Time for raised voices

(From an article published in May 2014)


An excellent opinion piece on 24 Housing last week by Tony Stacey reminds me just how supine – and in parts, complicit – the housing industry has become. From the off, Red Brick has objected to, criticised, parodied, and been outraged by the Government’s ‘Affordable Rent’ scheme. And in equal measure we have tried to expose the deliberate attempt to reduce and, we think, eventually eliminate social rented housing.

Tony, who is Chair of Placeshapers, says he refuses to use the term ‘Affordable Rent’ and describes ‘the wretched thing’ as ‘AR’. He finds the few references to people speaking out against AR and in favour of social rent, including the important ‘Just Say No’ blog by Colin Wiles, which in turn led to the creation of the SHOUT campaign for social rented housing. Tony hopes that Boards and Chief Executives will ‘find their voices’ having ‘sleepwalked into acquiescence’. He makes the simple but blinding observation that ‘subsidised housing needs subsidy’.

The reason I use the word ‘complicit’ is that some in the housing world have been rather more than naïve people going meekly along with an externally imposed agenda. Quite a few were actively involved in creating this whole plan. There are of course many honorable exceptions, but over the years I have experienced a considerable number of chief executives and other senior people distancing themselves from social rented housing, travelling away from their associations’ original mission to assist the homeless and people in greatest housing need, becoming obsessed with home ownership and equity stakes, prioritising what they called ‘aspirational’ people, and stigmatising people trapped in ‘welfare dependency’ in a way that would make even Iain Duncan Smith blush. In the words of one housing director, ‘it’s not the homes that need fixing, it’s the people’.

And so they would rather build for shared ownership or even private sale than social renting, even when their business plans allowed for a choice between them. Promises of future cross-subsidy from surpluses – we should make shed loads of cash, then invest it in rented homes, I can remember being told – never quite materialise in the way promised. Just like developers, they don’t want the value of their for sale products diluted by having social housing mixed up with them. They are in awe of ‘the market’ and the magical importance of ‘market rents’ even when it is so blindingly obvious that the market is completely dysfunctional. They have changed the brand and image of their organisations, becoming ‘developers’ and ‘regeneration agencies’ rather than housing associations building homes to meet housing need.

I have heard chief executives complaining about having to house ‘chavs’, objecting to local authority ‘dumping’ of tenants and demanding that landlords should have more power to evict tenants and to end the tenancies of people they feel don’t deserve them. Some even specifically advised the Conservative Party in the development of policies in favour of higher market-related rents and reduced security of tenure, which in turn mutated into the ‘AR’ policy. Too often they seemed obsessed with development, irrespective of what was being developed, and disinterested in existing tenants and housing management or old fashioned concepts like meeting housing need. Strategy was a word they applied to their own organisational objectives and not to the needs of communities.

Be careful what you wish for. The scene was set, the monster was created and then incubated by a 60% reduction in investment in the Coalition’s first spending review. The only way to build any new homes at all was to slash grant for each home and to massively increase rents – in new but also in existing homes. Now housing associations have to live with a product that is almost useless to their poorer tenants in high rent areas, stretches their own resources, and – what madness – costs more in the long term in public expenditure. And yet some of these same chief executives still sit smugly on CIH and NHF platforms telling the world what a wonderful job they’re doing.

If associations had refused to play ball in the first AR round the product would have been dead in the water. Some were just toadies but the depressing fact is that others were getting what they had been seeking for years. I’m not normally a bitter and twisted person, but if I was in charge if Labour wins the next Election, some of these organisations would never see another penny of public money.

So well done Placeshapers and well done SHOUT for helping to change the tone of the debate. The housing industry must stop failing the people.

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