Our mutual friends

Sea of hands

The housing green paper in England has renewed interest in mutual and co-operative housing. Keith Edwards, lead associate for HQN Cymru, and Dave Palmer, who manages the Wales Housing Co-op Project, consider the lessons Wales has to offer.

Wikipedia says that co-operation is the process of groups of organisms working or acting together for common, mutual, or some underlying benefit, as opposed to working in competition for selfish benefit. Mutuality is defined as the sharing of a feeling, action, or relationship between two or more parties.

Co-operation is therefore based on the principles of mutuality. But you don’t necessarily need to form a co-operative in order to co-operate. Wales has been exploring these themes for a number of years: first through the emergence of community mutual stock transfers in South Wales, and more recently via the Wales Co-operative Centre Co-op Housing Project, working to support new grass roots housing based on mutual principles.

There are a number of examples worth looking at including the Ty Cyfle youth project, which demonstrates how co-operative principles can transform the way housing is delivered and perceived.

A series of high-level events organised jointly by HQN, Trowers and Hamlin and co-op think tank Mutuo came to the conclusion that mutuals should be higher up the agenda of options for housing in the future. The events focused on innovative models including the Merthyr Valleys Homes tenant/staff mutual.

As MVH’s Mike Owen says: ‘Most people have no real say in their homes, their schools, their health service; many of the big decisions in their lives are decided by other people. The mutual was for us the start in giving power back to the community.’

The opportunities this new approach opens up are worth exploring. In the words of TPAS England’s Jennie Osbourne: ‘Given the scale of the housing crisis we face and the need for landlords and communities to reconnect together in shared ambitions, it’s got to be worth exploring what it is at least.’

We couldn’t agree more. Co-operation and mutuality should be part of the future for tenants’ voice and power. The precise form this takes is not important – a co-operative mindset, not co-operatives themselves are the key to sustainable community-led housing.

Universal Credit plunging ‘people into misery and despair’

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Universal Credit (UC) has finally gained international recognition – and it isn’t good.

After a 12-day visit of Britain, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights has concluded that the government’s flagship reform of the benefit system has ‘plunged people into misery and despair’.

Speaking at the end of his tour, during which he spoke to Brits living in poverty in cities such as Newcastle, Belfast and Glasgow, professor Philip Alston said ‘if a new government were interested, the harshness could be changed overnight and for very little money’.

And what of the present government trying to run the UK? Well, they’re not having any of it, with a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson saying that ‘we completely disagree with this analysis,’ adding that the changes had led to the highest ever household incomes, record lows of children living in workless households, and one million fewer people living in poverty than in 2010.

In Newcastle, prof Alston visited the country’s largest food bank, which led him to say: ‘The picture I got in Newcastle, in particular, was a pretty grim one. I think local government cuts are draconian and will change the fabric of British society, but particularly in an area like the North East where you don’t have the same degree of economic vibrancy as you have in London, where these policies seem to be being designed.’

According to the special rapporteur’s report 14 million Brits are living in poverty, of which 1.5 million are classed as destitute and unable to afford basic essentials.

Prof Alston’s study contains particular scorn for UC, noting: ‘No single program embodies the combination of the benefits reforms and the promotion of austerity programs more than UC. Although in its initial conception it represented a potentially major improvement in the system, it is fast falling into Universal Discredit.’

Though he admits that the plan to rolling six different benefits into ‘makes good sense, in principle’, the professor slammed the DWP for being ‘more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting’.

Responding, the DWP said that UC is ‘supporting people into work faster, but we are listening to feedback and have made numerous improvements to the system including ensuring 2.4 million households will be up to £630 better off a year as a result of raising the work allowance.

‘We are absolutely committed to helping people improve their lives while providing the right support for those who need it.’

The special rapporteur’s full statement can be read here.

A Week in Housing

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Today’s roundup of the week must start with Brexit. Heard of it? It’s a drawn-out, bitter, uber-divisive, massively time-consuming, baffling calamity currently shattering the UK and jamming Twitter with a billion gigabytes of nonsense an hour.

Yesterday, ministers began dropping like displeased MPs from high office – among them Dominic Raab, the man who, in theory, was behind the execution of the very thing he resigned over(?!).

And this is merely the beginning! The EU has said that the deal is the best the UK is going to get, which suggests we are now at a…what? Crossroads? Dead end? Final reckoning? Rubbish tip? Haunted theme park? Underground treehouse?

Anyway, joining Raab in the pegging-it game was work and pensions secretary, and Universal Credit devotee, Esther McVey. Adding to the fun was Scotland boss Nicola Sturgeon, who asked on Twitter if McVey would mind taking Universal Credit with her?

And it’s a good question: might the blast wave from Brexit’s latest backfiring shell lead to a big shakeup of a thing that’s been controversial for even longer than Brexit itself has? Because…

***

…in extremely depressing news, a report has revealed that the anxieties caused by Universal Credit (UC) have led some claimants to consider suicide.

Commissioned by Gateshead Council, the study focused on the impact of UC in two North East locations and included interviews with 33 claimants aged 21-63.

Surprise, surprise, those interviewed reported finding UC ‘complicated, difficult and demeaning,’ and described a ‘labyrinthine, dysfunctional UC system prone to administrative errors, experienced as impersonal, hostile, punitive and difficult to navigate’. (But other than that, it’s great, right?)

Recorded and analysed by researchers from Teesside University and Newcastle University, the interviews also revealed that the consequences of waiting an average of 7.5 weeks for a payment ‘pushed many into debt, rent arrears and serious hardship, which included going without food and utilities’. Who would have thought it?

Most disturbingly of all, the investigation found that navigating UC’s mazes coupled with the threat of sanctions ‘exacerbated long-term health conditions and impacted so negatively on participant’s mental health that some had considered suicide’.

Now that MP McVey is gone, maybe it’s time for some fresh eyes to have a good hard look at this situation?

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Meanwhile, over in sunny, Brexit-free Florida a planned community of solar-powered homes will aim for a ‘net zero’ energy footprint, which sounds jolly good and sensible.

It’s hoped the houses in the Hunters Point neighbourhood near Tampa will achieve zero emissions status; will be stuffed with lots of very clever gadgetry; and will be hurricane-proof (time will tell if they are also Trump/alt-right/white supremacist/lunatic-proof as well).

Sadly, the homes smart energy management system will be controlled by Google Home, so that’s another advance in the internet giant’s strategy to control every aspect of our lives.

Blake Richetta, senior vice president at Sonnen, the firm making the batteries that’ll store the development’s solar power, said: ‘It’s going to be a grid-interactive, grid-optimized virtual power plant.’

So, during the day, when homeowners are, presumably, at work, Google’s Nest thermostat will start ‘pre-cooling’ the homes, meaning solar power from the roof can be used directly; while during the evening’s peak time the system can gradually raise the temperature.

Developer Pearl Homes plans to begin the project late next year – and if it likes what it sees it intends to build another 720 rental homes nearby, with two-bed units going for $1,200-$1,400 a month (I don’t know what that is in proper money).

Pearl Homes president Marshall Gobuty is apparently a caring soul at heart, claiming that his firm’s mission is ‘everybody should be able to afford a sustainable home,’ and that his sustainable homes ‘should not just be for the rich’.

Now, I wonder if we could build a load of these clever, highly sustainable, apparently cheap homes in the UK? Too sensible?

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It’s list of upcoming HQN events time, so it is, and it begins…now:

Our Equality and Diversity Network has launched its first best practice group – and it’s going to be held in Birmingham, which [checks map] is in England’s middle bit, meaning it’s kind of going for geographical equality too? What am I talking about? Anyway, click this red bit of text to book.

I’m pretty sure I mentioned this last week but I’m going to plug it again, anyway. Next year, which experts are calling ‘2019’, is going to be a big year for housing. That’s what we reckon – which is why we’ve created an event called ‘2019 – a big year for housing’.

Not only will the event probe the coming 365-day unit’s possibilities, it’ll also look back at old hat year 2018, which has nearly used up all its day quota. Tsk, profligate 2018. To book, click.

Our Housing Management Network has an annual conference on a yearly basis – and this year is no exception. We’re decided to call it ‘The Housing Management Network annual conference 2018: Future-proofing frontline services’. We’re holding it in that big town in the south of England. I forget the name. You know, the place where Grange Hill was set. Anyway, click any of this bit to book.

Brexit chaos! But what does it mean for housing? Find out with HQN

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Despite today’s Cabinet resignations, the prospect of Brexit is moving closer with Parliament set to vote on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement in December.

Whether we end up with a Brexit deal or not, the uncertainty of the coming months is going to have a significant impact on many parts of the economy, including the UK housing market.

To find out what all this means for housing providers, come along to HQN’s ‘2019 – a big year for housing‘ event on 13 December, just days after the historic vote is due to take place.

Our keynote speaker is Simon Rubinsohn, Chief Economist at RICS, who will be assessing the likely impact of Brexit on the UK housing market and the affordable housing sector in particular. Simon is currently a board member at L&Q.

Simon regularly meets with policy makers at the Bank of England, HM Treasury, the ECB and the US Federal Reserve, is a frequent visitor to the IMF and is a highly regarded media commentator on matters relating to the built environment.

Other speakers confirmed for the event include former National Housing Federation chief executive David Orr, who is looking forward to sharing his personal views on the state of housing (and the rest of the world) as we enter 2019.

Joining him will be Rick Henderson, Chief Executive of Homeless Link; Aileen Evans, Chief Executive of Grand Union Housing Group and newly-elected Vice President of the Chartered Institute of Housing; Jonathan Walters, Deputy Director, Strategy & Performance, RSH and Dan Worsley, Chief Operating Officer at CIPFA.

HQN Chief Executive Alistair McIntosh will oversee proceedings and share his own thoughts on the big issues.

Key themes:

  • Life after Brexit and what it could mean for housing
  • The Social Housing Green Paper – what happens next?
  • The future of regulation – new year, new priorities?
  • Universal Credit – where do we go from here?
  • Opportunity knocks – will we see the return of large-scale of council house building
  • A new hope? Lessons from 2018 and what we need to look out for in 2019

And here’s the link again.

Halton’s Atkin heads for Yorkshire

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Halton Housing CEO Nick Atkin has announced he is to leave the organisation and take up the chief exec post at Yorkshire Housing.

Mr Atkin, who has been at the helm of 7,000-home Halton since 2005, will take over from Mervyn Jones when he retires at the end of the year.

Yorkshire Housing owns and manages 18,000 homes, and has plans to build more than 3,000 new dwellings by 2021.

Mr Atkin, who has also worked for the Audit Commission’s housing inspectorate, said: ‘I have had an amazing time at Halton and had the privilege to work with so many talented people.

‘I can’t thank enough the Board for the confidence and support they have shown, which has enabled us to jointly achieve so much.  I am sad to be leaving so many colleagues who have also become friends, but I’m also looking forward to returning to my Yorkshire roots.’

Ingrid Fife, Halton’s Group Board Chair, said: ‘I’m sad that we will be losing our talented Group Chief Executive, but also delighted for Nick that he has been recognised and successful in a move to head up a large regional housing association.

‘Through his tenure Halton Housing has become known nationally as an innovative and successful housing organisation.  He has led a strong team that delivered its promises from the start and has gone on to respond to the challenges presented through an era of austerity. A business that has grown in value tenfold to £320 million, delivered a modern digital business model and now provides an additional 1,200 homes across Halton.’

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