Detecting the signal in the Autumn Statement noise

23 Nov 16

Philip Hammond’s announcements on housing and mayoral borrowing powers represent a welcome shift in policy. But social care’s absence from the chancellor’s speech is more worrying.

The £1.4bn injection into the Affordable Homes Programme announced by Philip Hammond today is good news. Housing associations, developers and councils will be able to bid for a larger pot of money to fund new affordable housing. Whilst the cash figure will get the headline, the bigger change is that the grant funding will come with fewer strings attached than previously. Bidders will be able to use it to build homes for affordable rent, not just shared ownership and Rent to Buy as was the case in the previous prospectus (April 2016). As recent Localis housing reports have shown, Rent to Buy offers a more realistic path to home ownership for many, so this shift towards funding homes for affordable rent is good.

Today’s announcement is also indicative of the government’s shift in emphasis if not away from home ownership, then certainly accepting that for many, current government-backed home ownership products are out of reach. The fund injection is, however, a drop in the ocean. The equivalent affordable homes scheme between 2011 and 2015 was of similar financial size and ambition, and whilst fairly successful in building homes for affordable rent, it did little to stem the affordability crisis. This is a sensible and welcome move by the chancellor, but without significant change in the upcoming housing white paper it is a sticking plaster.

The new mayoral borrowing powers is a sensible course correction. Treasury made an error in taking this out of the legislation (the former chancellor signed devo deals with it included) so a case of councils getting what they were promised.

Social care’s absence was worrisome, and with the living wage increase helping many care works (itself a good thing), the financial pressure will increase. I can see how many in local government find this underwhelming if not downright upsetting. And yet here we are. Like Camus’s Dr Rieux we must acknowledge what we see, even if it defies our sense of logic. The chancellor has sent a pretty clear message; ‘find the money somewhere else’.

For social care the change required is profound; the trifecta of care model, market and commissioning are all in need of a refresh. Eventually this will land on social work practice too if we’re trying to create a genuinely sustainable system. Perhaps government sees the scale of the challenge and doesn’t see the value in pouring money into, in the words of one commentator today, “a crumbling social care system”. There’s some unfortunate politics in all this; the majority don’t use social care services and many of those who do don’t acknowledge it as such, so for the time being government seems prepared to let councils figure this one out for themselves. For all today’s noise, the signal has remained consistent. Usual business resumes tomorrow.

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