Housing – winding the clock back

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 12/11/12]

Friday 9th November 2012 could well come to be seen as a landmark date in the history of English housing policy. A key change introduced by the Localism Act 2011 came into effect. The Liberal Democrats are part of the Government presiding over the change. Is it a change we can be proud of?

Local authorities can now discharge their statutory homelessness duty by allocating households a tenancy in the private rented sector rather than in social housing. This has been an option for years. But until now to pursue this route the local authority has had to secure agreement from the household concerned. The Localism Act removes this requirement. Households can be sent to a twelve month private sector tenancy without the local authority needing their agreement. This would constitute discharge of the homelessness duty.

Given the housing benefit cap introduced as part of the welfare reform agenda, local authorities in areas of high housing costs face a challenge. There are few, if any, properties in their local private sector that are affordable to homeless households.

So local authorities have been looking further afield to find properties at rents that will be affordable, given housing benefit restrictions. Homeless households could face relocating by hundreds of miles to secure suitable independent accommodation. London boroughs are reported to be in negotiations with authorities in areas including Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and Merthyr Tydfil. [Read more...]

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Reaching the Terrible Twos

Today is the second anniversary of this blog opening for business. Happy Birthday – Blorthday? No, that sounds awful – to me. Another year of offering a largely indifferent world some more or less coherent thoughts on a range of loosely related topics.

This landmark arrives at a time when the Liberal Democrat blogosphere is going through a period of reflection. This was triggered by Stephen Tall’s comments at the Liberal Democrat Voice Blog Of The Year awards at the Brighton conference. He made the point that things aren’t quite what they used to be, with a reduction in the number of active Liberal Democrat bloggers, and the enticements of alternative social media – primarily Twitter and Facebook – seemingly proving a distraction. Several prominent bloggers – including Jonathan Calder, Richard Morris and Neil Monnery – responded. The assessment that emerged was not, perhaps, quite as downbeat as Stephen’s initial comments might have been taken to suggest.

My view is that, for all their virtues, other social media cannot supersede blogging or, if they do, then something will be lost in the process. [Read more...]

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The Localism Act – Issues and Questions

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 14/02/12]

Last Wednesday the LGiU and Bristol City Council collaborated to host a day conference on the Localism Act. Yesterday I introduced some of the main themes from the Government’s perspective, as set out by Andrew Stunell. As the conference progressed many issues and questions emerged. Today I identify those that particularly struck me. A broad message is that there remain significant challenges in effectively communicating to local communities the nature and extent of change. [Read more...]

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The Localism Act – over to you

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 13/02/12]

Last Wednesday the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) collaborated with Bristol City Council to run a major one-day conference on the Localism Act, which is now rapidly moving towards implementation. The audience comprised primarily local authority elected members and senior officers. The conference was kicked off by Barbara Janke, the Liberal Democrat Leader of Bristol City Council. The day’s discussions were bookended by wide ranging presentations from Westminster Liberal Democrat politicians: Lord Shipley in the morning and Andrew Stunell, our man at the Ministry, in the afternoon.

The Localism Act is huge – both physically and in the range of topics it addresses. [Read more...]

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Oh, what is the point?

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 03/12/11, where it was 2nd most read post of the week]

Having followed the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and then watched Danny Alexander interviewed on Newsnight on Tuesday I have to say my initial reaction was “oh, what is the point?”. That was a reaction to both substance and process.

The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, as the IFS analysis demonstrates, hits the poorest hardest and those on middle and higher incomes less hard. Most would call that regressive. I’m sure some bright spark can come up with an argument that if you look at the data from a different direction – on the basis of expenditure not income, for example – then it isn’t regressive at all. Be that as it may, how can it be a just strategy to uprate out-of-work benefits by freezing child tax credits – thereby moving a further 100,000 children into poverty – while leaving the tax burden on higher income households largely untouched? It conflicts directly with Government commitments to reward those contributing actively to society because it weakens work incentives. I’m glad that the Coalition catchphrase – “we’re all in this together” – seems to have been retired. We so palpably aren’t. [Read more...]

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Will it take more than fixing the planning system to improve housing supply?

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 18/11/11, under a slightly different title]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Britain has a housing problem. There are problems of shortage and, consequently, access and affordability.

There are three principal mechanisms for dealing with significant housing shortage and indirectly reducing the affordability problems that go with it: (1) You can reduce the number of households needing to be housed; (2) You can increase the number of properties available; and (3) You can improve the utilization of the existing stock of properties.

You can try to do something on all three fronts. A couple of weeks ago LibDemVoice co-editor Mark Pack identified six options, covering all three of these mechanisms. The options differ in their desirability and political feasibility.

Government efforts to increase supply have so far focused on the planning reforms ushered in by the Localism Act, while the New Homes Bonus is intended to incentivise communities to welcome such development. Whether the planning reforms will deliver is still open to question. On the day the Localism Bill was signed into law the Federation of Master Builders warned that top-down targets may need to be re-introduced if sufficient supply is to be secured. They are, it appears, expecting localism to equal NIMBYism.

One issue that has received limited attention in the debate so far is the construction industry. Developers and the Government are happy to point the finger at planners being the major barrier to new build. But planning is at best facilitative. Designating land for residential development doesn’t, in itself, get properties built. [Read more...]

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Criminalising squatting

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 01/11/11]

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offender Bill has returned to the House of Commons this week. The problems with the Government’s proposed Legal Aid reforms have been apparent for a while. Some people will see their access to justice seriously curtailed, while the courts are likely to silt up with inexpert litigants-in-person. The chances of any money being saved – when considered in the round – are limited. In this context it is good to see reports that Liberal Democrat MPs Tom Brake and Mike Crockart are tabling amendments to seek to address some of the most egregious injustices embodied in this part of the Bill.

But the Bill poses other profound challenges to those concerned with social justice and evidence-based policy making. [Read more...]

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Boosting housing supply

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 05/10/11]

The Conservatives’ proposal to resuscitate the Right to Buy through increasing discounts appears to be an attempt to bask in some of Mrs Thatcher’s reflected glory. Unlike the 1980s version, though, Mr Cameron and Mr Shapps are emphasizing that each property sold will be matched with a newly built property at “affordable” rent. This is an attempt to head off criticisms that the Right to Buy reduces the supply of “social” housing. So, it would appear, this initiative could lead to a net increase in the housing stock.

Of course, things are never as they first appear. [Read more...]

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Distinctive positions on housing

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 04/07/11]

There is no doubt some soul searching going on at the moment, in part as a consequence of the poor result at the Inverclyde by-election. I’m sure the leadership will seek to dismiss poor election results at this stage in the electoral cycle as to be expected when you’re “in government”. But that can hardly carry much weight, given the Tories aren’t doing anywhere near as badly. It seems to me that rather deeper reflection is needed. Is it clear any more what the Liberal Democrats stand for? Why would someone – beyond the most unwaveringly committed – vote for the Party? [Read more...]

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Sense prevails on public services?

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 08/05/11]

The reports this week were that the Government is planning to scale back its proposals for outsourcing public services. A significant policy shift means that the delayed Open Public Services White paper will not feature proposals for “wholesale outsourcing” to the for-profit private sector when it finally emerges in a few weeks time. [Read more...]

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