Friday, November 18, 2011

Why are councils knocking down council houses when there is a shortage of affordable housng?

Sounds barmy doesn't it.  But Nottingham city council have identified nearly 1000, and Birmingham over 1200 homes that they have lined up for demolition. If all councils demolish at the same rate it will mean 60,000 affordable homes are to be demolished across England, with only vague plans that some of them will ever be replaced.
Perhaps even more scandalously it turns out that most of these homes are occupied. The tenants will be evicted and presumabaly put into temporary accommodation.

What could possibly justify this huge upheaval of people and such a big loss of affordable homes? The shocking answer is -  accounting reasons!

The government has decided to allocate it's own housing debt  to councils as part of the scrapping of the HRA subsidy system. Essentially all councils with council homes take a pro-rata share of the government's £23billion housing debt in exchange for keeping rental income on their housing stock. The driver for this was partly councils'  unhappiness with the current system, but surely also a desire from Treasury to remove a huge debt off the public deficit.
The unintended consequence is that councils are seeking to avoid the debt by demolishing houses. Each council house they own will attract around £12,000 of debt.Get rid of a 1000 houses and you avoid £12m debt.

Housing minister Grant Shapps was on You and Yours on Radio 4 with me yesterday sounding reassuring. Although he didn't deny that councils will demolish homes to avoid debt, he said that there was unlikely to be an overall increase in demolitions from this measure.   Hmmm... I'm not convinced. This looks like the policy people missed the consequence of thier policy. I don't like Nottingham and Birmingham's oppurtunism and cynicism, but have no doubt who is really repsonsible for this disastrous policy. Treasury.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Want to know where all the empty homes are? You can't

Imagine for a moment that there is a map of the whole country that shows where every empty home is, how long it has been empty, and who owns it. Imagine too that it is published on-line by the government, it is continually updated and is free to use. Wouldn’t that be amazing for organisations that refurb homes and create affordable housing?

Putting aside the privacy issues for a moment, who should be allowed to use this map? Should it be freely available to everybody?

If not, who?

Imagine no longer. The map actually exists as I described. It’s called the Empty Homes GIS Toolkit and is published by the Homes and Communities Agency. They, in conjunction with Ordnance Survey, who actually own the maps, decided, probably wisely, that access should be restricted. Unless you have signed something called the Public Sector Mapping Agreement you aren’t allowed to see the map.

Who is allowed to sign this agreement? Not, me, and not you, unless you work for what is considered to be a public sector body. This leaves the rather bizarre situation that:

Housing Associations
Housing cooperatives
Housing Charities
Universities …are banned from seeing the map

But Government departments, and local councils, and others including
Royal National Lifeboats
Mountain rescue services
Cancer registries
Areas of Outstanding National Beauty … are allowed full access

Now let's come back to those privacy issues. You wouldn’t want details of empty houses being broadcast to everybody would you? So the line has to be drawn somewhere. That somewhere appears to be between government and non- government organisations. The implication being only government organisations can be trusted with keeping information about property secure.  But a quick look at the list of signatories shows that the UK’s biggest broadcaster, the BBC has full access to the map.

So here is a goldmine of information that could be invaluable to housing associations and other affordable housing providers and help get empty homes back into use. That is hampered by a set of rules that prevent those that could use it actually seeing it. If ever there was a case of nonsensical bureaucratic rules that needed changing it is surely this.