HQN Residents’ Network News
Each week Rob Gershon and Steve Cook, associates for The Residents’ Network, go over the biggest and most relevant news stories, reports and publications of the past few days for members, while providing their own analysis and comment.
For more expert analysis, briefings and best practice for those involved in resident involvement and tenant engagement, be sure to join The Residents’ Network. You can find out more here.
Week commencing 22 April 2019 – by Steve Cook
I don’t believe it…
The chair of the UK statistics authority has warned that government figures on rough sleeping shouldn’t be trusted until explanations are given about how some councils collected the data. The government claims that rough sleeping is down by 2% overall and by a whopping 19% in the areas that received funding through the Rough Sleeping Initiative. When asked to explain the methodology used a government spokesperson offered the vague promise of a review at some future date, whilst continuing to claim how successful the scheme has been!
Fitness-to-work tests not fit for purpose
Stephen Smith, the man who hit the headlines earlier this year after winning an appeal to have his Employment Support Allowance (ESA) reinstated has died. His ESA was originally withdrawn by the DWP in 2017 and it took him over 12 months to win the appeal after the intervention of a judge, and with him having to discharge himself from hospital to attend the final hearing in person. Disgracefully, this is not an isolated incident. Private Eye magazine this week reported how the American firm Maximus (who took over from ATOS in 2015) were paid £187m in 2018 but lost appeals against their original decisions in nearly seven out of ten cases.
Never mind the quality, look at the numbers
Labour announced this week that it would stop the Permitted Development Rights enjoyed by developers since 2013. The scheme allows developers to turn office accommodation into housing without reference to local authorities. The Conservatives introduced it to boost housebuilding figures, but it has resulted in very poor quality accommodation being built and 10,000 affordable homes being lost through the lack of section 106 planning gains.
Students win famous victory over landlord
A group of students sharing a house in Leeds have won £15,000 after taking their landlord to court. A visit from the local authority housing team confirmed that the council was considering prosecuting the landlord for not registering the property as a House in Multiple Occupation, and thus not ensuring the safety of the residents. Under the 2016 Housing & Planning Act the residents were themselves able to pursue a Rent Repayment Order independent of the council’s actions. The tweet sent from outside the court was picked up by thousands of people on social media, turning the five students, just for one day, into the Famous Five.
UK’s first fire-safety partnership for housing launched
A groundbreaking fire-safety partnership has been set up in Wales. Community Housing Cymru (the trade organisation for housing associations in Wales) and South Wales Fire and Rescue Service have formalised an agreement that will give social landlords access to free advice on fire regulations and enforcement action. The scheme is intended to provide high standards of consistent regulation for landlords whilst offering the highest levels of protection for tenants.
Written in the stars
Perhaps ‘only in America’, but prospective tenants for flat shares are being turned down because of their astrological star-sign. In a case that recently went viral on the internet a woman was refused a room because the other tenants believed they wouldn’t get on with a Capricorn. And it seems that there is no legal redress because giving preference to certain star signs doesn’t contravene the US Fair Housing Acts. I wonder how long it will be until astrological signs become ‘protected characteristics’ under equalities legislation?
Week commencing 15 April 2019 – by Rob Gershon
Government criticised for dropping plans for national tenant voice
As the long wait for the government’s response to the social housing green paper drags on, one particular element of proposed changes – a national tenant voice, appears to have lost momentum. A Voice for Tenants, a collection of tenants and national tenant organisation representatives, has published an open letter this week to the government asking for clarification on what action, if any, ministers or the MHCLG are taking to design or create a framework for tenants to feed into housing policy and rebalance the relationship between landlords and tenants. Commenting that the activities of the Voice For Tenants group are essentially on hold until there is some indication of next steps from the housing minister, the letter calls for an urgent meeting to discuss what happens next.
Ending Section 21 evictions – government announces consultation
Being heralded as a swift turnaround in government policy objectives, Secretary of State for Housing James Brokenshire has announced government is consulting on the ending of Section 21, or “no fault” evictions. The ending of a tenancy in the private rented sector is the largest cause of statutory homelessness in England, and Section 21 notices are seen as one of the quickest and easiest ways for landlords to evict tenants without requiring a good reason. This piece in the Guardian looks at the implications for the announcement, and what else needs to change.
Ward Hadaway update on league tables and Green Paper
Contributors to HQN events Ward Hadaway – a firm of solicitors based in the North East – have produced via solicitor John Murray a speed read about the Green Paper proposals to implement league tables of housing associations based on “key performance indicators” (KPIs). In the piece, Murray looks at the initial proposals, the response from the housing sector and the regulator of social housing’s comments on enabling tenants to hold their landlords to account using performance measures, regardless of whether national league tables are kept or not.
Savills report shows government housing targets need government investment
In a report for the national housing federation, the research arm of Savills has shown that private investment in housebuilding will not be suficient to meet the government’s target of building 300,000 homes per year, and neither will private housebuilding address the crisis of housing affordability. Noting the complicated relationship between funding, long term investment strategies, house prices and the growing cost of housing benefit despite government policies intended to reduce it, the report concludes that only government or government-secured investment funding can intervene if the targets are realistically going to be met.
House price growth stories persist, prices continues to stagnate
With the development of social housing now interdependent from products for sale, shared ownership and to some extent private rent, occasional stories about house prices (in this case notification that nationally there has been the slowest rate of growth in six years) continue to take on more relevance as they fall alongside the slowest rates of building genuinely affordable council and social-rent homes. With all parts of the housing sector now recognising the need to build more homes people can afford to live in, a house price fall could potentially mean the building capability of developing associations and councils is reduced.
Week commencing 8 April 2019 – by Steve Cook
The full cost of the benefits freeze
From 8th April we enter the fourth year of the welfare benefits freeze. A leading charity, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), has criticised the government’s failure to remove the freeze despite claiming that ‘austerity is over’. JRF has calculated that this will cost the average low-income family £560 per year, and that’s the equivalent of three months’ food shopping.
Repairing relationships with residents
House-builder Persimmon Homes has announced an independent review of its plans to improve its customer care and poor reputation in the sector. Dogged by problems with the perceived quality of its new homes (and rocked by the bad publicity surrounding the previous chief executive’s multi-million-pound pay award) Persimmon has already become the first builder to offer purchasers a retention scheme where one and a half percent of the purchase price is held back to cover any repair issues that might arise. A leading barrister will conduct the review and the report will be made public by the end of the year. The cynical among us will think that this is much more about protecting profits than supporting resident involvement, but it is nevertheless a brave move by Persimmon.
Better late than never?
At the end of last week the government published the results of joint research carried out by DWP and HMRC between October 2016 and July 2017. Dated November 2017 (16 months ago) the report into the serious problems faced by people on tax credits moving onto Universal Credit has been kept away from the public until now. This might of course have something to do with it very clearly highlighting the severe financial problems that the routine six-week wait for first payments was having on people.
Shared ownership but not shared facilities
A few weeks ago the story of the private playground where social tenants couldn’t play hit the headlines. Very quickly the developer backed down and agreed to make the open space accessible for all. Well since then some shared ownership residents have also complained about being excluded from parts of their schemes, such as car parks, gyms and even the main entrance doors. In some of these cases the developers have suggested that it was the social housing landlord that had made these decisions. The defence of affordability will certainly be pleaded by the landlords or developers, but the problem is to a large extent caused by the British obsession with home ownership as a visible sign of social status.
Lettings fees limited
Presuming the Bill receives Royal Assent then unnecessary lettings fees will be banned in Wales from 1st September. The Renting Homes Act will specify exactly what landlords and agents can charge for and is set to potentially save tenants an average of £200 each letting. Again it seems that Wales, like Scotland, is prepared to make use of its powers to protect tenants more readily than is often the case in England.
Week commencing 1 April 2019 – by Rob Gershon
Inside the “human warehouse” – problems of office block conversions
A BBC investigation has taken a look at office block conversions in Harlow, particularly Terminus House, which the piece notes is one of “hundreds up and down England” which have been converted to residential use “without ever needing planning permission”. As the provision of housing and the national debate about affordability have driven ever more private sale, private rent and “affordable products” that people cannot afford, the question of what would happen to people locked out of the market has gone unanswered. Now it seems that office block conversions, which do not have to pass the same quality or safety checks of other developments, are stepping in to offer accommodation that appear not to be safe, warm, dry or – in broader terms – affordable.
Two sides to every story: Universal Credit relies on landlords to implement
Jan Ferguson of County Durham Housing group has written for 24housing about an area where, unusually, the implementation of Universal Credit has not meant a rise in rent arrears. This is because the landlord has worked extensively with tenants to ensure that rent gets paid as a priority. This still raises all kinds of other questions about why “simplifying the benefits system” – as UC was supposed to do – is now the responsibility not of the DWP – who have no apparent route to ensure it works – but of landlords and tenants themselves to try and mitigate the new benefits’ failings.
Language is important: Are social landlords adding to stigma?
Tenants Sally Trueman and Ann Harris, who spoke at the Residents Network conference last year, have published an article in Inside Housing posing a question about whether the language social housing providers and their staff use can actively be making things worse for tenants. Not only do assumptions about the actions of tenants have profound consequences, but the article raises interesting questions about what kind of culture change is needed to stop seeing people for whom something has gone wrong in one of two ways, either victims or heroes.
Read more… (registration required)
Stigma across tenures: No DSS campaign scores another victory
Although the MHCLG recently called for more evidence of stigma against social housing tenants, other campaigns have also been working to challenge institutional attitudes to people claiming housing benefit, too. One such campaign is being spearheaded by Shelter, questioning the legal validity of banks imposing conditions on the mortgages of private landlords that suggest tenants cannot be on housing benefit. This week the Co-op Bank agreed not to impose such terms on landlords it lends to.
Regulator refines its approach
As the social housing sector still awaits the government’s response to the social housing Green Paper and its consultation on the future of the regulator, small changes nevertheless appear to be forthcoming. In an official press release, the Regulator has outlined some forthcoming changes, including more regular In Depth Assessments for larger and more “complex” landlords, a reinforced expectation that Boards take ownership of and responsibility for their organisation’s decisions, and clarity on when the Regulator will issue Interim Judgements when it considers organisations have undergone significant constitutional changes.
Week commencing 25 March 2019
Performance related bonus for Grenfell Staff
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has hit the headlines again as a result of a BBC investigation that revealed the amount of bonuses paid to housing staff in the year following the fire at Grenfell Tower. 12 bosses received an average of £7,700 each and 52 staff received around £2,500 each. The council’s claim that the payments were contractual and were not in relation to work around the fire itself sounded hollow and weak. Sometimes strong leadership is required to make sure the ‘right thing’ is done.
One million new “brownfield” homes
As a new Bill is trundling through Parliament to tighten the use of greenbelt land so a new report from the CPRE is published claiming that a million new homes could be built on land that has become derelict following previous development (brownfield sites). The report also suggests that two-thirds of these could be ready within five years. The CPRE (Campaign for the Protection of Rural England) might be expected to support such claims of course, but whether these brown fields are where people really want to live might be another matter.
Five new garden towns
£3.7m of government funding has been awarded to five councils to develop new garden towns. Not only will they provide over 64,000 new homes but Kit Malthouse (the minister of state for housing) hopes they will create vibrant communities that leave a legacy for future generations. Of course nothing is new in politics and this all sounds very reminiscent of Sir Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement from 1898!
Residents sing the praises of the first social housing musical
Local rock star Richard Hawley has created a musical about the huge, high rise Park Hill estate in Sheffield. Now the largest Grade II listed building in Europe, the estate is the centre piece of the story set to some of Hawley’s evocative songs. And residents from the estate believe he has managed to capture some of the sense of community and contradictory feelings of living there.
EU tenants at risk from Brexit
Despite assurances from government that EU citizens will have their rights protected fully, a parliamentary committee is concerned that the legislation being enacted doesn’t do this. The EU Withdrawal Bill relies on the Home Secretary also passing secondary legislation in the future to allow EU citizens to keep their social tenancies. It seems some don’t think the government will do this quickly enough, and given their recent performance over Brexit more generally they might have a point.
Don’t let the children play
A developer in London is coming under widespread criticism for a scheme that prevents children from social housing using the main play area. The social housing homes have been physically separated from the play area provided for the children of private residents. And people wonder what leads to the stigmatisation of social tenants.