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Westlake Legal Group > Social Housing

Mark Henderson: The Decent Homes Standard is failing households

Mark Henderson is the Chief Executive of the Home Group, one of the UK’s largest providers of homes for sale and affordable rent, and a leader in long-term integrated health and housing.

Considerable time has been spent on the debate about building more homes, which is absolutely right. But at the same time, it shouldn’t come at the expense of our current customers. Their expectations and needs can’t be put on hold because the issue of provision is dominating proceedings.

Even though the Grenfell disaster happened over two years ago, we mustn’t lose sight of the impact it had on our sector. As many have stated, it shook us to the core. Post-Grenfell there has been a renewed focus and debate around housing standards. But, there is still so much the housing sector must do to guarantee the decency of the homes we provide.

That’s not to say nothing is being done – we are making progress. Since 2001, for example, the number of homes meeting the Government’s official definition on non-decent homes fell from 39 per cent to 15 per cent with 1.4 million homes made habitable. Huge strides have been made to improve the lives of those in social housing and the number of dwellings that failed to meet the standard (13 per cent) remains significantly lower than private rented (25 per cent) and owner-occupied homes (19 per cent).

Yet progress has stalled. The Decent Homes Standard (DHS) hasn’t been reviewed since 2006. That’s quite remarkable given the speed of change in this modern world. In 2006, for instance, we could still walk into a Woolworths, we were besotted with My Space and Friends Reunited, and we all had Blockbuster membership. That seems like another lifetime. Yet, that was the last time we looked at the DHS.

Today, for Woolworths see Amazon, for My Space and Friends Reunited see Facebook, and for Blockbuster see Netflix. Things have moved on – the DHS isn’t one of them. Given its 13-year dormancy period, it isn’t a surprise to learn that the DHS falls short of the most basic expectations of what a decent home should look like today, if it ever did, some might say. Can we honestly tell a customer that their house with damp is decent because it isn’t life threatening? Is a home with poor insulation decent when it costs households an extra £650 per year to heat? It is essential that the DHS is revised in order to alleviate issues like these, which are having a significant impact on peoples’ quality of lives. We can’t stall anymore.

Let Home Group offer a starter for ten. We have identified three areas which would materially improve the lives of customers.

The ‘new’ Decent Homes Standard should eradicate damp from social housing.

Damp isn’t always dangerous enough to be considered a Category 1 hazard under current guidelines – emphasised by the fact there are still 897,000 homes with damp in England with no improvement since 2011.

We propose that the existence of penetrating or rising damp be an automatic fail within the new standard and that mechanical ventilation ought to be mandatory in the kitchen and bathroom if damp levels are above five per cent.

A commitment to upgrade the minimum EPC rating from E to C and introduce minimum standards of insulation.

DHS currently sets a low basic minimum standard for heating and insulation with a commitment to provide a “reasonable degree of thermal comfort”.

While housing associations have almost eliminated properties that have a rating of F-G, it’s still significantly below what is needed to reduce fuel poverty. We now need to target the 48 per cent of housing association stock that is EPC rating D-E which is costing the average Band E household an extra £650 year in heating bills.

We support the outcome of the Government’s consultation on ‘The Clean Growth Strategy’ which anticipates that all fuel-poor homes will be upgraded to EPC Band C by 2030 where practical, cost effective, and affordable. The ‘new’ Decent Homes Standard should incorporate this with an appropriate commitment to deliver energy efficiency and reduce fuel poverty.

Guaranteed minimum standards for each aspect of a decent home as informed by the experience and expectation of customers.

The use of the Housing Health and Safety Rating System (HHSRS), the risk-based evaluation tool used within the Decent Homes Standard to enforce minimum standards, is failing households. The central issue is that we are using a system designed to assess risk and prevent harm rather than meet standards of decency.

Take the example of a house that has damp in the bathroom, a loose handrail, and old-kitchen facilities that lead to food hygiene problems. By no definition should this be considered decent, and yet the HHSRS guidance uses this as an example of a house that is not hazardous enough to fail.

Our proposed solution is a new hybrid system, joining guaranteed minimum standards to ensure the decency of homes with HHSRS to protect households from severe hazards. The Government should consult widely and put together a set of minimum standards that provides a clear set of criteria as to what passes and fails each element of a decent home based on the experience and expectation of customers.

It would be harsh to criticise the Decent Homes Standard too much as it has done a good job in lifting housing standards to a tolerable level. But surely, we can’t be comfortable with the premise that decent should mean something most people would consider to be indecent. We are now well past the point where the standard should have caught up.

The ‘new’ Decent Homes Standard will not grab the headlines like, say the housing crisis does, but its positive impact could be felt in homes the length and breadth of Britain. Therefore, it’s time it was revised, rejuvenated, and reinforced.

 

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Ryan Bourne: To help grow prosperity, let’s focus on people and not places – such as towns

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Stian Westlake describes it as the “Strange Death of Tory Economic Thinking”. Conservatives have ceased telling an economic story about why they should govern, and how. Sure, there’s still the odd infrastructure announcement, or tax change. But, since Theresa May became leader, the governing party has shirked articulating a grand economic narrative for its actions.

This is striking and problematic. From Macmillan to Thatcherism to deficit reduction, the party’s success has coincided with having clear economic agendas, gaining credibility for taking tough decisions in delivering a shared goal. But, arguably, deficit reduction masked a secular decline in interest in economics. David Cameron and George Osborne, remember, wanted to move on to social and environmental issues until the financial crisis and its aftermath slapped them in the face.

Now, with the deficit down, economics is in the back seat. Fiscal events are low key and economic advisors back room. To the extent the dismal science is discussed, it’s as a means to other ends, or a genuflect to “Karaoke Thatcherism.”

In short, I think Westlake is right: the Tories do not have an economic story and, post-Brexit, it would be desirable if they did. So we should thank both him and Sam Bowman (formerly of the Adam Smith Institute), who have attempted to fill the vacuum. In a rich and interesting new paper, the pair set out to diagnose our key economic ailments and develop a Conservative-friendly narrative and policy platform to ameliorate them, even suggesting reform of the Right’s institutions and think-tanks in pursuit of the goals.

Such an effort deserves to be taken seriously, though not everyone will agree with their starting premises. It is assumed, for example, that Conservatives believe in markets and want to maintain fiscal discipline, which bridles against recent musings from Onward or thinkers such as David Skelton.

But, again, the key economic problem they identify is incontrovertible: poor economic growth. Weak productivity improvements since the crash have been both politically and economically toxic, lowering wages, investment returns, and necessitating more austerity to get the public finances in structural order. And the nature of modern innovation, arising from clusters and intangible assets, means that growth that is experienced isn’t always broadly shared.

Their agenda’s aim then is to achieve both concurrently: maximize the potential of the economy by taking policy steps on planning, tax policy, infrastructure, and devolution, to increase investment levels, allow successful cities and towns to grow, and to connect “left behind” places to local growth spots through good infrastructure. None of their ideas are crazy. Indeed, I would support the vast majority of them.

And yet, something bothered me about their narrative. In line with the current zeitgeist, they too discuss “places” and their potential, as if towns and cities are autonomous beings. My fear is this focus – shared by those who want to regenerate “left behind” areas – creates unrealistic expectations about what policies can achieve in a way that undermines a pro-market agenda. Importantly, it warps what we should really care about: “left behind” people, not left behind places.

A people-centred narrative recognises that just as firms fail in the face of changing consumer demands and global trends, so high streets, towns, cities, and even regions will shrink too. As Tim Leunig once said, coastal
and river cities that developed and thrived in a heavy manufacturing, maritime nineteenth century world might not be best placed to flourish in a service sector era of air and rail.

A true pro-market policy agenda would admit -and that’s ok. Or at least, it should be, provided we understand that raising growth and sharing prosperity requires adaptation, not regeneration. That means removing barriers for people either to move to new opportunities or have control to adapt their situations to ever-changing circumstances. This might sound Tebbit-like (“get on your bike”), but really it’s just saying policy must work with market signals, not against them.

Today though, interventions actively work in a sort of one-two-three punch against inclusive growth and adjustment. First, we constrain the growth of flourishing cities. Tight land use planning laws around London, Oxford, and Cambridge contribute to very high rents and house prices, and prevent these places benefiting from growing to obtain thicker agglomeration effects.

This contributes to the “left behind” scandal, but not in the way people imagine. When rents and house prices are higher in London and the South East and we subsidse home ownership or council housing elsewhere, it’s low productivity workers from poor regions that find it most difficult to move given housing cost differentials. As a result, they get locked into poorer cities and towns that would otherwise shrink further. That’s why Burnley, Hull and Stoke are the most egalitarian cities in the country, whereas prosperous London, Cambridge and Oxford are the most unequal, even as inequality between regions has intensified.

Having restricted people’s mobility through bad housing policy, we then impose one-size-fits-all solutions and subsidies which dampen market signals further. National minimum wages, fiscal transfers, national pay bargaining, and more, might be designed to alleviate hardship, but they deter poorer regions from attracting new businesses and industries by trading on their market cost advantages. Then, to top that off, we compound the problem further by centralising tax and spending powers, preventing localities from prioritising their spending and revenue streams to their own economic needs.

Now, as it happens, Bowman and Westlake’s policy agenda is perfectly compatible with assisting  “people” rather than “places,” precisely because it’s market-based. They advocate planning liberalisation, a flexible right to buy, and stamp duty, all of which would improve labour mobility. They prioritise infrastructure spending based on benefit-cost ratios, making investments more profitable with sensible tax changes, and devolving more transport power to regions and localities. All, again, will help facilitate areas adapting to changed economic conditions, rather than reviving Labour’s failed top-down regeneration attempts.

But pitching this as a city and town agenda still risks creating the false impression that the net gains from “creative destruction” nevertheless can be achieved without the destruction, and that all places can thrive in the right policy environment.

One can understand why they framed it in this way. Their aim is to persuade the party and its MPs of their platform. Anti-market commentators would call them fatalistic and “abandoning” places if they acknowledged the downside, as if facilitating more free choice amounts to design.

Successful past Tory economic narratives, though, willingly acknowledged hard truths. Deficit reduction entailed tough choices to curb spending. Thatcherism entailed making the case for letting inefficient industries fail. If a new Tory vision is serious about raising productivity growth and spreading opportunity for people, it will have to confront the inevitable market-based adaptation for some places.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Rosalind Beck: The Government’s war on landlords will only make the housing crisis worse for the lowest-paid.

Dr Rosalind Beck is a doctor of Criminology and a Conservative Party member in South Wales.

The Channel 5 series ‘Nightmare Tenants; Slum Landlords’ shows the devastation nightmare tenants in the private rented sector (PRS) cause to landlords, housemates and neighbours across the country. A wide variety of cases is presented each week.

In a recent episode, a tenant went on the rampage in a rented flat causing tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage. The programme shows other tenants hurling abuse at neighbours, wrecking properties with cannabis factories and building up thousands in arrears. Those who trusted the tenants with their property are often left in tears, with their finances in tatters, including this week the parents of an autistic child.

On the other hand, the programme-makers seem to have stalled in their quest to find examples of ‘slum landlords,’ and have included none in recent episodes.

Clearly, there are far more rogue tenants than there are rogue landlords. However, one would imagine the inverse to be true, judging by the Government’s determination to go ahead this week with the scrapping of Section 21 notices; something that will play right into the hands of the type of tenants seen in the programme.

For the uninitiated, Section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, is the notice for what is widely portrayed as a ‘no-fault eviction.’ The phrase implies that the tenant has done nothing wrong, whilst the truth is that although landlords are unable procedurally to give a reason, in 84 per cent of cases possession is sought for non-payment of rent and in 56 per cent of cases, damage to property is a factor.

In addition, although it is seen as a ‘two month’ notice, in reality it often takes at least six months. A typical timeline is:

  1. Landlord often waits until the tenant has got into at least two months arrears.
  2. Landlord gives tenant two months’ notice.
  3. Tenant doesn’t leave at the end of the notice period.
  4.  Landlord applies to the courts and waits another month or two to get a date.
  5. The judge awards 14-28 days extra time in the property.
  6. Often the tenant remains.
  7. Bailiffs are instructed and depending on workload, another delay of a month or more ensues.
  8. Tenant is evicted by a bailiff.

Invariably, during this process the tenant is not paying rent and often damages the house.

The idea that Section 21 is an easy option for landlords to quickly gain possession on a blameless tenant is therefore pure fantasy.

However, whereas Section 21 typically takes more than six months, the only alternative, ‘Section 8’ can take closer to a year, as spurious defences and counter-claims are allowed (tenants have been known to damage the house and then allege disrepair), which lead to adjournments.

Very worryingly, in addition to scrapping Section 21, another suggestion given to Government has been to ‘port’ over the conditions under which a Section 21 can be served, to an amended Section 8. The Welsh Assembly is also actively considering this. This could mean, for example, that the fact there was no proof a tenant had received a copy of a certificate (even if they had) could give a non-paying tenant a lifetime tenancy in a property owned by someone else who is paying the mortgage and all other costs. This is bizarre, absurd and contrary to all natural justice; and it would not surprise me at all if it slipped through as an ‘unintended consequence.’

This is not only relevant for landlords. A reason why people in general should be concerned about this, is that Section 21 was the key element in the Housing Act which gave landlords and lenders confidence they could get a property back when they needed to.  Abolishing it will take tenancy law back to the last century, when the absence of adequate means of regaining possession caused the PRS to shrink from comprising 90 per cent of all housing to just nine per cent. Housing quality was also poor.

The English Housing Survey, just out, has found that these days 83 per cent of private tenants are satisfied or very satisfied with their housing; compared to 80 per cent in the social sector. Why would the Government interfere with the excellent progress that has been made in housing quantity and quality, by taking this regressive step to shrink the PRS?

An estimated 150,000 more households will be needed in the coming year. Who will provide the homes for them? Not private landlords.

Where is the estimation of the effect this will have on homelessness levels?

The risk of facing one of the nightmare scenarios described above, with the process of getting rogue tenants out having been made much more difficult or even impossible, will especially deter those with only one rental property – around half of the country’s two million landlords. I have advised my brother, now that he has retired, to leave empty the extra property he purchased when he moved for work. As I told him, when faced with potentially losing control over his asset, it is not worth the extra income of a few hundred pounds a month.

Is this what the Government wants? Empty houses?

Even in terms of gaining votes, the Government is following a reckless agenda. The National Landlords Association found that 85 per cent of landlords – and their families – will vote against parties proposing to remove Section 21. This could be a huge factor in marginal constituencies.

In light of all this, we can only hope that Boris Johnson not only retains Section 21 – to scrap was an ill-considered attempt by Theresa May to establish a legacy – but in fact, improves on it so that landlords can get swifter justice.

One should not forget that although the private and social housing sectors together house nearly half of the population, it is private landlords who now provide the essential safety net for the lowest-income tenants and who house 10 out of 11 homeless people.

If the hostile environment for landlords persists, they won’t for much longer.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Bob Seely: Scrap the automatic Right to Buy. And nine other ideas to make housing sustainable.

Bob Seely is Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight.

Whoever becomes our next Prime Minister needs to bring fresh thinking to housing. We can’t have more of the same. The current policies are flawed, built on a system which is a failed mix of free market (land banking, a tax regime manipulated for developers’ benefit, unsustainable housing estates) and over-complex planning regulations.

Overall, Britain is moving to a more sustainable economic model. We need to do the same in housing. We need a model which stresses recycling of existing buildings as well as existing brownfield sites. We need to use space more efficiently, and design a tax system to encourage this. We need to increase density in towns, where there are services and communities, rather than using up greenbelt, where there are none. We need to reform the system to allow more of the right houses to be built, in the right areas, in the right styles. We need to give councillors the confidence to demand better from the system.

First, the facts. Britain needs houses. The number of households is projected to grow by 159,000 per year based on current trends. We need between 250,000 and 340,000 additions per year to clear the backlog of over 4.7 million households with housing need across Great Britain.

But it’s not just the right numbers we need, it’s the right type of housing. Both old and young are being squeezed. For the young, house prices have grown seven times faster than family incomes, according to IFS research – meaning many can no longer afford to own their home. In 1995-96, some 65 per cent of 25-34-year-olds with incomes in the middle 20 percent for their age owned their own home. Twenty years later, that figure was just 27 percent.

For older folk, households headed by a pensioner account for 88 percent of the projected growth in households between now and 2041, yet an NPI study found “there is a very limited choice for older person households” moving home.

In addition, housing is being built in the wrong places. According to the CPRE, there are currently 460,000 homes planned on Green Belt land. These developments lack affordable homes, are not near services, are car dependent and require new infrastructure. They are truly unsustainable.

My constituency of the beautiful Isle of Wight reflects this national problem. We are being told to build too many homes, in the wrong places, and they will not be for Islanders.

So how do we build better, whilst treading carefully in our countryside? Below are ten ideas.

First, Stamp Duty is killing the market. It’s too high. Evidence from over two dozen prominent voices including the Adam Smith Institute, IPPR and IFS indicates that Stamp Duty is blocking 45,000 property purchases a year, preventing young and old from moving. We should scrap it or reduce it.

Second, utilise our current property stock better. Some 634,453 dwellings were vacant in England on 1st October 2018. Some of those were properties over shops. A UK-wide flats-over-the-shop capital allowance scheme (Flat Conversion Allowance) was repealed in 2012. We should open it again and simplify the system to encourage investment in town and city centres. Let’s make undeveloped spaces above shops economically attractive to live in, but economically painful to sit on.

Third, introduce a multi-million pound ‘bungalow fund’ to convert bungalows into two or more housing units. This would encourage housing associations and councils to buy up bungalows with assumed planning consent for adding a storey to create two properties. Thus, we gently increase density in towns and villages, where there are already services.

Fourth, we should reduce or scrap VAT on all renovations – and consider adding VAT on green belt and green field development. A study on the effects of reducing VAT for renovation and repair from 20 percent to five percent for the years from 2015-2020 projected a total stimulus effect of more than £15.1 billion and 42,050 extra full-time equivalent construction jobs by the end of 2020. It also found a potential saving of up to 237,128 tonnes of CO2 as homes are improved. This is yet another example where lower tax leads to overall economic gain.

Fifth, help smaller councils and housing associations to bid for the £9 billion available to establish a new generation of Council/Starter/Key Worker Housing. This funding should be available to all councils and housing associations, not just some as is currently the case. My council on the Isle of Wight, if it was allowed access to government cash, would build community housing more quickly than developers. The Government should also seek to pass land held by its departments to councils more quickly. It has taken 12 years for Homes England and its predecessor to release land for housing and jobs in East Cowes on the Island; unacceptable!

Sixth, increase community involvement in housing and strengthen local democracy. Give parish and town councils statutory consultee status. Make neighbourhood plans easier to develop. Encourage councils to develop housing strategies for local need rather than just plans which meet government targets. Extend time to oppose planning applications and prevent manipulative developers from gaming the system. Ensure that councils get infrastructure money from developments – known as Section 106 cash – even if they oppose the development. Allow councils – and MPs – to apply to withdraw planning permission.

Seventh, give housing associations greater power to evict anti-social tenants.

Eighth, scrap the automatic Right To Buy and find more cost-effective ways to support home ownership. For example, rent-to-buy schemes. These schemes support homeowning aspirations by allowing young renters to pay below market rates for housing with a chunk of their money going to a house deposit. For one rent-to-buy policy, over a million people could move into home ownership.

Ninth, build beautiful. Local planning should include clear local design and style guidelines. On the Island, we have a beautiful cottage and brickwork style, unique to us. It is painfully ironic that over 100 years ago we were building better housing for the poorest people in our society than we are now.

Finally, give leeway to local councils to chose a different methodology for assessing housing need, and allow councils, provided they behave responsibly, to assess their own housing requirement.

To sum up, let’s introduce a sustainable, recycling model for housing and land use. Get housing right and we deliver lots of social and economic good – and please old and new electoral constituencies. Get it wrong and we alienate our core voters without winning over new ones. It should be an easy choice.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Murad Gassanly: Why I left the Labour Party

Cllr Murad Gassanly represents Churchill Ward on Westminster City Council.

I joined the Conservatives because I believe we are the party of the democratic centre-ground in British politics. I was elected to Westminster City Council in 2014 as a Labour councillor for Churchill Ward, Pimlico, a stone’s throw away from Victoria Station. But my disillusionment with the direction Labour was taking nationally and locally led to my resignation in 2016.

It was not just because ‘Corbyn’s Bolsheviks’ colonised and destroyed Labour. I realised that rather than serving residents, the local Westminster Labour Party are only interested in ‘opposition for opposition’s sake’.

I was appalled at Labour’s consistent undermining of Westminster Council’s housing projects, which I see as a betrayal of the very people who need affordable homes the most. In 2017, I crossed the floor of Westminster City Council and took the Tory whip. As Labour councillors took to addressing each other as ‘comrades’, I could not help reflecting on my life story – I know from my parents, born in the former USSR, the dangers of state socialism and authoritarianism. Corbyn’s Regime represents real danger in equal measure to the liberty and prosperity of our country. It must be resisted, and the Conservatives are the Party to meet this challenge.

It is my family’s experience of life in Britain that shaped my understanding of conservatism and led me on the journey to join the Conservative Party. My parents are first generation immigrants from Azerbaijan who worked hard to provide for me and my brother, and taught us the values of self-reliance, thrift, enterprise, and aspiration. Their relentless focus on education formed my understanding and expectation of success.

I attended North Westminster Community School – an ordinary, inner-city comprehensive. Having graduated from LSE, I embarked on postgraduate study at Cardiff University, gaining a PhD in energy politics in the Caspian region. Yet I consider being a Westminster City councillor my greatest personal achievement – a testament to the freedoms and opportunities that Britain offers and a unique chance to fulfil my civic duty to give back to our country – I believe that citizenship is earned, not simply acquired.

Many were surprised when I re-won my council seat as a Conservative in May 2018, with a 7.5 per cent swing and a higher popular vote share than I got in 2014. Labour targeted Westminster, throwing the kitchen sink at the effort to “unseat” Conservatives. Corbyn and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, visited my ward and launched their demagogic housing policy in a PR stunt on the Churchill Gardens estate, where I live.

Unlike Labour’s (middle) class-warriors, I live in council house and know what people around here really think. As the Prime Minister put it in her Observer article back in October:

“The British people are not bound by ideology and there has never been a time when party labels have counted for less”.

She couldn’t have been more right. Regardless of the debates around Brexit, Tories are now the party of the democratic centre-ground.

Our party is changing, and it is exciting to be part of this transformation. The Conservatives can be the party not for the few, not even for the many, but for everyone in our country who works hard and plays by the rules. Here in Westminster, our Council leader, Cllr Nickie Aiken, set out a practical vision of how this is to be achieved – we call it City for All.

We are keeping council tax as low as possible whilst inviting those who can to make an additional voluntary contribution to the Council’s budget. We are building more social housing, but also increasing supply of affordable accommodation for those on middle-incomes who don’t qualify for social rent. We operate twice-weekly bin collections and keep our roads and pavements impeccably clean and well-maintained. We ensure that all our projects are fiscally viable and that we act responsibly with public finances – it is not the Council’s money, but the taxpayers’ money.

The Conservative Party is the natural political home for those who want to see fairness and prosperity, who want to preserve what works and improve what can be, who value national identity and are open to the world, who believe in Britain’s future as an independent global trading nation where opportunity is shared equally by all, and where everyone’s protected by the safety net of the welfare state but is free to rise high above it and achieve their full potential. We must remember that it is not Brexit that poses greatest threat to our security and prosperity – it’s the Corbyn regime.

Let’s fulfil our duty.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com