Friday, 25 January 2013

Protection not red tape

We face the biggest housing crisis in a generation.

House building is down. Homelessness is up. People struggle to get mortgages. We have a rapidly-growing private rented sector where too many lack security, have to pay ever-increasing rents, now at a record high, and suffer poor quality accommodation. Yet, the budget for affordable homes has been cut by 60%.

As a result of the growing housing crisis more and more people are locked out of home ownership and are coming to live in the private rented sector. Last year the private rented sector overtook the social rented sector for the first time in nearly half a century. There are now 3.6 million households in the private rented sector, including more than one million families with children.

Now the government is failing to protect tenants and landlords alike from unscrupulous letting agents. It has rescinded the plans for regulation which were backed by tenants, landlords and responsible agents. It is failing to tackle the confusing, inconsistent and opaque fees charged to tenants and landlords by letting and management agents. It is failing to protect tenants from rogue landlords and raise standards in the sector by not implementing the plans for compulsory written tenancy agreements and a national register for landlords.

There are more than 4,000 managing and letting agents that are entirely unregulated - in that they don’t even belong to voluntary bodies which encourage a responsible approach to letting and management practice. And, bizarrely, while estate agents, who hold very little money on behalf of their clients, are regulated, letting agents who hold significant sums on behalf of landlords and tenants are not.

Citizens Advice Bureaux found that 73 per cent of tenants they surveyed were dissatisfied with the service provided by their letting agent, and that a significant number of people have difficulties contacting agents, and suffer serious delays in getting repairs.
A report by Which?, “Renting Roulette”, letting agents ranked second from bottom across 50 consumer markets.

In Opposition the current Housing Minister, Mark Prisk, backed regulating letting agents. Now he calls basic protections for tenants and landlords “bureaucracy and red-tape”...

It’s time for action to protect good tenants, agents and landlords and to drive out the rogues.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Waiting, waiting……..

People are entitled to make their own judgement on David Cameron’s assertion that the NHS is safe with the Conservatives. However, his government’s mid-term review confirmed, as a matter of fact, that he had broken his promise to maintain the NHS budget.

The uncomfortable reality is that thousands of patients in England are being denied treatment and kept off NHS waiting lists because of new government restrictions on cataracts, hip and knee surgery and other serious treatments. Astonishingly, Ministers have boasted of lower waiting lists for these treatments, but neglect to say that this is because they have stopped people getting on the waiting lists in the first place.

Since 2010, there has been a 20% increase in the number of people waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment, and the number of people waiting more than 4 hours for treatment in Accident and Emergency departments has doubled. Unsurprisingly, the NHS has now missed its A&E target for 15 weeks in a row.

The 7000 fewer nurses has undoubtedly contributed to the increasing numbers of both cancelled operations and postponed outpatient appointments. Nearly a quarter of outpatient appointments are now being cancelled and changed to a later date.

After a decade of progress and investment in cancer care, there was a decrease in spending on cancer services last year with further decreases this year and next. Just as worrying is that the collaboration between all parts of the NHS, essential to tackling cancer, is now being fragmented under the government’s massive top-down reorganization. Yes, another broken promise.

Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, he can’t increase the length of pregnancies. So his failure to keep another promise – to recruit 3000 more midwives – has meant that midwives are now delivering more, rather than fewer, babies than they were in 2010.

In all areas of public service, we are seeing massive transfers of funds from the poorest to the wealthiest parts of England; this is most obvious in the local government finance settlement. The government also wanted to do this with NHS funds. Fortunately, in December, the NHS Commissioning Board refused to comply, saying “this would have moved resources from areas where people sadly have worse health outcomes to those where people have much better outcomes. It’s hard to see how that fits with our mission.”
But watch this space. The government isn’t giving up.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Sontaran

I was delighted by the Dr Who Christmas episode.

The Sontaran reminded me of Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. I’m not referring to his appearance – it’s the way he responds to questions.

A Sontaran's weak spot is the "probic vent" at the back of the neck, through which they draw nutrition. Mr Pickles’s behaviour seems to be driven by a similar weak spot - he doesn’t want facts to get in the way of the story. However, no-one should under-estimate how he can whip up the tabloid media to believe that, if only council officers travelled 2nd class on the train, there would be no need for any service cuts.

When the Secretary of State, and his Ministers, appeared in front of the CLG Select Committee recently, I asked him ‘How many [councils] actually are moving back from an alternate weekly collection of general household refuse to a weekly collection?’

He took us on a long journey through his views on the issue without answering the question. It took a series of supplementaries before we got to the answer. From a fund of £250m, removed from the revenue support grant for all authorities, just one council is moving back from alternate collection to the weekly collection of general household refuse.

So, not only is there a complete failure in his stated policy objective – ‘it’s everyone’s human right to have their bin collected weekly’ - but it will be at the expense of local services which are valued much higher.

When I asked him whether he joined ‘with your Permanent Secretary in being what the Local Government Chronicle called a "doom denier"?’, his response was to suggest that given that you are quoting from the Local Government Chronicle, that is almost like quoting from a Labour press release and that the ‘graph of doom’ was a ‘Malthusian fantasy.

All good knock-about stuff – conveniently ignoring the fact that ‘doom-denier’ was coined by a Liberal Democrat and the ‘graph of gloom’ came from a Conservative London Borough. More worrying, of course, was his view that his ‘modest changes’ will have little impact upon local government services and local communities.

Perhaps it’s that disregard for the facts which allowed him to assert, in his statement on the Local Government Settlement, that ‘councils’ spending power would be cut by 1.7%’ * when the reality is that council funding will be cut 4% next year ands 9% in 2014/15, and that local government will be cut by more than 33% in the current spending review compared to the promised 28%.

Unfortunately, Mr Pickles’ approach has also been adopted by his Ministers. Last year, the then Minister of Housing, Grant Shapps, told us that this government should be judged by whether it achieved building 200,000+ homes a year.
As the number of new housing starts has fallen again, the new Housing Minister, Mark Prisk, simply recast the 200,000+ homes as an aspiration, saying that ‘we have no intention of having the old Soviet-style central targets.’

I’m now totally lost as to whether this government is in favour of targets or not, and I rather suspect that it doesn’t know either.

Targets still appear in different ways. On homelessness, David Cameron had said "I think that it is simply a disgrace that in the fifth-biggest economy in the world that we have people homeless, people sleeping on the streets, sofa-surfers, people in hospitals" in 2008.

But, homelessness has risen relentlessly since 2010. Statutory homelessness, where families without a roof over their head are accepted by their local council as homeless, has risen by nearly a third since the general election. There are now more than 75,000 children living in temporary accommodation. There has been a near 200% increase in the number of families in bed and breakfast accommodation for more than 6 weeks.
Yet when asked the direct question ‘can you assure the Committee that these figures are going to start to fall’, Mr Pickles told us that ‘Nobody in modern-day Britain should sleep on the roads or under the arches, and nobody should find themselves exploited in someone’s back-garden potting shed’.
I agree. But I’ve no more confidence that homelessness will fall than I have in promises to ensure that everyone will have their bin collected weekly or that we will see 200,000 homes a year being built by 2015.
The Sontarans are with us.
This article first appeared in the Local Government Chronicle at:

* Since I wrote the article, it has been confirmed that the ‘average 1.7% cut in councils’ spending power in 2013/14’ asserted by Eric Pickles, both in Parliament and in the media, considerably understates the cuts because the Department for Communities and Local Government had double-counted some elements of the Local Government Financial Settlement.