Monthly Archives: March 2013

Can we reform Welfare Reform?

The Welfare Reform package by the UK coalition government is estimated to reduce the income of the poorest people in society by £18 billion. With the income guarantees provided to elderly people, these cuts will fall hardest on people of working age and their families. These cuts are through a combination of changes: the new ‘bedroom tax’, the changes to Council Tax benefit, the changes to Disability Living Allowance, and the changes to the Social Fund. Driven by a policy of cutting public spending, all these changes take money from those least able to make a sacrifice. Looking further ahead, there will be the Universal Credit changes which aim to combine all benefits and taxes in one monthly payment, but administrative chaos is widely predicted with poor people bearing the real cost of living as best they can for days or weeks at a time with no money. Rights to Legal Aid advice and representation are also being withdrawn. Polly Toynbee in The Guardian summarises these changes well.

Therefore, what might be the best progressive and humanitarian responses to this rising crisis?

Looking back, the best response a few years ago was usually to run a welfare rights and take-up campaign. Many people would gain because they had not been receiving their full entitlement, and an active advice sector could co-ordinate appeals so that the envelope of eligibility was increased. This strategy still has merit, but the forces against it now are much stronger and harsher than before.

More recently, there was a shift in strategy away from take-up towards making work pay. The progressive argument was that people were living in families where unemployment was becoming inter-generational and that instead it was better for people’s health as well as financially for as many people as possible to be working instead. Through measures such as the new minimum wage and working tax credits there was a concerted economic effort to end the poverty trap of benefits and show people that ‘work pays’.

Currently we seem to be in a state of flux, at a point of change. There are still some progressive discussions about reducing dependency and increasing access to jobs rather than to benefits. However, the combination of rising unemployment, reduced levels of tax credits, real-terms reductions in the minimum wage and a casualisation of the labour market have profoundly changed the economic realities of many poor people’s lives.

Therefore dependency might just make a lot of sense at the moment to poor people, if not also to public authorities. It has already been said that 2012 was the year of the food bank. There is also a wider context of growing income inequality in the UK, with increases in higher pay racing ahead of far smaller movements in low pay.

Perhaps the most recent response here is still workable, namely the living wage campaign. This puts pressure on larger employers in particular to pay a decent wage rather than a minimum wage, with perhaps its strongest impact in London. However for a living wage strategy to work it requires more jobs.

Clearly one response to the rising crisis of welfare reform is to campaign for the cuts to be reversed, and though it would have been far better for the cuts never to have been implemented, there are still campaign opportunities which civil society and sections of Parliament can bring to bear on the government to overturn the changes as quickly as possible.

But beyond these necessary reverses, we need to reform the Welfare Reform strategies as well. Work can provide people with meaning, dignity, respect and health. But increasingly in our current ‘flexible’ economy many people’s experience of work, such as long hours, low pay, insecurity and low level harassment is anything but dignified or enabling, and creating more jobs and at a living wage is only part of the solution. We cannot reform welfare without reforming employment.

Imagine heating all your home above 16C with just a 900watt hair dryer – it is possible using the Passivhaus standard

This morning (28 March) the Construction Best Practice Club in Manchester heard a presentation by Roger Burton, an architect who has applied the Passivhaus principles to his own property.
The Passivhaus standard is probably now THE leading international standard for building a house or flats which are ultra low energy, but still comfortable to live in. These houses need no boilers, no radiators and no fires.
Roger explained the origins of the Passivhaus standard by Professor Wolfgang Feist in Germany in 1991, using basic physics to design homes which are very well insulated.
In England, Building Regulations are expected to be ‘zero carbon’ by 2019, pushed forward by EU regulations dating back to 2002. However, the UK measurement is 46 kWhr/m2.yr for most houses (39 for flats and mid-terrace houses) whereas the Passivhaus standard is 15. This lower figure, as well as substantially saving money on fuel bills, also means that house builders do not need to turn to other “allowable solutions” outside the home to bring down the carbon footprint. A Passivhaus has a much lower footprint to start with.
This leads to a heat load of less than 10 watts per square metre – a 900watt hair dryer is enough for a 90 square metre typical flat or house. Of course, the fuel bills will depend on the behaviour of the residents, but a study of 32 Passivhaus properties (the CEPHEUS project) showed an average figure in real use of 13.3 kWhr/m2.yr, reasonably within the design target of 15. The equivalent expected rate for a Passivhaus retrofit is 25, still lower than the rate for newly built homes after 2019. Details: Roger Burton, nvirohaus, Manchester.

Bedroom Tax will put pressure on social landlords as well as tenants, says regional meeting – #NWSocialHousing

The North West Insider business magazine organised “The Business of Social Housing”, a well-attended event yesterday (26 March) at Salford City Stadium. Attended by directors and senior managers of housing associations across the region, there was a shared concern on the issues of Welfare Reform. The new Bedroom Tax is the immediate concern, closely followed by the new Universal Credit pathfinder pilots which start in the region from 28 April.
Housing associations are already bracing themselves for an increase in arrears, and local authorities are expecting more homeless families to seek their help, at a time when access to Legal Aid is also being further restricted. The social rented housing stock in the St Helens area is 60% 3-bedroom homes, so the local impact of the Bedroom Tax will be very high.
In reflecting on these changes, there was a general sentiment from the speakers that the government had ‘given up’ on strategy and was just focused on cuts without a thought to consequences. The example was given of a tenant who uses a room for medical equipment for home care. Having to give up the room will cause her to use hospital services again, saving Housing Benefit a little to cost the NHS a lot, never mind her quality of life and talk of community based healthcare. Yes, there is a discretionary fund, but most commentators insist it will not be enough to reduce hardship. The overwhelming concensus was that the Bedroom Tax was a ‘London issue’ being crudely applied across the UK. Consequently, Moodys has downgraded the credit rating of the UK social housing sector and it is now on notice with a ‘negative watch’. Which will increase the cost of borrowing for housing associations, another example of narrow-view cuts in one area which lead to further costs to others.
Private renting has grown massively in recent years, partly due to problems in getting mortgages after the credit crunch and partly because social housing providers are being pushed away from public sector grants towards private sector finance. More soon.

Britain’s housing crisis is deepening, says a university centre

Britain’s housing crisis is deepening. This blog from Heriot Watt University is a good analysis of the housing supply crisis in England and especially the south, looking at the limits of the Localism agenda which removed regional plans, and recommends sub-regional Housing Boards. These would be public/private partnerships which auction housing land to developers with a licence, so that house building rather than land hoarding took place. This learns from the successful methods used by some urban regeneration partnerships.

Related to this topic is the news report from The Guardian (22 March) of the political tensions within the UK government on building more homes versus nimbyism. http://m.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/mar/22/housebuilding-cameron-osbourne-confrontation-tories

Are there new models for community-led action in neighbourhoods, and can we use ‘One Planet’ thinking as a root cause analysis? #DespiteTheCuts

The Keep Britain Tidy group organised this ‘Despite The Cuts’ national conference today (21 March) in Manchester, bringing together a wide-ranging audience around new ways of community development in a climate of austerity and cuts in grants. There was a rich range of speakers and workshop presenters, and the organisers plan to publish the discussions as an ebook later. http://www.keepbritaintidy.org
One interesting discussion this afternoon was on whether ‘One Planet’ thinking would be useful in exploring a root cause analysis of citizen-led actions by small community and voluntary organisations. In terms of local environmental projects, for example, we are seeing a trend where ‘waste’ increasingly has a cash value. This could be an income stream for local groups, similar to the benefits already gained by separating out and weighing the aluminium cans from community litter pick events. ‘Waste’ clothing is now worth £2 a kilo, and scrap cars £150.
So perhaps rising world commodity prices due to our current Three Planet living will (to a small extent) help small community and voluntary groups in this new age of austerity. I look forward to seeing the discussions today turn to useful projects tomorrow.

Carbon Tax is an idea whose time has come – #budget13

An interesting editorial in yesterday’s (16 March) Financial Times set out some strong arguments for a carbon tax. These include the point that it is better to tax something that is environmentally bad rather than tax things which are socially good such as incomes.

To be fair, there are some issues to be ironed out. A basic carbon tax would be regressive, impacting harder on poor people than richer people. For example, the lone pensioner in a cold and draughty house should not have to pay more for heat. Prof Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University has made this very point, that for equity reasons the carbon footprint of the poorest people in society does need to increase. This would be more than offset by much larger carbon reductions elsewhere.
There would also need to be some industrial transitions for sectors which are either high energy consumers or high CO2 emitters or both.
For the Built Environment sector, cement and concrete production is both a high energy and a high CO2 emitting process. Industry looks for tax and regulatory stability when making investment plans, therefore it would be best to start now with a carbon tax escalator, rising in a pre-planned way year by year, rather than having a carbon tax introduced later in a hasty dash to catch up with economic and environmental pressures.
All the predictions for the coming Budget (20 March) are for a gloomy future of further recession, deficits, debt, cuts and austerity. This is the moment to be seized for low carbon sustainable development, starting with global leadership through a UK carbon tax.

From waste to value: Soon businesses will sell all their waste to the highest bidder – #NWSBQ

Within the next 10 years, nearly all commercial and industrial waste will be sold, yet currently businesses pay to have it taken away. The old model was collect-move-dump. There is now an immense range of alternative technical options, all the way to hydrogen gasification.
This shift was a very strong message of change from two talks yesterday evening (14 March) by Peter T. Jones OBE, formerly at Biffa and now retired; and by Charlie Browne who leads on waste minimisation for IKEA nationally.
Already waste is being measured in gigajoules / tonne as an energy source, but increasingly because of growing commodity shortages and price rises there is a vibrant recycling market as well. For example used clothing is worth £2,000 a tonne or £2 a kilo. Charlie Browne noted that when IKEA buys a waste bailing machine it gets a full return on investment within 15 months of the capital purchase. Wood waste is shredded and burnt onsite by IKEA to heat air and water.
Peter Jones commented that the “big brands” like Tesco are now competitors to the traditional waste collection companies. These big brand companies are beginning to combine their home deliveries with ‘waste’ removal, only now what used to be ‘waste’ is now a resource with value. This growing market in recycling and reuse supports the closed loop approach of sustainable production and consumption.
The key to innovation in the waste sector, claimed Peter Jones, was the increasing involvement of big engineering companies who were able to de-risk projects and then replicate them at a large scale. The four key elements for success are to understand and organise: the feedstock, the site, the technology, and the end market. But strangely, it is this complexity which is still scaring off investment. However, the existing gate fee business model is collapsing.
Charlie Browne’s top tip to any business was to examine all your bills and invoices and think about how to avoid any waste you find. An example he gave was that IKEA is replacing wooden pallets with paper pallets to save resources and so reduce costs. In Germany they sell their food waste from cafes etc, using a mascerator and then de-watering the product to extract the particulate for sale, eg to anaerobic digestion.

Link: http://www.ecolateral.org (Peter Jones and others)
* The organisers:
#NWSBQ is the North West Sustainable Businesses Quarterly network, which typically meets on a Thursday evening in Manchester city centre. It is hosted by Bruntwood and organised by M4C Sustainability pro bono.