housing is overseen by government, but, taken together, the implications for what will need to change if these sorts of proposals come through upcoming guidance from government are significant – certainly compared to the way that the relationships between landlords and tenants, but also landlords and the regulator, are conducted at present.

 

House prices tumble amid Brexit chaos

Real estate values chart. 3D diagram with home symbol.

UK house prices are falling at the fastest rate for six years, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (Rics) has revealed.

According to Rics, everyone’s favourite massive schism, Brexit, led to agreed sales, new instructions and inquiries all falling in December, while prices fell for the fourth month in a row to -19% from -11% – the lowest reading since August 2012.

And sales expectations for the next three months are the lowest since 1999 when Rics’ survey began.

RICS’ chief economist, Simon Rubinsohn, reckons December’s fall in price expectations was linked to Brexit and its accompanying chaos.

Mr Rubinsohn said: ‘Looking a little further out, there is some comfort provided by the suggestion that transactions nationally should stabilise as some of the fog lifts, but that moment feels a way off for many respondents to the survey.’

 

£2 million to fight rogue landlords

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Over 50 local authorities across England are to receive funds to help tackle ‘landlords who make tenants’ lives a misery’, the government has said.

Announced by housing minister Heather Wheeler yesterday, the councils will each take a share of a £2.4 million pot which the government says should be used to boost short-term staffing and create new digital tools.

Using my trusty calculator, I find that £2.4m divided by 50 equals £48,000 per council which doesn’t seem like a huge amount to fight rogue landlords with, especially when it’s actually being spread among an ambiguous ‘over 50’ councils.

Anyway, minister Wheeler said: ‘Everyone has the right to live in a home that is safe and secure, and it is vital we crack down on the small minority of landlords who are not giving their tenants this security.

‘This extra funding will further boost councils’ ability to root out rogue landlords and ensure that poor-quality homes in the area are improved, making the housing market fairer for everyone.’

Here are some examples of where the funding’s going:

  • Walsall – to improve cross-agency enforcement work, including the innovative use of drones and thermal mapping to identify problem properties
  • Lancaster – to create a training programme for existing enforcement staff across the Lancashire region
  • Greater London Authority (GLA) and Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) – allocated over £330,000 between them to carry out coordinated work to tackle rogue landlords who operate across multiple local authorities in their regions

If you’re interested, the whole press release can be found here.

Housing association home starts up 7%

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The amount of housing association home starts rose by 7% in the second quarter of 2017/18, new data shows.

According to the National Housing Federation’s (NHF) supply survey, 10,511 new homes were started between July to September 2018, up from 9,793 in the previous quarter.

Meanwhile, in the world of market sale homes things aren’t looking so good, with 1,321 started in the quarter – down more than 37% on 2016/17’s Q2 figure of 2,111.

And here are some more figures:

840 social rent starts (up 6% compared with 2016/17 Q2)

4,476 of the quarter’s HA homes delivered via section 106 agreements

1,069 homes completed for market sale

The NHF’s head of member relations, Katie Teasdale, said: ‘These results are very encouraging, but housing associations are keen to do much more. In order to do this, they need access to two things: funding and affordable land.

‘While ministers have made welcome promises of more money for social housing, we need even greater investment, particularly in the next spending review period, to build the 90,000 homes for social rent we need every year. The government should also fundamentally reform the way that land is bought and sold, allowing housing associations to buy land for affordable housing at cheaper levels.’

 

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