Despite ostensibly being an independent sector, the uneasy marriage of public funding, public policy diktat and a requirement to house the sods unlucky enough to be poor has meant our independence is about as concrete as Iain Duncan Smith’s grip on statistics. This may change in the coming years as lower funding levels means the sector can, quite legitimately, give the old ‘stuffez-vous’ to central government.
A new lease of independence (bring back pre 1974!) can have many far reaching consequences and this week one of them got an airing. An interesting point and counter point from Hannah Fearn and Martin Collett around council nominations has highlighted one of the (many) quirks of social housing delivery in the UK. Councils have a right to very high nomination rates, largely a result of LSVTs in the 80s, 90s and 00s. The deal being we provide the house, they provide the people. But as the restrictions on access to housing get ever tougher social landlords are having to be increasingly wary of who comes a-knocking. Particularly with bright ideas like the bedroom tax (now in the on-line version of the Oxford Dictionary no-less) currently in play.
Whilst I have sympathy Hannah’s point, I would disagree with her that allowing social landlords to pick and choose who gets housed is the thin end of the wedge for a couple of reasons. 1) It is already happening. Like it or lump it social landlords can veto a nomination (provided there is good reason). 2) Because providing poor/marginalised people with housing is still the primary purpose of social landlords (well depending on who you talking to in the sector…). This isn’t going to change any time soon.
Much to the chagrin of the free-market, trickle-down theorists out there* there are still a large number of financially up the creek people who can’t afford to own or rent privately. And given the utter inability of the private sector to build enough homes (no it isn’t just down to s106 agreements or planning policy) we are having to step up to the plate. Yes welfare reforms will make our job tougher, though at least the DWP is coming round to the idea of letting us know who will be getting Universal Credit. But this does not mean that as a sector we will completely spin off the poorest and most vulnerable or cherry pick the best. We are an increasing financially competent bunch, but we’re not heartless. Surprisingly the poorest and most vulnerable tend to be a lot easier to manage arrears wise. This is because they receive 100% housing benefit, it is directed straight to us and all is tout sweet (mostly). The royal pain in the backsides are the self-employed (unreliable cash flow means we turn into de facto credit facility via rent arrears) and the part-claimants (fraud, error and complexity are abounds here).
However it is the wider point of independence raised in the two blogs that is of interest to me. Does a post grant operating environment mean we can reposition ourselves as a truly independent sector? Freedom via mounting private debt? Not quite William Wallace is it and in all honesty probably not. As I have blogged about before this scenario has worked in Holland (with one or two pitfalls) but that is a unique situation and alas I do not think it is workable here. The need for, if not the liking of, central government to facilitate low cost, subsidised housing for the poor will remain. Whilst this continues to be the case the big chiefs in London town will want to retain a broad control over policy direction in housing, but not the cost of implementing it (obviously). And thus will be reluctant to let social housing rule itself. Ironically true freedom may only be ours when there is no longer a need for social housing.
*Who would have thought that by ensuring that a small minority (of largely white, middle class men) get to stay insanely wealthy, that the rest of society wouldn’t see the benefit? Personally I’m shocked.