Learning curve 17/04/2014 A year on from the introduction of…

Learning curve

A year on from the introduction of the bedroom tax, Jess McCabe catches up with Inside Housing’s welfare reform focus group to find out if dealing with the impact of the changes has become child’s play or if it’s still requiring baby steps

One year ago, Inside Housing recruited 10 social landlords from across the country. The aim? To track in detail how the government’s welfare reforms were really affecting them – and their tenants. Would the bedroom tax, introduced on 1 April 2013, cause rent arrears to soar? Would tenants be left in destitution – and their landlords struggling financially?

A year on, social landlords in our focus group at least, seem to be learning to cope with the changes (see individual landlord boxes). We have seen some evidence that overall rent arrears are starting to stabilise in some cases. But with the roll-out of universal credit still looming on the horizon, and some tenants only coping because of emergency, short-term discretionary housing payments from their local authority, the future remains uncertain.

One year into welfare reform, the number of tenants deemed to be under-occupying their homes – and therefore affected by the bedroom tax – has started to drop. In most cases, our focus group landlords report fewer tenants subject to the bedroom tax. From 1 April last year, tenants have had their housing benefit cut by 14 per cent if they have one spare bedroom, and 25 per cent if they have two or more spare bedrooms. With fewer tenants affected, this is helping to minimise the impact of the policy on the balance sheets of our 10 landlords.

Going down

Just 5,675 Leeds Council tenants, for example, are now subject to the bedroom tax. This is quite a drop from the start of the focus group, when 6,794 tenants were deemed to be under-occupying.

As of April last year, Riverside had 6,740 tenants subject to the bedroom tax. Now, the number has fallen to 6,167 tenants.

A number of tenants have been temporarily taken out of the bedroom tax equation because of the loophole discovered in January, in which tenants who have been continuously claiming housing benefit from before 1 January 1996 and have lived at the same address since then were excluded from the penalty.

But as this loophole has now been closed, the number of tenants affected is likely to swell at a later date.

Some landlords have also worked hard to move tenants into smaller homes, so they are no longer deemed to have ‘spare’ bedrooms. Leeds Council reports the most tenants to have downsized so far – 213 via choice-based lettings and 208 via mutual exchange or transfer.

‘This isn’t all down to tenants moving out or finding work, although some have,’ explains Richard Marshall, external partnerships officer at the council. ‘We have redesignated some properties [848 in total], a lot of tenants came forward with previously undisclosed family members and other sundry changes of stock size.’

Around 28 of 4,000-home Coastline Housing’s tenants have downsized between April 2013 and March 2014. As a result, it is taking longer to fill properties once they become void – from about four days on average in 2012 to 19 days at present. It’s not taking longer to find a tenant to fill the home, explains Louise Beard, director of housing and care at Coastline. But the same size team at the association has about 300 voids to handle, compared with the usual rate of between 200 and 240 a month. ‘Consequently it’s taking longer to deal with,’ she says.

The number of under-occupying tenants living in Hastoe Group properties rose at first – from 143 in April 2013, to 264 in November 2013. But this has now dropped back again to 221, or 6 per cent. Paul Nicholson, head of business performance at Hastoe Group, says: ‘We know that some of the tenants affected have moved – although not necessarily to downsize and there have been other changes of circumstances as you’d expect. We have a significant number of tenants who work part-time or seasonally and are not continuously on housing benefit.’

At Link Group, the number of tenants affected by the bedroom tax has risen slightly since November, from 325 to 351.

‘Tenants previously not under-occupying can find themselves in that position, for example if a child leaves the home, a family member dies and the exemption period has expired or a disabled person no longer has an overnight carer,’ says a spokesperson for the 6,395-home landlord.

Rising arrears
The picture for tenants who are still under-occupying is getting grimmer. Most of our focus group reports that an increasing proportion of tenants who are affected by the bedroom tax are in rent arrears. Take United Welsh for example: when our focus group began this time last year, 35.8 per cent of its 726 tenants affected by the bedroom tax were in arrears. Now, just 383 of its tenants are affected by the bedroom tax – but 70.5 per cent of these tenants are now in debt to their landlord.

At first, Salix Homes experienced a similar rise – from 44 per cent in arrears when we started tracking them to 73 per cent last November. The latest data shows, however, that the proportion affected has started to edge down to 64 per cent. The landlord has also managed to lower its total arrears in the last year from £1.7 million to £1.5 million.

Sian Grant, head of customer service at the 8,500-home landlord, puts this down to assiduous preparation prior to welfare reforms coming in.

‘This has included creating separate patches for the management of accounts where the tenant is under-occupying, allowing the other income management officers to concentrate on business-as-usual rent collection,’ she says.

Salix has hired four new income management officers specifically to intensively manage the cases of tenants who are under-occupying. At the same time the landlord has stepped up its efforts to educate tenants about the changes brought in by welfare reform and get them into ‘payment patterns’, she adds.

Even if tenants are not in rent arrears, Paul Malkin, income services manager at 8,555-home Aspire Housing is cautious of assuming this means all is well.

‘People are getting into the routine of paying it [the bedroom tax]. They’re paying it – not every week at times. I wouldn’t ever say they can afford to pay it. But they want to keep their homes,’ he says.

So how much of a contribution does the bedroom tax actually make to social landlords’ total arrears?

At United Welsh, arrears have more than doubled since we started following its welfare reform journey, from £215,000 last April to £657,000 by the end of February this year. The landlord tells us that under-occupiers make up 16 per cent of overall arrears.

‘We have 30.55 per cent of under-occupiers paying in full, 53.26 per cent paying in part and 15.4 per cent not paying at all,’ a spokesperson says. ‘So although the bedroom tax is undeniably having an impact, there are many other factors to consider when we look at the overall arrears increase.’

But this is by no means a trend that every landlord has experienced. At Coastline the proportion of arrears notched up – but then went down again. It is now lower – at 0.98 per cent – than it was last April, when it was 1.08 per cent. Family Mosaic has seen arrears drop from 5.5 per cent to 5.1 per cent.

Mr Nicholson at Hastoe says the reduction is a result of focused management, improved IT systems and increasing the provision of welfare advice to tenants.

Temporary reprieve
Many of the landlords in our focus group believe the true extent of the impact of the bedroom tax is being softened in the short term by discretionary housing payments.

Salix reports the number of tenants affected by the bedroom tax in arrears has dropped to 36 per cent as of 31 March 2014 ‘almost entirely’ due to support from DHPs. A full 741 of its tenants have received a total of £292,000 of DHPs in 2013/14.

Leeds Council tenants have received more than £1 million in DHPs. ‘These payments paper over the serious impacts of the charge,’ Mr Marshall states.

The question of what happens when DHP funds run out – or if it is reduced – is a recurring fear among landlords. And then there is the roll-out of universal credit still to come. Many members of the focus group worry about the start of this policy – date still to be determined – which will combine a swathe of existing benefits, including housing benefit, into a single monthly benefit, paid to the claimant. As well as having a direct impact on arrears – if tenants simply don’t pay their rent when they receive their monthly cheque – it could have other repercussions.

As Mr Marshall from Leeds Council warns: ‘Once universal credit comes into being across the country the reason for rent arrears will be far more difficult to state and the government will find blaming it on fecklessness far easier.’

Aspire Housing tenant

Mark’s journey

‘I’m no longer a sob story,’ says 46-year-old Mark Taylor. Inside Housing has been following Mr Taylor’s life for a year now, and the Aspire tenant has come a long way in that time.

Back in April 2013, the divorced father of three was facing financial ruin.

Living in a two-bedroom flat in Newcastle-under-Lyme, he was deemed to have a spare bedroom, even though his two daughters – then 14 and nine – and 13-year-old son were cramming into the bedroom for weekend visits. With his council tax benefit also being cut, Mr Taylor found he needed to find an extra £60 a month. He was living off toast all week in order to have enough money left over at the weekend to feed his children.

But after going on television to talk about the impact of the bedroom tax on his life, a mysterious benefactor donated £1,000.

With the money, he was able to pay off about a third of the high-interest loan he took out from doorstep lenders. With the help of his landlord, Mr Taylor managed to get a discretionary housing payment from Newcastle-under-Lyme Council which left his rent account in credit by £40.

Since then, Mr Taylor – who cannot work as a result of disabling back pain – has managed to stay out of arrears. Feeling like things were going better, he approached his local bank branch and got an overdraft which allowed him to pay off the remaining debt on the high-interest loans. As a result, Mr Taylor is £360 a month better off – and says he is much better able to cope with the cut to his housing and council tax benefits as a result.

He is even seeing a physiotherapist every three weeks and doing recuperative exercises, which gives him some hope he will one day be able to recover enough from his back injuries to get a job.

‘Last year, it did affect me. It was a case of pay the rent or buy food for me and my children,’ he recalls. But life has now improved. ‘I’m a positive story.’

See Inside Housing to read the full feature, including boxes with data from each of the 10 landlords in the focus group

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We have just celebrated Inside Housing’s 30th birthday -…

We have just celebrated Inside Housing’s 30th birthday – so I dug through the National Archives’ latest releases under the 30-year rule to find out about the housing politics of 1984. Read it on Inside Housing’s website, or here.

Thatcher’s secrets

In 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s housing minister threatened to resign over proposed cuts to his budget. Jess McCabe uncovers the top secret files, hidden until this year, that reveal the full story


‘Resign,’ roared a mob of MPs. ‘Resign!’

The House of Commons is always boisterous. But in 2014 it would be unheard of for irate members of parliament to interrupt a secretary of state (in this case environment secretary Patrick Jenkin, whose brief included housing) to bellow that social housing tenants ‘need repairs’ – and housing budget cuts would never be considered contentious enough to be a resignation issue.

Not so in 1984, the year of Inside Housing’s launch, when MPs bayed for blood over cuts and the housing minister did indeed threaten to resign because of them. Now, thanks to the release of secret documents by the National Archive, and interviews with some of the key players, Inside Housing can reveal the full story 30 years on.

The impact of the decisions taken in this critical period were so huge they are still being felt today, particularly for council housing. They were made against a backdrop of 1 million Britons on the waiting list for council housing. Nearly 200,000 households were living in overcrowded accommodation. Another 78,000 households were homeless. The right to buy was in full swing, with more than 600,000 council tenants already having taken advantage of discounts as steep as 70 per cent to buy their flats and houses since it was launched four years earlier.

And Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, intent on cutting the national deficit, wanted to slash £310 million from the housing budget – the steepest cut of any department. So contentious was this plan that the housing minister of the time, Ian Gow (see box, overleaf: The housing minister), threatened to resign in order to rescue funds that would pay for building new social housing and grants to put indoor plumbing into poorly built private homes. It seemed the gambit worked – the Treasury capitulated, appearing to reduce the cuts to just £65 million from a total budget of more than £3 billion gross.

Media backlash
However, there was an even tougher blow still to come. Local authorities would only be able to spend 20 per cent of capital raised from the right to buy a year, a real-term reduction of more than £1 billion in 1984 money (or £2.25 billion in today’s money).

Even the Daily Mail railed against the cuts, describing them as a ‘bitter freeze’ on housing investment that was ‘as stupid as it is shortsighted’. Meanwhile, the Financial Times strongly questioned the Conservative government’s economic logic. Only the Economist was supportive. In an editorial headlined ‘Blood on the cabinet office carpet’, the magazine scoffed at Mr Gow, ‘once driest of the dries, going native in defence of one of the “wettest” programmes, housing’.

The result was a furious parliamentary fight over the housing budget for that particular year – and also an ideological fight over the future of public housing in Britain. In its earliest print editions, Inside Housing reported on press speculation that Mr Gow and his boss Mr Jenkin were being scapegoated.

‘The government’s direction was very clear: discouraging local authorities from building. And eventually it stopped them from building,’ recalls David Hucker, who was then chief executive of Orbit Group and is now chair of Orbit Charitable Trust.

The records of how the government undertook this approach start on 6 November 1984. It was only days before the then chancellor Nigel Lawson would get up in parliament and announce the next year’s spending plan in the autumn statement.

Most of the budget had already been settled. Only a few issues were left to be resolved – the biggest among them was housing. A massive gulf had opened between the spending increase of £250 million in 1985/86 which the environment secretary proposed, and the Treasury’s plan to slash spending by £380 million – of which £200 million was to come off spending on new dwellings and conversions. Mr Jenkin had proposed enough funding to build 40,000 council homes, while arguing that in fact 75,000 homes a year should be built to meet Britain’s needs. The Treasury wanted to slash this funding to somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 homes.

Big budgets
The annual house building budget under consideration sounds high by 2014 standards – £1.3 billion, or more than £3.5 billion in 2014 money. By comparison, the entire 2011 to 2015 affordable homes programme amounts to £4.5 billion.

Leading up to the announcement, the prime minister’s political advisors, the housing minister and environment secretary exchanged a series of frank memos, with Mr Gow and the environment secretary warning of dire consequences if housing spending was cut.

In one previously unseen letter from Mr Gow to Mrs Thatcher, the minister warned that the cuts ‘would mean an increase in homelessness (which has risen substantially since 1979) increasing disrepair (involving even greater expenditure later on) more overcrowding and more housing conditions which, as I have seen for myself, are unacceptable’.

The right wing Tory MP John Redwood – in those days head of the Number 10 policy unit – wrote a frank memo to Mrs Thatcher in response. ‘We should not underestimate the political row there will be about the proposed reduction in the housing programme. We should be robust about increasing council house sales and reducing the level of new build,’ he concludes.

And, Mr Redwood – then aged 30 – conceded the cuts would ‘lead to substantial opposition from local authorities, the construction industry, the jobs lobby and some Conservative MPs’.

It was at this point that Mr Gow played his astonishing hand of threatening to resign. ‘He was his own man. He didn’t discuss that with me at all,’ says Mr Jenkin speaking to Inside Housing 30 years later – now Lord Jenkin, a Conservative peer. ‘He rather spoilt his own pitch. He had been Margaret Thatcher’s private secretary for a while and I had always thought very much a blue-eyed boy in her eyes.’

Still, no agreement had been reached. ‘And Margaret Thatcher handled that in a way that I was not aware of her having done for anything else,’ Lord Jenkin recalls.

The Cabinet met and tried to hammer it out. When that didn’t work, Lord Jenkin continues, ‘she [Mrs Thatcher] got up and took all the Cabinet out of the room with her’. He was left alone with two Treasury ministers. ‘It was two to one. And, not to put too fine a point on it, I did not get all that I was seeking.’

Limiting provision
A secret report on those meetings summarised Mrs Thatcher’s thoughts on the matter: ‘The government’s aim should be to reduce the extent of public sector housing. The public sector should limit new construction to provision for the aged and disabled.’

Today, Mr Redwood recalls: ‘Some people felt that housing took too much [funding], relative to other things. It was a very tough budget for housing but there wasn’t an easy solution to cut something else, like health for example.’

On 12 November, as the chancellor read out the autumn statement, announcing the £65 million cut in spending, the public was unaware it would have been much greater had it not been for Mr Gow’s resignation threat. They were also unaware of the sting in the tail – restrictions on local authority spending. This wasn’t revealed until 18 December, when Mr Jenkin, came on to the floor of the Commons to announce that local authorities would only be allowed to spend 20 per cent of the money raised through right to buy.

What followed was a grilling by not only Labour MPs, but some Conservatives – who were particularly horrified by what they saw as the government preventing councils from spending their own money. John Cunningham, then shadow environment secretary, concluded: ‘Stripped of jargon, he has today announced a cut of £400 million in housing investment and the freezing of £1.2 billion of local authorities’ own assets – their own money! Will not the consequences of this be appalling for all those in difficulty in the housing sector – for people wanting homes as well as those engaged in the industry?’

Fred Silvester, a Conservative MP, asked ‘why we should be asking councils to pursue our policy of selling council houses, when plainly that is no longer of much benefit to them?’

The answer – that local authorities would be able to spend all the money raised, eventually – didn’t satisfy many MPs, or many in housing. It would not be a good idea, the government argued, for all the money to be spent at once. And, in a confusing twist of economics, if councils spent the money raised, it would still count as borrowing on the public balance sheet.

‘I have never forgotten that uncomfortable hour,’ recalls Lord Jenkin of the time he spent defending the very policy that, behind the scenes, he had fought against. ‘They [the MPs] felt they got the minister on the run.’

‘I think it was a pity,’ says Lord Michael Heseltine, speaking today. When right to buy was launched in 1981, Lord Heseltine was environment secretary. Today, he recalls the battle with the Treasury to make sure councils would spend 75 per cent of receipts on housing. ‘There was bound to be a demand for housing. There was a demand – that was why the original deal was 75 per cent.’

Building of council housing had already begun its descent. In the 1970s, under the Labour government, local authorities were building more than 150,000 homes a year across the UK. In 1985/86, it fell to just 30,000 before grinding down to a nadir of just 130 homes in 2004/05. Although housing associations filled some of the gap in 2012/13, just 42,800 affordable homes were built.

‘It was the height of Thatcherism and I think we are still living through the after-effects of what was going on,’ says Tom Murtha – then deputy director of Mosley and District Housing Association, which had 2,000 homes in Birmingham, now chair of housing charity Hact. ‘We’re still paying the price today, with the lack of affordable rented homes.’

Lord Heseltine agrees it was a transformative time. But, he sees the legacy differently. ‘It’s been a remarkably successful period of policy, which [reinvigorated] homeownership, recreated the private sector and led to one of the great renaissances of the 20th century, the regeneration of city centres on a scale without precedent.’

Thirty years on, whatever your political stance, the decisions made in Inside Housing’s first year are still having a direct impact on the state of the housing sector.

The Treasury Minister of State, Mr Ian Gow.

The housing minister

Back in 1984, the housing brief was in the hands of Conservative MP Ian Gow (pictured). Elected to represent Eastbourne in 1974, Mr Gow became Margaret Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary in 1979 and reportedly a close personal friend.

In 1983 he became housing minister, his first ministerial position. After his rebellion on the housing budget, in 1985 he was moved to the Treasury. Richard Best, now a Labour peer, recalls of his time in the job: ‘At the time it felt we were having to do battle, but with a charming and charismatic minister.’

Shortly afterwards, the staunch unionist actually did resign – over the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985, which set up the first meetings between British and Irish ministers to discuss Northern Irish policy.

At 8.39am on 20 July 1990, Mr Gow was killed by a Semtex bomb planted under his car by the IRA at his East Sussex home.

‘He was a man who always spoke his mind,’ says his former boss Lord Patrick Jenkin. ‘Ian Gow was a marvellous man.’

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My latest profile for Inside Housing is of Bristol’s…

My latest profile for Inside Housing is of Bristol’s mayor, George Ferguson:


Painting Bristol red

Bristol mayor shares dreams of homes

George Ferguson wants Bristol to build homes – not houses. Jess McCabe finds out about his ambitious plans to deliver developments with a soul

George Ferguson, the first elected mayor of Bristol, is famous for his red trousers.

Today the mayor doesn’t disappoint, welcoming Inside Housing into his bright green office in City Hall wearing crimson jeans. His press officer confirms that Mr Ferguson’s lower half is never seen clothed in any other colour. Such is his obsession, he registered a version of the Ferguson family tartan featuring only red threads in order to have a pair suitable for meeting the Queen and accepting his CBE for services to architecture in 2010. At funerals, he sports a formal burgundy pair.

Beneath the surface
He once told the Bristol Post that he started wearing them about 25 years ago in order to express his independence and differentiate himself from the suit-wearing, ex-city types. It is undeniable that his trousers make him stand out. But when combined with a crisp white shirt and a blazer – not to mention an accent that recalls a 1930s BBC Radio 4 presenter – the resulting feel is no less well-to-do than pin-striped perfection. His look has also helped spawn a parody Twitter account, @RedPantsMayor, which pokes gentle fun at his approach. A typical missive, after he spent a night sleeping on the street to raise awareness of homelessness on 1 March, reading: ‘After the charity sleep-out for the homeless I returned to my penthouse lair to plan a wacky pop-up night time art venue for them to enjoy’. But in the mayor’s case, these colourful first impressions conceal a seriously committed approach to tackling the city’s housing problems.

A former architect, Mr Ferguson plans to use his powers as elected mayor to overhaul Bristol’s poor house building record, setting a target of completing 2,500 affordable homes by 2018 – the exact tenure has not been decided yet, but it will be a mix, the council says. If achieved, this will be a remarkable turnaround for a city which only expects to build 103 homes this year, despite facing a mounting waiting list of 14,500; a rise in rough sleeping from nine people in 2012 to 41 in 2014 – based on a more thorough single-night count which involved checking hot spots where homeless people are known to visit – and a rapidly growing population of 428,000.

But his housing ambitions are not limited to new build. Mr Ferguson has already kicked off a £92 million energy efficiency programme to retrofit thousands of the council’s stock, and blanketing the city’s social homes in solar panels.

So, half way through his first term – which runs from November 2012 to May 2016 – is the mayor delivering on his housing goals? Or is he all mouth and red trousers?

The roots of 67-year-old Mr Ferguson’s interest in housing runs deep. A military child, Mr Ferguson travelled constantly, and boarded at a private boy’s school in Berkshire. ‘We lived all over the place, in this country and abroad. I always took an interest in places. When it came to thinking what I wanted to do, I thought there was nothing better to do than making buildings,’ he recalls. And so he came to Bristol in 1965 to study architecture, and, one year in London aside, never left.

This wandering childhood left Mr Ferguson with not just an interest in construction, but it seems an abiding desire to settle down. Indeed, Bristol’s housing chiefs report their mayor doesn’t like to use the word ‘housing’, instead preferring the term ‘homes’.

‘Almost in my first year [of university], I felt I was making this my home,’ he reminiscences. Mr Ferguson bought a house in the centre of Bristol before he even graduated. ‘My first practical experience was to buy a house for a few hundred pounds, with a deposit paid for by a patent on a pub game which I had invented, and £5 a week from a couple of other students living with me. We turned it into a practical project in home building, while a student, in the centre of Bristol.’

Mayor of Bristol

Source: Rebecca Harley

Since then, Mr Ferguson has seen the city become far less affordable – the average house price in the city was £208,000 as of December, according to local estate agents, and up 39 per cent in the last decade. ‘And that is one of the things that drives me, to narrow that division between the relatively prosperous and the relatively poor.’

In his early 20s, he made a brief entry into local politics for the first time as a Liberal councillor (the Liberal Democrats didn’t exist yet). Mr Ferguson says he was drawn into politics by ‘an opportunity to change things, particularly in the planning field, which I had strong feelings about’. He stood down in 1979, ‘cancelled the local paper and just got on with running my practice’. In that year he established Ferguson Mann Architects and got to work. But this wasn’t the end of the story – Mr Ferguson stood for parliament in 1983 and 1987 as a Liberal Democrat, but didn’t win and eventually disappeared from political life.

In the intervening years, Mr Ferguson’s practice was responsible for a whole series of projects that shaped Bristol, most famously buying the city’s Tobacco Factory in 1994, and transforming it into an exemplar mixed-use regeneration project, boasting a theatre, restaurant and apartments – the mayor still lives there.

In 2003, he was elected as president of Royal Institute of British Architects, where he championed ‘making places rather than just making buildings’ until 2005. Fast forward to 2011, and Mr Ferguson found himself at the centre of the campaign for Bristol to have an elected mayor. ‘I had extracted myself from politics completely and very intentionally, and tried to do change in other ways,’ he recalls. ‘When the referendum was announced for having mayors in cities, I felt well this is a really good way to change a city – not for me to be mayor.’

House and home
Encouraged to stand during this campaign, Mr Ferguson says he in part came forward to provide a ‘relatively dogma-free’ independent candidate – that red trouser streak again.

Mr Ferguson came to power with a 6,000 margin over the nearest contender. His manifesto didn’t mention housing, but since coming into office it has become one of his biggest commitments. And he has convinced many of the city’s social landlords. Oona Goldsworthy, chief executive of 1,800-home United Communities, enthuses: ‘I feel he does love Bristol. I think he has a political ambition that is doing the best for Bristol.’ She recalls that right from the beginning, the mayor met with housing associations and showed a commitment to address a housing supply problem that Ms Goldsworthy brands ‘really, really bad’.

Mr Ferguson acknowledges that his commitment – which works out at about 900 affordable homes a year by 2018 – is lower than the number of homes Bristol needs. ‘To really catch up we should be providing between 1,000 and 1,500 new affordable homes a year,’ he says. ‘Well, I’ve got a starting base of just double figures – less than 100 affordable homes a year. It’s an appalling situation. It’s gone down and down over the years.’

There are a few reasons, he explains: Bristol, closely surrounded by other unitary authorities, doesn’t have lots of open space within city limits ready to be developed.

Mr Ferguson is by no means an advocate of just shoving up as many homes as possible at the cheapest price. ‘There is a terrible trap there if you chase numbers for the sake of it. You’ve got to make quite sure that you’re building sustainability,’ he argues. This means, he carries on, building homes that people want, in communities. ‘We’ve been very bad at that in this country, we’ve built estates,’ he pronounces the word with some hostility, ‘that are not really very attractive places to be in.’

To this end, the mayor wants housing co-operatives and self-builders to play a role in meeting the target, and to build some to the exacting Passivhaus standard of air-tight construction. Factory-built homes, which he expects to reduce costs by 10 per cent to 20 per cent, may also play a role.

A number of initiatives are already underway to transform the 2,500-home commitment into reality. In December, Bristol produced an affordable housing delivery framework which named the first council-owned sites to be brought forward for developing 1,555 new homes, of which 465 will be affordable.

Raising standards
Mr Ferguson has also set up the Bristol Homes Commission, which is due to come out with recommendations about how to catch up with housing need in May. Nick Horne, chair of the commission and chief executive of 11,000-home Knightstone Housing Association, is tight-lipped about what these will be. But he says of Mr Ferguson: ‘I was impressed by his knowledge of housing and by his passion for getting not just any old housing, for well-designed housing.’

The council itself has started building homes again in earnest for the first time since the 1980s. Consultants commissioned by the city found it has enough headroom – £2.5 million – on its housing revenue account to build 254 new homes by 2017/18, and 1,000 by 2028, and it plans to act on these findings.

Local housing associations say it is too soon to judge if all this will be enough to deliver on the mayor’s target. But 8,300-home Merlin Housing Society and 12,000-home Curo are among those already considering schemes in the city as a result of Mr Ferguson’s policies.

Mr Ferguson also wants developers to restart some of the projects which stalled in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Some compromises on affordable housing may be necessary. ‘They [developers] will be seeking to reduce some of the section 106 obligations,’ he says. ‘I don’t want to let people off the hook on affordable homes. But I’ve got to balance that with – it’s better to get some rather than none.’

This may be. But to be remembered as the mayor who built the homes Bristol badly needs, rather than the being the mayor who wore red trousers, some won’t be enough.

The green mayor

Bristol has won the title of European Green Capital of 2015, in recognition of its environmental commitments. This includes £47 million to install solar panels on up to 7,000 social homes, and a £45 million programme to install external wall insulation on 3,300 homes over eight years.

Bristol has managed to go ahead with the insulation project despite cuts to the energy company obligation by using its housing revenue account to help fund the project, combined with a series of European grants. ‘While we have to build new homes, we have got an absolute responsibility to make what we have got as efficient and liveable in as possible,’ the mayor says. ‘The top priority of tenants in surveys is energy efficiency and tackling energy poverty.’

George Ferguson on…

Bedroom tax evictions: ‘All our actions are based on helping rather than evicting. In the end, people will take advantage if we have a no evictions policy.’

Europe: ‘You go to places like Freiburg in Germany, where you’ve got energy efficient, family friendly, real communities that are a million miles away from the sort of estates we have traditionally produced, whether public or private.’

Standing again for Bristol mayor: ‘As long as I’m healthy I will stand again. Not because I think the whole thing is joy, because it isn’t. I think it’s right I should stand once more so I can deliver all the things I promised to deliver.’

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Freedom to roam Brighton Housing Trust is no housing giant -…

Freedom to roam

Brighton Housing Trust is no housing giant – but it’s a massive technological help to its clients. Jess McCabe reports

Tim Hughes rummages in a plastic shopping bag, pulling out some crumpled pieces of paper. The 56-year-old, with a Brighton Seagulls football scarf slung around his neck, has dug out the certificates he earned for completing three computer classes organised by housing and support provider Brighton Housing Trust. One is for learning to use Facebook. Another is for the more utilitarian ‘understanding public services online’.

We are in the lobby of BHT’s office on London Road – a few minutes’ walk from Brighton Pavilion. The trust, which has about 300 tenants and supports around 8,000 others, has transformed its reception into an internet café for the use of its clients, with some nice leather chairs, a radio, and six computers set up to access the internet, including some in private booths. This is just one example of how the trust is providing free internet access for its clients and tenants, after BHT decided it was the best thing it could do to help tenants enter the digital age.

‘There’s not a significant cost,’ explains BHT’s chief executive Andy Winter – the trust has spent £18,000 since 2010 on 40 Windows desktops at six drop-in and 12 residential locations, and wi-fi at 31 locations, each costing £25 to £50 a month.

In October 2012, BHT surveyed its clients and found that just 17 per cent of those who live in Brighton and 27 per cent of all clients across the trust’s East Sussex operations had access to the internet independently of the trust.

Equal access
All but a handful of clients now have internet access through the 24 different services the trust provides, through computers hooked up to the internet and around 40 wi-fi hotspots.

Each client has the password to access BHT’s wi-fi, which is the same across all its facilities in Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings. The exception is one of BHT’s supported accommodation projects for recovering addicts, where online access could prove disruptive. Some content is filtered to prevent abuse.


Source: Alexis Maryon

Tim Hughes chats to Shelley Reed, PA to BHT’s chief executive

‘They have the same password to access the wi-fi that I do. We try to do it on a basis of equality,’ explains Mr Winter. BHT also offers training such as the courses Mr Hughes has participated in.

Mr Hughes, a private tenant who BHT has helped to stay in his home by assisting him to apply for disability living allowance, has been making enthusiastic use of the internet café and courses to make the best use of the internet access. Now, he drops into BHT’s offices to use the computers a few times a week, helping other clients get to grips with the basics.

‘I do sometimes help people find things online. The other day, someone wanted to see a pop video of Fire by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, and I managed to find that for them, which makes you feel a bit useful,’ he recalls.

Helping clients dig out progressive rock videos from the 1960s might sound like a tenuous use of a social landlord’s resources, but Mr Winter advocates handing autonomy to clients so they can make the most of the internet revolution.

The origins of the free wi-fi programme date back to about 2009, when Mr Winter began to realise the importance of internet access. ‘If there’s no wi-fi at a conference, I feel affected and slightly annoyed,’ he says. ‘More and more was going online, and I was benefitting from it, but our clients were excluded.’

And offline clients were cut off from some crucially important services, such as bidding for social homes and the forthcoming switch to universal credit. This will bundle together most existing benefits into one monthly payment and the government expects that 80 per cent of applications for universal credit should be made online.

Larger social landlords have been able to opt for more expensive measures to harness the digital revolution and help tenants make the most of it. Halton Housing Trust, for example, is giving tenants tablet computers, while others design apps for clients to use on their smartphones or build websites that allow tenants to pay rent online – but these options were out of financial reach for BHT.

Digital exclusion
Free wi-fi alone won’t eliminate digital exclusion, Mr Winter insists, as it will take a combination of connection, hardware and training.

‘There must be affordable connectivity. Merely providing hardware and connectivity is not enough,’ he says. ‘The individual must know how best to use the opportunities provided by online activity.’

As for whether free wi-fi is really helping clients get to grips with the switch to applying for benefits or looking for work online, some clients are already making full use of the facilities.

But for others, it’s a more winding journey. Mr Hughes says he feels like the push to make everyone apply for benefits online is ‘a bit dodgy’.

‘It’s alright for the youngsters, because they grew up with it and they’re used to it. But for people of my age group, computers are more a sci-fi thing until fairly recently,’ he says. ‘My generation are having to wise up.’

Survey says

Brighton Housing Trust’s survey of 136 clients in October 2012 revealed:

86 per cent 
had used a computer

77 per cent 
had sent an email

69 per cent 
had an email address

51 per cent 
had their own PC, tablet or smartphone that allowed them to go online

73 per cent
only have access to the internet because of BHT

Searching for work

João Seguro, 35, is a former sailor from Portugal, who ended up sleeping rough in Brighton for three months. Mr Seguro first felt the benefits of Brighton Housing Trust’s push to give clients access to the internet when he was staying in its shared accommodation earlier this year.

‘In shared accommodation we had 24-hour access to a computer, we had our own log in which was for the network, at any facilities of BHT throughout Brighton and Hove,’ he explains. Clients can use a private room to go online. ‘It’s like an office with a computer. Each one has its own private, perfect internet connection. It doesn’t get much better than that.’

He has used these facilities to start looking for jobs online, and network with potential contacts on LinkedIn. Mr Seguro explains one of the benefits is he can use his internet history and emails to prove he has been looking for work – even showing he was applying for a job at midnight on 21 December.

Now he is living in private accommodation, but still pops into BHT’s offices to use the computers and access the internet. ‘I can’t afford to have my own internet yet. They allow me to use their facilities all the time,’ he says.

Read this on Inside Housing

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Rising to the challenge of Scotland’s fight against floods

‘There’s no natural weather anymore’

Professor James Curran has studied the environment all his life. Now he’s in charge of Scotland’s fight against floods. He tells Jess McCabe how he’ll rise to the challenge

My eyes are drawn to James Curran’s tie. It’s blue. It’s snazzy. Turning it over to show me the Institute of Physics label underneath, the chief executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency explains that it shows the patterns made by ionising particles in a cloud chamber.

‘Going way back, physics, that’s what I studied,’ he explains. ‘But I was never convinced it was quite the right thing – I just drifted into it because it was easy to be honest.’

This statement could easily seem boastful, but Professor Curran is so unassuming and friendly, smiling from behind thick glasses, it really doesn’t. Still, it’s possible my face reacts to the assertion that a career in physics is the easy option, because he adds quickly: ‘I come from a family of physicists, so it was easy to just drop into it. I was never convinced it was quite the thing for me. I’ve never had a plan – I really haven’t. My life has just been a random walk.’

Random it may be, but this walk has taken 62-year-old Professor Curran to a key position as Scotland’s first responder to flooding disasters, and guardian of the natural world.

Click here to read the rest of this interview on the Inside Housing website

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TL; DR  Help fund story shedding light on the economics of leaving an abusive relationship I am…

TL; DR  Help fund story shedding light on the economics of leaving an abusive relationship
I am about to start a big freelance reporting project, and I need your help to try and make it happen.
My idea is to travel around the UK and interview survivors of domestic abuse about money. 
We know that domestic violence can affect anyone, rich or poor. But if you have few resources, is it actually harder to leave? And, because government cuts are snipping away at the safety net of the welfare state, is it becoming even harder still? 
We also know the number of reported cases has soared 38% since 2008, coincidentally around the start of the economic crisis.
The centre and heart of this story will be extensive interviews carried out over months, with the people who best know the answers to this question: the survivors themselves. I am not going into this with lots of preconceptions, but to truly reflect the lives and struggles of (mostly) women whose voices are not exactly heard very often. My plan is to sensitively interview survivors from all walks of life, all over the UK, and from a broad diversity of backgrounds. 
The series of stories which comes out of this will be published on Women’s eNews, which is a non-profit news wire in America that specialises in covering women’s lives. 

But, because of the complexity of this story, we are trying to crowdfund this project – it can’t be done in a couple of days reporting, because I want to interview and include the voices of lots of survivors in a whole range of different circumstances.
This is not just about making a reporting project happen – although it is a project that Women’s eNews couldn’t fund on its own. 
But this is also about testing out a new way of funding proper journalism. So this is an experiment. Can we use our crowd power to show that there is an appetite for these stories? To help pay for a story that just wouldn’t happen otherwise?
So for that reason, I am asking for your help. I am hoping you want this story to be told as much as I want to tell it. And if you are able to kick in just a few pounds/dollars, we can hopefully make this happen together.
If you are interested, but actually you’re not totally sure what sort of reporter and writer I am – you might want to have a look through my tumblr portfolio: jessicamccabe.tumblr.com 
Please do think about contributing if you can – or if you can’t do that right now/I haven’t convinced you, please do share this link on Twitter and Facebook, with your friends and family/forward this email to anyone you think might be interested or ablet to help.

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No comfort for those in fuel poverty

Imagine living in a house so cold, you stay in bed all day just to keep warm. This is the reality for hundreds of social housing tenants, as Jess McCabe discovered on the job with an affordable warmth officer

Graham Parker (name has been changed) answers the door in his dressing gown. It is 10.30am, but if his Runcorn neighbours are thinking of the 57-year-old, ‘blinds down, living a life on benefits’, as George Osborne famously put it, they don’t know Mr Parker very well.

In fact, the neighbours are unlikely to make any such assumptions. Walking up the narrow path to Mr Parker’s front door, the lawn is perfectly manicured and prettily planted. Inside, the house is immaculate and almost entirely white; everything from the carpet to the curtains is in Mr Parker’s favourite colour. Cat ornaments are everywhere, adding to the homey aura – the more you look, the more you find, from the tiny porcelain cat on the windowsill to the draft excluder, which is shaped like a line of cats. But there is a problem. The house is very, very cold.

‘Just feel me hand,’ he says in a soft Liverpudlian accent. It’s very cold. There is little discernible difference between the temperature outside and the temperature inside the house.

In fact, the whole of the two-bedroom property where he has lived for 15 years is cold. Until a few days ago, he shared his home with his black cat, named Ovinnik after the Polish goddess – he shows me a shaky video of her. But Ovinnik died, aged 20, and now she is gone, Mr Parker lives alone.

He used to have an active career as a gardener, and before that as a barber. All that changed when he contracted HIV; subsequently, he was hit by a series of debilitating illnesses. Two years ago, he had a stroke. Now a typical day involves staying in bed, his only source of warmth an electric blanket.

Sustainable Housing is visiting Mr Parker with Michelle Melvin, the first affordable warmth officer to be appointed by his landlord, 53,500-home Riverside, which is one of the many social landlords with staff dedicated to energy efficiency advice (see box, overleaf: Found in translation). We are spending the day with Ms Melvin, as she visits a handful of the 9,000 tenants in her patch. Her job description is simple: to help tenants save money, and do what she can to ensure they can afford to heat their homes to a safe temperature.

Read the rest in today’s issue of Sustainable Housing, or on the Inside Housing website

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Debate: is the Energy Bill Revolution right?

Yesterday I took place in a virtual ‘debate’ organised by French construction company Saint-Gobain, about whether the Energy Bill Revolution is right in its call for how to fund the massive project of retrofitting the UK’s housing stock for modern demands for warm homes that are affordable to heat.

I didn’t argue one way or the other, but I was a guest ‘speaker’. You can read my contribution to the debate here, along with the comments and other debaters.

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Arrears drop in Passivhaus schemes

An interesting news story that came out of a feature I commissioned for Sustainable Housing:

13 February 2014 | By Jess McCabe, Richard Shrubb

A landlord claims it has slashed rent arrears close to zero by housing tenants in super energy-efficient Passivhaus homes.


Three years after the first tenant moved into Hastoe Housing Association’s 28 Passivhaus homes in Essex and Norfolk, just one is in arrears – and the landlord said this was a minimal problem caused by the timing of housing benefit payments. This compares with average arrears of between 3 and 4 per cent across Hastoe’s 5,000 homes.

Kevin Hartnett, business development director at Hastoe, said this was because tenants are spending less on energy and are more able to afford their rent. He added: ‘The findings will make the business case more attractive for building more Passivhaus homes. It’s not something that as a sector we have looked at before.’

The University of East Anglia has been monitoring the energy use of Hastoe’s Passivhaus tenants. It found, for example, that tenants in one three-bedroom house spent £120 a year on heating and hot water.

But not everyone is convinced of the link between energy-efficient homes and low arrears. Jerome Geoghegan, group development director at L&Q, said it has not found evidence that arrears are lower in homes completed to level 4 or 5 of the code for sustainable homes when compared with the less energy-efficient code level 3.

He added that Hastoe’s results were worth exploring further, and he welcomed ‘anything that helps tenants sustain their tenancies’. L&Q hopes to build a Passivhaus development in Bromley, south London, dependent on planning permission.

Hastoe is one of the first social landlords to build at scale to the stringent Passivhaus energy efficiency standard, under which homes are so well insulated they can be heated with only a hairdryer. So far it has 28 homes completed with tenants living in them, and a further 100 homes under construction. Building to this standard adds £15,000 to £20,000 to the cost of each home, Mr Hartnett said.

A handful of other landlords have followed suit, for example, Circle Housing Group is building a 51-home Passivhaus project in Rainham, east London. It claims this will be the first Passivhaus development to be let entirely at affordable rents.

Helen Wilson, group head of energy and green strategy at Circle Housing, said the scheme, which will be completed in the autumn, ‘will set a precedent for Circle Housing to continue to deliver highly energy-
efficient properties’.

Read more about this in Sustainable Housing’s feature Balancing the Bills.

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