Criminalising squatting

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 01/11/11]

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offender Bill has returned to the House of Commons this week. The problems with the Government’s proposed Legal Aid reforms have been apparent for a while. Some people will see their access to justice seriously curtailed, while the courts are likely to silt up with inexpert litigants-in-person. The chances of any money being saved – when considered in the round – are limited. In this context it is good to see reports that Liberal Democrat MPs Tom Brake and Mike Crockart are tabling amendments to seek to address some of the most egregious injustices embodied in this part of the Bill.

But the Bill poses other profound challenges to those concerned with social justice and evidence-based policy making. Read more of this post

Shifting underoccupiers

There is little doubt that we are facing significant problems in the housing market. Most obviously, problems of access and affordability. And there is little doubt that we must be heading towards a housing statement from the Government. Reports from think tanks and lobby groups – each trying to exert some influence over the direction of policy – are appearing with alarming regularity. Last week it was the turn of the little-known Intergenerational Foundation to produce a report called Hoarding of Housing. The report received quite a lot of media coverage. As far as I could tell most of it was negative. That seems to me both fair and unfair. Read more of this post

RAGging the Coalition on housing policy

So far this week we’ve seen plenty of activity around housing policy. Yesterday we had the launch of the Intergenerational Foundation report on private sector underoccupation. This was revealingly juxtaposed with the debate in the House of Lords on the restrictions to housing benefit for underoccupying tenants in the social rented sector. That is a debate worthy of a separate post. Perhaps the most significant development this week is the launch of edition 1 of The Housing Report, jointly compiled by CIH, NHF and Shelter. This isn’t just any old housing report. Oh no, this is The Housing Report. It is an impressive work of collaboration by organisations spanning diverse perspectives within the housing policy community.

The idea is a good one. Government makes all sorts of statements about its policy aspirations and achievements. Scrutiny of those claims is facilitated by piecing together the available evidence in order to assess progress. The Housing Report does that by applying a traffic light rating to ten areas of housing policy. The aim is to return to the issues during the life of the Parliament to review the assessment.

Such a document is about holding Government to account. But, of course, if you want Government to keep talking to you, you can’t be too strident in your criticism. If you step too far over the line you’ll be banished to the outer darkness – Government will feel under no obligation to listen. So documents of this type have to tread an interesting diplomatic line.

Given that it is framed diplomatically, it is all the more striking that  the report’s overall assessment of the Coalition’s record on housing is hardly overwhelming. Read more of this post

Boosting housing supply

[Originally posted on Liberal Democrat Voice, 05/10/11]

The Conservatives’ proposal to resuscitate the Right to Buy through increasing discounts appears to be an attempt to bask in some of Mrs Thatcher’s reflected glory. Unlike the 1980s version, though, Mr Cameron and Mr Shapps are emphasizing that each property sold will be matched with a newly built property at “affordable” rent. This is an attempt to head off criticisms that the Right to Buy reduces the supply of “social” housing. So, it would appear, this initiative could lead to a net increase in the housing stock.

Of course, things are never as they first appear. Read more of this post

Understanding housing market choices

Occasionally I divert myself from tweeting and blogging long enough to write something a bit more academic, usually about housing. I have a paper in the current issue of the journal Housing, Theory and Society. It looks at Uncertainty, expectations and behavioural aspects of housing market choices. The paper is coauthored with my good friend Ken Gibb from Glasgow University.

Here’s the abstract:

Housing is a complex commodity and housing market choices carry with them substantial economic and social consequences for the households making them. Housing market decisions are complex, uncertain and involve expectations-formation. This paper argues that the standard economic theory of decision-making under uncertainty – expected utility theory – is particularly ill-suited as the basis for understanding such complexity. The paper then explores alternative avenues for potential development, reviewing the key characteristics of owner-occupied housing markets and housing search, and examining how the resources of institutional and behavioural economics could be used to inform our understanding of the residential mobility process. The paper concludes by outlining an agenda for empirical research. Read more of this post

The rethinking of social housing

If you’re not careful you can lose sight of quite how far housing policy has travelled in a relatively short space of time. Some of the fixed points in the housing policy debate have been destabilised. Grant Shapps talks of radical change and the need to disturb the “lazy consensus” in housing policy. I would agree that there has been a considerable degree of consensus. But I don’t think it was a product of laziness.

Making sense of what is happening, while it is happening, is no easy task. Read more of this post

Policy and evidence – the homelessness episode part II

Last weekend the Observer ran with the story on welfare reform and homelessness. A senior civil servant at CLG had written to the Prime Minister warning that the Government’s proposed welfare reforms could result in – among other negative consequences – 40,000 additional homeless households (as I discussed here). This raised questions about a Government willing to ignore its own evidence and the accuracy or otherwise of Ministerial statements to Parliament. Subsequently Grant Shapps has dismissed the 40,000 figure because it was based upon “out of date” information and didn’t relate to current government policy. He also announced a £20m fund for integrating homelessness prevention services, rolling out a model that has worked in London to the rest of the country.

A passage in yesterday’s blog by the Guardian HousingNetwork Editor caught my eye: Read more of this post

Dispatching rogue landlords

Tonight’s C4 Dispatches programme provided some very clear evidence regarding poor standards of accommodation and management in the private rented sector. It is linked to the Shelter campaign to Evict Rogue Landlords. While the individual underhand practices deployed by landlords are very unpleasant, the impact of the programme will be mitigated by the problem that all research in this sector faces – that it is hard to quantify the scale of the problem. If one problem is that no one prosecutes rogue landlords, for example, then the statistics appear to show that unlawful behaviour by landlords isn’t a big problem. The logic is faulty – absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence – but convenient for those who have no wish to act. The majority of private tenants are happy with their current landlord. But that tells us nothing about how many tenancies they’ve moved on from because of poor treatment by a landlord.

Grant Shapps was interviewed briefly in the programme. His contribution had two key elements. First, he argued that the national registration scheme for private landlords proposed by the previous Labour government ran the risk of becoming a bureaucratic exercise and so was dropped. In fact, his argument here was a little less than clear. But the net result is that this type of regulatory scheme appears to be off the agenda. Second, he argued that there are lots of local authority powers and regulations already in existence to deal with problem private landlords.

This second point is correct but almost entirely irrelevant. Read more of this post

Distinctive positions on housing

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 04/07/11]

There is no doubt some soul searching going on at the moment, in part as a consequence of the poor result at the Inverclyde by-election. I’m sure the leadership will seek to dismiss poor election results at this stage in the electoral cycle as to be expected when you’re “in government”. But that can hardly carry much weight, given the Tories aren’t doing anywhere near as badly. It seems to me that rather deeper reflection is needed. Is it clear any more what the Liberal Democrats stand for? Why would someone – beyond the most unwaveringly committed – vote for the Party? Read more of this post

Policy, evidence and dogma – the homelessness episode

A leaked memo from Communities & Local Government exposed in today’s Observer has already generated considerable comment. The memo, written by a senior civil servant at the start of the year, sets out perfectly clearly not only that the Government’s welfare reforms ran the risk of making an additional 40,000 households homeless and reduce the number of new homes constructed, but also that – taking these knock-on effects into account – the “reforms” won’t save any money. On the contrary, they are likely to impose an increased burden on the public purse.

A lot of attention has focused upon the former point. It raises important questions about whether David Cameron misled Parliament in statements about the downside risks of the policy. The memo suggests that statements may have been made in Parliament that contradicted the best available evidence and advice to Ministers. The memo also gives some indication of what sort of costs the Prime Minister considers worth paying to drive this policy through. There is a callousness there that many will no doubt find extremely distasteful.

It has been asserted today that Mr Pickles has distanced himself from the memo and is fully behind the Government’s welfare reform agenda. I’d expect nothing less. Or more.

The suspicion of Government hypocrisy is bad enough, but I think it is the second component of the memo is more revealing. Read more of this post