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This week's National news (October 20 - October 24)

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NATIONAL:Political parties join cross-sector call for national housing consensus


Politicians from the three main political parties have signed a letter alongside council leaders, heads of homelessness and planning charities, leading architects and planners, and chief executives of development companies and housing associations.
 
The letter calls for a national consensus about solutions to the housing crisis that “aim to ensure people's happiness and secure national prosperity".
 
The letter recognises that good planning is part of the solution to meeting the nation's housing need, stating that: "Good planning goes beyond the cycle of elections, and cross-party support...is vital for high-quality developments to be delivered. For too long planning has been marked by division. It is time the nation came together."
 
The letter suggests that a national consensus on building homes should be founded on three interlocking objectives:

  1. Comprehensively planned redevelopment of Brownfield Sites within an urban context (e.g. the docks in London, Salford and Bristol);
  2. The expansion of existing towns and settlements where the addition improves the overall level of amenity for the existing population rather than detracts from it. This will not be achieved by merely adding numerous housing estates on the edge of a town. It will require a proper provision of additional services and support to the existing transport networks to prevent them becoming even more crowded;
  3. In new planned settlements based on Garden City principles where new social and physical infrastructure ensures that they provide a good quality of life and are sustainable.
Providing most new homes in one of these three ways will make it possible to protect smaller towns and villages in the countryside from a rash of new housing estates. It would preserve and enhance our natural and historic environment.
 
The delivery of new places for people should be founded on a robust, locally led and democratic planning system.  It is time the nation came together and set itself on a truly sustainable pathway to create the future communities our children deserve.
 
Signatories of the letter are:
 
Lord Andrew Adonis
Bob Allies, partner, Allies and Morrison
Roger Bootle, managing director, Capital Economics Ltd
Cllr Paul Carter, leader, Kent County Council
Sir David Higgins, chairman, HS2 Ltd
Lord Deben 
Keith Exford, Group chief executive, Affinity Sutton
Sir Terry Farrell
Peter Freeman, Argent and Mayfields Market Towns
Euan Hall, chief executive, The Land Trust
Kate Henderson, chief executive, Town and Country Planning Association
Peter Jones CBE, chairman, South East LEP
Sir Michael Lyons (pictured)
Roger Madelin, joint chief executive, Argent
David Orr, chief executive, National Housing Federation
Nick Raynsford MP
Campbell Robb, chief executive, Shelter
Francis Salway, Group chairman, Town & Country Housing Group
Lee Shostak, chairman, Shared Intelligence
Lord Taylor of Goss Moor
Pat Willoughby, partner, Wei Yang + Partners
Lord Simon Wolfson

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NATIONAL:Quarter of PRS tenants expect to never own a home


Renting is no longer a short term option for tenants in the private rented sector as almost a quarter believe they will never own their own home, a survey has found.
 
A total of 24 per cent of the 3,500 private tenants surveyed by Knight Frank and YouGov said that they expected to always rent a property, with a further 15 per cent saying they would continue to rent for a further five or more years. Some 24 per cent of tenants expect to leave the sector within two years.
 
The survey, that Knight Frank says was the largest survey of its kind ever conducted, also found that while the difficulties in getting on to the housing ladder are an issue for many renters, nearly a third (32 per cent) of tenants state that they are living in the private rented sector because it suits their lifestyle and/or they don’t want a mortgage.
 
On average, the maximum tenants will pay on rent is 40 per cent of their gross income, although one in ten Londoners will pay more than 50 per cent.
 
More than a third of tenants want to live within a six minute walk of their nearest train station or bus stop, with 78 per cent saying they want to be within 1km of transport links.
 
The survey found that finding accommodation in a central location is especially important to younger age-groups, with 53 per cent of 18-24 year olds saying they would live in a smaller studio flat in a central location if it made the rent more affordable. Some 39 per cent of under-35s agreed with this.
 
Grainne Gilmore (pictured), head of UK residential research at Knight Frank, said: “Our survey shows that the majority of renters do not view the PRS as just a ‘short-term’ move. Less than a quarter of tenants expect to leave the sector within two years.
 
“The dynamics of the housing market, where supply has failed to keep up with demand which in turn has played a role in pushing up house prices, has also put home ownership beyond the reach of many young workers, especially in key employment hubs. This, coupled with an increasing mobile and flexible workforce, has led to rising demand for privately rented property.”
 
Off-street parking is the amenity most private tenants are prepared to pay extra for, although fully furnished flats will attract a premium among younger renters, especially the 18-24 age group, the survey shows.

Tim Hyatt, head of lettings at Knight Frank, said: “The rising significance of the private rented sector is creating many opportunities for investors, especially as we are starting to see the advent of large-scale professional landlords.”

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NATIONAL:Government must provide more support for young people seeking PRS housing


The Government has been urged to make sure young people looking for private rented sector accommodation get the support they need.
 
According to an All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Private Rented Sector, planning restrictions, housing benefit rules and tax regulations need to be reviewed in order to help improve young adults' access to the market.
 
The report, published last week, highlighted as one issue the Shared Accommodation Rate rules, meaning single people aged under 35 are only able to claim housing benefit for a room in a shared property.
 
The report has been welcomed by Winckworth Sherwood, with solicitor, renter and PRS blogger Robert Flint (pictured) saying: “We need to recognise that renting a flat for under 35s is the new normal, so increasing supply by loosening up planning and tax regulations can only be a good thing.
 
“We need to move further in this direction if we are to encourage investment in good quality private rented accommodation.”
 
Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Oliver Colvile MP said in the report that a growing number of young people are turning to the PRS for homes.
 
This, he said, means the benefits, tax and planning framework must enable them to “find the homes they need at a price they can afford”.






NATIONAL:Notting Hill Housing issued AA credit rating


Credit agency Standard and Poor’s has issued Notting Hill Housing Trust with an AA rating in its first assessment of the organisation.
 
The strong rating was based on a number of factors including the extremely high demand for affordable housing in London, its solid track record of managing large development programmes as well as its strong financial performance over the last five years.
 
Standard and Poor’s said Notting Hill Housing Trust, the parent body of Notting Hill Housing Group, has a very strong enterprise profile and a very strong financial profile, and benefits from a moderately high likelihood of receiving extraordinary support from the UK Government.
 
It added that the stable 'AA' long-term issuer credit rating reflects the agency’s view of both the likely continuity of Government support, and the stability of Notting Hill's underlying credit quality.
 
The credit agency anticipates that Notting Hill will improve on its financial performance, reporting adjusted EBITDA margins averaging 36 per cent of revenues in financial 2015-2017, assuming a stable London housing market.
 
Notting Hill Housing Group finance director, Paul Phillips (pictured), said: "This is great news and confirms that we have strong capacity to meet our financial commitments. We believe that this will give assurance of our credit strength to our investors, present and future. This should help us when we want to secure new funding to support our business of providing more homes for Londoners at a time when housing is in the Capital is in short supply.”
 
This latest boost comes in the same year as the Group announced a record surplus of £65.7m and was selected deliver one of Europe’s largest regeneration projects at the Aylesbury Estate in Southwark. In July, it secured the largest grant (£77.4m) from the Greater London Authority to build 2,250 new affordable homes in London by 2018.

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NATIONAL:Gas Access Campaign offers to share research with housing minister


Gas safety campaigners are calling for a meeting with the housing minister to help him fully understand the unnecessarily wasted millions spent on gaining access to homes.
 
The call comes after housing minister Brandon Lewis (pictured) revealed the Department of Communities and Local Government hasn’t carried out any research into the costs to housing associations, forced to secure court orders as a last resort, in gaining access to a properties to carry out annual gas safety checks.
 
Figures from the Gas Access Campaign, being spearheaded by Home Group, the Association of Gas Safety Managers and CORGI Technical Services, suggest the issue is one which costs the social housing sector £50m each year.
 
Mark Henderson, Home Group chief executive, said: “Mr Lewis has acknowledged his department isn’t aware of the wasted millions spent each year in the sector because of this issue. We have done the research and we’d like to have a meeting with the Minister where we’d be happy to share our findings.
 
“The costs involved in lengthy court action combined with the significant numbers of tenants who refuse social landlords access may not be immediately obvious. However the level of response to the campaign speaks volumes, housing associations representing more than 1 million homes have signed up.
 
“Gas access costs the sector £50m each year. In a time of austerity this money could be used to build more homes or to finance some of the valuable work associations carry out in communities throughout the country.
 
“This is an issue which risks lives, the lives of tenants who refuse access and the lives of their neighbours. It could be resolved very simply with an amendment to a couple of paragraphs of legislation.”
 
Mr Lewis provided a written Parliamentary response to Hyndburn MP Graham Jones which acknowledged DCLG officials have conducted no research into the issue.
 
At present it can take as long as four months for social landlords to gain legal access. The campaign is lobbying for a change in the law which would allow legal access within 24 hours – the time taken for local authorities to gain access.
 
Claire Heyes, chief executive of the AGSM, said: “We would welcome the opportunity to meet with the Minister to explain the statistics about the large amount of money being wasted in the social housing sector.
 
“Carrying out the landlord's safety checks is crucial to raising standards in gas safety, but there is an easier and cheaper way to do this than the current system. The support that this campaign is receiving reflects the concern of management in social housing. We urge the Minister to meet with us to discuss the way forward.”

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NATIONAL:New survey finds growing North-South divide over impact of welfare reforms


Residents in the North of England are continuing to be hit the hardest by welfare reforms, a new survey by three national council housing organisations has found.
 
One year since the introduction of the Government’s ‘bedroom tax’, the survey discovered a growing north-south divide as tenants in the North of England are more likely to be affected by the under-occupation penalty (13 per cent compared to 5 per cent in London) and also to be in rent arrears (7 per cent compared to 2 per cent in the capital).
 
Although nationally the percentage of households in rent arrears and the percentage of tenants affected by the under-occupation penalty and in arrears are falling, the North of England is experiencing worse outcomes compared to other regions. 
 
The findings are the result of a joint research project from the National Federation of ALMOs (NFA), the Association of Retained Council Housing (ARCH) and the Councils with ALMOs Group (CWAG), into the impact of welfare reforms on council tenants.
 
Together the three housing bodies represent over 1.3m council properties.
 
The survey also found that over the course of 2013/2014 the proportion of households affected by the under occupation penalty and receiving discretionary housing payments has more than tripled in some areas.
 
However just under half of respondents (45 per cent), said that even this additional funding was insufficient and that the payments are being supplemented by other forms of local hardship funding. In most cases this came from the Council’s Housing Revenue Account.
 
Commenting on the report, NFA policy director, Chloe Fletcher (pictured top), said: “The results of our latest survey suggest that although overall levels of rent arrears attributed to welfare reforms are falling nationally, there are considerable regional differences with the North of England being hit harder than other areas. There are a number of reasons for this including a lack of suitable one and two bed properties to move to and far fewer employment opportunities for tenants to apply for.”
 
ARCH Policy Adviser, Matthew Warburton (right), added: “Despite the worrying regional variations, the overall picture of falling arrears does suggest that landlords have put in a lot of resources and support to minimise the impact of welfare reforms on their residents and their organisations’ finances. However, the large increase in the number of households receiving discretionary housing payments could also explain some of the reduction in arrears which does pose significant questions over how sustainable this position is in the long term.”
 
The survey also found that voids times have not been significantly affected by the introduction of the under occupation penalty and that most organisations have increased staff and resources to collect rent and to support tenants through financial and digital inclusion initiatives.

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NATIONAL:Over a million pensioners still living in poverty, says Age UK


Around 1.6 million pensioners are living in poverty, partly due to their failure to claim benefits, the charity Age UK has claimed.
 
In its new report ‘How we can end pensioner poverty’,  Age UK warns that many pensioners are floundering on low, fixed incomes and have been walking a tightrope in recent years as food and utility bills have risen dramatically.
 
Yet despite high numbers of pensioners in the UK struggling to survive below the poverty line, with nearly a million of those living in severe poverty, each year huge numbers of older people are missing out on as much as £5.5 billion of crucial financial support. Some simply do not know that they could be entitled to extra income.
 
Others are acutely aware of the benefits available but feel too proud or embarrassed to put in a claim. Some have unsuccessfully tried before, or have been put off by the claiming process which they feel is too complicated or intrusive. 
 
With so many older people struggling to make ends meet yet missing out on vital benefits such as Pension Credit, Housing Benefit and council tax support, Age UK is calling on politicians and decision-makers to urgently prioritise tackling pensioner poverty and help those who desperately need it.
 
If those eligible for Pension Credit made a claim, on average it could boost their budget by over £1700 a year – that’s an extra £33 a week to spend on essentials such as decent food, clothing, transport or heating.
 
Older people are not just missing out on income related benefits; many are also entitled to benefits linked to illness and disability. The increased spending pressures that disability brings, such as needing to take taxis and using more heating, can leave even those on decent incomes at risk of poverty and financial hardship.
 
Age UK is calling on the Government to provide a national training programme for health professionals and local authority staff to help older people who might be eligible to claim benefits such as Attendance Allowance and Carer’s Allowance to help maximise their income.
 
In a recent survey of those helped to claim their benefits by the Charity, two thirds (65 per cent) said they are now better able to pay their bills as a result of claiming, well over half (53 per cent) felt they now have enough money to live on, a third felt more prepared for the upcoming winter (30 per cent), and almost one-fifth (16 per cent) said they use the health service less than they did before.
 
The impact of the extra support on general wellbeing is also considerable with 70 per cent reporting they feel less stressed and anxious, two-fifths (39 per cent) feeling more independent and self-confident, and more than a quarter (28 per cent) feeling less lonely and isolated and generally treated with more respect and dignity). 
 
Caroline Abrahams (pictured), charity director at Age UK, said: “Every day we hear heart-warming stories which demonstrate the transformative impact of claiming benefits. People [like John] tell us constantly what a huge difference the extra money makes and how much less they now worry about the cost of everyday life.
 
“Yet it is nothing short of a scandal that there are still so many vulnerable older people in the UK living in poverty – unable to afford decent food, heat their home or live an independent life – when billions of pounds in benefits are unclaimed.
 
“Now is the time for a concerted effort to help the very poorest pensioners – strong social support, affordable essential services and access to good quality information and advice are essential. We urgently need a comprehensive national strategy which sets firm targets and workable solutions to end the scourge of pensioner poverty once and for all.”
 
To mark the launch of its new campaign, Age UK is calling on MPs to support the campaign and urge the Secretary of State, Iain Duncan Smith MP, to urgently develop a national pensioner poverty strategy. People can visit www.ageuk.org.uk\endpensionerpoverty for further details.
 






NATIONAL:Consultation on plans to count past earning in Universal Credit reclaims

 
The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) has launched a public consultation on the Government’s intention to take account of surplus earnings from the prior 6-month period when a person reclaims Universal Credit.
 
The proposal means that, in certain circumstances, entitlement could be delayed for up to a maximum of 6 months.
 
The Government said this is designed to ensure greater fairness between workers who have regular earnings patterns, and those whose earnings fluctuate. It will also protect against potential manipulation of the system by workers and employers who arrange their payment patterns specifically in order to maximise Universal Credit entitlement.
 
Announcing the consultation, Paul Gray, the Committee’s Chair, said: “It is perfectly reasonable for the government to put measures in place that will prevent manipulation of the system in order to maximise entitlement to Universal Credit. However it would be unfortunate if those in genuine need were penalised by a measure intended to address potential abuse. This could have a considerable impact on those whose circumstances have changed unexpectedly requiring them to make a repeat claim for Universal Credit.
 
“I understand that the department will advise claimants moving off Universal Credit that surplus earnings will be taken into account if they return within 6 months, and it can therefore be argued that individuals could prepare financially for such an eventuality. But very few of us in that situation would be able to resist using the opportunity of having work – or better paid work – to improve the living conditions of our family.”
 
Initial Department for Work and Pensions estimates suggest that this measure, due to be introduced in April 2016, will generate savings of £200 million to £300m a year. The evidence received by SSAC will help inform its report which will be submitted to Iain Duncan Smith MP, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, later this year.
 
Responses should be submitted to the committee’s Secretary by 7 November 2014.
 
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NATIONAL:Scottish housing groups take major step towards partnership



Two of Scotland’s leading affordable housing groups, Dunedin Canmore and Wheatley, now look set to form a new partnership following a members’ vote.
 
Dunedin Canmore’s shareholding members voted overwhelmingly in favour of a rule change at a Special General Meeting in a change which will enable Dunedin Canmore to join Wheatley early next year. The move would still be subject to satisfactory completion of the remaining milestones including final consent from the Scottish Housing Regulator.
 
The partnership plan had been approved previously by the boards of both Dunedin Canmore Housing and Wheatley, who carefully considered all feedback received during extensive engagement with customers and stakeholders.
 
Dunedin Canmore will retain its name and identity and continue to have full responsibility for its homes and operations, including how best to meet the needs of its customers and staff. Wheatley will be the parent organisation, sharing costs and services.
 
Both organisations believe that by working together and sharing services, costs and expertise, they will be able to deliver more improvements to communities and services and increase the supply of affordable housing in their communities.
 
Dunedin Canmore provides housing, regeneration, property management and related services to customers in Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife. Wheatley, headquartered in Glasgow, comprises four Registered Social Landlords Glasgow Housing AssociationCube Housing AssociationWest Lothian Housing Partnership and Loretto Housing Association, as well as a care organisation and two commercial subsidiaries, delivering housing, care, community regeneration and property management services across Central Scotland.
 
Both are large developers of affordable housing in Scotland and have established reputations for innovative, high-performance service delivery.
 
Dunedin Canmore chairman Tom Mitchell said they had listened carefully to all the views expressed by customers and staff.
 
“We strongly believe, having looked at all the evidence over the past year, we can deliver more for our tenants by sharing expertise and our joint commitment to service excellence,” he said. “Together we can continue to build homes and to leverage our impact in the communities we support.”
 
Wheatley Group chair Alastair Dempster added: “All parts of Wheatley work together to deliver value-for-money, excellent services and a better future for our customers and communities.
 
“Dunedin Canmore is one of Scotland’s most-respected social landlords and we look forward to welcoming them into the Group.”
 
Meanwhile, according to a statement by the Scottish Housing Regulator, West Highland Housing Association, which owns and manages 743 homes across Argyll and Bute, is set to merge with 6,156-home Link Group after members voted for the move at the beginning of October.

The Scottish Housing Regulator also announced that Gardeen and Kingsridge Cleddans housing associations have been moved from ‘medium engagement’ to ‘low engagement’ – meaning they will receive lower regulatory scrutiny.

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NATIONAL:House building propels SME construction sector, says FMB

 
House building is leading the growth in the SME construction sector but the industry has a long way to go to recover to pre-recession levels, according to the latest research from the Federation of Master Builders (FMB).
 
Results from the FMB’s State of Trade Survey for Q3 2014 show SME workloads growing across most sectors, with the strongest growth coming from private house building.
 
Brian Berry, chief executive of the FMB, said: “We are at last seeing strong, consistent growth in workloads for SME house builders but the building industry is still a long way from being ‘home and dry’. The private housing market is recovering from a very low base after a recession which saw house building fall to record lows. Half of all SME house builders went to the wall or were forced to diversify into another area of construction.
 
“In the late 1980s, two-thirds of all new homes were built by small local builders but by 2010, this had dropped to just one third. Current statistics reveal that SME house builders now deliver only a quarter of all new homes. Since the recession hit, a major factor in this has been the serious difficulties SME house builders experience in accessing bank finance, which show little sign of improving in the short term.”
 
Berry (pictured) added: “The threat of serious skills shortages is also becoming increasingly apparent. Our latest research shows 41 per cent of SME construction firms are now reporting difficulties in recruiting bricklayers – an increase of 7 per cent when compared to three months ago. Carpenters and joiners are also proving difficult to come by with 41 per cent of firms reporting difficulties finding these tradesmen, an increase of 15 per cent when compared to the second quarter of this year.
 
“The construction industry has lost 350,000 people since its peak before the recession and this will have a knock-on effect for many years to come. Although the SME sector has entered a period of sustained growth, the legacy of the most deep and protracted recession we have ever experienced has left us with a rocky road to genuine recovery.”

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