Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Is localism the new regionalism?

A leading independent think-tank, The Smith Institute, warns that Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs), unlike their predecessors the Regional Development Agencies, lack legal and statutory foundation, the ability to procure contracts, manage programmes, and have been given no resources to cover running costs.

The Smith Institute’s new report, Changing Gear - Is Localism the new Regionalism? claims that:
  • the Government’s local economic strategy falls well short of what is needed
  • the Government’s stated aim of ‘rebalancing the economy’ away from the South is likely to fail
  • LEPs risk falling into irrelevance without increased support from the Government and a greater clarity of purpose.
Paul Hackett, Director of the Smith Institute said, "This new Smith Institute report shows that the Government’s strategy to rebalance the economy is not working."

"The consensus view among the experts is that the LEPs will not be able to match the RDAs and lack the resources and clout to address the growing economic regional divide."

LEPs are the Government’s proposed vehicle for co-ordinating economic development and related policy areas. There are 39 agreed partnerships across England, covering all but one local authority.

Affordable homes for vulnerable and older people

Almost 10% of the Homes and Communities Agency’s (HCA) Affordable Homes Programme is set to be delivered as supported housing and housing for older people, according to a new report.

The HCA’s Vulnerable and Older People Advisory Group (VOPAG) annual report highlights progress made by the Agency over the last calendar year, includes a number of case studies, and makes a number of recommendations.

Commending the achievements made by the HCA, Jeremy Porteus, VOPAG’s Chair and Director of the Housing Learning and Improvement Network, stated:

"I am impressed with the HCA’s commitment and investment in transforming the lives of older and vulnerable people and the communities they live in. The dividend is that this can prevent more costly health and care interventions at a later date and therefore offers value for money to the public purse."

In response to the recommendations made by VOPAG, the HCA has published alongside VOPAG’s 2011 annual report an action plan setting out its response to how it will deliver on each of the recommendations made by VOPAG.

  • The HCA should continue to closely monitor the delivery of the Affordable Homes Programme 2011-15 to ensure that the indicative share of the programme for housing for vulnerable and older people translates into firm deliverable schemes.
  • It is anticipated that almost 10% of the new Affordable Rent Homes delivered through the Affordable Homes Programme 2011-15 will be for supported housing and housing for older people.
Working with local partners
  • The HCA should equip its staff to enable them to provide effective support to local partners in considering the needs of vulnerable and older people.
  • It will also ensure whenever possible that emerging spatial priorities in local investment plans take account of the varying needs of both older and different vulnerable groups including independent living needs.
Enabling, staff skills and expertise
  • The HCA should collate and share best practice including innovative funding solutions to support local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) to deliver their priorities in their local delivery plans.
Housing, planning, health, social care and welfare reform policy agendas across government
  • The HCA should continue to work with VOPAG and relevant government departments to highlight the potential impact of new emerging policies on delivery of supported housing and housing for older people on viability of existing provision and schemes due to be funded through the Affordable Homes Programme.
  • The HCA should agree future arrangements for liaison and coordination with the Regulation Committee of mutual concern at an early stage following the transfer of the regulatory function into the HCA.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Charity warns of destitute migrant children

The Children's Society says it has seen a "noticeable rise" in the numbers of child migrants seeking its help.

Vulnerable young people are being left homeless, hungry and forced to resort to increasingly desperate means in order to survive as a result of restrictions on the benefits they can claim, according to the charity's recent report I don’t feel human: Experiences of destitution among young refugees and migrants. This can result in exploitation and abuse of many forms.

Between April and September 2011, more than a third (34 percent) of young refugees supported by The Children’s Society's New Londoners project were destitute - compared with 14 percent in the previous year (2009-10).

The report finds that destitute families with very young children, but no access to work or welfare support because of immigration restrictions, are living in severe deprivation for long periods of time, in some cases for several years.

According to the young people, families and support workers spoken to for this report, children are going hungry, lacking adequate clothing, medicine and other essential goods and putting their lives at risk by sleeping rough or with strangers.

The report concludes that the risks facing these children are acute and need to be addressed urgently by local and central government agencies. It demands that, in order to ensure compliance with its safeguarding duties and its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the government should urgently review all immigration policies and legislation that force children, young people and families into destitution, and ensure that support is provided to all children and young people who need it, regardless of their immigration status.

A spokesman for the UK Border Agency told the BBC:
"We take the welfare of children extremely seriously. Support is provided to asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute until a decision on their application is made.

"But when we and the courts have decided that they do not need international protection, support is discontinued and we expect them to return home voluntarily.

"Support is given throughout the asylum process to families with children who are facing destitution."

Survey shows council's housing budgets relatively protected

A poll of 134 local authorities carried out by CIPFA, the public services accountancy body, found  that Chief Finance Officers are now more anxious about their ability to deliver services and maintain a sound financial position in the medium term than they were twelve months ago.

The vast majority of councils are planning to reduce overall spending in real terms in 2012/13. The survey suggests that 38 per cent are likely to reduce budgets by up to 4.9 per cent, while 40 per cent of councils are likely to reduce by between 5 and 9.9 per cent.

At service level the position is mixed - budgets for capital investment projects and economic regeneration are most likely to be protected. Back office support services are the biggest target for cuts, with services such as leisure and libraries also amongst those most likely to face the deepest reductions.

Housing fares relatively well, with 41 per cent of councils planning to protect or increase housing spend in 2012/13. 34 per cent plan cuts of up to 5 per cent, with 21 per cent likely to reduce housing budgets by between 5 and 9.9 per cent and 5 per cent heading for cuts of between 10 and 14.9 per cent.

Further job losses are anticipated at all levels in organisations, in both support functions and front-line services, but highest number is expected to come from the back office.

Around 70% of respondents said they are either ‘slightly’ or ‘much’ less confident about the position their councils will be in to provide services in 2013/14 than they were this time last year.

However, CIPFA’s chief executive Steve Freer, writing in the Public Finance blog, suggests that the survey paint a fairly positive picture:
"Councils are delivering promised savings and fronting up to the challenge to plan for still more. Tough decisions are being taken. No-one is hiding under the bed clothes. Albeit perhaps with heavy hearts, local government is getting on and doing what needs to be done."

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Bedroom tax ping pong

Lord Best’s latest amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill was defeated yesterday when the bill returned to the House of Commons as part of the legislative ‘ping pong’ between the Lords and the Commons.

The amendment sought to exempt the following groups from the benefit cut if no suitable alternative accommodation was available:
  • occupants in receipt of disability living allowance, personal independence payment, or attendance allowances
  • war widow and widowers
  • households that routinely provide foster care placements
Opposing the amendment, the Minister for Employment, Work and Pensions Chris Grayling made it clear that the government considered it to infringe the financial privileges of the Commons. Referring to Moody’s recent placement of the UK’s triple A credit rating on negative outlook, the minister said:
“We made it perfectly clear on 1 February, when we last considered Lords amendments, that the earlier amendments, which could cost around £300 million a year, were unaffordable. The Government’s response to amendments costing £100 million, as these new amendments would, is no different.
“Large numbers of people in our community are under-housed and others are in temporary accommodation. We have formed the view that it is neither good value for the taxpayer nor right for those people that we pay for those in social housing to have spare rooms.”
Speaking in support of the amendment, Stephen Timms (East Ham, Labour) pointed out:
“The Lords amendments would limit [the] safeguard to the four groups that I have mentioned—the sick, the disabled, war widows and foster carers.

“Ministers have said that their policy will be a work incentive, but the support group comprises people who are not in a position to work. A work incentive will do them no good at all. Let us call a spade a spade: this is a spiteful cut in people’s income.”
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole, Conservative) also supporting the Lords amendment, saying:
“The sensible element of the Lords amendment is that the penalty kicks in only if people refuse a suitable property. That is eminently fair. Hon. Members must come to their own conclusions, but I will vote accordingly.”
The amendment was rejected by 316 to 263. The House of Lords is currently in recess so will be unable to consider its response until next week.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Regulation Committee members appointed

Secretary of State Eric Pickles has announced the names of four non-executives members to the Homes and Communities Agency’s new Regulation Committee.

The four have been appointed, following open competition, to work along side Chair-designate Julian Ashby in overseeing regulation of the social housing sector from 1 April 2012, when the Tenant Services Authority is wound up.

Piers Williamson is Chief Executive of the Housing Finance Company, a not-for-profit organisation that raises market finance for registered providers. He has also held non-executive Board roles at the Co-operative Bank and Insurance Society.

Jane May has recent regulatory experience as a Board member of OFWAT and the Office of Rail Regulation. She also has commercial experience as Customer Services Director of Thames Water.

Richard Moriarty is currently Director of Economic Regulation at the Civil Aviation Authority, and was previously Director of Regulation at the TSA, and has additional regulatory experience at Postcomm, Ofgem and Ofgas.

Jim Coulter is a current member of the TSA Board. A former chief executive of the National Housing Federation, he has also chaired Bridging Newcastle Gateshead and been a Board member of the Audit Commission and the Housing Finance Corporation.

The Chair of the Committee, Julian Ashby, has been appointed for three years, while other members have been appointed for 12 months, with the option to renew, subject to Secretary of State approval. Committee members will be paid £11,000 a year for up to two days work a month. There are spaces for two more members of the committee, and a further recruitment exercise will be run within the first year. It is likely to focus on boosting the commercial expertise available to the Committee.

Monday, 20 February 2012

DWP turns spotlight on 'living together' fraud

The government has warned people committing 'living together' benefit fraud that they will face tough new sanctions under the Welfare Reform Bill, currently going through Parliament.

People who tell the DWP they are single parents to get Income Support and Jobseekers Allowance, but are actually living with someone as husband and wife, cost the taxpayer nearly £100 million in overpaid benefits, making it one of the most frequently committed benefit frauds, according to DWP research published last March. Living together errors and fraud also account for £83m of housing benefit overpayments.

Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud said:
"Pretending you are a single parent to get benefits when you are actually living with a partner is stealing money from the people who genuinely need help. Sometimes these claims can be fraudulent from the outset, but often a person's circumstances change gradually and they don't tell the Department. Either way, it is a crime and one we are determined to put a stop to."
The government says that it is often women who face prosecution as the claims are usually in their names. Despite their partners often encouraging the fraud, they often escape punishment.

Powers in the Welfare Reform Bill will introduce tougher penalties for both fraud and error:
  • A minimum administrative penalty of £350, or 50% of the overpayment, whichever is higher, with four weeks loss of benefit
  • Extended loss of benefit for offences which result in a conviction of up to 13 weeks for a first offence, then 26 weeks for a second offence and 3 years for a third offence
  • An immediate 3 year loss of benefit for serious or organised benefit fraud or identity fraud

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Lords debate squatting

A Baroness's bid to allow squatting in long-term voids has been withdrawn.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer's amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill would have allowed squatters to occupy dwellings "where the building has been empty for six months or more and where there are no significant steps being taken to refurbish, let or sell the building at the time of the trespass."

The Bill proposes to make all forms of squatting a criminal offence. At present it is a civil matter unless the squatters break other laws - such as criminal damage or displacing a lawful occupant.

Lady Miller said that criminalising squatters would do nothing to alleviate homelessness and would place unnecessary burdens on the police.

Labour's Justice spokesman, Lord Bach said "Squatting for the main part is already illegal and, in most instances, criminal, too....The reason for bringing in this new piece of criminal legislation is pure populism...It is very telling that the Metropolitan Police, the Bar Council and the Law Society, none of which are natural friends of the squatting community, all think that bringing this particular legislation is completely unnecessary."

In spite of this, he couldn't support the amendment as tabled but, "if the noble Baroness were to bring back her amendment in a different form, perhaps with a longer period of time, we would be sorely tempted to support it".

The Baroness decided to withdraw the amendment so that it could be re-tabled with a longer time period. A committee will look at this matter and decide how to re-word the amendment at the Bill's Report Stage on 5 March.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Lords carry Best's bedroom tax amendment

The House of Lords has amended the Government's Welfare Reform Bill to prevent disabled people, carers and war widows being 'taxed' for having a spare room.

The motion, which was carried with a majority of ten, would exempt the following groups from the benefit cut:
  • occupants in receipt of disability living allowance, personal independence payment, or attendance allowances
  • war widow and widowers
  • households that routinely provide foster care placements.

To appease the 'other place' in parliament, the amendment makes the point that these groups may only be exempt if "the landlord is a local housing authority or a registered provider of social housing, and no suitable alternative accommodation....provided by any such provider is available".

Introducing the motion, Lord Best said:
"Even though this amended, amended amendment is now providing much less relief than I feel the situation requires, it nevertheless draws a line by mitigating at least some of the hardship for at least some of those on the lowest incomes, and now exclusively for those who are not in a position to go out to work because they act as carers or are disabled themselves, I hope very much that noble Lords' support for these households will be sustained."
Commentators expect the House of Commons to overturn these amendments asserting 'financial privelege' over the Lords. According to Parliament's website, the Bill is at the Ping Pong stage 'bouncing' between the chambers until all amendments have been considered and decided.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

MPs' plea for joined up health, housing and social care funding

The health select committee says in its latest report that older people are being let down by a social care system in which they are "passed like a parcel" between services.

The committee that noted that, although elderly people account for only 29 per cent of the population, they are the typical users of health, care and housing services. Older people occupy 70 per cent of acute hospital beds, 91 per cent of people in nursing care and over 50 per cent of housing association tenants. However, their experience of these services is often fragmented.

The report concludes that the key to joined up services is joined up commissioning, and recommends that the government should place a duty on the new clinical commissioning groups and local councils to create a single commissioning process, with a single accounting officer, and a single outcomes framework for older people’s health, care and housing services in their area.

The report says :
"The best test of such complex services is whether they work well together from the point of view of the older person, or whether they provide care and support in the most effective and efficient means possible, from the point of view of the public purse. The Committee has come to the view that these separate systems are inefficient and lead to poorer outcomes for older people. Indeed, trying to define NHS care and social care as two separate and distinct things will only make matters worse for older people."
The MPs note that, although the government has signed up to the principle of integration, little action has taken place to achieve it, adding "The Committee does not believe that the proposals in the Health and Social Care Bill will simplify this process."

The MPs also urge the Government to:

  • Co-ordinate policy more effectively across Whitehall and regularly rebalance national spending across health, housing and care services.
  • Replace the three overlapping but confusing frameworks that currently exist, with one outcomes framework for older people.
  • Recognise the widening "funding gap" in social care services - between the number of people who need care and the amount of money currently in the system to deal with their (rising) needs.
  • Accept the recommendations in the Dilnot report for a series of caps on care costs and identify the level at which it thinks these caps should be set.
  • Take steps to ensure that GPs identify much earlier and assess more clearly the needs of carers providing essential informal care to the old and the vulnerable.
  • Develop a new, integrated legal framework to support integration of health, social care and other services around the needs of the individual.

Housing report forecasts tough times ahead

A report launched today by the Northern Area Social Housing Forum (a group of housing associations in Staffordshire), and backed by the National Housing Federation, has found that social housing tenants risk becoming homeless, while potential home owners will face a housing shortage in the coming years.

Although the report focuses on Staffordshire, the conclusions reflect issues felt across the UK. Sinéad Butters, Chair of Northern Area Social Housing Forum (NASH) and Chief Executive of the Aspire Group, said:
"We have already seen warning signs but this report confirms the harsh reality of the effects of the Government’s proposed reforms on both those who provide and live in social housing."

"Housing association tenants will suffer financially and risk becoming homeless as a result. Housing associations must invest in their services and work with other agencies to support their customers through what will be a traumatic few years ahead."
There will be stark choices for housing benefit claimants: they face the choice of debt, cutting back on basic living expenses or facing the risk of homelessness. The report warns that plans to cut the housing benefits of tenants with spare rooms will affect nearly 30% of working age tenants who will lose, on average, some £13 a week in the NASH area.

The report found that with increasing numbers of households remaining out of owner occupation this will increase the demand for private renting. Fewer households will be able to secure independent accommodation, more children will remain living with parents, and more people will share accommodation with friends or others.

In areas which have strong economic potential and higher household growth, such as Stafford and East Staffordshire, the current failure in housing supply will increase housing shortages, raise prices and worsen affordability in the longer term as economic growth returns.

The report concludes with a series of policy recommendations for central government, local authorities and local housing agencies which seek to improve the delivery of housing and renewal activity in the new environment, while minimising social costs for those in housing need.

Monday, 6 February 2012

£3bn for London's housing

Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles has announced £3 billion of funding for the Greater London Authority for housing and regeneration in London.

The £3 billion funding supports the Mayor of London's commitment to build 55,000 affordable homes by March 2015, and to bring 45,000 existing social homes up to standard across London, as well as supporting the Mayor's plans for the Olympic Park.

From April 2012, the activities of the Homes and Communities Agency in London devolve to the Greater London Authority, including the management of London's affordable housing programmes.

The Mayor of London will also establish a Mayoral Development Corporation to oversee the long term development of the Olympic Park and surrounding area.

These responsibilities were transferred to the Greater London Authority following the Localism Act 2011.

Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles said:
"This settlement hands real power to London allowing Londoners to manage their own affairs. It goes hand in hand with the new localism powers and spending freedoms we are handing councils around the country so they can be as efficient and effective as possible with public funds."

"The lasting legacy from the Olympics will showcase the regeneration and house building achievements that ensures London remains a truly great city."
The Mayor published a draft revised London Housing Strategy for consultation in December 2011. The consultation period closes on 6 March 2012.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

MPs block Lords welfare challenge

Chris Grayling at Conservative Party ConferenceThe Welfare Reform Bill returned to the House of Commons last night for consideration of the amendments made in the House of Lords, where the government had been defeated in seven votes.

The Lords amendments had sought to mitigate some of the impact of the reforms on poor and disabled people, but each of the defeats was reversed. The coalition government secured large majorities in each of the votes. The division on the Lords proposal calling for social tenants with one spare room to be exempt from under-occupancy penalties linked to housing benefit was the closest, with 310 voting with the government and 268 against, including a handful of Liberal Democrat backbenchers.

The government offered few concessions to its opponents. People who have been in work for the previous 12 months will get a nine-month "grace period" before the benefit cap is applied. A small number of households where someone is in receipt of the support component of employment and support allowance but not in receipt of disability living allowance will be exempted from the cap.

Up to an additional £80m will be provided for discretionary housing payments for those affected by the benefit cap in 2013-14, and a further £50 million in 2014-15, although Employment Minister Chris Grayling insisted that the government does not expect "anything like that amount of money" to be needed.

Most controversially, after the debate the government used a motion to a cross-party procedural committee to have the Lords amendments declared invalid under the rule of "financial privilege" which prevents the House of Lords opposing tax and spending decisions agreed by the Commons.

The bill now goes back to the Lords. However, due to the government's invocation of the Commons' financial privilege there is little scope for further changes.

The Lords amendments defeated

(courtesy of BBC News)

  • Exclude child benefit from overall cap
  • Not charging single parents for Child Support Agency if they've taken steps to reach a settlement
  • Exempt cancer patients from means testing of ESA
  • Means test other ESA claimants after two years, not one as planned
  • Allow young disabled people who have never worked to keep claiming "contributory" ESA
  • Exempt social tenants with one spare room from "under occupancy" penalties
  • Limit reduction to lower rate of "disabled child element" of Child Tax Credits

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Housing strategy progress report

In a speech today in London, Housing Minister Grant Shapps gave a progress report on the government's housing strategy, published last November.

Three months into the strategy and six weeks before the budget, Shapps reported:

  • £45 million has been allocated to 18 publicly owned sites under the Get Britain Building fund (a £420 million fund to get development started on stalled sites that have planning permission and are otherwise "shovel ready"). Final bids for the rest of the funding will be considered next month.
  • Freeing up public sector land - The strategy set a target to free up sufficient public land for 100,000 homes by 2015. Government land has already been identified to release for over 80,000 new homes. and talks are underway with government departments and public bodies to identify the remaining land.
  • Confirmation that the NewBuy Guarantee (a new build indemnity scheme announced last November)  would be open to UK citizens buying on new build houses and flats up to £500,000 as their main home - whether they are first time buyers or moving up the ladder from March 2012.
Shapps also referred in his speech to the Government moves to increase Right to Buy discounts, reiterating the prime minister's promised that a new home will be built for every home sold. He also welcomed the ending of the current housing revenue account subsidy scheme from April this year, referring to the old system as a 'Tenants Tax'.

The DCLG has confirmed that it will go ahead with its proposals to raise the £25,000 "value limit" - or notional annual rental value - to £100,000. This figure determines the eligibility of residential long leaseholders to stay in their home when their lease comes to an end. Subject to Parliamentary approval, the changes will come into force from April 2014.