Monday, 31 October 2011

The mess of housing policy

Housing policy across the UK is in a right mess. I'm on the management committee of Prospect Community Housing in West Edinburgh so this is having an impact on my everyday life as a committee member. 

The committee got a presentation about the changes to the benefits system that is going to start from 2013 and culminate with the introduction of the Universal Credit. I'll be entirely honest, I'm not completely against the Universal Credit - the idea of providing tapered welfare support depending on income and ending the massive increase in marginal tax that occurs when people on housing benefit move into work should be welcomed. And that's about it. To get how stupid these changes are you have to understand that because social housing has become so marginal in the UK the majority of residents get housing benefit. The security of income from housing benefit paid directly to the landlord makes social housing providers very attractive to lenders. This means that grant can be topped up with cheap loans and houses get built. Basically we subsidise our housing in two ways - grant for the house itself, and housing benefit for the tenant who lives there. 

The Tories don't like housing benefit, because if you live in a large, privately rented property in London you can get lots of Daily Mail Headline Inducing benefit. So they're trying to cut it. I thought this only really affected London and the south east, but how wrong was I. Firstly, the non-dependent deductions. At the moment, if you have a non-dependent resident (i.e. grown up child, other relative, friend) with you and you receive HB you get a deduction on your HB for the income they should bring in. From April this year this deduction has increased by 28% and will continue to increase until 2014. So, if you have an unemployed dependent living with you, this is an incentive for them to become unemployed and declare themselves homeless and move into a home on their own as this will maximise their benefit. Really clever that one. Next is the cap on benefits to £500 p.w. for a family from April 2013 - likely to effect large families in the social rented sector who will end up homeless if they cannot top-up their benefit to pay their bills and rent. 

Now, the really, really stupid ones are under-occupancy and the Universal Credit itself. Firstly under-occupancy. Now if you live on your own you will have to live in a one bedroomed property, for example. If you under-occupy your benefit will be cut. For landlords like the City of Edinburgh Council that have a lot of two-bedroomed flats and routinely under-occupy this will have a massive impact. Tenants will be expected to find the difference to pay the rent, which could be £10 p.w. Also, at the moment the rules define a bedroom as needing a window, so watch this space for people bricking up windows. Unless we have a massive increase in the supply of one-bedroomed properties overnight, this is going to be a homelessness nightmare. What is more, do you recall people squealing about that think tank report that suggested that owner-occupiers should be encouraged not to under-occupy - how could you take my mum's spare bedroom away? I won't be able to come home for Christmas etc. Now, if you happen to be disabled, ill, or out of work, you can't have anyone to stay ever.

The Universal Credit. The problem with this is it will be paid directly to tenants. This sounds good in practice but the sad fact is that when tenants accidentally receive HB themselves due to a mix-up, they always go into arrears and landlords never see that money. And, with the Universal Credit, as it starts to get withdrawn, it will be the housing portion that reduces first. 

On top of all this, in both the Westminster and Scottish Governments (see, for example the Adaptations Budget cuts), housing association grant is being massively reduced and social housing providers are expected to provide homes in a much more market-based fashion using loans from banks. For example, the City of Edinburgh Council's 21st Century Homes programme is using the Scottish Futures Trust, National Housing Trust to lever in cheap private finance to build new homes at very low grant levels. Meanwhile the Council is thinking about putting itself forward as one of the authorities to pilot Universal Credit. If their rent income drops and arrears levels rise then the finances of the NHT start looking very ropey indeed.

All in all, the only way this can lead is to increased homelessness, a decrease in the supply of affordable housing and massive increases in relative and absolute poverty. And today it's being reported that the reforms are bringing about yet another perverse incentive. Changes to the way the Housing Revenue Account works in England are actually providing an incentive to Councils to knock down homes.

Friday, 28 October 2011

More cycling good news...

In an update to my previous rant about cycling in Edinburgh I'm going to bang Edinburgh Council's trumpet a bit more. Just a couple of wee, helpful things.

Thanks to news that flashed through my Twitter feed I recently discovered the the neighbourhood partnership local to Portobello (East, I think) had agreed to allow cycling on Portobello promenade. I'd been cycling down here every Thursday night for two years so, that I was technically breaking the law, came as a bit of a surprise. All well and good. However, for the past six months the street lights at the far west end of the Promenade, for a distance of about 300 metres, had been out. I'd presumed this was some problem with electricity supply, things being washed away in storms, and that someone had reported it but it just couldn't be fixed. This was becoming an increasing problem as I stopped cycling home in those beautiful, long Scottish summer evenings we have. Eventually, after nearly cycling into someone last week I thought I'd let Clarence know. Lo and behold, let there be light! I'd be intrigued to know what had gone wrong.

In other news, I got yet more feedback from my very helpful Councillor who sent me a set of maps of cycling routes that Edinburgh council have produced and forwarded on an email that stated:
"Part of the training requirements for new taxi drivers is that they receive training from a Lothian and Borders Police Road Safety Officer. I will speak the Taxi Inspector to see if the content of the course requires to be modified to account for the presence of cyclists in the greenways [bus lanes]."
A small victory, I feel.

I've suggested that Edinburgh Council's City Development department bang their own drum about this sort of thing some more and improve their cycling web page, that at the moment looks like this.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Middle class places, normal places?

We're coming to the end of our AHRC Connected Communities research on middle class engagement with public services now and it's proved very interesting. In line with the realist synthesis methodology we've employed we have four mid-range theories which explain quite a lot of how the middle classes might be able to capture a disproportionate amount of the benefits of the public services.

We've workshopped the findings at my old department in Glasgow and will be presenting them at the Urban Geography Research Group conference at University of Edinburgh on 10/11 of November. We'll also be presenting a seminar at Heriot-Watt on 16 November (details to follow). Finally, I've been invited to talk about middle class places to the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (I think that's what they're called these days...) next Friday. Which is what this post is about.

My doctoral research focused on "so-called deprived neighbourhoods" and a great deal of my critique of regeneration policy stemmed from the way so much of the problem is the social construction of deprived neighbourhoods as a "problem". I've got an article(£) in Housing Theory and Society about how, over nearly 40 years of regeneration policy in Scotland, policy documents still stigmatised deprived neighbourhoods and all that changed was the terminology used. All of it was still pretty negative. One of my research findings was also how residents of "so-called deprived neighbourhoods" felt this stigma on a day-to-day basis in terms of feeling looked down upon and treated differently, especially by service providers like the local authority (some of the comments I overheard from officers while I was waiting to go to interview participants certainly showed how widespread this problem is).

I think indices of deprivation are really useful in targeting resources at those neighbourhoods that need them most (see the nifty new ONS Atlas of Deprivation) but every time an index is published there's the endless discussion in the press about the "poorest" neighbourhood and the "wealthiest" (the latter ignores that it's an index of deprivation, so it's not the wealthiest, but the least-deprived). This reinforces this stigma and also completely ignores that the fact of very wealthy and very deprived neighbourhoods existing is linked and also ignores the majority of neighbourhoods in the middle.

Towards the end of my doctoral research, and even more now I've completed this review, I'm much more interested in what makes perfectly dull neighbourhoods, those suburbs we all hate, so perfectly, mind-numbingly normal. I suspect that many private organisations like Tesco, the credit reference agencies and tools like the ACORN Classification can tell us more about these neighbourhoods than a lot of social science research because these neighbourhoods matter to these organisations as customers. What I'm getting from the review we've done of middle classes and the public services is the hard work carried out on a regular basis by people in normal neighbourhoods to keep them perfectly normal. This extends from joining formal groups like the Parish Council or PTA to activities in co-production like attending parents evenings as an active parent or being an active patient in interactions with health care practitioners. A lot of policy targeted at deprived neighbourhoods suggests they need community development because they lack this sort of activity, but there was not a body of evidence to support this.

More worrying, however, if that the broader context of public service delivery supports this sort of activity, specifically from middle class people with their cultural capital. Therefore, if you did increase participation from deprived neighbourhoods to be on a par with affluent neighbourhoods they'd be struggling between two competing tides: the greater severity and range of problems to be dealt with in their neighbourhood and their middle class neighbours are more likely to get a positive outcome from service providers.

Even more worrying is how this is treated as the status-quo. The usual reaction when I say "I'm researching whether the middle class complain more and get more" the reaction is a laugh - we all know this to be true, so why bother researching it. There's nothing we can do about it. Well actually, we don't really know it to be true and if we do know more about it maybe we can do something about it? But, as a middle-class academic, living a comfortable life supported quite remarkably by the welfare state, do I really care? 

And if you want my article, drop me an email and I'll send you a copy. Details here.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Cycling in my home city

Well, it's been all quiet on the blogging front from me. I was tempted a couple of weeks back to do a big rant about how crap road conditions are for cyclists in Edinburgh. In the great "separation" debate in cycling ideology, for the record, I'm pro going Dutch, e.g. shed loads of separation to encourage the novice cyclist to carry out short journeys, but then leaving people (idiots like me, mainly) the option to hurtle along a dual carriageway if they want.

Anyhoo, a while back (when I was doing this post, actually) I emailed one of my local Councillors because the Council is the majority shareholder in our fantabulous, wonderful, couldn't-be-better-if-they-tried, [insert further superlatives in here] bus company Lothian Buses. Lothian Buses have been publicising the fact that they train their drivers very seriously about driving around cyclists, since we share bus lanes. And boy can you tell the difference. Plenty of room given when overtaking, patience when stuck behind you. So long as you do nothing stupid like undertake just before a bus stop, I'd be gob-smacked if a Lothian Bus ever grazed a cyclist. I sense things are a little different elsewhere. I suggested to my Councillor that since they are the majority shareholder they could encourage the company to offer their training to other employers of drivers - the Council itself, taxi drivers, utility companies etc.

And I didn't hear anything. Until last week when I got the most fantastic reply from my Councillor who thought it was a "very good idea" and forwarded it onto officers for investigation. I got three emails back that told me lots I didn't know. 

Taxi-driver training - includes driving round cyclists. Now, Edinburgh cyclists, try not to fall off your chairs laughing or die in shock, the "meter-obsessed, wheeled black boxes of death" do get training. I'm presuming this is one slide, after the lunchbreak, which must include "the pink bit of roads at stop lines are for you and not cyclists", "if you see a cyclist in a bus lane, try and mow them down" and "cyclists should be killed". It is good that this training is included, but really, it doesn't seem to be working as well as Lothian Buses.

Cycle-safety week - I didn't even know this was happening. But apparently it was and included interventions with drivers and cyclists. Lothian & Borders Police put out a press release about it, picked up by STV local (watch out for the ads). This angers me. Both stories start off with "247 cyclists" being stopped. Note that only two of the things listed as cyclists being stopped for are actually illegal - going through red lights and cycling on pavements, neither of which I'd condone (Greener Leith have had a couple of interesting posts on pavement cycling here and here which I think illuminate this debate a lot). The actual story here is that "Six drivers received a fixed penalty notice or were reported to the Procurator Fiscal and three cars were seized". And it's me on my little ol' bike that is the safety problem on the roads! The really good news they're keeping quiet is that this is going to continue and will include advertising on the back of buses. I'm presuming this will be of the "keep your distance" variety. If so, then woohoo! When I no longer have a near-miss with a car driver doing something illegal every night when I cycle home (last night's was someone going through a red light. Not running a red light, but just proceeding through the junction while it was at red) then I'll start taking cyclists as a safety problem seriously.

Cycling infrastructure - the emails also included a lot of information about new cycling infrastructure the Council are building down in Leith. This is all good grade-separated stuff and needs to be applauded. I've suggested the City of Edinburgh Council do a news blog post on this to take some of the cyclist's flak. This is a start, but we do need more. A recommendation from me would be to put some tarmac grade-separated paths through the national cycle route that goes through the New Town - cycling on those setts is back-breaking. If LA can manage more cycle infrastructure then I don't see why a compact city like Edinburgh cannot.

Overall I was quite pleased by the response I got. It is good that some of these issues are now being taken serious, although clearly anyone who has cycled in Edinburgh will know that implementation gaps still exist. There is clearly a communication issue here and the Council needs to be blowing its own trumpet a bit more. But still, as I said in an exasperated email to the Council's tram teams regarding the roadworks for the trams, it still feels like the City is managed for the car and pedestrians and cyclists are always an after thought. If we're serious about sustainable transport then we have to accept that not thinking about the car, or only considering it a problem, will be effectively demand management and push people into more sustainable transport modes.