Posted tagged ‘housing’

Right to Build

May 24, 2012

Last month the government relaunched a scheme which has been more controversial than most schemes to emenate out of Whitehall over the years: Right to Buy. Finding its roots way back in the distant past (well, the 80s), this scheme encourages council tenants to take their first steps onto the home ownership ladder through providing a discount should they want to purchase their council owned home.

Apparently, over 2m social homes have been bought by their tenants since the schemes first incarnation, although in recent years this number has tailed off dramatically (only 4000 purchases of this type happened in 2011). Whilst primarily this is down to the tough economic times, it is also down to the fact that the value of the discount fell so heavily. In London for example, the discount fell from 53% way down to 10%, which is a real pain when property prices have increased from £16,493 in the year of the Silver Jubilee to £354,300 during this year’s royal celebrations.

I have very mixed feelings on this issue, and quite a split between my personal and my professional minds. On the one hand Right to Buy is a way for council tenants to grasp on by their fingernails to the property ladder, something which over the years has become tougher to do. With many seeing home ownership as an aspiration, any way of helping can only be seen as a good thing.

However, speaking less selfishly I’m pretty concerned at the current state of affairs. Part of this stems from the scheme itself, but mostly on its impact on the quantity and quality of housing stock remaining and being built to make up for purchased property’s loss. (more…)

That was the local government week that was

May 11, 2012

More content than the Queen’s Speech

It was the Queens Speech this week. The WLLG bloggers were a bit disappointed with the Government’s progress on any number of key issues with the localism agenda and social care reform agenda seemingly ground to a halt as the Government prioritise other issues. As much as we try it is very hard to get excited about the Government legislating to complete the abolition of the Audit Commission they announced two years ago.

There were some good bits within the speech and some relevant to Local Government and you can find them summarised on the LGIU blog:

It is good to hear that there will be a Bill to create new powers for the Children’s Commissioner and improve services for children in care, both things that the LGiU has been campaigning for. Similarly, we welcome mention of legislation on the future funding of adult social care although we are concerned that the plans are vague, and we would urge the government to confirm that legislation will follow the forthcoming White Paper.   Chances of a lasting settlement on social care funding seem greater to us if the momentum is maintained and if we are far enough away from the next election.  The lessons of 2010 are that once an election is on the horizon any political consensus will break down.

And whilst checking out the LGIU do check out Andy Sawford’s alternative Queen’s Speech which is very sensible and includes:

  • The Community Budgets Bill
  • The Localism and Statutory Duties Bill
  • The Social Care Funding Bill
  • The Children’s Services Bill
  • The Primary Justice Bill

Meanwhile, whilst we were disappointed by the Government’s programme we were equally disappointed by the LGA’s response where their key messages were:

  • The LGA will continue its parliamentary lobbying work to ensure the best outcome for our member councils.
  • Councils have already shown remarkable resilience in coping with the spending cuts and local government is already the most efficient, transparent and trusted part of the public sector.
  • Within our legislative lobbying work we will be campaigning to ensure there is sustainable funding for local government going forward.

Talk about burying the lead!

Meanwhile, in non-queens speech blogging we really liked this piece from Flip Chart Fairy Tales about the battle between the younger and older workforce. Apparently, some commentators are arguing that we need older workers to stand aside to make space for those younger staff who have no jobs. Instinctively, this sounds like nonsense but Rick dissects it with characteristic verve:

Calling on older workers to retire and make way for the young might sound like a good idea. It is no way to solve youth unemployment though. As ever, keeping as much of the population as possible economically active is what makes for a prosperous and stable society. If a greater proportion of people are over 65 it makes sense, therefore, for the over 65s to stay in work. Given that people in their sixties are healthier and fitter than in previous generations, that is now possible. The same factors that make people live longer also enable them to work for longer.

If we are to counteract the costs of ageing, more older people will have to carry on working. Far from taking the jobs of the young, the working elderly are more likely to keep spending and creating jobs for the young. Accusing older workers of  job-hogging fits in neatly with the fashionable generational warfare narrative but it is nonsense. If we are to deal with the consequences of an ageing population, that ageing population will have to keep working. And that will be better for all of us.

On the topic of the fate of the young this piece from the Guardian Local Government Network could not be more unhappy with Kate Davies arguing that we are now facing a housing crisis for young people that is perhaps not going to ever improve:

Call me naive, but I had always assumed that things could only get better; that progress was what happened over time. My parents’ life was a big improvement on their grandparents, and mine on theirs.

Scientific advances, greater freedom, less poverty and more opportunity would – I thought – ensure that each generation would do better than their predecessors. I had taken the onward march of mankind for granted.

But now the evidence shows that we are going backwards.

A bit too pessimistic for my liking but the housing crisis for young people is certainly real and not being addressed properly by any politician (see Queen’s speech above).

Who would have known that there was a website called public sector travel? Well, there is and they had an interesting article this week about the endless pain caused to local government by EU procurement rules:

The Local Government Association has called on Whitehall to roll back what it sees as needless complexity in procurement flowing from the European Union.

In a procurement pledge for the local government sector, the Conservative-controlled LGA said: “Public procurement is highly regulated particularly by the European Union and over the years the European procurement rules have become more and more complicated.

“We need help from government to put the power of procurement back into the hands of local government.”

We tend to agree that there is need for reform but are not holding our breath!

And finally my favourite tweet from a council twitter account for quite a long time is this classic from Surrey Matters:

Nut lovers, did you know nut shells make great compost? #6thingsyouneverknewyoucouldcompost

Is this genius… or madness?

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

That was the local government week that was

April 27, 2012

A busy week; no wonder the keys are leaping off the page

It’s been a proper busy news week and with more days and more time we could have written twice as many posts this week. Nonetheless, our Friday post gives us a chance to catch up. We’ll try to do the week some justice and also pick up a few slightly different pieces but goodness knows what we have missed.

It only seems right to start in the East End of London with the London Borough of Newham being accused of social cleansing by trying to find homes for people on their housing waiting list in others parts of the country, namely Stoke. This caused an almighty row but the underlying issue is an important one. As the BBC explained:

Newham’s mayor, Sir Robin Wales, blamed government policies which had left his borough “chasing around the country trying to find ways to deal with people who are in need”.

He told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme: “We have got a waiting list of 32,000 – we’ve got hundreds of people looking for places to stay and the result of government benefit cuts, which are still working through as well, means that many more people from wealthier parts of London are looking for places to live in London and they’re just not there.

“We have written to 1,179 organisations [housing associations] saying could you accommodate some people? We’re not looking to push people all to one place, we’re looking to find the best possible solution for citizens.”

The Government accused Newham of playing politics with the issue but failed to recognise that Newham weren’t the ones who brought it to the presses attention.

More pernicious is the seeming inconsistency in the Government’s position. If it is acceptable to pay people different amounts based on the local economy why is it not ok to recognise the higher costs of living in London and pay higher housing benefit based on that? Similarly, if the Government insist of having some form of cap on the benefits then surely this is because they don’t want people to claim benefits to live in expensive parts of the country.

The coalition can moan all they want about social cleansing but the people on these waiting lists need housing and the fact that local authorities are thinking imaginatively to solve the problem, where they can, should be welcomed.

Thanks to the good chaps at Comms2point0 for linking to this piece by Martin Osler about the importance of communications professionals being able to write well. As he argues:

Effective Writing Underpins Communication

Some of you will read this far and say “ach, here he goes; another ex-hack banging on about poorly drafted news releases.” No, excellent writing skills are much, much more than this. As communications professionals we should be able to write robust, grammatically correct proposals and briefing documents, properly punctuated and a delight to read. We should be creating free flowing articles on behalf of our clients, magical web copy, crafty blogs and exciting competition entries.

It is a mistake to base any sweeping judgement on ones own limited experience but I have come across quite a few communications officers in local authorities who see their inability to write well as part of their ability to communicate effectively. Some wear this lack of skill as a badge of honour or at least don’t see it as a problem.  I agree with Martin; if you can’t write well then I don’t really care how good your messaging or creativity is.

It has often been said that there are lies, damned lies and statistics but in this modern day and age there are also very clever people out there willing to explain those statistics. Kudos then to Chris Game from INLOGOV for breaking down the competing political claims about council tax in councils run by the different parties in the run up to the local elections. Whilst all the parties claim that their tax is lower it’s actually just a little more complex than that:

Band D has thus become a benchmark for comparative purposes, and it is therefore perfectly reasonable that the Conservatives tend to use it – as they could with this year’s Commons Library figures – to claim that average Band D tax rates are normally lower in Conservative than in Labour or most Liberal Democrat areas.

Reasonable, but disingenuous. Not so much because only a small minority of properties (15% in England) are actually in Band D, but because, exacerbated by the absence of any revaluation since 1991, the mix of property bands across authorities and regions nowadays varies starkly. In my own authority of Birmingham 56% of properties are in Bands A and B, and just 14% in Bands E to H combined. Neighbouring Solihull has 19% A and Bs and 41% E to Hs. In the North East there are 56% Band As, in the South East 9%, in London 3%.

All of which obviously means that, to raise a certain tax income in an authority with mainly Band A to C properties requires a significantly higher Band D tax than in one comprising many E to H properties. The average bills paid by tax payers will vary similarly – being generally higher than the Band D figure in affluent and Conservative-inclined areas, and lower in poorer or Labour-inclined ones.

Hence Labour’s equally disingenuous preference for using average tax bill figures as their political comparators.  North East: Average Band D council tax £1,525; average tax bill per household £1,072. South East: Average Band D council tax £1,475; average bill per household £1,381. As the anthropomorphic Russian meercat, Alexsandr Orlov, would confirm: simples!

‘Simples’ indeed and well worth reading the whole piece.

In case anyone missed it the Taxpayers Alliance published their annual Town Hall Rich list 2012 identifying the number of staff receiving total benefits packages over £100,000 per year. In a way I appreciate the work of the TPA; they make as much data as possible public and even tried this year to give it some context:

The average remuneration increase for staff in the Town Hall Rich List from 2009-10 to 2010-11 was 26.85 per cent. But this would have been driven by a number of employees receiving large redundancy payments in 2010-11. To account for this, a more accurate picture would be the median average increase, which is 1.83 per cent.

However, their endless message is that these salaries are always inappropriate which is so patently wrong that it annoys me.

This does not, however, annoy me nearly as much as the response of the various local government organsations. I would have liked them to stand up and say clearly: ‘local government is a complex organisation and we employ good staff on market appropriate salaries throughout the organisation. Some of these are well paid but this simply reflects the work that we expect of them’.

Instead they complained that the data included redundancies and therefore overstated the issue. Talk about missing the wood for the trees!

An interesting point of view from Ken Livingstone got some unexpected support this week from a Lib Dem councillor this week via an LGA Blog, when Cllr Lester Holloway agreed that perhaps there are too many boroughs in London.  After all, do we really relate at all to our borough boundaries?

Aside from job losses the main objection has been loss of local accountability. But preserving town hall fiefdoms in formaldehyde does little for accountability.

As a Liberal Democrat with ‘localism’ sewn on my sleeve, I should be instinctively against big domineering monoliths of the state. But Livingstone has a point: borough-based identities are for bureaucrats and local politicians. Most people identify more locally.

We’re not sure whether this could actually work, but one things for sure; we won’t get to find out any time soon.

As the humble mobile phone morphs into something altogether more sophisticated it continues to open up opportunities to engage digitally with groups who in the past would never have been interested or able to benefit from the digital world.  The Government Digital Service (GDS) has picked up on this fact, and on 16 June will be holding a hack day to take advantage of this.

Westminster City Council, with the help of Go ON UK and GDS are holding a hack day on Saturday 16th June. The request is simple, to build something useful and accessible, either for the homeless themselves, for the professionals who assist them, or for any member of public wanting to help in some way. The platform that this is delivered across is also open, covering web, mobile or other platform. Assistance will be available from experts in this area on the day to help with ideas and on Friday 11th May, results of a pre hack day discussion with homeless charities explaining the needs of the homeless in this area will be published.

We truly look forward to seeing the results of this work, and love the fact that in this case the technology is creating opportunities that otherwise simply wouldn’t exist.

Another digital post here, albeit a short one.  Dave Briggs has pointed us towards a nifty new site which aims to help councillors better understand issues in the complex world of planning.  And there’s no ridiculous flowchart diagram in sight.

The purpose of the site is really to drive traffic to NALC’s e-learning platform (provided by my good chums at Learning Pool) as well as to other online learning resources about planning.

We wanted the site to have a nice and bright, informal feel that perhaps not many websites in this particular sector tend to feature, and are pretty pleased with the results!

Thanks to the Evening Standard for highlighting this bit of local government scandal. A local councillor in the London Borough of Merton was removed from his cabinet post for the crime of…. removing an illegally placed poster from some railings. As the Standard reported:

A senior councillor has been sacked from his role as education chief after being filmed ripping down a teenager’s fundraising poster.

Peter Walker was out jogging this week when he stopped to remove the poster attached to railings at Dundonald Park, Wimbledon.

The Labour councillor was secretly filmed by a local resident and the footage was posted on YouTube — prompting Merton council’s leader to dismiss him from his cabinet education post yesterday.

Yep, Jeremy Hunt can survive leaking information about a Government statement to the owners of one of the world’s premier media empires but Councillor Walker cannot survive removing a poster put up by a local youngster… And don’t even get me started on the secret filming!

I love local government!

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

Diving into the downward spiral

February 13, 2012

How cool does this look?

When I was a kid our local leisure centre had a cool water flume type ride. What was great about it was that after you had gone through the fun of the flume it opened out into a big bowl which you spun round and round before dropping out of the end. It was great!

Please bear with me as I torture a metaphor but being in local government is a bit like that water ride at the moment (and not in the sense that it is great).

The top half of the flume represents what local government has experienced so far. Much like the tube section of the flume was predictable, if difficult to control, the budget cuts so far have been understandable for local government. Yes, we’ve been shaken from side to side and yes it feels like we are being pushed downwards by a never ending torrent of budget cuts (told you this metaphor was going to be pushed) but at least we’ve been able to manage the cuts within the context of a direction of travel we all sort of understand.

To return to my flume the ride in the tube was always fairly similar but the big bowl at the end was absolutely unpredictable. Sometimes you flopped straight down into the hole and sometimes you went round and round before falling rather ungracefully into the hole after 30 seconds or so.

(more…)

New Year, New Predictions

January 3, 2012

But will we even remember to turn the months over?

Happy New Year!

2011 was a pretty momentous year for those of us working in the public sector with cuts, strikes, riots, redundancies, rising demand for our services and a surrounding narrative that pitted those who work in the public services against those who use those services.

For those of us working in local government this led to panic, defensiveness, stress, pressure, innovation, decisiveness and a lot of hard work. And despite everything I really believe we enter 2012 in a stronger position than we entered 2011.

This time round we know what the cuts will be, most of us are well versed in the attitudes of the coalition government and the vast majority of councils have set themselves a realistic plan for meeting the budget pressures placed upon us.

So with that in mind, what do we think will be the five top story lines facing local government in 2012?

1)      The cuts

As I’ve mentioned before many authorities took the easy way out for their cuts in 2011/12. A few bits of low hanging fruit here, some small marginal redundancies there, a little bit of money from reserves and a few budgetary adjustments and most of us got through relatively unscathed. The plans for 2012/13 are severe in contrast. The low hanging fruit has gone and really tough decisions need to be made. Funnily enough, it’s not the decision making I’m worried about but the deliverability of these cuts. Making staff redundant is one thing but cuts to social care, education provision, housing or any other service that is demand led are very hard to accurately predict, especially as the budgetary pressures elsewhere in the economy come home to roost. The big question for local government is ‘are we able to deliver the budget cuts we promised in 2012.’ It’s a mighty big ask and a challenge for us all.

2)      Housing

(more…)

Liberal Anonymity

September 21, 2011

So remind me; who are you again?

This blog is not necessarily one that takes a great amount of notice of the internal workings of our country’s political parties. However, as I listened to my daily dose of John Humphries and his Crazy crew this morning I heard that one of today’s ‘highlights’ at the conference would be a speech by the Liberal Democrat Local Government Minister Andrew Stunnell.

Unfortunately, I have to work during the day so caught up with his speech in the written form yesterday evening (you can do so too).

So where to begin?

Well, Mr Stunnell started with a joke and although it takes some explaining I assume everyone in the conference hall got it. Speaking about the coalition negotiations he said:

Newspapers full of the back stories of the four-man Liberal Democrat negotiation team of Danny Alexander, Chris Huhne and David Laws.

I’m not bitter.

Honest.

The Guardian wouldn’t have spelt my name right anyway.

Funnily enough I can empathise with the Guardian on this one. We’ve written between five and ten posts about the DCLG over the past 18 months and do you know how many of them have involved Mr Stunnell? Well, the answer is none. Reading the rest of his speech I couldn’t work out whether this was a good thing or a bad thing.

Was it good that the Liberal Democrats only Minister in the DCLG had kept his head down and not joined in the Eric Pickles inspired local government baiting?

Or was it a sign of Liberal Democrat ineffectiveness that despite being in Government nothing changed?

(more…)

Squeezing the Balloon

July 4, 2011

Squeeze too hard and it will burst

This weekend the Observer carried a major Tory split headline:

Eric Pickles warns David Cameron of rise in homeless families risk

The claim from Mr Pickles (well, actually one of his staff) was that the Overall Benefits Cap being proposed by the Prime Minister might have some wider effects and not lead to the savings claimed of it.

In the words of Nico Heslop, the Private Secretary to Eric Pickles:

(The) Overall Benefits Cap could cause some very serious practical issues for DCLG priorities.

Firstly we are concerned that the savings from this measure, currently estimated ay £270m savings p.a from 2014-2015 does not take account of the additional costs to local authorities (through homelessness and temporary accommodation). In fact we think it is likely that the policy as it stands will generate a net cost. In addition Local Authorities will have to calculate and administer reduced Housing Benefit to keep within the cap and this will mean both demands on resource and difficult handling locally.

This might be a big story for the Observer but I find it surprising that anyone else is, well, surprised.

Public services are full of these sort of trade-offs. If you reduce spending in one area then it may lead to increased costs in another area.

This is especially relevant at the moment due to the scale of the cuts being requested of local authorities. The temptation is to ensure that the cuts are made so that short term budgets are balanced, regardless of the other effects. However, the good local authorities (most of them) and now, thankfully the Government, spend our time working out how best to manage the cuts so they don’t lead to worse outcomes.

Housing is a classic example. A local authority could reduce the size of its homelessness team (designed to prevent people from being homeless) but if there are less staff it is more likely that the homeless people in the local authority area will end up in temporary accommodation which can cost an awful lot more.

You could also reduce the size of some of your preventative teams or not provide support for low level adult social care needs arguing that the State, in times of austerity, should not be providing for these needs. But, some evidence shows that not addressing needs at an early stage can lead to more expensive care later down the line.

Even closing a library can lead to greater pressure on schools and other facilities.

Some saving ideas have to be judged like a balloon. If you squeeze in one area the rest of the balloon simply pushes out.

The challenge we are all facing now is to come up with new ideas for how to make the savings without simply shifting the pressure to other areas of your, or someone elses, budget.

So, was I surprised about this weekend’s expose? No; in fact I was sort of glad to hear that the Government are recognising these sorts of knock on effects. I just hope that the same can be said for all the rest of the coalitions policies.

Oh yeah, and I don’t say this very often but well done Mr Pickles; you got this one right!

Welovelocalgovernment is a blog written by UK local government officers. If you have a piece you’d like to submit or any comments you’d like to make please drop us a line at: welovelocalgovernment@gmail.com

On the fifth day of Christmas our bloggers gave to me

December 27, 2010

A picture of Eric Pickles and Grant Shapps actually cutting red tape:

Pure Genius!

A metaphor that has gone too far...


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