State of the Nation 2016 - Politics

A previous ‘state of the nation’ article reviewed the situation with English local authority empty homes staff, based on a Freedom of Information request sent out by the Network over the Autumn. In today’s article we explore the wider context in which practitioners are operating.

Background

When the Conservative government was elected, somewhat unexpectedly, in May 2015, various empty homes funding programmes had come to an end as of March 2015.  In the run-up to March 2015, the Empty Homes Network made representations to DCLG to persuade the then Coalition government to allow underspend to be rolled forwards beyond March 2015.[1] It would be obvious to anyone that knows anything about construction that building development projects can over-run for reasons that are outside the control of the project manager.  Thus an absolutely rigid cut-off date meant that organisations could not take the risk of starting grant-funded projects in 2014 unless they were absolutely confident they could complete them by the end of March 2015.

Our representations, which focused on the Community Grants Programme because of the additionality it offered in terms of social benefits, were unsuccessful. An unknown number of projects that might have gone ahead and completed by the March cut-off date were thus lost.  Some insight into the leaden thinking going on in DCLG was gleaned from a meeting in the September of 2014 with a Policy Advisor to the Deputy Prime Minister (i.e.. working for Nick Clegg) who at that time was looking for policy initiatives to bring forward : she revealed that the Treasury had told her they would have given serious consideration to a request from DCLG to roll empty homes underspend forward, but no such request was forthcoming.  It’s good to know who your champions are.

After the 2015 General Election

This may sound like ancient history, but it needs to be seen in the context of other events around the time of the 2015 General Election. The Nationwide building society – in partnership with the Nationwide Foundation, its independent charitable offshoot – had already written to all MPs earlier in May encouraging them to support a further round of funding, particularly for community-led groups.  These overtures were pursued immediately after the election, with the result that already, by June 9th 2015, Mortgage Introducer was able to produce a well-researched article recording how they had been rebuffed.  Further action on empty homes had not made it into the Conservative election manifesto, so the lack of interest might have been predictable; but to have detached a small tranche of funding from the main Affordable Homes Programme – replicating what had happened in 2010 – would not have represented any major departure from policy.

Insight into what was going on under the surface emerged in a September 2015 letter from Brandon Lewis to the Ecology Building Society, which had again been seeking a further funding round:

As far as the Empty Homes Community Fund Programme is concerned, we cannot deny that most community groups worked hard to deliver their outputs but some required far too much oversight and support. The programme did not produce the value for money we had expected with average grant rates of £41,000 per property. We had to take mitigating action where participants withdrew from the programme often late in the day after protracted negotiations. This meant we have to extend delivery deadlines, allow grant recipients to reduce outputs and reallocate funds to ensure that all the programme's aims were achieved.

Unpicking this letter would require an entire article – it might best be summarized as ‘please don’t make us get our hands dirty with real work’: the benefits of a hugely successful programme obscured by half-truths and misrepresentations in order to conceal the limitations of a bureaucracy that was woefully unprepared (and admittedly under-resourced) to plan, organize and manage delivery.  This letter gels with comments made in the September 2014 meeting where the Policy Advisor said the programme was viewed as a ‘failure’ – a perception that we robustly challenged in a follow-up email, where we commented:

But specifically as regards “failure”: –

  • If, as we have proposed, the programme deadline is extended, it can hardly be described as a failure – it would be premature to do so as it won’t have completed and you buy time to design an improved programme if you want (we hope you do).
  • This may be seen as “relative failure” by some, but it would be hard to make much political capital out of that as alongside the failures you would be able to point to all the successes to date which are impressive and argue that the final outcome is yet to be determined
  • not a penny has been wasted – whatever has been spent has produced affordable housing.
  • within the Community Grants Programme … there have been additional social benefits for example in respect of training, support, employment and the provision of specialist housing for some needs groups

If the programme is judged to be a failure then the question will arise as to why … Whilst some providers are at fault I think the bigger fault does lie with the overall design and implementation of the scheme.  Who were the “experts” that designed it? Why the double delay, firstly of the bidding round, then of the issuing of contracts? Where was the money allocated to capacity building either within or outside of the governmental agencies? Why did London introduce flexibilities not available elsewhere? Where was the scheme design, the drawing on experience from elsewhere as proposed in our letter to Andrew Stunell in 2010? Where was the in-programme evaluation? Where was the ownership, the passion, the championing? Etc etc.

... better to proceed on the basis of the programme having been a relative success and still in the process of being tweaked - and then take the opportunity to tweak it.

Politicians and bureaucrats

The point of this long digression is to convey the extent to which Whitehall – like bureaucracies everywhere – seems to be incapable of visualizing what might be involved in any systematic, strategic case-oriented programme to tackle empty homes. There is no reason to suppose that things are any different 15 months later.  It is a pretty safe bet, then, that when civil servants are asked to think about new policy, empty homes will not feature.  So we are dependent on the energy and vision of politicians, whether locally or nationally, to challenge the inertia.  One lesson for the Empty Homes Network is the need to make sure practitioner messages about ‘what works’ are made available much more clearly to local Members. It is not our job to lobby, but it is our job to inform.  This was discussed at our February 2016 Executive meeting where an area of the website specifically for elected members was mooted. This has yet to be realized.

Quite a lot of other things failed to happen in the wake of the 2012-15 empty homes programmes, besides follow-on funding: most notably any serious attempt at an officially-sanctioned evaluation. The £60million ‘Clusters of Empties’ programme was not even monitored, never mind evaluated.  We are, however, hopeful that David Mullins and his team at the Birmingham School of Social Policy will complete their programme of research into the Community Grants Programme (research which has received no government funding and has involved a fair bit of pro bono input by academics and volunteers).

One spark of light that deserves recognition has been the continuing commitment of the Nationwide Foundation to community-led efforts to tackle empties, which they have continued to fund. This has kept the flame alive; and Foundation has also provided some funding to the David Mullins research effort. 

Other than these meagre opportunities, organisations seeking empty homes capital grant for affordable housing could only fall back on the mainstream Affordable Homes Programme 2015-18.  To access it, community-led organisations were encouraged to become registered providers or to partner with existing RPs.  Hopefully not too much effort was expended in those directions because that option was significantly curtailed by the announcement as part of the 2015 Spending Review that all unallocated HCA grant funding would be restricted to home ownership products.[2]  Organisations such as Kent’s ‘No Use Empty’ initiative that had been encouraged by the HCA to bid for funding from the 2015-18 pot in order to continue the successful work completed under the 2012-15 programme were stopped dead in their tracks.

Dangling threads

There are various threads that are hanging around from before the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.  We are still waiting to find out what the government is intending to do about New Homes Bonus.  Some of the proposals in the consultation document would have a very serious impact on the amount of bonus earned in areas with higher numbers of empty – for example the introduction of a threshold below which no NHB would be paid.  The proposed changes were justified in part by a perceived need to provide more funding for social care and there is a mounting clamour around the issue from local authorities with social services responsibilities: we have grounds for concern that NHB changes will be implemented.[3]  That said, it would be seriously irresponsible for the government to implement any changes during 2017-18 as the consultation originally proposed.

On a more positive note, the government seems to be pressing ahead with changes to legislation that would make it less expensive to compulsory purchase abandoned or eyesore empties.

Another potentially positive development is the National Housing Taskforce initiated by the All-Party Parliamentary Group [APPG]on Housing and Planning.  The problem of empty homes is being addressed by one of the 12 work streams, and the task group concerned restricted itself to just three individual issues, seemingly ruling out the possibility of a more strategic approach. Nevertheless, we can hope that something useful will emerge, if only the need for empty homes to have its own APPG so it does not get lost in the welter of other housing issues.

Some grounds for optimism

Looking at the bigger picture, the Brexit vote has shaken things up, not least the personnel in government.  In Gavin Barwell we have a Housing Minister who seems unwilling just to coast along invisibly like his immediate predecessors.  Already, the exclusive focus on home-ownership has been removed so that registered providers again have the option of applying Affordable Homes Programme funding to rental products.  Against this, there seems to have been a significant switch of funding to London, leaving so much the less for areas of low demand, which typically have a higher incidence of empties.  Should it be deprived of capital, the Northern Powerhouse might become the Northern Powerhovel.

Nevertheless, there is an unfamiliar whiff of common sense in the air, and an evident openness to new ideas that allows us to hope that the potential for a genuine empty homes initiative in England might be recognised.  For the Empty Homes Network this means continuing (amongst other things) to promote the need for an effective and sustainable infrastructure, such as that found in Scotland[4], to support delivery;  and for us to emphasise the need for a vision that is wider than just the provision of affordable housing: a holistic view of the problems and opportunities that cluster around empty homes, where we look to Kent’s ‘No Use Empty’ as an exemplar.

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