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Two Mirror images of Birmingham’s housing

Two Mirror images of Birmingham’s housing

🕔19.Oct 2017

It was Aristotle who supposedly reckoned that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, or even a fine day, writes Chris Game as he takes a look in the Mirror

So quite possibly, if the old Greek happened in some bizarre reincarnation to have become Birmingham City Council’s housing director, he’d claim that two Daily Mirror stories on the same day on, let’s just say, sensitive bits of the city’s housing administration don’t make it a car crash.

However they’re dressed up, though – and with one I really do try – they don’t make heartening reading.

The headline story in Tuesday’s Mirror was pure tabloid, and indeed within 24 hours was being shared by them all: ‘Is this Britain’s worst council house? Mum reveals shocking state of “house of horrors” property offered to young family’ – the property in question being a three-bedroom house in Bournville offered by the council, after a wait of six months, to a mother of a six-year old autistic son and four-year old daughter.

The mother “claimed she fell straight through the floorboards”, was generally “horrified”, and the accompanying pictures showed why.

Even worse, though, was that, when she asked the council worker what work the council was planning to do on the home, “he was unable to confirm it, leaving her unable to move in”.  Moreover, “her refusal would count as one of two she is allowed under Birmingham City Council’s policy”.

Subsequently, it seems, this latter decision was overturned, for the Birmingham Mail reported that, according to “a Birmingham City Council spokesperson”, the applicant “has not been penalised for refusing this property and is still entitled to two offers. She has not lost out on any bidding cycle.”

Whether the overturn owed anything to the Mirror’s coverage wasn’t mentioned.

It was a legitimate, important and depressing story, but not, as it happened, the housing story that actually took me to the Mirror – which was just as depressing and important, and moreover with a headline that could easily have been written several times over the past few years: “Dozens of councils fail to replace a single home sold off under Tories’ right to buy”.

My interest was prompted by someone having evidently got hold of some Government statistics that the specialist housing media had reported on last week, that also had a distinct Birmingham angle to them, and that I’d fleetingly considered commenting on at the time.

The someone proved to be the Lib Dems, who – pound for pound, as they say in even more combative sports than politics – have been at least as critical as Labour of the Cameron Government’s 2012/13 increase in the discount council tenants could get when buying their home through the Right to Buy (RtB).

The Mirror’s story was that at least 32 councils – and almost certainly more, had they let the Government see their figures – had lost homes under RtB in the past year without starting a single direct replacement.

Of over 12,000 council homes sold between July 2016 and July 2017, just 4,800 (38%) were replaced – which, the Mirror noted, isn’t doing much to fix a housing market that even the Prime Minister describes as broken.

For obvious reasons it’s these sales vs starts comparisons that invariably headline RtB stories, but, as the Mirror acknowledged, the picture is at least a little more complicated.

Ministers protest that the deal “never” was to replace every house sold under the reinvigorated scheme, only the additional numbers sold. Sadly, though, this qualification didn’t seem to be as loudly promoted as the extra discount bit.

For their part, in addition to all the lost rent, councils can only use a fraction of even their hugely discounted sales – 30% of the net capital receipts – to fund the cost of replacement housing.

Which doesn’t explain the lack of any new starts, but certainly accounts for there being a substantial gap, the more so given the additional borrowing limits imposed on them.

The principal ‘shamed’ councils in the Mirror’s report were Leicester City Council, which sold nearly 400 homes in 2016/17 without making a single ‘start on site’ replacement, followed by Hull, Wigan and Doncaster.

The single-year focus meant Birmingham didn’t feature in this particular selection, but it certainly had in the RtB story run by Inside Housing the previous week, which compared all sales and starts since 2012/13.

In fact, it led the whole report: “Birmingham City Council has the largest shortfall between homes sold through the Right to Buy and replacements either acquired or built, with only 253 homes replaced against sales of 2,627 homes since 2012/13”.

My concern at the time was that in part this was just another ‘Birmingham’s too big for its own good’ story.

The way life works is that (1) statistical local government stories can almost always be reported in terms of either actual numbers or percentages.

(2) Editors, or whoever makes these decisions, reckon dumb readers/listeners can’t handle percentages, so they report actual numbers.

(3) Bad news trumps good news, so what gets headlined is the council or organisation with the largest number of ‘failures’ – amount of uncollected taxes, number of unsolved crimes, whatever.

Here, it was the shortfall in RtB replacements. And – surprise, surprise! – Birmingham, with a housing stock at least 10% bigger than any other council’s and bigger than the whole of Greater Manchester’s, had the biggest numerical shortfall. Except, unfortunately, the ‘numerical’ bit couldn’t be squeezed into the headline.

It was a pity, because adding in the percentages, as I did, would rather have changed that headline: “Birmingham City Council has the highest replacement rate of homes sold through the Right to Buy” – and, they might have added, by some distance.

The bigger picture, of course, is that probably none of these councils, any more than the sector as a whole, is close to meeting even the Government’s goal of one-for-one replacement of additional RtB sales, even over the three-year period it allowed itself.

To quote Lord Kerslake, who’s said some harsh things about Birmingham in his time, it was a policy “set up to fail” (p.18) – and that will continue to fail until councils receive not one-third, but three-thirds, of the value of the properties sold, or have access to comparable funds from other sources.

Main pic: Daily Mirror

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