Friday, 8 January 2016

Waste of space

Successive UK governments have signed up to agreements with other European countries to increase recycling and to cut waste, especially waste going to landfill.

Under the last agreement, the UK is required to recycle at least 50% of its waste from households by 2020 – a target we’re on course to miss at current rates of progress. Failure to meet those targets can result in sizeable fines.

After 2000, there were years of large annual percentage increases in recycling rates, but they have been plateauing in recent years. Under the coalition government, UK recycling rose by just 2.5% in 2011, 1% in 2012, 0.2% in 2013 and 0.8% in 2014. The 2014 data has only just been published, as the Cameron government has decided to delay the publication of lots of bad news until the 10 days before Christmas in the hope that it will not get much media coverage.

Of course, this abysmal performance was entirely expected as Conservative Secretary of State Eric Pickles wasted £250 million in a completely futile gesture on weekly general bin collections – fewer households had one at the end of the programme than at the beginning – instead of focusing on waste minimisation and waste recycling.

The European Commission (EC) published its latest package on 2nd December. The proposals include increasing the preparing for re-use and recycling target for municipal waste to 60 per cent by weight by 2025, and 65 per cent by weight by 2030. This is estimated to deliver savings of €600 billion (or 8% of annual turnover for businesses in the EU) and reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 4%.

In contrast to Wales which is making real progress on this agenda, England does not really have a strategy for meeting the targets by making this transition to a more resource efficient economy. The last government waste policy statement ‘Government Review of Waste Policy in England’ was published in June 2011.

So, the government is making no real progress on waste minimisation or re-cycling rates. It won’t meet the targets it agreed and, therefore, faces big fines. And, it has no coherent strategy for the future.  A waste of space really.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Housing Policies Which Should Make Us All Worried

I was on record as being critical of the new house-building record of the last Labour government, but at least they could point to the huge Decent Homes' programme that ensured 1.4million homes were made fit for the 21st century. Without that significant investment the housing crisis would be even worse than it is.

The five years of failure with the coalition saw rising homelessness, falling home-ownership, escalating rents, deep cuts in investment and the lowest level of house-building since the 1920s. Even in its worst-performing year, Labour built more homes than in the coalition's best year.

Now, with the election of a Tory majority government, we see a fundamental shift in policy. A complete withdrawal of all Government funding for the provision of new social housing and the transfer of all resources to deliver 200,000 so called starter homes during this Parliament.

Not merely is there is to be no government investment in council or housing association homes to rent but the discount for housing association tenants who are to be given the right-to-buy is to be funded by forcing councils to sell the highest valued council homes as they become vacant. Forget the image of some large penthouse flat in Westminster, in most of England this simply means the selling off of the few remaining, good family, semi-detached houses that are still council-owned.
Then there are the starter homes; not new building at all but replacing the rented homes previously built as part of section 106 agreements with developers. In the past 10 years 250,000 new rented homes have been built in this way, funding which the government will now end.

So with no money for new rented homes the message to those tenants in council flats – ordinary working families who don't earn enough to buy – will be just forget the transfer you've been waiting years for. For those waiting for their first council or housing association property, the wait could literally go on for ever.

Then, for the diminishing number of council and housing association tenants, there will over time be pressure to increase rents to bring them in line with 'market rents'. There is a mythology of 'subsidised council rents'. The problem is not that council rents are too low, it is that private rents are too high.
For those fortunate enough to get a new council or housing association property the Government now propose to take away their security. Even if you have been a brilliant tenant who has always paid the rent on time, kept the home and garden in good repair and been the best neighbours anyone could imagine you could be forced out after a maximum of five years.

This is not just an attack on people's homes it actually undermines the ideas of neighbourhoods and communities where people put down roots. It disrupts family life. If you have to move home your children have to move school.

Taken together these measures amount to the end of social rented housing as we have known it. Housing in which many of us grew up, affordable, secure, with family stability and good communities.

So what is the Government's plan to deal with the housing crisis?

A few weeks ago David Cameron proclaimed his intention to deliver one million new homes this parliament. Yet, within weeks, my questions to the Housing Minister confirmed that this wasn't a promise, not even a goal or a target, but 'an ambition' which looks increasingly unrealistic.
In practice the plan means owner-occupation for those who can afford it – perhaps 60% of households – and private renting for almost everyone else.

Who can complain about an aspiration for owner-occupation? Certainly not me. Yet the housing charity Shelter has calculated that the government's so-called 'starter homes' will require an income an income of £50,000 and a deposit of £40,000 outside of London, and an income of £77,000 and a deposit of £98,000 in London.

Each and every day these housing policies mean that more and more young people will never reach the first rung of the ladder. Housing and land prices continue to rise faster than general inflation. Far from getting those prices down the intention will be to subsidise them for some. Meanwhile, the big house-builders sit on 600,000 plots with planning permission.

So, what are the prospects for the new households – who will not be able to climb on to the ownership ladder? For some private renting will be an acceptable and adequate alternative. For others, especially families with children, it will be years of struggling to pay ever rising rents in sub-standard accommodation with no certainty where you will be living in a few months’ time.

My forecast is that by the end of this Parliament there will be a lower percentage of homes that are owner occupied, there will be fewer social rented properties, there will be more insecurity and pressure on family budgets and we won't have built the million homes the Prime Minister promised.

We should all be very worried.

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post on 6th January 2016 - 

Drowning, not waving

It’s difficult to believe that, whatever the investment, flooding could have totally been avoided when record amounts of rain hit the UK during December. 

However, it is almost certainly the case that many thousands of homes and businesses would not have been left under water, many schools would not have had to close or hospitals stop operating, nor bridges washed away if investment had not been cut.

I thought that everyone had learned some big lessons from the floods of 2007 when parts of NE Derbyshire, Rotherham and Sheffield were so badly hit. A national political consensus was built around the need for a flood prevention investment strategy, which was then implemented. Unfortunately, that consensus didn’t last long.

As soon as Cameron and Clegg took control, their warm words of re-assurance were not matched by their deeds. They cut £115m from the flood defence budget in 2011/12 and cut again 2012/13. Cuts planned for the next year were temporarily halted by the 2013/14 floods, but were quickly resumed.
It has now emerged that, in October, Conservative Ministers rejected the advice of the Committee on Climate Change to develop a strategy to address the increasing number of homes at risk of flooding.
In last month’s Autumn Statement, George Osborne announced £2.3 billion capital funding for a 6-year flood programme. Superficially, this longer term approach is welcome. However, this will protect just 300,000 homes when the Environment Agency estimates that 2.4 million properties are in areas at risk of flooding from rivers and the sea and a further 2.8 million properties are at risk of surface water flooding.

Close examination of the figures reveals that, this year, Cameron and Osborne are once again slashing funding with a 14% real terms cut of £115 million. Despite the increasing flood risk, spending this year will be lower in real terms than it was in 2009/10.

Given the weather forecasts of increasing extremities – temperatures, droughts, rainfall, wind speeds – many communities must expect to find themselves drowning and not waving for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Sanity required

In 1997, the in-coming Labour Government inherited an NHS and mental health system that was falling apart. They were turned around with record levels of investment, more doctors and nurses and record levels of public satisfaction.

A National Service Framework for mental health was introduced, which improved standards. It created three new specialist service models for people with severe mental health problems: crisis resolution and home treatment teams, assertive outreach teams for community support and early intervention teams for young people with first-time psychosis.

An additional £173 million was invested over three years to enable the development of psychological therapies to those experiencing mild to moderate depression and anxiety. This made a significant improvement in the range of options available to GPs for responding to their patients who were experiencing anxiety, which was often quite debilitating and affecting their working lives.
Far from building on this significant improvement in mental health services, the coalition government went into reverse. It cut mental health services 20% greater than other health services. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a crisis with service cuts, staff shortages and vulnerable people being let down.

A recent report, ‘Mental Health Under Pressure’ by the independent and highly-respected Kings Fund, highlighted widespread evidence of poor-quality care. Only 1 in 7 patients said that they received appropriate care in a crisis. Increasing numbers of patients are reporting a poor experience of community mental health care.

The lack of psychiatric beds has led to significant increases in out-of-area placements. Last year, there was a 23% rise in the number of patients sent out of area for treatment. Some patients were sent more than 300 miles for in-patient treatment. Yet these out-of-area placements are costly, have a detrimental impact on patients and are associated with an increased risk of suicide. Suicide rates are increasing; it is the biggest killer of young men under 45.

In 2014, the government promised a new five-year national strategy for mental health covering care and support for all ages by autumn 2015.  However, the report is still not published and George Osborne has pushed it back into 2016.

After considerable pressure, David Cameron promised an extra £250m to community mental health services this year. However, like most of his promises, it hasn’t been kept and he has been forced to admit that the government will only spend £173m, some 30% less.

There is an urgent need for this government to change tack. It’s a matter of sanity.