Heather Wakefield Head of Local Government for UNISON, introduced all members to the First Housing Seminar and outlined the current situation in housing. She covered the Housing crisis, economic factors, current social factors and political factors which affect Housing provision across the UK. Heather elaborated on these issues and covered examples of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, Universal credit, pressures on housing staff through budget cuts, current government policies, and deregulation of housing standards which affect the health and safety aspects of living conditions.
Following Heathers speech she introduced the speeches and discussions as follows….
Session 1 – The current Housing Policy environment and Labour’s Response
John Healey MP – Shadow Secretary of for Housing
John explained his views on the current housing situation and introduced his Green Paper report – Housing for the Many (this can be read by clicking the report)
He said that there was always concern for increasing membership by previous leaders and not improve housing conditions until now in current administration and leader Jeremy Corbyn which sees it as one of the most important factors. He also understands that the housing crisis is country wide and not only London as is usually believed.
John explained his position as an MP and a politician and explained that ideas are very useful but he has to turn these into arguments against current policies in place by the government. There are three times as many homeless people in the last 8 years.
He explained the deeper issues around housing the ideology of housing and homes for people to live in covers a wide situation from policies, construction, planning rules, health & safety to energy efficiency. There is more coverage in his green paper that you can read above.
The Grenfell Tower Tragedy showed that radical changes are necessary to ensure crisises
like this are prevented in the future. It is 4 days away until the 11months anniversary of the tragedy itself, which reminds us that only 1 in 3 of the survivors have been rehomed to date. And 41 councils can not say that all private and rented properties can be protected from a similar situation.
John at this point took questions from the floor and explained more about the Green Paper that he and his housing team had put together. Which can be read above.
Session 2 – Challenges Facing the Housing Association Sector
Steve Hilditch, Labour Housing Group
Steve explained his history and how he has been involved in
the Labour Housing Group, advised housing select committees, reviewed the council housing finance system, and chaired the group that established the National Tenant Voice. He also pointed members to look at his regular housing blog “Red Brick” which he covers housing issues and views on the current situation and future and past situations. A link can be found below.
He went on to say that there has been a 50% increase in homelessness where shorthold tenancies, and other factors have made the situation worse. Also, the private rented sector has now overtook social housing provision across the country. Rent costs are now averaging at a higher proportion of people income at approx 40% in london and 28% in the rest of the country. 13 Million young people between 20 – 34 are still living at home with parents due to housing availability.
Council housing is now only 7% of all properties across the country compared to 29% in the 1970s. similarly house prices have increased 400% over the same period while inflation has only increased by 167%, which has encouraged more people to rent as they are unable to buy.
Steve also covered that he has been heavily involved in setting up he SHOUT Organisation and a report into the housing situation and can be read here….
He went on to voice his concerns over the changes in Housing Associations and their commitment to Social Housing as there has been a considerable change to Boards that run them, these can include financial advisors, business owners and less and less specific housing professionals, and tenants being involved in the decision-making process. With Housing Associations being more interested in profit margins and taking over smaller organisations creating Mega-Mergers some of which cover 100 council areas!
Steve has seen changes to the national tenant participation process which can affect the focus on tenants and ensuring that their views are considered in social housing provision across the country. He has been involved in TSA, TPAS and the National Tenant Voice these have all been lost now and the Homes and Communities Agency is now in place.
To follow him and his views please click on his blog above.
Session 3 – Challenges facing council housing – including Grenfell Tower Tragedy and implications for the workforce.
Sonya Howard – UNISON NEC Member and Branch Secretary for Kensington and Chelsea.
Sonya explained the Grenfell Tower Tragedy and her branch that was on the frontline of the tragedy and the following 11 months up till the present day. she went onto explain the struggles to get help and barriers that were faced by staff, tenants, and members of the public in this difficult time. Throughout this she commended her members and branch for working hard in supporting each other and members in these difficult times. This tragedy brought the funding of social housing into the spotlight as without the right resources to ensure properties are safe for tenants then there is chance that other instances where property safety is breached.
Over the last 10 months the branch has seen the collapse of the Kensington and Chelsea TMO (Tenant Management Organisation) with massive implications on the staff as this was announced through national media by the Prime Minister Theresa May, no staff had any prior warning that they would lose their jobs or the future of housing management in the area. Sonya explained how her branch continued to keep functioning and supporting staff as much as possible through this difficult time. The articles on the right explain this in more detail.
Existing fire regulation compliance is unclear and this is mainly down to deregulation of health and safety due to the introduction of the Deregulation Act 2015 being passed in March 2015. This means that more onus was placed on companies and employers taking responsibility for the health and safety standards and not a national body.
for more information on deregulation see below
Inside Housing report that 31 Local Authorities still fail regulations and have not had any financial support with issues surrounding the government, housing providers and Leasehold properties within flat blocks refusing to pay for retrospective fitting of sprinkler systems etc. You can read the article in more detail here.
Sonya updated the seminar on the progress that has been made today and the TMO is now back within the Local Authority and the following statement was made by the TMO… (quoted on the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation)
“Kensington & Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (the TMO) has handed back the interim management of housing services to tenants and leaseholders to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (the Council).
From 1 March, the Council will be running all day-to-day services including repairs, cleaning services and looking after the estates. In December 2017, The TMO Board recognised that it was no longer possible for the TMO to offer tenants and leaseholders the levels of service they deserve. Please visit the Council’s Housing Management website here.”
Sonya went on to say that people will always blame the council as a collective term and not the organisation that is responsible for events and it is UNISONs role to make sure that this is looked at in-depth. The struggles with the move the TMO into the Local Authority had caused problems due to there being no TUPE transfer arranged, UNISON had to enforce legal action to protect the staff as they moved back to the Local Authority.
The reps worked tirelessly to ensure that the terms & conditions and support were looked at in detail to protect the vulnerable staff through the difficult time.there have been a series of problems that have been highlighted in the report put together by the Evening Standard which can be viewed by clicking on the article above.
Sonya summarised by saying that it is always important to remember that housing staffs voices are important at all times to make changes happen.
Sonya then took questions from the members at the seminar and we then moved on to the Workshop Section.
Session 4 – The Workshop
The workshop consisted of a smaller group of housing staff who focussed on the how staff get affected by issues they face at work that can put strain on the workforce and become less productive. to summarise here are the bullet points from the session.
Question 1 – Changes that affect members jobs
- Terms and conditions
- Amalgamations and pay discrepancies different between each scheme
- Pay deals and taking on extra workload after jobs losses
- Loss of staff with more responsibility on the rest of the teams
- 40-50% agency staff (can’t recruit)
- Job re-evaluation
Question 2 – Making your jobs Harder Easier
- Union recognition
- HO boards who is on it
- Managers are financial people
- Planning policy framework
- Definition of affordable
- Welfare reform cab reductions
- Welfare benefits services pushed online
- 40% tenants not online
- Universal credit – work doubled
- Housing reduction act
- Expectations that local authorities deal with homelessness with extra resources
- Huge increase in housing staff responsibilities no extra pay
Question 3 – Health and safety
- How do you change behaviour
- Less time spent on each tenant = less enforcement
- Lack of regulation
- Hoarding and blocking communal space
- No legal consistency for gas safety checks
- Staff with no training doing H&S checks
- Lone working unable to double up and visit in pairs due to staffing
- Staff and tenants are on the same side.
- Violence at work charter get employees signed up
- Risk register – data protection
Question 4 – what would assist members what should unison concentrate on
- Case not well advised by solicitors, didn’t get explanation
- Unison legal advice not as good as private
- Law is not always your friend, look at organising solutions
- More legal guidance from the union
- Thompson’s advice too conservative
- Lack of profile for housing professionals and workers within UNISON
- Housing cuts have no profile
- Changes of culture around led action
- A network of unison housing workers
- Local gov branding not as good as a housing brand
- Housing unison members
- Industrial action process too slow for restructures
- Local process needs to be quicker
- Fringe meeting at conference
Question 5 – in-terms of government policy present and future what should unison prioritise on
- Land and locking development costs
- Nowhere to build council land
- Land value
- Public owned land not being offered
- UNISON needs a housing manifesto
- Shelter viability assessment and use of land graphics on land costs and development lands
- Labour green paper should be supported but 100k homes per year not ambitious enough affordable housing rents distorted by high earners / affordability
Overall the first Housing Seminar was very useful and showed the need for a specific focus on housing provision in the UK. UNISON need to ensure that this is firmly on their agenda making sure they challenge current housing policies to protect staff and tenants and look at future policies to use their power to influence changes and improvements in the future.