The new localists?

By Paul Hackett, director of the Smith Institute

The Labour Party has often talked up localism in opposition only to disappoint once in power. But current signals suggest an Ed Miliband government would radically change the way in which public money is raised and spent locally

Labour’s support for localism continues to gain momentum and was given a further push last week when Hilary Benn, the shadow secretary of state for communities and local government, called for a new English deal based on greater financial devolution.

At the launch of the new Smith Institute report on ‘Labour and Localism’ Benn said the case for decentralisation was now ‘overwhelming’ and that ‘money, and the power that goes with it, needs to be moved out of Whitehall and down to communities’. This sentiment was echoed in the institute’s report, which includes essays on local government reform by Labour council leaders and MPs.

With Labour dominating most of the big cities and hoping to do well in the forthcoming local elections, there is a growing feeling that the shadow team now get’s localism and sees it as integral to the party’s evolving narrative around reforming the state and rebuilding the economy.

Whilst it is true that Labour has traditionally talked up the English devolution story in opposition, often only to disappoint in government, there seems to be more than just mood music to the latest pronouncements from Ed Miliband about giving power back to local people and local councils.

This is re-enforced by the success of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the roll out of the city-regions concept to other Labour cities, such as Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool and Newcastle. Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, talks in passionate terms about dynamic economic geography based on sub-regions and comments in the Smith report that ‘the last Labour government took ten years to realise that it could not achieve its objectives through centralised, compartmentalised, nationally imposed programmes. We mustn’t make the same mistake again’.

As we move out of the depths of recession, Labour seems prepared to embrace a more asymmetrical system of government, with different powers transferred down to different councils at different times.

There’s still plenty of anger about the cuts in funding and the way fiscal austerity is disproportionately hurting those councils with the greatest need; and there’s plenty of concern across the party about postcode lotteries, the lack of co-terminosity in many places and arguably too many local agencies (like the Local Enterprise Partnerships) competing with each other. But many are now talking openly about a new more joined-up, place-based localist future and letting a thousand local flowers bloom.

The view from the majority of newly elected Labour MPs (many of them former councillors) is that the party’s past centralist tendencies are unpopular, unfair and unsuited to the new economy. There is also a realisation that any incoming Labour government will face a very tough inheritance and that distributing funding on a fairer basis will be difficult and expensive.

The authors in the report nevertheless argue that the current funding system has reached the limit of its capacity and needs more than just tinkering. That might not translate immediately into anything quite as far reaching as the local tax reform proposals in Boris Johnson’s London Finance Commission, but the idea of city local government having much greater financial self-determination and accountability is taking hold in the Labour ranks – even if business is opposed to local rate setting.

According to shadow local government minister Andy Sawford, Labour is embracing the power of localism and will radically change the way in which public money is raised and spent locally. Clive Betts, the Labour chair of the CLG select committee, claims there is no turning back and envisages a future under Labour where councils have much greater income-raising powers and much more freedom to borrow. He says that a proportion of the national tax take should go to local authorities by right, and not at the whim of the Chancellor.

Labour’s policy reviews are wrestling with the pros and cons of reconfiguring the relationship between central and local government and forming a new financial settlement. That won’t be easy, especially when so many Labour areas have a relatively weak capacity to raise taxes and are heavily reliant on central government to meet the (growing) demand for services. There are also limits to how far local taxes and charges can replace local grant, and reduce the common pot for equalisation.

The labyrinthine system of local government finance doesn’t help, but the elephant in the room is economic geography and uneven economic development, which is getting worse as London races ahead as Europe’s leading global city.

Labour wants financial devolution, but not to enable Westminster City Council (which raises almost as much in business rates as all the eight core cities combined) to declare total financial independence!  The Labour leadership will also have to think long and hard about reforming council tax and maybe embarking on an England-wide property revaluation, which is long overdue (the last rebanding was in 1991) but could cause financial pain for large numbers of homeowners and cost votes.

Many Labour council leaders acknowledge what has been achieved so far on a cross-party basis, but want a distinctive Labour localist settlement which goes far beyond the piecemeal approach advocated by the coalition and practised by the previous government. In place of policy triangulation the call from some quarters is for radical constitutional and financial change, with the Local Government Association taking responsibility for distributing government grant (as happens in Denmark) and cities having control over a range of property taxes.

How far will Labour go towards meeting the ambitions of Labour councils is still unclear. What is becoming more certain though is that Ed Miliband is going to have to offer them a lot more than his predecessors if he wants to present his party as the new localists.

This article first appeared on Public Finance



The future of council housing: What do the councillors think?

By Paul Hunter, head of research at the Smith Institute

Recent housing stories have rarely been positive. Overcrowding is up. The number of new homes built down to record lows. Many young people are excluded from homeownership. And many tenants face ever rising rents. Yet, it is not all gloom and doom. After decades of decline, council housing is back.

The rebirth of council housing started in 2009 when John Healey, the Labour Housing Minister, consulted on reforming the Housing Revenue Account (HRA), which at the time was the means by which central government controlled local authority housing finance. Beyond the technical details, the ‘Healey reforms’ sought to give local authorities greater autonomy over how they manage and invest in their stock.

The media took no notice, but the reforms have cross-party support and were welcomed by many councils as a significant step. The talk in housing circles was of a ‘council housing renaissance’. The extent of this renaissance is at present still small-scale and cautious, but the potential for a step change is still there for the taking.

Since the HRA reforms began the Smith Institute has conducted several studies into what the changes might mean, including the potential investment that could be leveraged in. The latest report surveyed lead councillors for housing in stock retaining authorities. Councillors viewed the HRA reforms favourably (only 9% of those surveyed were dissatisfied). Moreover, the appetite for building is impressive, with 93% stating that they were planning to build new council housing. Indeed, this backs up CLG figures, which show that councils are now starting to build again.

This is certainly good news given the housing crisis is most acute for those on low incomes. The councillors’ priority for more social housing (64% ranked it highest over new build of other tenures and 82% ranked it in their top two) reflects the demand for more sub-market social housing to ease pressures on waiting lists and reduce overcrowding. Moreover, new housing was ranked as a top investment priority for 60% of those surveyed followed by meeting decent homes (18%) and estate regeneration (16%).

However, whilst the ambition to invest was apparent the scale of new council house building remains modest. Almost two thirds of those surveyed were planning to build fewer than 500 homes over a 10-year period. In addition, 60% believed that new-build would not result in net additions of homes due to the impact of Right to Buy, void sales and estate regeneration.

Managing housing debts
Despite HRA plans to borrow to build, councillors were broadly split about how their authority should manage its housing debts. Just over half said they wanted to reduce or pay off their historic debt over the course of their business plan. Only 9% of plans were to see levels of debt increase. This divide is more evident when splitting responses by the number of tenanted homes — those with fewer than 5,000 homes were much more likely to be planning to pay off their debts, whilst those with more homes were less concerned about maintaining or increasing levels of debt.

Nevertheless, three quarters of respondents were in favour of abolishing the debt cap. This may seem puzzling given cautious attitudes over borrowing. It could merely be a matter of principle about granting greater autonomy over housing issues. Moreover, a similar number of those in favour of greater freedoms to borrow said that if their borrowing headroom was to double they would use the extra capacity to build. Interestingly, especially given the poor state of some council homes, only 7% said they would borrow more to invest in existing properties.

The survey captures the prevailing mood on the future of council housing. Many councillors have a clear desire to build more homes yet the financial constraints are holding them back. Some in the sector, whilst happy with the HRA reforms were far from pleased about housing debt allocation. This, and their views on the debt cap, suggest that freeing councils to borrow would deliver more homes and put authorities on more of a level playing field with housing associations.

Cautious optimism
Whilst there was movement in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement politicians remain focused on deficit reduction. Indeed although the £300m extra borrowing capacity announced will be welcomed by many councillors (if not the Chancellor’s quid pro quo on selling off some homes), the scale is small considering the number of council properties. It is far from LGA’s estimate of £7bn to build 60,000 homes over five years and small beer compared with bond issues to housing associations.

The survey captures the cautious optimism of councils and the willingness to borrow. However, for councils to seriously scale up house building this is only half the story. Even if councils could borrow more, their debts would still need to be serviced and paid down over the medium-term. Affordable rent is one option (the survey showed most councillors were open to using it) but for many low-income households higher rents are unaffordable. And there is a limit to how much council housing can be financed by cross subsidy either through planning gain or private sales.

The level of new council house building at present and in the short-term is modest — especially compared with the heyday of municipal housing — but it is an important start. It is unrealistic to believe we will see a return to the levels of local authority build of the 60s and 70s (which is perhaps no bad thing given the short-sighted nature of some of the building programmes). Councillors (and the LGA) are keen to do more. Maybe they should have more incentives to do so. Whether this will happen depends on central government really letting go and making housing — and especially social housing — a priority.

This article first appeared on Local Authority Building and Maintenance

Dealing with debt

By Paul Hackett, director of the Smith Institute

Britons seem to be world-class at spending and second-class at saving. The government must address the personal debt crisis through heavier regulation of payday lenders and policies to tackle stagnant wages and income inequality

The cocktail of austerity, falling incomes and easy credit has pushed record numbers of people into debt. More and more of us are now living perilously on the never, never, and the problem is getting worse. Unless government and regulators take preventative action, we are in danger of sleepwalking into a major personal debt crisis.

There are around six million households in the UK that are already in financial difficulty or at risk of facing unmanageable debt – 23% of all households. That’s double what it was a decade ago, and it is not just down to the growth of payday lending. Unless there is a shift in policy and a change in consumer behaviour then all the signs are that the problem of unmanageable personal debt will get worse – perhaps a lot worse – even if the economy recovers to pre-recession levels.

It is not only the sheer scale of personal debt – all £1.4trn of it – and how it impacts on the macro-economy that should worry policy makers. It’s also the lengthening list of who is most at risk. Problem debt in the future will predictably continue to affect the vulnerable and poor, especially those who are already over-reliant on high cost credit. However, on current trends, problem debt will also start to affect a much wider group, including more middle-income households and many more single and older people.

Research from the Smith Institute shows that it will take longer for tomorrow’s borrowers to pay off the debts incurred in their youth. What we could see is large numbers of Generation Y struggling to service their rolling debts (including student loans and debts from periods of unemployment), which in turn will make it harder to buy a home or build a pension.

Meanwhile, those from Generation X (post-war baby boomers) who have no assets and are on low pay may have to continue working longer into very old age to meet their financial commitments.

Using new ONS data and information from the debt charity StepChange, our report identifies two distinct (and fast growing) cohorts of problem debtors: those with around £12,000 of debt and some assets; and those with £2,000 of debt and few assets. Each group represents around one in ten households, and more than half are in unmanageable debt.

The interesting feature of the £12K debtors is that they are on average incomes and are mostly in regular work. They may well see themselves as middle class, are young and often couple households. They are at risk because they have large amounts of unsecured debt, nearly half of it in the form of contracted loan agreements outside hire purchase, overdrafts and credit card debt (which are also high).

In contrast, the £2K debtors are more likely to be unemployed or on low incomes and therefore struggling to clear relatively small (but entrenched) amounts of debt. This group are just getting by and nearly a third of their debts are from payday loans. Like the £12K debtors, they have no safety net against a sudden crisis, like illness or losing their job.

Coming down the road are hugely significant demographic drivers, such as more single-person households and an ageing population. These, combined with widening wealth inequalities, likely interest rate rises (including more expensive mortgages) and continued pressure on welfare provision, will make it harder for policy-makers to mitigate indebtedness. Without intervention, by 2025 we could well have more than one in four households at risk of serious personal debt.

Part of the solution must be to seriously cap the cost of payday loans, and perhaps include stricter limits on the time debts must be paid back, real time credit checks, and controls on the number of times a debt can be rolled over. Limiting the amount of easy credit available to so-called ‘zombie debtors’ is long overdue, but more help is needed for those who have no choice but to take on extra debt.

Government, the financial industry and debt charities must also do more to improve financial literacy. Some progress has been made with financial education in schools, but the report calls for a sustained national debt awareness campaign similar to the ‘five a day’ fruit and veg adverts. Such a campaign could also include more naming and shaming of irresponsible lenders and perhaps government support for a financial MoT for the over-50s.

There’s a big job to be done by the new Financial Conduct Authority to make sure credit products are reasonable and fit for purpose. Government could also do more to support credit unions and stop punishing the poorest in society who are most vulnerable to loans sharks and payday lenders.

However, we can’t ignore the fact that as a nation we seem to have as much of a savings problem as we do a debt problem. The British seem to be world-class at spending and second-class at saving. A concerted approach towards improving personal savings for both the £2K and £12K debtors would make sense, including the reintroduction of Saving Gateway type schemes where the state matches a proportion of an individual’s savings.

But, new pro-saving policies and tougher regulation will only go so far. Even if government heavily restricts payday lenders, we would still have a personal debt crisis. The solution must also include tackling stagnant wages, reducing income inequality and lowering living costs.

This article first appeared on Public Finance

10 challenges for tomorrow’s housing associations

By Paul Hackett, director of the Smith Institute

“the only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future” (Oscar Wilde)

In twenty years time we may look back on today’s housing associations as saints battling against all the odds to protect their tenants and provide homes for the most vulnerable. But will tomorrow’s housing associations be remembered in the same way?  As the pressure builds to become bigger, more commercial, and more market-orientated will associations be seen in 2033 as essentially private landlords, with a small minority of vulnerable and low income tenants?  Or will they succeed as independent organisations still focused on their charitable core values and continuing to provide mainly homes and services for the less well off?

The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different.  But how different will in part depend on housing associations themselves.  Associations will have to adjust to a rapidly changing world, but what are the main challenges that that lie ahead?  It’s a long list but here are my top ten to think about.

1. There’s a BIG world out there?

Whether you’re a housing association or a company manufacturing widgets, you can’t escape the global economy.  As we all saw with the financial crash in 2008, when things go badly wrong in one place it’s impossible to contain the fallout.  And it’s not just economic shocks that spread around the planet super-fast. Computer viruses, epidemics, energy problems, conflicts. They will connect us all in ways we probably can’t imagine.  Similarly, the next phase of the digital age may arrive in no time and completely change the way we live and work.

So, don’t forget the big things when you are planning the little things.  You can’t predict mega events, but don’t forget they’re out there.

2. It’s the economy stupid?

By 2033 the UK will certainly no longer be the sixth largest economy in the world. We might struggle to stay in the top ten. But we will still be relatively  prosperous.

Most economists expect the economy to get back to trend growth of between 2.4% pa by 2020. There will of course be ups and downs, but by 2033 we will be richer.  Enough growth to justify an increase housing grant?

But will the wealth be shared out, with more skilled employment and resources for those who need it?  The rich could get even richer and the poor even poorer.  If that happens we stay with a low wage economy, more under-employment and more in-work poverty.  And that means large numbers of tenants in sub-market housing on benefits.

Economic geography is also important. Unless there is some real policy change, the gap between London and the South East, and the rest of the country will get worse – and possible unbridgeable.  Lots of opportunities to cross-subsidise and grow in prosperous places, but few options to be “commercially minded and socially hearted” where values are low and there’s no growth and no surplus.

Is scaling up (and mergers) the only way forward?  Can you blend your localism with commercialism in an ever more fragmented economy? And, in the future will associations only want to compete in the high demand areas?

3. Can you increase supply, and, if so, what’s the magic number?

The housing market is dysfunctional, and that doesn’t look like changing soon. We are building about the same number of social unit as we did 20 years ago, and ten times less than 40 years ago. Private build has been roughly the same (given the economic cycles) for decades.

Even ignoring the backlog, we need 230,000 new homes a year to stand still (whether they are for rent or sale).  We all know the barriers: planning, land values, mortgage finance, public attitudes.  Also, new build is a small part of the market and house prices won’t fall until we build big (Kate Barker said over 300K a year).  But, what should the sector be aiming for – what is the magic number?

Councils can add to the mix – maybe 5-10K a year.  Housebuilders can supply more homes to let. But, should the sector contribute 60K a year, or 90K a year, which is three times the current rate. How is that even worth considering without big subsidies for sub-market housing?  Will the ‘Robin Hood’ model of cross-subsidy eventually mean less not more?

4. Who are homes for in 2033?

Today’s baby boomers are tomorrow’s tenants, and there will be a lot more of them. A lot more single people, a lot more lone parents, more older people, a lot more very old, and a lot more of Eastern European origin.

Also, there will be fewer home owners, fewer people with good pensions.  That will mean some people will have to work longer, which will change the profile of who you house.

Are housing associations prepared for an ageing and more diverse society?  Are you part of the adult social care solution and can you offer the range of services people will need at the cost they can afford?  Does it matter if you stay small and stick to the knitting?

5. When will housing become ‘affordable’?

I don’t know what will be affordable in 2033, but it has to be better than today. In one part of the country you have places where social and private rents are the same, in London the gap is so wide people can’t afford to live in anything but social housing.

The problem is real wages haven’t kept pace. We’ve had 30 years of worsening income inequality and house price inflation. The average earnings to house prices ratio was roughly 1:3 in the 1990s – it is now 6:1 and in London 9:1. That sort of ratio is unsustainable.

And, housing association rents have consistently been rising above incomes – which hardly help.

Maybe it’s time to end rent controls and embrace price discrimination and differential rents?  Will the private rented sector become more affordable and more competitive, if so how should you respond?  And, will the future finally see strong growth in the intermediate market?

 6. Will grant come back?

Subsidised housing needs subsidy, but how much?  Less grant means more private finance, which is likely to be more expensive in the future (it can’t get much cheaper!).  There is also a worry that the ‘gold rush’ in the bond markets could fall away if an association gets into financial problems.  The Dutch housing association crash proved very expensive and raises concerns about deregulation and privatisation of the sector.

The elephant in the room is Housing Benefit, which is underpinning much of the sectors’ borrowing. Can associations survive without HB?

A world without grant offers new freedoms but new risks, but how will it affect sub-market housing?  Can the sector navigate a new sustainable funding path using pension funds and the capital markets?

7. An end to the welfare reforms?

When will there be an end to the regressive welfare reforms that are doing more harm than good?  Part of the problem is that public attitudes have hardened against social transfers and the welfare state. Will the country’s social conscious and unwritten social contract inevitably dissolve, which will surely be to the detriment of the sector?

Despite all the demand management and cost savings we can dream of, welfare costs will continue to rise (especially healthcare). Can associations do more to help, and become part of the solution?  Should the sector be advocating more radical ideas, such as switching Housing Benefit revenue to capital investment in new homes – easy to say, but hard to do?

8. Who will be your friends?

The sector has arguably struggled to be loved, not least by local and national politicians.  It’s been making new friends recently and has shown that it can do much more than social housing.  But expectations of what associations can do (and afford) are rising.  As we (hopefully) move from austerity to posterity, will  relationships change? Where do associations belong regarding the brave new world of localism and city regions?  Are you connected enough in the right places?

The direction of flight is towards more local, private services, with the councils providing the safety net – perhaps more often on a cross-border basis.  Where do associations fit into this, and is the future about more collaboration. But how easy is it to really pool resources?

Self-financing of council housing under the new HRA regime could offer exciting opportunities, as could the NHS Trusts who are looking for alternative ways of coping with demand. But does the sector have the capacity and capability to do things differently and forge new partnerships, not least with the private sector?

9. Less will be more?

Will there be 1,500 or so housing associations in 2033? Few people believe it. Some say under 100, others under a 1,000.  Can the sector grow as it is without more mergers, and what support should government and the Natfed be giving?  There is of course a concern that big may not be best and that if associations lose their charitable status (perhaps in order to merge with a private business) then they could go the way of the Co-op – and be sold to hedge funds!

What is a fit for purpose association, and how big and how professional should it be?  And, in a world of localism and bespoke personalised services will less  really be more?

10. Can we have some political certainty, please?

Why is housing (and social housing in particular) so marked down in Whitehall? Is it because the policy is divided up between so many departments, with HMT and DWP focused on the benefit bill and CLG and BiS on supply?  No.10 are only interested in the popular politics of housing, which means pandering to the housing have’s– after all what Prime Minister wants to pledge lower house prices or tax home owners (much better to tax the poor). However, the growth of ‘generation rent’ and price volatility throws a big spanner in the works.

The intransigence towards housing policy probably explains why we have had 15 housing ministers in 15 years.  Will we get another 20 before 2033!

Surely it is time for a more adult conversation with the public on housing and housing subsidy, and (god forbid!) a cross-party consensus on more affordable homes of all types.  Alas, I fear common sense will be sacrificed on the voting alter.  If so, be prepared.  Tomorrow’s housing policies may include a new right to buy for the sector; new incentives/regulations to force associations to sweat their assets; new forms of subsidy (perhaps through a dedicated housing bank); and rent reforms. The next election may decide whether we have more support for the sector, or a lot less.


The sector has a fantastic survival instinct, and although life is going to get harder and a lot more complex housing associations aren’t going away anytime soon.  They will be here in 2033, but in what form? Certainly, tomorrow’s housing association will have to be more resilient and adapt to a more pressured market economy. But hopefully they will hold true to their values and continue to offer what others can’t.

This article first appeared on Hot House


Will Labour invest big time in council housing?

By Paul Hunter, head of research at the Smith Institute

Back in 2009 John Healey, the then Housing Minister, consulted on reforming the way council housing was funded under the housing revenue account (HRA). This technical sounding reform was not on the party’s pledge card and never likely to get people marching in the streets. However it has since heralded a rebirth of municipal housing. The extent of this renaissance is at present small but has enormous potential.

Under a future Labour government councils all over the country could be building again at scale.

Until the end of the last Labour government council housing was seen as part of the problem. The Tories decimated the social housing sector with the introduction of Right to Buy (with few funds available to replace lost stock). New Labour’s preferred providers were housing associations who had freedoms to leverage in private finance while the policy focus was on ‘decent homes’ rather than new build.

The HRA reforms have started to reverse this trend, allowing council’s greater autonomy over their housing stock and freedoms to borrow to build. In our new survey (with Housing Voice) of councillors leading on housing, the HRA reforms have gained strong support (only 9% of those surveyed were dissatisfied). Moreover, the appetite for building is impressive with 93% stating that they were planning to build new council housing. Given the chronic undersupply of housing this should be a good news story, especially given that many of the most ambitious building plans have emanated from Labour controlled councils, such as Southwark and Manchester.

However whilst most councillors in the survey viewed building new social housing as the top priority, the numbers of homes local authorities plan to deliver still remains small compared with housing associations. The majority of councillors envisaged building less than 500 homes over the next ten years, and 40% thought that new build would not compensate for loss of stock through Right to Buy, void sales and estate regeneration.

The challenge then for Labour’s shadow team is how best to support councils to supply more homes at sub-market rent. Under the reformed HRA councils can only borrow up to a certain limit (far lower than housing associations, who can borrow billions off the public books through the bond markets). Maybe it is time to level the playing field?

Although much of the talk since the financial crash has been about deleveraging, for council housing the opposite is true. The problem is that a future Labour government will have to keep an eye on the deficit. Allowing councils to borrow more could provide much needed homes (78% of councillors said they would build additional new homes if the debt cap over council housing was to double) but equally by doing so it will push (as things stand) up public sector borrowing. This is, of course, a matter of political will and priorities, but movement on the cap would undoubtedly help increase supply. Moreover, it could potentially help reduce the Housing Benefit bill in the expensive private rented sector, provide new jobs and help dampen market rent increases. The extent of the gains is unknown, not least because a consequence of undersupply is overcrowding. Reducing overcrowding would come at a cost of increased Housing Benefit claimants and higher rents (i.e. moving from a two bed to three bed property). Nevertheless the economic and social gains seem compelling.

Increasing the ability to borrow clearly follows the line of reasoning of greater localism which was behind the reforms. But subsidised council housing will still need subsidy! If councils could borrow more those debts would still need to be serviced and paid down over the medium term. At present, sub-market rent levels fail to cover the build costs, with many social landlords turning to ‘affordable’ rent (up to 80% of market rent) and councils using planning gain (levies on private development) to cross subsidised new housing at social rents. There is a limit to the latter (and the former remains highly controversial) meaning new build housing requires grant funding to cover the shortfall.

Despite the Coalition’s talk of investing in infrastructure, grant for social housing (as opposed to ‘affordable’ housing) has been cut dramatically. Labour has pledged to invest more on housing, but how much more is unclear.

Labour councils are leading the way in delivering new council housing. However, the levels are unlikely ever to match the heyday of municipal housing, not least because of the mistakes that were made with system built tower blocks. However, councils have the potential to do much more if they have additional freedoms over borrowing. To expand still further, and to deliver genuinely affordable homes, will also require further public investment. The evidence shows many (Labour) councillors have a strong appetite to build subsidised council housing, but the extent to which this happens will depend largely on how much of a priority it is for central government.

Click here to read the survey

This article first appeared on LabourList

Housing philanthropists: where are they today?

By Paul Hackett, director of the Smith Institute

Wealthy individuals in Victorian Britain gave generously to improving housing for the working poor. Indeed, thousands of people still live in homes endowed by those charitable investments. But who is today’s George Peabody, the builder of extensive housing developments for London’s poor, and why are modern philanthropists not sponsoring model communities in the way that Joseph Rowntree, Edward Cecil Guinness and Octavia Hill did more than a century ago?

The world has of course fundamentally changed since the days of the poor laws, and few people today would countenance the paternalism and enlightened self-interest of George Cadbury or Lord Leverhulme. The state became the housing provider of last resort and home ownership became a realisable tenure of choice. Philanthropists meanwhile looked elsewhere, towards medical research and education. Today about £800m of charitable donations (8% of the total) goes to the homeless each year, compared with £1.6bn (16% of the total) to helping animals.

Although housing and philanthropy still retain similar social purposes (both aim to invest for a social return) and housing associations have become significant charitable givers themselves, the two sectors have steadily grown apart. The separation seems, however, to be more by default than design. According to Theresa Lloyd, a leading philanthropy expert, “the lessons of success in generating major donations and philanthropic investment in other sectors such as higher education and the arts have not been learned and transferred to housing”.

The Smith Institute’s latest report – Rebuilding the relationship between affordable housing and philanthropy – argues that “there is a pressing rationale for closer collaboration and learning from each other”. Although the report makes clear that philanthropy on its own can’t hope to solve the crisis in affordable housing, it calls for the two sectors to work together on new ways of funding social housing and community investment.

One initiative might be for the National Housing Federation (with the support of Peabody and other housing associations) and New Philanthropy Capital to set up working groups on new approaches to social investment, perhaps learning from the experience in the United States where charitable lending and grant giving is more advanced. Such co-operation could include opportunities for cheap loans, equity stakes, equity housing trusts, donations of land, and other innovations, such as “crowd funding”, to support housing-related programmes that boost local employment, enterprise and skills.

The report suggests that the philanthropy model can work for affordable housing (and the case has been proven by organisations such as the Dolphin Square Foundation in central London), but the business model has to be watertight.

There may also be opportunities for philanthropy investment in smaller scale projects, such as providing equipment and buildings to community groups, resources to enable wraparound provision in children’s centres or funding to facilitate work to tackle isolation among older people.

Any new partnership has to be a two-way street, and housing associations will need to go the extra mile to develop an attractive offer to philanthropists who demand a clear social return on their investment. This will take time and real commitment. The government may want to foster such collaboration by extra tax breaks or matched funding.

The relationship between philanthropy and housing needs to be nurtured and supported. As Vicki Prout from New Philanthropy Capital comments in the report, “even if philanthropic money can only nibble around the edges of this huge and deeply entrenched housing problem, surely this work is worth doing”.

A PDF version of the report is available here

This article was first published by the Guardian’s Housing Network 


Where next for council housing?

By Paul Hunter, Head of Research

Last week we published our survey of council housing directors one year on from the radical reform of their housing revenue accounts. The policy started under Labour and enacted by the Coalition devolved budgets to council’s and enables them to borrow and build. Against the backdrop of austerity, it is a rare good news story for local government.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, most of those surveyed viewed self-financed council housing as a good thing. The evidence from the survey shows that most councils are investing in new or existing homes rather than paying off their debts. However, the changes are not without criticism. Many councils were unhappy with the original debt allocation which (added to the debt cap) left little room for borrowing to build or invest on a large scale. And the debt cap itself came in for criticism – not only does it go against the principle of self-financing but puts them councils a disadvantage to housing associations and private housing providers.

As council’s become more confident about managing housing finance the pressure will mount for a loosening of the borrowing caps. At present council housing is grossly underleveraged. As our previous report on HRA reform in 2011 showed, councils could access billions if the rules changed. However, reducing the overall level of national debt is the overarching aim of the Coalition, and such a reform pushes in the opposite direction.

Regardless of the cap, councils also face two other major challenges. First, even with the new freedoms there are considerable issues with social housing funding. Capital subsidy in real terms has been reduced in the 2013 spending review and has been cut by over half compared to pre-2010 levels. So even if the cap was scrapped councils would face similar predicament as housing associations regarding tenure mix – which indeed councils do when granting planning consent.

Second, many councils properties do not meet the decent homes standard. For some councils, without further grant meeting the decent homes standard will eat up any investment that could go into new build. Moreover, some councils might face the unenviable position of having to sell off and demolish estates to reduce the costs of major repairs – hardly a way to reduce pressures on affordable housing in high demand areas.

If government however sees councils as part of the solution to the housing crisis, then it must surely extend authorities further financial freedoms. Putting councils on a more equal footing with social landlords and allowing them to sweat their assets more need not necessarily have to happen in one big bang. Debt caps could be slowly lifted. Although not popular with uber localists, government could adopt an earned autonomy approach, whereby those authorities which have proved their ability to take prudent decisions and manage their housing stock efficiently could be given more autonomy. Another way might be to allow local authorities to trade their headroom, so those that have opportunities to invest using investment from those in areas of lower demand. All are not without their pros and cons and would be boosted by grant funding. However, such reforms would keep a lid on borrowing and do more to enable those councils eager to build and invest.  Any increase in council housing most be a plus in the current climate.