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This week's National news (September 29 - October 3)

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NATIONAL:CIH ‘extremely concerned’ at Chancellor’s welfare cuts


George Osborne’s proposed crackdown on welfare benefits won’t solve the housing crisis or ease poverty, according to the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH).
 
Speaking at the Conservative Party conference yesterday, the Chancellor announced a further reduction in the benefit cap limiting the amount of state assistance a household can receive – from £26,000 to £23,000. He also announced a two-year freeze on benefits: Job Seekers’ Allowance, Income Support, tax credits, Housing and child benefits (though not disability benefits and pensions).
 
Furthermore, Osborne said that young people aged under 21 would be stripped of benefit support after six months of being out of work; the money saved would, he said, be used to fund some three million apprenticeships
 
Grainia Long, CIH chief executive, said the Chancellor’s welfare package “fails to reflect the reality of the housing crisis”.
 
Ms Long (pictured) added: “We are not building enough homes, which means the cost of housing and therefore the housing benefit bill is going up. Millions of people have no choice but to rely on housing benefit to secure a roof over their head. That includes an increasing number of people in work – the number of people in work who still have to claim housing benefit has more than doubled from around 445,000 to just over a million in the last five years.
 
“We also have concerns about the proposals to cut housing benefit for 18 to 21-year-olds and lower the benefit cap. Cutting housing benefit for under-21s fails to take into account the reality of many young people’s lives, and it could also mean that young people would be unwilling to take risks such as moving for work because there would be no safety net for them.
 
“Our research on the impact of the benefit cap in Haringey showed that people affected by the cap face serious barriers to finding work, including a lack of job seeking skills and affordable childcare. So we think that lowering the benefit cap would be very dangerous unless ministers commit to increasing support for people looking to get back into work and funding for childcare.
 
“Ultimately, if Mr Osborne really wants to tackle the housing benefit bill, he needs to commit to building more genuinely affordable homes. In the long term, shifting spending from housing benefit to house building and tackling low pay and unemployment is the best way of lifting people out of poverty and cutting the housing benefit bill. We need to sort out the problems in our housing and labour markets rather than rely on stop gap measures which at their worst can increase poverty and misery for already poor and vulnerable people.”
 
Julia Unwin, chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “George Osborne said that the country cannot afford such a high working age benefits bill. He is right – poverty is a risk, waste and cost we cannot afford.
 
“But the plan to freeze welfare for two further years will make things worse for our economy, with more people living below the poverty line leading to lower tax revenues and the wasted potential of millions
 
“The economy is beginning to recover, but for people on low incomes, the forecasts are heading in the wrong direction. Without concerted action, millions of people are going to find it harder to meet their basic needs and have already borne a sizeable burden of deficit reduction in this parliament.
 
“Only by tackling the underlying causes of poverty and the high benefits bill – such as low pay and expensive housing – we will see the welfare spend fall. George Osborne talked about the importance of choice – for many families today, their choices just got a whole lot tougher.”
 
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said plans to stop housing benefit for single 18-21 year olds could leave more young people at risk of homelessness.
 
He said: “We have grave concerns about how these proposals will affect young people who cannot rely on the support of their parents. While we welcome proposals to offer better training support and apprenticeships, we must make sure that housing support remains available for those who have no choice but to fend for themselves.
 
“For many young people, living with their parents is not an option. They may be escaping abuse; the family relationship may have broken down, or there may be no room for them in the family home. For these people, financial support and in particular housing benefit can be all that stands between them and homelessness.
 
“Last year 9,000 people became homeless because their parents wouldn’t or couldn’t house them. Already almost one in three homeless people are aged between 16 and 24. Without the safety net of benefits, many more could be left at risk of homelessness.”

Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis added that proposals to freeze working age benefits for two years could “spell disaster for thousands” and drive up homelessness.

He said: “These plans could spell disaster for thousands of households struggling with high rents and low incomes. People who need the support of housing benefit to make ends meet have already seen cut after cut in the amount they receive. If they go ahead, today’s plans are likely to drive up homelessness and push many more households closer to the brink.
 
“Further cuts to housing benefit would be cruel and counterproductive. Homelessness shatters lives and it is hugely costly to the public purse to help people put the pieces back together. It is far better if they never have to go through it in the first place."
 
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NATIONAL:Housing associations ‘most trusted’ to give energy saving advice


Housing associations are the most trusted source of advice for residents wanting to cut their energy use, according to a study by Sustainable Homes.
 
The survey, undertaken for the Department of Energy & Climate Change, revealed that housing associations who manage property are in the best position to offer help, followed by energy charities. Friends and family came in only in third place, whilst local builders, plumbers and electricians were near the bottom.
 
And energy companies and the government confounded expectations, with around a third saying they would trust these to provide impartial advice – despite polls earlier this year showing that ‘the big six’ are held in lower regard than bankers.
 
The survey was conducted as part of the National Energy Study, looking at energy use within the home. It confirmed that many people continue to struggle to make sense of bills, with 75 per cent saying they had difficulty understanding them.
 
Andrew Eagles (pictured), managing director of Sustainable Homes, who conducted the study, said: “These results drive home the point that in the battle against rising bills we need to get better at giving people the tools they need to manage them well. This means more than investing in insulation and other improvements – though we absolutely need to do that too. Housing associations are in a great position to help: not only are they based in the communities they serve, people are more willing to take their advice at face value.”

Most participants in the National Energy Study felt that they were generally good at saving energy in the home, citing measures such as switching lights off and filling only just enough water in the kettle. But by far the biggest ‘wins’ are to be made with heating (accounting for nearly two-thirds of energy use); a common misconception, for example, is that turning the thermostat higher than the required temperature heats a house more quickly. 
 
Lord Matthew Taylor, chair of the National Housing Federation, said: “As this report makes clear, there are often simple, immediate measures that can cut bills without going cold, often at no cost. Residents want to know how to save energy, and also how their use compares with others, and these findings have particular implications for our sector.”
 
Clare Hendry, Sustainability Manager at Hastoe Group, who participated in the study, added: “We are pleased the study has found housing associations to be the most trusted source of advice about energy efficiency. We at Hastoe are certainly doing lots to help our residents reduce their energy costs. Last year we launched our Winter Warmers campaign and, as part of this, we started a Green Doctors programme, ran a thermal curtain giveaway and provided heating control advice to a number of residents across the country. The Green Doctors programme has proved very popular.
 
“The successful pilot programme in 2013 helped 33 elderly residents in rural off-gas locations with simple energy efficiency measures and advice to promote affordable warmth. A follow up programme is being delivered this year aiming to help 200 residents, focusing on the elderly and young families. As part of Hastoe’s continued commitment to helping residents achieve affordable warmth, we are also looking to develop further schemes in the future.”
 






NATIONAL:Midlands housing provider secures £250m through bond issue

 

Midlands housing provider whg has issued a £250 million bond to support its growth and development.
 
The 19,000-home landlord announced the bond, which is due to mature on 6 October 2045, has a fixed interest rate of 4.25 per cent, with the yield priced at 125 basis points above the cost of government borrowing.
 
The issuing of the bond follows whg being given an A2 rating from Moody’s rating agency.
 
Gary Fulford, whg chief executive, said: “This shows the high levels of confidence investors have in our organisation.
 
“Despite a difficult economic environment in recent years and the challenges presented by welfare reform we have made significant improvements to our organisation and continue to offer award-winning services in an efficient way.
 
“The issuing of this bond means our funding position has been secured for the foreseeable future.
 
“The funds will enable us to grow our property portfolio significantly and build a further 2,000 homes. It will also allow us to make progress to continually improve and diversify the range of services we offer.
 
“Our recent A2 rating from Moody’s attests to the very strong financial position we are in and the issuing of the bond consolidates that position.”
 
Moody’s said the A2 rating assignment reflected whg’s high percentage of revenues from low-risk social housing lettings, balanced growth ambitions with track record of delivery on plans, simple organisational structure and experienced management team.
 
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NATIONAL:Housing Minister to speak at NFA event


Housing Minister Brandon Lewis MP will be debating the role council housing can play in meeting the current housing shortage when he speaks at a National Federation of ALMOs (NFA) fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference later today.
 
The event, ‘Housing shortage – council housing as part of the solution’, will be chaired by Mark Spencer MP, a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group for ALMOs and MP for ALMO Newark and Sherwood Homes.
 
Alongside the Minister, the panel also features Cllr Gary Porter, leader of the Conservative Group at the Local Government Association and Sue Roberts MBE, Chair of the National Federation of ALMOs.
 
The NFA is inviting all delegates to attend the event and discuss the importance of building new council housing, the benefits of the arms’ length model of management, the advantages of tenant involvement in council housing and the impact of welfare reform.
 
The NFA, whose 47 members represent 650,000 homes across the country, has published a Manifesto calling for all political parties to pledge to do more to increase housing supply and support tenants ahead of next year’s General Election.
 
The event takes place at 6pm in Hall 7B of The ICC.


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NATIONAL:Tinder Foundation calls for long-term digital inclusion investment


Long-term investment is needed to get the digitally-excluded to transact online, an evaluation of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)-backed Digital Deal has revealed.
 
Tinder Foundation, which has been managing a programme to stimulate digital inclusion activity in the social housing sector, has revealed its findings from the programme.
 
The Digital Deal Challenge Fund was designed to stimulate digital inclusion activity in the social housing through 12 innovative schemes.
 
With half of the UK population living in social housing, the programme was created to test some innovative ways of embedding digital inclusion, engaging tenants and building partnerships, with the learnings taken forward to be shared across the wider sector.
 
12 social housing providers across the UK took part in the Digital Deal, which was jointly funded by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
 
The key findings from the evaluation included:
- The importance of long term investment and commitment to encourage digitally excluded tenants to transact online.
- Websites and online transactional services need to be fit-for-purpose, and so simple that they become the preferred channel for tenants.
- Digital skills support shouldn't be delivered in isolation, but should be embedded into wider support services.
- Innovation - for example tablet loans schemes and low cost borrow-to-buy partnerships with credit unions - can have a huge impact on reaching those that have been left behind.
- Partnership working between social housing providers, UK online centres, Jobcentres and more has been key to accelerating digital inclusion activity.
 
The Digital Deal Challenge Fund was designed to support the implementation of the government's Digital by Default strategy, which will support people to use services like Universal Credit in the future.
 
Each organisation taking part in Digital Deal employed a different approach to the programme, based on the needs of their tenants and the wider community.
 
Examples included:
Golden Gates Housing, which installed estate-wide WiFi, as well as undergoing a major redesign of their online services portal. 
Queens Cross Housing Association, which opened five new digital community hubs, working with existing social and support groups to reach new people. 
Leeds Federated Housing, which used two digitally equipped buses, to reach places in the community that couldn't be reached by training in fixed locations.
 
Helen Milner, chief executive of Tinder Foundation said: “Digital inclusion continues to be a huge priority for the housing sector, and not only are more and more services moving online, but tenants are also beginning to demand online services.
 
“It has been great to see the huge successes of the Digital Deal programme, and I hope some of the innovation we have seen as part of the programme will inspire other social housing providers to do the same. At Tinder Foundation, we will take these findings forward, with both local and national partners, to ensure that these impacts can be felt across the sector, and we really learn from this programme.”
 
Paul Earl from Golden Gates Housing Trust added: "The Digital Deal has helped to raise the profile of digital inclusion within our organisation and helped to secure executive management and board level buy-in. This has enabled us to be more aggressive in our targets for supporting our residents into getting online."
 
Each provider taking part in the Digital Deal programme now plans to take their findings and successes forward, with the Tinder Foundation saying it will continue to work closely with social housing providers and with national partners to drive forward digital inclusion and to ensure the findings from the programme have an impact.
 
A DWP spokesman said: "We launched the Digital Deal to help social housing tenants get online and access the opportunities the internet opens up - for example to help search and apply for jobs, find out about community services and to manage their benefits online. As part of our test and learn approach to rolling out Universal Credit, we will use this evaluation to help us shape future digital services."

You can read the report here.


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NATIONAL:New £400m ‘Rent to Buy’ scheme aims to boost building of new rental homes


Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has launched a new £400 million programme which the Government said will boost building of new rental homes that will also help people later upgrade into home ownership.
 
The ‘Rent to Buy’ scheme aims to go further that the current ‘Help to Buy’ programme by providing more flexibility for people who want to rent affordably now, save for a deposit, and then either buy the new home (or a different home) later.
 
Under the scheme, housing associations and other providers can bid for a share of £400 million in low-cost loans to build up to 10,000 new homes across the country to be built from 2015 to 2018 - they will mainly consist of 1 and 2 bedroom apartments.
 
Landlords must then make the homes available for rent at below-market rates for a minimum of 7 years. This fixed period will give tenants the opportunity to save up for a deposit and get ready to buy their own home.
 
At the end of the period, the tenant will have first refusal to buy the property – alternatively they may choose to move out and buy a different property, or rent another property either privately or with the housing association.
 
If the home is sold, the housing association will then have the option to use any returns on their investment to build even more affordable homes in the area. Alternatively, they will still have a home, which they can look to rent at an affordable rate to another tenant who needs help to buy.
 
This programme is part of a broader £23 billion affordable homes programme for 2015 to 2018, as well as other schemes like Help to Buy (low deposit mortgages) and Right to Buy (home ownership for council tenants). These schemes are being arranged now, so construction works starts from 2015.
 
Mr Pickles (pictured) said the move will help people “move on and up in life”.
 
He added: “Both house building and the number of first time buyers are now at their highest rate since 2007. But there is more to do. As part of our wider housing programme, this new scheme will help increase the provision of low-cost rented accommodation and provide a springboard for young people to upgrade to home ownership down the line.”
 
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NATIONAL:CIH has ‘serious concerns’ over Conservative first-time buyer discount plans


David Cameron has pledged to build 100,000 new homes and offer them to younger first-time buyers at a 20 percent discount if his party wins a national election in May.
 
The ‘Starter Homes’ plan, an extension of the current ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, would only cover houses built on brownfield sites in England.
 
Buyers aged under 40 would get the discount on the market value, made “possible because a Conservative government will exempt them from taxes, reduce development costs and allow the release of cheaper brownfield commercial land to build these homes on,” the Prime Minister said it a statement.
 
However, Grainia Long, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), said the plan “smacks of building for one group of people at the expense of another”.
 
Ms Long (pictured) added: “We’re currently building less than half the number of new homes we need – the result is a housing crisis in which millions of people are being priced out of a decent home. So we welcome the focus on supply and affordability – but I have lots of questions about how this scheme would work in practice as well as some serious concerns.
 
“We’re particularly concerned about these developments being exempt from the community infrastructure levy, which would normally be used to boost investment in the local community, and from section 106 agreements, which usually require social or affordable homes to be built as part of a development. This smacks of building for one group of people at the expense of another.
 
“Social housing is critical if we are going to solve the housing crisis – there are always going to be people who can’t afford to buy and we must provide decent, affordable homes for them too. Equally, we’d like to see more investment in shared ownership to help people on lower incomes. If the all the focus is on home ownership, we are never going to build mixed communities.
 
“Ultimately we would like all parties to recognise that we must invest in homes of all tenures (home ownership, shared ownership, social and private rent) if we are to effectively tackle the housing crisis that is causing misery for millions of people across the UK.”
 
Stewart Baseley, chairman of the Home Builders Federation, said the house building industry welcomed the Conservative plan.
 
"Enabling more first time buyers to realise their ambition of home ownership and introducing policies that allow more land to come forward and increase house building would clearly be positive," he said.
 






NATIONAL:Jon Sparkes joins Crisis as new chief executive


Almost 53,000 households have bought a home in England through Help to Buy, Housing and Planning Minister Brandon Lewis announced yesterday.
 
New Government figures show how the scheme is getting more homes built in England, with over 37,600 households buying new build homes through the equity loan and NewBuy options, and a further 15,000 though the mortgage guarantee.
 
A further 3,500 new homeowners have also been created in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through the Help to Buy: Mortgage Guarantee scheme.
 
Almost 80 per cent of sales have gone to first time buyers, with nearly 70 per cent being for new build homes. The direct result is a new generation of homeowners and the sharpest increase in private house building starts for 40 years.
 
Brandon Lewis said: “Almost 53,000 households have now benefited through Help to Buy in England. Hard working families are getting the right support to step onto the housing ladder, and house building has climbed to its highest level since 2007.
 
“Postcode data for each constituency is now available, so local communities can see exactly how this vital part of our long-term economic plan is fixing the broken housing market we inherited in 2010, and supporting their area.”

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