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On the Party Conferences Radar

This briefing summarises policy announcements from the conferences from the three main Westminster parties and comments on the messages they reveal, particularly on how the parties see devolution and the role of local government after next May. It also gives some details on plans for health and social care and how the parties envisage the deficit being reduced if they form a majority administration.

The briefing should be of interest to officers and councillors in all kinds of authority and for partner organisations, and especially for those working in policy, health, social care and finance.

Welfare Reform Update: August 2014

This briefing is a further update on developments in welfare reform, updating developments in selected aspects to early August 2014. Covered are the latest statistics and analyses on the benefits cap, the social sector size criteria, the Work Capability Assessment, and progress in Personal Independence Payments (PIPs). The DWP has published interim evaluations of the benefits cap and the social sector size criteria, and more data is available from reports published by Real Life Reform and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. There is also an update on Universal Credit implementation, an update from the latest statistical release on the Work Programme, and commentary on the new sanctions regime. There is lengthy section on how local government is involved in the welfare reform programme, notably through the Direct Payments Demonstration Projects and the Universal Credit Implementation Pilots.

By March 2014, just over 1,553,000 claimants had been referred to the Work Programme, of which just over 848,000 are still on the scheme. There has been a rise in the proportion of claimants referred to the programme attracting a job outcome payment and there has been some improvement in performance for ESA claimants. JSA sanctioning activity is currently running at record levels.

This briefing will be of most interest to councillors and members in all types of authority with an interest in social services, welfare, housing, finance, and poverty reduction.

Local Growth Deals and the Local Growth Fund

This briefing looks at the details and implications of the growth deals and the LGF allocations for local economic leadership in general, and for local authorities (LAs) in particular.
Local authorities – especially members and officers responsible for LEP relations, economic development, and services (like planning, transport, skills) which make a major contribution to economic growth – should be aware of the details of their local ‘deal’ and their contribution to its effective delivery.
More broadly, members and officers involved in deliberations and negotiations within the LA community, and with central government, about enhanced devolution and central-local relations, will be aware that this area of activity will be a key feature of debate in the run up to the 2015 general election. This debate will influence the priorities of the incoming 2015-20 government.

Climate Change and Social Justice: A Review

* The review is part of a series by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (written by the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) ) which aims to analyse the social justice implications of climate change in the UK. Using a rapid research assessment method to analyse literature, it also makes recommendations related to existing mitigation and adaptation policies and actions (at both national and local level) and the degree to which they currently or could deliver socially-just outcomes
* It suggests that little is known about the social impacts of climate change policies. In general there is a focus on short-term disaster responses rather than long-term resilience building. It argues that local authorities, especially in the policy areas of spatial planning, health, housing, have a key role to play and need to more strongly consider the social implications and equity dimensions of their climate change policies and actions
* This will be relevant not just to those working in environmental or sustainability units, but also those in social welfare, housing, healthcare and community engagement. Local authorities at all scales are implicated; but especially those in urban areas and those with flood management and/or coastal management responsibilities.

Help to Buy Equity Loan Scheme – NAO Report

The National Audit Office (NAO) has published a value for money report on the ‘Help to Buy’ Scheme (“The Help to Buy – equity loan scheme”).
It found that the scheme was making homes more affordable and improving access to mortgage finance, but the cost to the taxpayer is uncertain because the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) cannot as yet robustly quantify the scheme’s economic benefits. Consequently the NAO cannot say at this stage whether the scheme will provide value for money.
Early demand has been strong with 89% of loan sales made to first-time buyers. But while it appears to be helping buyers as intended DCLG cannot say how many of those accessing the scheme would have bought a home anyway.
This briefing will be of particular interest to elected members and officers with an interest in housing.

English Housing Survey 2012-13

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) published the results of its annual English Housing Survey for 2012-13 on 26 February. This briefing compares key findings for social housing with other tenures and reports some more detailed statistics for social housing.

Support for housing costs in the reformed welfare system

This report, published by the Work and Pensions Committee (WPC) on 2 April, summarises the evidence given in its inquiry into support for housing costs and welfare reform announced in July 2013.
The WPC’s report contains detailed evidence of the impacts of various welfare reforms, including the Social Sector Size Criteria, the household benefit cap, and changes to the system of Local Housing Allowances (LHA). Also dealt with in some detail are local authorities’ responses to the reforms as supported through instruments like Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs). Local government was among the more important sources of evidence for the inquiry on which the report is based.
Among the more important conclusions are that the reforms are impacting severely on the most vulnerable, particularly the disabled, who cannot easily respond by changing their circumstances.
This briefing should be of interest to members and officers with an interest in welfare reform, poverty reduction, crisis intervention, and housing.

The Consumer Rights Bill

The Consumer Rights Bill was introduced to Parliament on 23 January 2014.It has completed its committee stage. An amended version was published on 14 March 2014. A date for the third reading has yet to be announced.
The Bill brings together much of the existing legislation relating to contracts for goods, services, digital content and unfair terms in consumer contracts.
It clarifies the standards a consumer can expect, and sets out what they can do when goods, services or digital content don’t meet these standards.
The Bill proposes a set 30-day time period for when consumers can return faulty goods and get a full refund. Consumers will have the right to get some money back after one failed repair of faulty goods (or one faulty replacement).
They will be able to demand that substandard services are redone, or failing that get a price reduction.
Consumers will be able to get a repair or a replacement of faulty digital content like film and music downloads, online games and e-books.
The Bill introduces easier routes for consumers and small and medium sized enterprises (“SMEs”) to challenge anti-competitive behaviour through the Competition Appeal Tribunal (“CAT”).
The Bill consolidates enforcers’ powers to investigate potential breaches of consumer law into a single set by amending the Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 (CPRs).
The Bill will also enable Trading Standards to operate across local authority boundaries.
It will also give the civil courts and enforcers like Trading Standards greater flexibility to take the most appropriate action for consumers when dealing with breaches of consumer law, for example enabling them to obtain compensation on behalf of consumers.
The Government also intends implementing the majority of the Law Commissions’ recommendations to strengthen consumer’s rights if they feel they have been given misleading information or treated aggressively by traders.
The Consumer Rights Bill mainly applies to the whole of the UK.
This briefing is of particular interest to members and staff involved with in Trading Standards, Markets, local economic and business development, Environmental Health, regulation of the private rented sector and those providing and commissioning consumer advice services.

The 2014 IFS Green Budget

This briefing deals with selected chapters in the latest IFS Green Budget, focusing in particular on the prognosis for the UK economy, the public finances, and incomes growth. Also dealt with are chapters on business rates, housing, and policies to help the low paid. This briefing will be of particular interest to members and officers in all authorities concerned with finance and strategic planning. Despite the improvement in GDP growth, real average earnings are shown to remain broadly flat between 2013-15 and to rise slowly thereafter. However, they do not rise above their 2009-10 position until 2018-19, and then only slightly. Overall, living standards are highly unlikely to recover their pre-crisis levels by 2015–16. Recovery from recession has been slower than in previous economic downturns, and hence the current programme of fiscal contraction is unusually deep and protracted. Of the total planned contraction in spending, nearly half (46 per cent) is planned to have been achieved by the end of 2013–14. A large proportion of the cuts to planned spending is still to come. Only 36 per cent of the cuts to planned spending excluding social security and debt interest payments will be in place by the end of 2013–14, meaning further cuts to departmental budgets.

New Homes Bonus: PAC and NAO Reports, and the local growth fund

- The Public Accounts Committee has published its report on the New Homes Bonus following the earlier one from the National Audit Office.
– Some £1.3 billion in Bonus has been paid out since April 2011 on which a total of £3.3 billion will be paid out up and until 2017-18 to match the additional council tax raised on new homes for six years.
– The Government claim that the scheme has led to 160,000 homes. However, the National Audit Office concluded that it has so far mainly rewarded home creation that was not incentivised by the Bonus. They also found little evidence that it has increased planning approvals for housing.
– The Public Accounts Committee now believes that an evaluation of scheme to determine whether is changing how local authorities approach the creation of new homes, is now urgent.
– In an unconnected move, the Treasury announced in 2013 Spending Review that £400m of the New Homes bonus will be top-sliced in 2015-16 to fund the creation of a Single Local Growth Fund.
– This briefing with be of interest to elected members, cabinet portfolio holders and officers with responsibilities for housing, regeneration and finance.