Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Warm words only, so the housing crisis continues

In the last week, the government has made, what it purported to be, three major announcements about housing policy.
Let’s not be in any doubt about the timing. There is no reason why these announcements couldn’t have been made a month ago. They have been made now, in the peak mid-August holiday period, to avoid parliamentary and professional scrutiny. And, when we see the content, we can understand why.
The first announcement was, effectively, a ‘no change’ decision about funding for supported housing.
Supported housing is mainly for the elderly, people with mental, physical and learning disabilities who require personal care, support or supervision. It includes sheltered housing, group homes, hostels, refuges, and supported living complexes. About 270,000 people live in supported homes.
In 2011, the coalition government made proposals to fundamentally change housing benefit (as it introduced universal credit). This was followed, in 2015, by a bizarre decision to force rent cuts on social landlords – with the effect of cutting the number of new social homes for rent that would be built – and, in 2016, by the imposition of local housing allowance caps.
After a consultation in late 2016, which produced nearly 600 major responses by February 2017, Theresa May announced another set of policy changes for sheltered and supported housing in October 2017. This included a proposal that funding for short-term and transitional supported housing – typically homeless hostels, refuges for those at risk of domestic violence and those receiving support for drug/alcohol abuse – would be through a ring-fenced grant administered by local authorities.
Everyone with any knowledge about this specialist housing sector said this would be an absolute disaster. In response to the fierce criticism, the government announced another consultation which ended in January this year. It has then taken another seven months for the government to announce that it has climbed down and that housing benefit will continue to fund short-term housing.
It’s a welcome announcement, if only because it was the only logical decision. But, a listening government wouldn’t have got itself in to this mess in the first place and created a year of unnecessary turmoil. As it’s a no-change announcement, there is no new money involved.
The second announcement was by Secretary of State James Brokenshire about ‘a new £100 million programme to eradicate rough sleeping within a decade’.
Only under determined questioning did Mr Brokenshire admit that there was no new money involved at all. £50m was already part of the rough sleeping budget and £50m had been taken from elsewhere in the housing budget. 
The incoming Labour government in 1997 inherited a high and rising level of rough sleeping. In 1999, Louise Casey was made Head of a national Rough Sleepers’ Unit, backed with resources which then resulted in year-on-year reductions in the number of rough sleepers. But the incoming coalition government in 2010 abandoned those policies, with the inevitable result of a near tripling of the number of people sleeping on the streets.
It’s an absolute scandal that it has taken the government so long to acknowledge the disastrous impact of its policies on individuals, families and on communities. There was no need to wait until August to do something. And the attempt to portray the announcement as an extra £100 million to tackle rough sleeping, when it is nothing of the sort, was just disgraceful.
The final announcement was the long-promised Green Paper on Social Housing.
Last September, the then Secretary of State Sajid Javid announced “a wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review of the issues facing” the social housing sector. He said it would “be the most substantial report of its kind for a generation”.
Let me tell you that it is nothing of the kind. It’s hardly worthy of the epithet Green – it’s Pale Pistachio at best. It’s full of warm words, but is most optimistically described as “tinkering at the edges.”
I will write more comprehensively about the Green Paper in due course. Suffice it to say that on the single most important issue for individuals and families throughout England – how many new affordable homes are going to be built – the Housing Minister has confirmed that, last year, just 5,900 social rented homes were built, the lowest number since records began and that, next year, just 6,000 will be built, when everyone agrees we need to be building 80,000 a year.
There are more than one million people on housing waiting lists…and the government is not committing a single extra pound towards building the new affordable homes for rent that are required.
It is not surprising that I have been unable to find a single organisation or informed commentator who has given the Green Paper a warm welcome. I leave you to choose between ‘underwhelming’ and ‘pitiful’. It simply fails to rise to the challenge and so the housing crisis continues.

Monday, 13 August 2018

When cutting regulation increases crime

If you are tempted by the siren calls of populist politicians and journalists who try to seduce you with claims that our lives would be so much better with less regulation, I suggest you stop and think.
Last December, I wrote an article1 about legislation that had resulted in a dramatic fall in crime. After the Scrap Metal Dealers Act was passed in 2013, with tough measures to crack down on the trade in stolen metal, metal thefts dropped from nearly 62,000 in 2012/13 to fewer than 13,000 in 2016/17.
At its peak, metal theft was estimated to cost the economy more than £220 million per year. The Act has undoubtedly saved the national economy millions of pounds. Thousands of homes, businesses and churches were saved from the lead thieves.
That Act was an excellent example of how legislation can cut crime, save lives and benefit families, organisations, businesses and the national economy.
Today, I want to draw your attention to an example of what can happen when regulations are removed in the name of ‘cutting bureaucracy’.
Since the mid-1990s, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) has shown long-term reductions in most categories of theft, with the overall number of theft offences having fallen by 69% since 1995.2
But recently, there has been an increase in some types of theft, particularly in vehicle-related theft. In fact, last year, vehicle-related theft increased by 17% and “theft of vehicles” increased by a massive 40% (to 82,000). In the West Midlands, vehicle theft has tripled in the last three years.
So, what the heck is going on?
Well, in 2015, the government removed the rule that, to get a salvage car back on to the road, the vehicle needed to obtain a vehicle inspection certificate certifying that it was fit for the road. It was all part of the government’s deregulation strategy.3
The unintended, but predictable, outcome is that criminals are stealing cars to break them down for parts. Then, they are using these parts to repair salvage vehicles which have been written off by insurers following accidents.
And, of course, we are not talking about minor accidents and cheap vehicles. The criminals make big money from expensive cars that have been involved in major accidents. It’s the luxury brands which are being sold at auction as fixable write-offs rather than as write-offs to be scrapped for parts.
Having bought the write-off, the Mr Bigs are then commissioning the theft of vehicles which will provide the parts for repair. The patched vehicles are then sold as second-hand through internet or auction sites.
Because these cars are being cobbled together in back-street workshops, rather than reputable garages and repair shops, the likelihood is that unsuspecting buyers are getting unsafe cars, especially in relation to safety elements, like crumple zones and air-bags.
The deregulation, which promised a better life, has actually resulted in a massive increase in car theft - including violent car-jackings and car-key burglaries - an increase in the number of unsafe vehicles on the road, and an increase in the number of people who are buying a pig-in-a-poke.
So, we have some very clear recent examples of how additional legislation can cut crime and improve our lives and of how cutting regulation can increase crime and seriously damage our lives.
I’m very clear. I have no interest in introducing or maintaining unnecessary legislation or regulation and we should keep these under regular review.
But neither do I – and nor should you – have any time for those who blithely assert how much improved our lives would be, if only we ended regulation and bureaucracy.
And, with respect to the single most important decision in front of us at the moment – Brexit – why is it that those, who loudly proclaim that Brexit will result in less regulation, have simply been unable to produce a schedule of laws and regulations that they intend to remove, despite being charged with that task for more than two years and having had thousands of people working on their proposals?
If you’re not worried, you ought to be.
1 Scrapping Crime, 11 December 2017,
3 This included the Red Tape Challenge and the One in Two Out rule and a Deregulation Bill with a range of measures “to reduce regulatory burdens on businesses and public authorities”.