Category Archives: Housing

Sprinklers for parliament but not for tower blocks

Inside Housing reports that the government has approved upgrades to parliament, including sprinklers, despite turning down requests from councils for cash to fund fire safety works on tower blocks.

Councils which hoped to install sprinklers following the Grenfell Tower tragedy in June which killed 71 people have received no commitment from government on funding.

Jane Urquhart, portfolio holder for housing at Nottingham City Council, said: “The government has found the resources necessary to install sprinklers in the Houses of Parliament as a sensible fire safety precaution for the safety of those who work and visit there. It does seem strange that, at the same time, the housing minister deems sprinklers in social housing tower blocks not to be essential to ensure the safety of our tenants”. Alison Butler, cabinet member for housing at the council, said:

“Parliament is a historic building and it is a place where people work, but protecting people’s lives and their homes should be a higher priority”.

The Times reports that David Stewart, a Labour MSP for the Highlands and Islands, is bringing in a member’s bill which would place a duty on councils and registered social landlords to fit automatic fire suppression systems in all new social housing. He said that sprinkler systems were so effective at preventing the spread of fires that there had been no instances of multiple fire deaths when a working sprinkler system was in place.

“This simple change in law is a practical step that will save lives. Councils in Angus, Fife and Dundee already install sprinklers into their new developments as standard and I want to see this approach extended.”

As Alison Butler said, protecting people’s lives and their homes should be given  priority.

 

 

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Will legal and political action deliver justice for WASPIs?

In an earlier post it was noted that “Governments are balancing budgets on the backs of the poor” (John Grisham) 2.6 million women born in the 1950s will ‘lose out’ because of changes to pension law: “while corporations and the richest individuals receive tax breaks”.

                                                        Left: hear affected Question Time audience member, no longer well enough to work (17.24 mins) and (right) the prime minister, herself a Waspi woman.

Grahame Morris, MP for Easington, wrote earlier this month:

“Across Britain some 3.8 million women are affected by the increase to the state pension age. Though there is a good deal of sympathy for the aim of equalising the retirement age, what has taken place in practice has been appallingly unjust. Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) agrees with equalisation, but does not agree with the unfair way the changes were implemented – with little or no personal notice (1995/2011 Pension Acts), faster than promised (2011 Pension Act), and no time to make alternative plans”.

Guy Opperman, work and pensions minister with responsibility for financial exclusion, failed to reassure women in their 60s, hit by changes to their pension, by advising them to get a job or take up “extended apprenticeship opportunities”. 

Morris continues:

“Raising the pension age for women, often with little notice and sometimes failing to notify people of the changes at all, is a recipe for disaster.

“Many Waspi women affected by state pension inequality have been working full time and paying national insurance since the age of 15 or 16. In my constituency of Easington, the government’s changes to the state pension age will harm some 4,542 women.

“The OECD has recently ranked Britain’s pensions system as the worst in the developed world – yet the Tories are attempting to deny Waspi women even a basic state pension” . . .

“Excluded from the winter fuel allowance, from the free bus pass and now from the state pension, this generation of women are now in numerous cases having to sell their homes, take on precarious poverty-wage jobs or rely on foodbanks . . .

“The government’s given reason for failing these 3.8 million women is that to give them their pensions would cost as much as £30bn – for six years of pensions.

“Yet research from Landman Economics suggests the cost of helping Waspi women would likely be a more modest £8bn”. Morris lists the wider context:

  • Refurbishing Westminster will cost the taxpayer some £7bn,
  • Britain’s airstrikes in Syria are estimated to reach a cost of around £10bn.
  • Increased privatisation of the national health service is estimated to cost at least an extra £4.5-£10bn each year.
  • There have been billions of pounds of needless tax cuts to the bank levy.

“In this context finding the money for Waspi women seems a sensible price to pay to give these women justice and stop poverty from rising to ever more tragic levels. We know and we can see that it isn’t equal, it isn’t fair and it isn’t justifiable – it’s driving down the incomes and the quality of life of countless women.

Morris: “The prime minister is herself a Waspi woman but I doubt she ever has or ever will be faced with a choice between heating or eating. Yet this doesn’t mean it is too late for the government to do the right thing”.

“The parliamentary ombudsman is currently investigating the Department for Work and Pensions for maladministration, by failing to notify women of the changes to their state pension age. If the ombudsman finds in favour of the Waspi women the government could have to pay compensation to the tune of billions of pounds”

The Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru, the DUP and 50 Tory MPs support the Waspi campaign.

 

 

 

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Broken Britain 12: rising homelessness? Retaliatory evictions?

“100 tenants a day lose homes as rising rents and benefit freeze hit” – The Observer July 2017.

In the same month, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation study attributed 80% of the recent rise in evictions to the “no fault” process under section 21 of the Housing Act 1988.

Two months’ written notice is all that private landlords need to do: they don’t need to give any reason when they ask tenants to leave.

It allows the worst landlords to ignore disrepair – tenants who complain are given notice – a process officially recognised under the name retaliatory eviction’.

Read more about retaliatory eviction’ – the subject of Commons Briefing paper SN07015 by Wendy Wilson – published on June 13, 2017.   

 

Jeremy Corbyn raised the issue forcefully in Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions

His exchange with the Prime Minister may be seen here, courtesy of Steve Walker and the full transcript in Hansard may be seen here.

Mr Corbyn reviewed the government’s record:

  • Homelessness is up by 50% and rough sleeping has doubled. Homelessness and rough sleeping have risen every single year since 2010.
  • Evictions by private landlords have quadrupled since 2010. There is no security in the private rented sector.
  • One-for-one replacement of council housing sold off through the right to buy was promised, but just one in five council homes have been replaced.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people are on housing waiting lists.

Shelter is calling for the introduction of a stable rental contract to become the norm in England.

Campbell Robb, chief executive, said: “With the possibility of eviction with just two months’ notice, and constant worries about when the next rent rise will hit, the current rental market isn’t giving people – particularly families – the stability they need to put down roots. The stable rental contract offers renters a five-year tenancy and gives landlords more confidence in a steady income, all within the existing legal framework”.

Scotland for best practice to date: the Scottish secure tenancy

In Scotland, under Jack McConnell’s Labour government, by an order under section 11 of the 2001 the Housing (Scotland) Act tenants of local authorities, housing associations & tenants who are members of fully mutual co-operative housing associations, from 30 September 2002, became Scottish secure tenants.

Read the excellent terms here. Will a Labour government in this country adopt this Rolls Royce standard model and also introduce a stable rental contract for those in private accommodation? Or will the profit motive win the day?

 

 

 

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Theresa May: “the government wants people to be able to manage their own (universal credit) budgets”

Yet again, the vulnerable suffer. Due to successive governments many now in need have been ill-educated, ill-nourished and under stress because they could not find work.  In similar circumstances Mrs May and few of her colleagues would be managing their budgets well.

The introduction of universally paying housing benefit direct to landlord (stopped in 2008) was extremely helpful to those not able (or willing) to budget. It has been retained under universal credit and actually adds to the problems of landlords and tenants alike.

Quoting from a letter circulated by GAP Property during PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn said: “Will the prime minister pause universal credit so it can be fixed? Or does she think it is right to put thousands of families through Christmas in the trauma of knowing they are about to be evicted because they are in rent arrears because of universal credit?”

GAP Property said the introduction of universal credit would affect the vast majority of its tenants and it needed to take action to avoid a slew of rent arrears, which could put it out of business.

The company’s owner, Guy Piggott, said the letter was not intended to be threatening and he was pleased it had been highlighted by Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

“We are not planning to throw people out, but the prime minister should read this and recognise the problems . . . the majority of his tenants were on an average household income of about £17,000 a year. “People are already living hand to mouth . . . At best, if they need to wait six weeks to be paid, it will be the end of February before it comes, and by then they might have spent the money they had on feeding their families or heating their homes”.

Paragraphs from a snapshot of the letter:

Piggott said many landlords would soon refuse to take people who were on universal credit. “A lot of landlords are now saying enough is enough”.

Jeremy Corbyn said: “Will the prime minister pause universal credit so it can be fixed? Or does she think it is right to put thousands of families through Christmas in the trauma of knowing they are about to be evicted because they are in rent arrears because of universal credit?”

Mrs May replied that she wanted to “look at the issue of this particular case” but said the government wanted people to be able to manage their own budgets and expressed less than impressive hopes that the government could act next week to cut the six-week wait for payments to five.

 

 

 

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Ms May undermines her hero’s work as cuts to council funding reduce the powers of local government

The presenter of this BBC radio programme, Adrian Goldberg, grew up on the Druids Heath council estate in Birmingham, the home of the ‘municipalism’ pioneered by Joseph Chamberlain when he was Mayor of Birmingham – summarised by Walsall MP John McShane in the Commons in 1930:

“A young person today lives in a municipal house, and he washes himself … in municipal water. He rides on a municipal tram or omnibus, and I have no doubt that before long he will be riding in a municipal aeroplane. He walks on a municipal road; he is educated in a municipal school. He reads in a municipal library and he has his sport on a municipal recreation ground. When he is ill he is doctored and nursed in a municipal hospital and when he dies he is buried in a municipal cemetery.”

Adrian is described as being an ideal candidate to judge the changing nature of the local council, because when he and his family moved there the local authority:

  • built properties and
  • collected the rent.
  • Adrian took a council-subsidised bus service to
  • the secondary school run by his local education authority.
  • On the way home he’d drop into his council-run library to pick up some books
  • or take a swim in the council run pool.

He comments, “Today the situation is much more complex”

Adrian considered the effect of austerity on the role of councils today. Birmingham council has almost halved its staff since 2008, from around 24,000 to 12,500. Last year another £28m was cut from Birmingham’s adult care budget of £230m. 2017/18 – the seventh year of cuts – is predicted to be the toughest year yet with expected reductions of £113m to the council’s overall budget, on top of £650m already cut since 2010.

Local government grants and powers have been greatly reduced in several areas, including education and housing. Read more about the following cases here.

  • The fate of the formerly successful council-run Baverstock Secondary School in Druids Heath
  • The group of residents who set up the Friends of Walkers Heath Park in November 2011
  • The volunteers who are helping to run the library
  • Druids Heath’s handsome and historic Bells Farm community centre (below), with its food bank and other services, also kept going by local volunteers.

The link also leads to news of high-rise tower blocks in the area; dilapidation, damp and fire hazards go unremedied, the splendid concierge system was abandoned and full time neighbourhood office advice centres, closed in 2006, were replaced by a private call service which was expensive, often not answering, with staff unable to supply the information needed.

In Birmingham there was a move under John Clancy’s leadership to take back ‘in-house’ the services currently undertaken by profit-making private companies, deciding not to renew one Capita contract and considering the future of refuse collection in the city. This, because the ‘market place’ economy which has developed, privatising refuse collection, road maintenance and ‘back office’ functions in Birmingham, has proved to be more expensive and often less efficient. This hope is fading as Richard Hatcher reports on the new regime: Birmingham Council Children’s Services contracted out, Children’s Centres closed.

The health and safety of council tenants is evidently not a government priority

Inside Housing reports the housing minister’s description of sprinkler systems for high rise blocks as “additional rather than essential” and refusing a council’s request for funding promised after the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

Strangely, the conservative Prime Minister expresses admiration for Joseph Chamberlain

Mayor of Birmingham in 1873, city MP in 1876, Joseph Chamberlain directed the construction of good housing for the poorest, libraries, municipal swimming pools and schools. Unlike Ms May and colleagues, he was not in favour of a market economy, arguing for tariffs on goods from countries outside the British Empire. He was also an ‘economic interventionist’ (see Lewis Goodall, Newsnight), described as a “gas and water socialist”. He took profit-making private enterprises into public hands, declaring that “profit was irrelevant”.

In no way is she following the example of her hero.

Ms May’s government continues to implement a series of cuts affecting the lives of the country’s poorest and most disabled with might and main.

Ironically the contemporary politician sharing Chamberlain’s principles is the opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, whose policies she echoes but does not implement.

 

 

 

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A Times reader emphasises the growing awareness of the imperative to eradicate ‘the frankly corrupt, hypocritical behaviour some British MPs have indulged in for decades’

Oliver Wright, policy editor for The Times, focusses only on the tip of the iceberg – the ‘revolving door’. He reports a recommendation by the public administration select committee (PASC) that ministers and civil servants should be banned from taking up lucrative private sector jobs for two years when they leave office. (The article may be read here – possible paywall.) They said that more than 600 former ministers and senior civil servants had been appointed to 1,000 business roles. The committee wants the government to impose a two-year ban on taking up jobs that relate “directly to their previous areas of policy and responsibility”.

From many instances Mr Wright singled out:

  • Lord Hague of Richmond, who now advises Teneo, an international business consultancy,
  • Sir Ed Davey, the former energy secretary, who advises a PR and lobbying company that lists EDF Energy as a client.
  • Mark Britnell (though un-named in the article), a former director-general of commissioning at the Department of Health who became global head of healthcare at KPMG, which bids for government health contracts.

There is no reference to extra ‘jobs’ done whilst MPs are in office – except from one of The Times readers who bluntly writes: “Any MP should not be able to hold any extra job outside the House of Parliament”. Constituency work and special responsibilities – if properly attended to – would occupy an MP full time.

The parliamentary decision-making process is sometimes shown, with hindsight, to have been affected by MPs’ connections with the armaments, healthcare and tobacco  industry and many companies based in tax havens.

Property interests are less well covered, but itemised two months ago in Property Week:

 

Social Investigations reports that their research into Lords’ and MPs’ connections to private healthcare through the register of interests is complete.

Below are listed a few of the key findings. Research into the Health and Social Care bill is ongoing and more facts will be added as and when they arise.

  • 225 parliamentarians have recent or present financial private healthcare connections
  • 145 Lords have recent or present financial connections to companies or individuals involved in healthcare
  • 1 in 4 Conservative Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies or individuals involved in healthcare
  • 1 in 6 Labour Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies or individuals involved in healthcare
  • 1 in 6 Crossbench Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies or individuals involved in healthcare
  • 1 in 10 Liberal Democrat Peers have recent or present financial connections to companies or individuals involved in healthcare
  • 75 MPs have recent or present financial links to companies or individuals involved in private healthcare
  • 81% of these are  Conservative
  • 4 Key members of the Associate Parliamentary Health Group have parliamentarians with financial connections to companies or individuals involved in healthcare.

Endnote: a Times reader comments: “When I was growing up British MPs would sneer at the corrupt goings on by politicians from various pejoratively termed ‘banana republics’ and declare that such behaviour would never be tolerated in the UK. Well, it soon became obvious that this was nonsense and the issues outlined in this June article illustrate the frankly corrupt, hypocritical behaviour our British MPs have indulged in for decades, and the higher the office they occupied the more hypocritical the behaviour – proving time and again the accuracy of the saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

 

 

 

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Grenfell Tower: a tragic tale of double standards – two-nation politics

On Nicky Campbell’s Radio 5 phone-in a listener described a city where – at one extreme – her care-worker son earns £17,000 a year, whilst George Osborne gets £200,000 for delivering one speech.

“In Harrods they have sprinklers to protect china dogs

Noting the lack of attention to the repeated and recorded complaints made by the Grenfell Tower residents she asserted that had they come from the affluent area of Kensington they would have been quickly addressed and added a searing afterthought: “In Harrods they have sprinklers to protect china dogs” – but as London MP Harriet Harmon noted, the government has been cutting the money to councils. If you cut money to councils, you can’t put in sprinklers

Campbell’s caller also denounced the proposals made by developers referring to the burnt tower as being a orime brownfield site, insisting that the residents should be rehoused in the same area during the rebuilding process instead of being sent to outlying areas or even different parts of the country; as they work hard in lowly paid jobs they should not also have to spend time and money travelling long distances to work.

A tale of a divided nation – and of two cities

Following a link sent by Felicity Arbuthnot we read the words of Jeremy Corbyn, (seen here with a local resident seeking a 12-year-old girl missing after the Grenfell Tower blaze): “Kensington is a tale of two cities – it is among the wealthiest parts of this country but the ward where this took place is one of the poorest”.

Like the Radio 5 caller he emphasised that residents must be re-housed, using requisition of empty properties if necessary, in the same neighbourhood, adding:

“The judge-led public inquiry must be speedy and all residents should have access to legal aid and the support they need”.

 

 

 

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A progressive alliance with progressive policies

Christine Parkinson has drawn attention to an article in the Guardian, in which MPs Clive Lewis and Caroline Lucas  express a profound sense of frustration and dismay about the Conservative victories won by narrow margins in places such as St Ives, Richmond Park and Hastings. They pointed out that if every progressive voter had placed their X tactically, Jeremy Corbyn would now be prime minister with a majority of over 100.

Highlights from their article

The regressive alliance we see forming before our eyes between the Conservatives and the DUP can only be fully countered by a progressive alliance on the opposition benches and if we work together there is nothing progressives can’t achieve. The limits of the old politics are there for everyone to see – the limitlessness of the new we are just starting to explore.

More than 40 electoral alliances, in which people across parties cooperated on tickets including support for proportional representation and the common goal of preventing Conservative candidates winning, were pulled together quickly for the snap election. People from different parties worked together to ‘do politics differently’ and there was a sense that politics has become hopeful and positive again.

We shouldn’t forget the challenges we face:

  • markets that are too free,
  • a state that can be too remote,
  • a democracy that still leaves so many voices unheard
  • and change on a scale our people and our planet can’t cope with.

It is going to take a politics that is social, liberal and green to overcome these challenges. No single party or movement has all the answers. We are going to have to learn to cooperate as well as compete to build the society of which we dream. And we are going to have to recognise that the future is not a two-party system but one in which smaller parties grow – both in influence and in their electoral representation.

Colin Hines adds detail: also advocating a progressive alliance of Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid and the Greens he says that they will need to get their ‘policy ducks in a row’ to win it. He continues:“Firstly, these must provide hope, not just for the young, but for every community in the country.

“To do this Jeremy Corbyn must revisit and vigorously shake his people’s QE “money tree”. This could pay for real economic activity on the ground via decentralised infrastructure projects to make the nation’s 30 million buildings energy efficient, ensure a shift to localised renewable energy, and the building of local transport systems.

“Secondly, the divide between young and old must be bridged by policies fostering intergenerational solidarity. Older people with significant saving should be offered “housing bonds”, paying, say, 3% interest to help fund a massive council and affordable homes programme.Tuition fees would be scrapped, but so too must be the threat of having to lose a home to pay for care, or having to scrabble for means-tested benefits such as heating allowances.

“Financed by progressive and fairer wealth and income taxes, and a clampdown on tax dodging, this should have an election-winning appeal to the majority of grandparents, parents and their young relatives”.

 

 

 

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Did the young Michael Fallon, Jeremy Hunt and Theresa Brasier play SimCity?

Having seen the beneficial effect of this computer game on a six-year old, a teacher advocates placing it on the national curriculum.

In every different edition of SimCity, the player is given the task of founding and developing a city from a patch of green land, defining what buildings are constructed via development zones – residential zones for Sims to live in; commercial zones for Sims to shop and have offices within; industrial zones to provide work through factories, laboratories and farms – as well as ensuring their citizens are kept happy through establishing various services and amenities, all while keeping a stable budget.

People report problems and the mayor addresses them – his objective: to keep as many people happy as possible.

SimCity 3000: (the environment and localisation now come into the equation); by allowing certain structures to be built within the city, the player could receive a substantial amount of funds from them. The four business deal structures are the maximum security prison, casino, toxic waste conversion plant, and the Gigamall (a large shopping center). Business deal structures however have serious negative effects on a city. The toxic waste dump lowers both the land value and residential desirability in the area surrounding it and produces massive pollution. The prison dramatically decreases land value. The casino increases citywide crime and the Gigamall weakens demand for local commerce.

Too late now – but if the young Michael Fallon, Jeremy Hunt and Theresa Brasier had been educated by the SimCity ’game’ (now used in urban planning offices!), Michael might well have grown up less willing to play real-life war-games, Jeremy could be ensuring good care for all the sick and frail and Theresa might be putting into practice her rhetorical concern for the less fortunate in our society.

 

 

 

 

 

Focus on cuts – 5: the poorest targetted

A reader from Bournville draws attention to an article by Jules Birch in Inside Housing, a weekly magazine for housing professionals. He focusses on a recent TV Panorama programme about the benefit cap that now leaves thousands of people with 50p a week towards their rent.

He noticed that roughly 95% of tweets with the hashtag #benefitcap (scroll down to April 7) were hostile to the people featured in the programme rather than the policy. The majority of people commenting on Twitter were seeing the undeserving individual instead: the stroppy single mother with a mobile phone and the couple with many children. He notes that exactly the same thing happened with Benefits Street, How to Get a Council House and a Dispatches documentary on the cap last month.

Part of the problem, he believes, lay with the way Panorama framed the issue. As Joe Halewood was quick to point out, the programme and its advance publicity seemed to assume that most people capped are unemployed and on Jobseeker’s Allowance, when in fact just 13% are.

The fact that the vast majority of people capped are either unable to work or not required to work was only raised tentatively halfway through the programme. Most of those capped are lone parents with young children who are not required to look for work, or people on Employment and Support Allowance who do not qualify for an exemption but are still not fit for work.

David Pipe explained the effects in a piece following the Dispatches documentary last month. 7,500 households across 370 local authority areas have lost their housing benefit and are now receiving just 50p a week to pay their rent. The cap leaves a nominal amount for housing benefit or Universal Credit once someone’s benefits total more than £20,000 (£23,000 in London). In effect it is imposed on top of the rest of the benefits system.

The latest budget highlighted cuts for the poorest 18-21-year-olds, who will no longer be entitled to help with their rent through Universal Credit from April 1.

For many, Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) are the only thing keeping them in their home and the effect over time will be rising rent arrears and evictions and allocations policies that make it less likely that people on benefits will get a tenancy in the first place. So where and how can the poorest people live? Even people in caravans are being capped, and what will the knock-on costs be in terms of homelessness and the impact on the children?

Meanwhile in Broken Britain, the May government continues the policies of its predecessors and makes decisions which seriously afflict the poorest and greatly benefit the richest: the arms traders, Big Pharma, the privatised utilities, large developers, car manufacturers, private health companies and expensive, inefficient outsourcers – Serco, G4s and Capita.