The Week

The Week, 25 November 2022

Simon Kaye
Director of Policy

It’s something of a relief to be writing this in a week where – finally – the football has been more dramatic than the politics. In the policy world, meanwhile, this week’s themes are familiar: buckling public services amid rising economic turbulence.

As we covered last week, Michael Gove, Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities Secretary, has signalled his determination to bring change to the housing sector in the aftermath of the tragic death of Awaab Ishak, who did not survive the mouldy conditions of his home in Rochdale.

Ishak’s death is a horrible consequence of a long-term and widespread problem with the quality of both social and low-cost private rental housing – but not, it must be said, a secret one. ITV News has been reporting on unacceptable damp and mould in council housing since April 2021, gathering examples from across the country. In July this year, the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee produced a withering report on the living conditions of many tenants.

In a flurry of letters and announcements, Gove has pointed again to the Social Housing Regulation Bill, intended to amplify tenants’ voices and strengthen the Housing Ombudsman, which is currently going through the legislative process. There will also be some new investment to improve matters on the private rental side: a £1 million public information campaign to launch next year, and £14 million for a range of local projects to (for example) improve reportage and data, or use behavioural science ‘nudges’ to yield more proactive landlords.

It's good to see money going to localised, and in some cases experimental, approaches to tackle the problem. If any of these projects work brilliantly, dissemination and follow-through to develop similar approaches elsewhere will be the (often missing) crucial next step.

But however you cut it, this isn’t a lot of cash compared to rising financial pressures for local authorities. UNISON says that nine out of ten are projecting a budget gap for 2023-4, while only 20% of England’s County Councils are “confident” of being able to balance their budgets. This will obviously limit the performance of local services in many ways, including the extent to which councils can ensure high standards when they arrange or supply housing, or support efforts to guarantee good practice among private landlords. We suspect more action will therefore be needed to deliver on Gove’s ambition to improve housing conditions.

He is starting by lending some extra teeth to the Social Housing Regulator: threatening to withhold Affordable Homes Programme funding from any provider that fails to meet the right standards. This is a measure that reveals the complexity of this whole policy area, connecting one housing crisis with another. Housing associations are responsible for building about a quarter of new homes each year under the current planning regime; if a lot of them end up losing Affordable Homes funds, then construction rates will doubtless fall too. This will only contribute to government’s ongoing failure to stimulate higher levels of house-building – with its planning reform measures currently at the heart of a major Conservative Party rebellion which has led to the deferral of a key upcoming vote.

On to this week's reads...

First off, a fascinating and detailed exploration of Treasury policymaking in the response to COVID-19 from the Economics Observatory. This essay points out just how opaque the Treasury’s (pivotal) decision-making was in comparison to, for example, the way that SAGE operated during the height of the pandemic. With more transparency, it would have been apparent that economic policymakers were not making use of any models that combined epidemiology with economics or helped the government to understand the trade-offs between them, as revealed (and defended) by Chief Economic Advisor Clare Lombardelli in a recent speech. This piece concludes that it will be important for the COVID-19 Inquiry to really get into the detail of the internal debates about the use of different models – and to find out why there seem to have been no objections from inside the Treasury about the basis for decisions.

Secondly, this briefing from the important COVID Social Mobility and Opportunities study (COSMO), sets out the significant psychological impact of the pandemic on young people. A record number of children and young people were referred to mental health services in 2021 and referral rates are at double their pre-pandemic level. Clearly, more investment in frontline services will be required to get on top of these alarming numbers. But as we argued in our own recent report, a cross-cutting approach is needed to ensure that we are reducing demand for mental health support, rather than fighting an uphill battle to meet it.