Thursday 23 July 2009
One of the first tests of David Cameron’s localist credentials, should he be elected as the country’s next Prime Minister, could be to see whether he completes the legislative process Housing Minister John Healey has started by announcing the dismantling of the national housing revenue account system.
With a consultation paper due any day on the matter, the detail of the proposals that many have called for should become clear. However the Minister clearly stated his intention to equalize the existing £17b of overhanging debt across England’s 202 housing authorities in order to allow them to be self financing from that point onwards.
Due to the ongoing failure of the private sector housing market the Government’s aims of building 3m new homes by 2020 look further adrift than ever. Even when economic recovery commences affordability will remain a massive dilemma, unless we see a dramatic increase in supply. Council house waiting lists are sitting at 1.8m, a figure which almost matches the units lost by right to buy and demolition, which have never been replaced by wider social housing providers. With many more living in overcrowded conditions, local authorities are chomping at the bit to aid their communities; the only thing stopping them is the constraints placed upon them by
the outdated housing finance system that currently exists.
Government has woken up to the huge public need for affordable housing with the initial £100m new build council housing announcement in the budget, quickly followed by an expansion of this pot to £400m in John Healey’s statement. However it is predicted that this funding will only support some 3,900 units in total. Whilst it is a drop in the ocean, it is at least a start and will see local authorities commence new build council housing for the first time in a generation.
In the late fifties and early sixties 245,000 council houses were being built on average in England per annum, last year it was no more than a few hundred. The LGA estimates that if the primary legislation required to dismantle the national housing revenue account is started by the current government and the process is completed by the next government, whoever that may be, then local housing authorities would be in a position to build an additional 139,000 council houses over the next decade.
Having shared a dinner table with Conservative Shadow Minister Bob Neill recently, I got the impression that this was an agenda the Conservatives were warming towards.
Tuesday 07 July 2009
I was quite surprised in more ways than one at the weekend to read the Chief Executive of the Audit Commission, Steve Bundred's comments suggesting a pay freeze for public sector workers as an answer to the current gap in public sector finances.
Firstly it seems a bit strange that in a week where we have the Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, praising local government for its record breaking efficiency savings we have the Chief Executive of the Audit Commission suggesting that as a reward for this the staff should receive a real terms cut in their pay.
My second observation is that as an independent watchdog the Audit Commission is getting into debates that are beyond its brief. I think the Commission has a key role to play in ensuring transparency and accountability in public services, it's politicisation would be a real shame.
Saturday 04 July 2009
Busy time at the LGA conference this week in Harrogate. Not only is APSE exhibiting at the conference but we also have two strategic forum dinners in the evening and I am also down to speak at one of the lunchtime housing fringes.
The start of the conference is shrouded in speculation as to what announcements the Housing Minister John Healey will make on the review of the National Housing Revenue Account. When he does make his views known at a fringe event they are broadly welcomed by those at the conference but caveat ed by most people wanting to see 'the devil in the detail.' Basically he has suggested a one off equalisation of existing debt across all local authorities with responsibility for housing. He has also announced additional funding for local authority new build.
Our first forum on citizen engagement goes well with a speaker from the Citizen's Advice Bureau explaining how they interact with local government and the crucial role they play in the current climate. They receive £67m in funding from local authorities, dealing with 1.93m clients per annum which leads to 6m problems being dealt with. 2m of these have been debt related in the last year which is an increase of 11%, benefits inq
uiries have also risen by 13%, with redundancy queries by 17% making an overall rise of 9%.
The next evening we host a debate around the housing announcements in an attempt to get our heads around what it all means in practice.
On the final day I get into the hall to see economic visionary Vince Cable. It's not good news. Vince uses the analogy of most people thinking that the economy has caught a cold when really it has had a heart attack. Like all heart attack victims it's a long and painful road to recovery and one that can suffer serious relapses at any given moment in time.
Next up is David Cameron who gives an honest assessment of the impact the global recession will have on our own public finances in the coming years. He doesn't pull any punches and talks about giving more power to local authorities but with less money. He talks about a post bureaucratic age and raises the spectre of google government, where people will be able to go online and view any item of expenditure a local authority has made of above £500 in value. Running through his speech is a thread of doing more for less and achieving value for money.
All in all a successful few days for APSE having plenty of visits to our stand, meeting a lot of our key people and picking up some pieces of work whilst there.