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Homes, houses, units and incidents: the emotions in public policy

From a talk and conversation at Northern PlaceShapers, April 10th 2019

A large part of public policy is concerned with where people live: are there enough houses? Are we maintaining them well enough? Are they secure, affordable and decent? And whose living in them?

We know that housing matters enormously. It’s a huge source of the generational tension we face as a country. It should be an integral part of the infrastructure, enabling growth and mobility. It’s a political hot-button issue. And there’s no shortage of reports and policy recommendations about it. In fact, Housing Report Bingo is a parlour game in many circles, as report after report makes the crystal-clear case: we need more housing for everyone, the current arrangements are broken, there needs to be grater sustained investment. It’s obvious.

And yet we fail to cut through, either with government, or too often with the people who need housing, and those who live in our homes.

Is this another blind spot in public policy? Professionals and board members, ministers and regulators happily talk about supply, and units. We spend millions of pounds and in conferences, round tables and seminars we agonise about the differences between affordable and social and council and private housing. We know all about scheduled repairs, pipelines and managing demand, and we can even talk the language of allocation and support. We dabble happily in the KPIs and the league tables.

But nearly three years after a slogan called Bring Back Control changed the course of British history; we seem to be very poor at identifying why where we live matters so much. For all of us our home is the most precious thing we hold, and our emotions about home are only matched by the love we have for those who are most close to us. Home is the place of intimacy and warmth. It’s the place where our most precious inter actions take place. Its the place we raise our children. The place we go to when we need to feel safe. Its where we are ill and hope to die. It’s a place for times of vulnerability. It’s the place where our memories are born and where they grow. and Home provides our identity and our sense of who we are. Home provides nurture and security. It is in our homes that we most need control.

That’s why things going wrong in a home are so horrific. Its why domestic violence is rightly seen as the most hideous crime – the betrayal of the safety of home. Its why burglary can be so catastrophic and why its occasional dismissal as not really bad because it wasn’t violent, fails to recognise the violation it represents. Its why internal sewage flooding is such a tragedy and why floods and fire still touch our deepest emotions.

Home matters to us.

It’s not a coincidence that moving to a new house ranks up there on the scale of stress with bereavement and divorce.

It’s also why people get so angry when things go wrong. Its why the twitter messages to so many chief executives feel so aggressive. No wonder people are angry – that failing boiler, that damp patch, that botched repair is affecting them in their most important place. It’s not a late train, it’s not an incident or a scheduling issue – its damage to them in the place they need to feel most safe.

Its why people are so angry when their right of quiet enjoyment, so beautifully described in otherwise dull legislation, is threatened, as it so often is.
Public policy is beginning to talk about trauma: its time that housing policy thought about how it causes trauma.

Our home is what we own, regardless of housing tenure. Our home belongs to us in ways that resist metrics and legal title. Housing associations and local authorities may have housing on their balance sheets: but the homes they support are only held in trust for the community – for today’s generation and for ones not yet born.
And if this is true, shouldn’t public policy change too? What would housing policy look like if it recognised the central importance of a home to the people who live in it, and the lack of one to people who are homeless? What would housing management look like?

And perhaps far more importantly, what would our political discussion look like? That might really start a different conversation.

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Tackling poverty from the DWP

This briefing sets out priority areas for the new Secretary of State to focus on for a sustained reduction in UK poverty levels.

Two things can be done to substantially reduce poverty levels in the UK: either the resources available to individuals and households need to increase or the costs of meeting their needs must be brought down.

The state’s role is important, particularly the tax and benefit system, but fiscal policy alone will not reduce poverty. A more comprehensive approach is needed. In this briefing, we set out a number of areas where we think the Secretary of State has scope, either through his direct commissioning and spending powers or via influence with Cabinet colleagues, local government and employers, to make a positive difference.

An all-out assault on poverty has got to be comprehensive

David Cameron is a man in a hurry. Set to stand down ahead of the 2020 election, the PM has promised an ‘all-out assault on poverty’ in what he calls a ‘reforming decade’. His major speech on poverty this week could not be more timely and important. The Conservative-led coalition oversaw a period of flat-lining poverty levels. There was welcome progress on the Pupil Premium, Universal Credit and falling worklessness, but the debate and, ultimately, action was stymied by battles over living standards and welfare reform.

This speech early in the Parliament has moved the debate and the Government’s intentions forward. There was a notable shift in tone: he acknowledged that poverty is real – “some material poverty still exists” – and admitted to the scale of the problem (“millions of people”), showing that he appreciates the fact that poverty goes beyond a small minority of troubled families or individuals. And we know the task of reducing substantial levels of poverty is enormous. By 2020, we expect at least one in four families to be in poverty, notwithstanding further expected cuts to Universal Credit at the end of this Parliament.

It was an ambitious gallop through some of the most complex challenges people face, such as addiction, mental health and relationship breakdown. Getting to grips with these will be an enormous task, but could reap enormous rewards: child poverty alone costs the Treasury £29 billion each year in public spending on repairing damaged lives, combined with lost economic output and tax revenue. JRF will be doing more research into the role of individuals and relationships in addressing poverty: the PM was right to say we need a new understanding of poverty that includes the role of families and individuals, as well as the structural factors that cause and trap people in poverty.

It would be naive to think an approach which focuses heavily on individuals can be a cure-all, though it is right that the Prime Minister’s thinking should cut across departmental divides and he is also right that we need a different approach. He set out his stall about a new partnership between communities, the voluntary sector and faith groups, employers and the state. In 2013, to mark 70 years since the Beveridge report, I called for a new settlement between the state, market and community, in the shared understanding that we all have a responsibility to address poverty.

The Government’s Life Chances strategy will be published in the spring, so there is time to plug some important gaps. We have seen two of the three actors addressed in the speech, so now the assault on poverty must be embraced by business, employers and landlords, so that markets work for people and prosperity is built on the contributions all of us can make.

Likewise, early years, education, complex needs and mentoring were the PM’s four strands to tackling poverty. All are vital, but so is action to reduce the high cost of living. For example, the cost and quality of housing has to be central to a life chances strategy. It’s heartening to see regeneration back on the agenda, given how people’s homes and environment can be a poverty trap. But without careful stewardship, the homes that could be built in place of old sink estates may not be affordable to the people who once lived there, forcing them out of their communities.

Already we are seeing a ‘home ownership at all costs’ approach to housing through Starter Homes and Right to Buy. We risk diminishing the limited supply of homes we already have in pursuit of the property-owning democracy, and side-lining people on low incomes who are struggling to afford rented homes – ownership may never be an option for them.

The zeal of a reforming decade may stall if we fail to get to grips with the equally big structural challenges that cause hardship and trap people in poverty. These need an all-out assault too, as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes welfare, public services, economic growth, employers, landlords and families all playing their part.

Poverty is risky, wasteful and costly, for individuals, the economy and the state. We have reached a sensible diagnosis of some of the problems and how to address them. Fundamentally, this isn’t about the failure of two contrasting approaches and providing yet another: it is about fusing them all, to reach the same goal of ending poverty. This week, we saw that this may yet be possible.