Wednesday 11 November 2009
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to come along today and speak to you about the highly topical research APSE has recently completed for UNISON - A new generation of council housing, an analysis of need, opportunity, vision and skills.
Looking firstly at need, the origins of social housing in this country can be traced to a desperate need for quality, affordable, secure housing at the end of the 19th century. Just over 100 years later social housing is back at the forefront of public policy debate for the same reasons.
In 1997 the incoming Government inherited a £22b backlog of repairs in council housing and set out with vigour to address what was the dominant need at that time, to bring the standard of council housing up to a decent level. With almost 2m names on council house waiting lists and many more living in overcrowded conditions the pressure on Government to deliver more affordable housing has been intense. With Government looking for 3m additional new homes by 2020, the recent failure of the private housing market has only cranked up the need for social housing further.
With registered social landlords and arms length management organizations failing to deliver new housing in any significant numbers Ministers have once again turned to local government to deliver a new generation of council housing in order to meet this need. John Healey as Housing Minister has made more progress in this area in a few months than his predecessors have in 12 years. Whilst some may argue that it’s only a few thousand houses it’s a significant start and a signal of intent.
It’s no secret that council housing has had its doubters over the years and many have questioned whether local government will have the ability to rise to the challenge created by this new agenda after such a long time. That’s what we attempted to assess in undertaking this research amongst 50 councils, main stakeholders and case study work. Can local government really deliver on this agenda?
What we identified was a variable state of readiness within local authorities. We categorized this in 3 broad groupings the ‘trailblazers’, the ‘interested’ and the ‘unaware’.
The ‘trailblazers’ are those who have been pushing for the opportunity to build for a number of years and indeed 49 authorities in England, along with 14 in Scotland, are already engaged in the first phase of building new homes.
The ‘interested’ are those where elected member and officers have seen demand grow significantly over the past few years and have recently become aware of new opportunities created to finance new build council housing but a lack of knowledge after decades of not building has hampered confidence.
The ‘unaware’ are those who are not interested in this agenda politically or who feel that as a result of transferring their housing stock they no longer have a direct role to play in housing provision.
So what are the critical factors in pursuing this agenda? The research identifies the importance of political and strategic vision, clear leadership and a positive culture towards council housing within the local authority; a growing mood for the importance of direct provision; the impact of new central Government policies around financing council new build; the scope of developments, many are looking to build small infill sites in the first instance, but aspire to larger scale later. It also identifies some difficulties with the HCA bidding process and factors such as land availability, maximizing community benefit in the local supply chain and employment. With regard to quality of build, this is not about recreating the sixties high rises.
The research also identifies environmental considerations around carbon reduction, sustainable construction and energy use as significant issues.
Of course any decent size new build programme can provide a huge boost to local economies in difficult times. APSE’s previous research in mapping the economic footprint of local authority spend, which showed that for every £1 Swindon Council spent on their services a further 64p circulates in the local economy through the multiplier effect of local expenditure backs this up. Some of you may also have seen our report for the TUC trailed in the press over the last few days which looks at the impact of the recession on public services. This also demonstrates the importance of continued investment in local services in the current climate.
An important point to emerge from APSEs research for UNISON was that those councils who have retained their ownership and management of housing appear more eager and well placed to pursue house building and therefore help government address what is becoming a huge social need.
However some barriers remain with regards to legislation, finance and technical matters although John is deliberating on the findings of his consultation exercise into some of these issues at present. However, skills and capacity do not appear to be an overwhelming blockage to local councils building housing directly again in significant numbers.
Skills required are split into four sets generic, professional, technical and trades. These are linked to the various stages of building; pre-development; pre and during and on-site.
Whilst not every authority maintains significant capacity in these skill sets at this stage the vast majority believed that this would grow and expand as house building programmes progressed.
Having considered all of the above, the huge need for new homes that has built up, the failure of the housing market to deliver generally, the falling numbers of homes available in the social housing sector over the past decade, the economic necessity and benefit and local governments capacity and capability to deliver in this area, the report calls for the government to place a clear duty on councils to provide homes in the areas they serve, either directly, or in partnerships with RSLs or other bodies.
The report identifies that we have begun the first steps to build a new generation of council housing one that must be constructed with the needs of tenants in mind, to the highest standards of energy efficiency, built in the right places and in communities that are mixed and sustainable.
In closing, John I applaud the progress you have made over the last few months in reintroducing house building amongst councils on a significant scale and I hope that as we progress towards a general election all of the political parties will be attempting to outdo each other on their manifesto commitments on the size and scale of their programme of new build council housing in the future.
Hopefully this will allow council housing to become once again, a quality affordable option for all not just a safety net for some.
Thanks for listening.
Friday 02 October 2009
Spent a few days at the Labour Party conference in Brighton and found the fringe a useful opportunity to get close to and interact with key Ministers.
Local Government Minister John Denham gave a barnstorming speech at the Compass fringe where he rounded on critics and showed a passionate and fiery side to him that I hadn't witnessed before. I got a quick word with him the following evening where he modedestly laughed off his performance.
Housing Minister John Healey was another who was blanket booked on the fringe programme and he also made platform annnouncements about the second tranche of bidding for council housing new build and linkages on apprenticeships to Government housing new build investment whatever the sector. I managed to speak to John on two or three occasions and he was vociverous on the reform of housing finance. He is a man on a mission and has made execllent progress in his 4 or 5 months in the job, I really hope he has the opportunity to make further advances prior to the general election.
I also had passing chats with Rosie Winterton once or twice and I am sure her ears will still be ringing from myself and colleagues asking her questions on equal pay and protecting frontline services from cuts, on the fringe. The last time was at the CLES / LOCALIS fringe where the excellent Neil McInroy spoke about creating resillent local economies.
Also did fringes on Housing, planning, international aid, public sector reform, the economy and climate change. Some of the notable speakers at these included Douglas Alexander, Ed Milliband, Michael Bichard and Steve Bundred.
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.
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.
Friday 19 June 2009
Speak at a Housing conference organised by Unite in London today. The event is opened by new Housing Minister John Healey, who is followed by Unite Deputy General Secretary Jack Dromey. Gail Cartmel of Unite then Chairs a debate with Sir Jeremy Beecham representing the LGA, Unite Head of Research John Earls and myself representing APSE.
There is a real mood of change about with the recent funding announcements on new build for councils and the imminent report back of the findings of the review of the national housing revenue account.
Despite only being in the job a week or two there is a real expectation that a respected Minister such as John Healey will deliver in this area.
It's a generation since local authorities built council housing to any significant scale but given the current need for affordable housing it really is bubbling up as one of the great public policy debates of today.