As part of my current responsibilities I sit on my employer’s Equality & Diversity Forum. It is a break from my normal duties and gets me to see sides of the organisation I don’t often encounter. They don’t let me out much… I do occasionally feel a bit of a fraud because you know, University educated, white middle-class men have it so bad. But it is nice to be able to be part of something that is working towards ensuring a culture of inclusiveness thrives and that all our employees (and residents) can get the most out of the services (and employment) we provide. So far, so wishy, washy. Bear with me, there is a point to this.
Being on the forum I was invited along to my organisation’s annual award/celebration of the efforts that individual staff and teams have made towards meeting E&D related goals. The things people had been nominated for ranged from helping facilitate fitness classes for the grey brigade (old people), assisting in a particularly difficult domestic violence case (if there ever are simple ones?) and raising money for a plethora of causes. The award was a poignant reminder that we as social landlords do more than simply provide bricks and mortar, and that we should continue to do so as the impacts are often immeasurable. Though not everyone got this memo.
Relatively recently the Policy Exchange, the Conservative Party’s think tank in all but name, produced a well constructed document on a future of social housing without grant and less regulation. FYI Jon Land does a very good job of summarising the debate on the report here. Red Brick does nice number ripping it apart, here. From my point of view I was pleasantly surprised by the number of concessions the paper made around the folly of the incumbent Government’s policies. The notion that Affordable Rent is bollocks was given credence, well stated that it is a ‘misnomer’, that’s enough for me. That too many strings were attached to the last funding round. That Welfare Reform, in particular the Benefit Cap and direct payments in conjunction with higher rents caused by ‘Affordable’ Rents would lead to higher rent arrears. That in its current form, capital grant works for no-one.
Other observations were that:
- £1.1bn of grant funding from Government is a lot of money – this point is stressed a lot…
- Too many housing associations won’t build/can’t build – 5 out of 6 social landlords are not build or acquiring any new housing – naughty people!
- We spend too much time/effort/money on our current residents and should use more of our surpluses to build new homes – ‘cos who needs happy tenants…
- There should be less regulation, but boards should be required to show what options they have explored to build/develop – so less and more regulation?
Being a little cynical the report also neatly side steps, well more brutally, ignores one or two consequences of Conservative Government policy. The number of people on council waiting lists is lamented long and hard. But whilst Right to Buy is talked about in the report not a single mention of its negative impact on the overall social housing stock is noted. Nor the neutering of the ability of Local Authorities to build new housing to replace lost stock and expand existing portfolios. The negative impacts of the Benefit Cap are nodded to, but not the Policy Exchange’s calls to reduce the draconian cap even further. But most of all it fails to realise we don’t just deal in bricks and mortar.
The report seemed to think that all social landlords do is build houses. Or not build as the case may be. I understand that looking at how we can build more properties was a fundamental of the report but you cannot, shall not, separate all the other aspects of what we do from the number of properties we build. To do so, to assume that we are merely machines for building (and shoring up piss poor policy making in central Government) completely misunderstands our raison d’être.
I do however admire the attempt to look at a different way of operating, even if it is largely based on a bastardisation of the model operating in Holland. This is because we do need to look at alternative ways of financing future builds. We also need to be mindful of how much debt we load onto our assets. I can’t argue against the statement that there are too many Landlords doing too little to build, because for the most part it is true. There are also a number of large landlords playing chicken with the financial markets. To both these groups I would ask if, in the long run, either model is sustainable. You can only sweat what currently exists for so long, you can only gamble so long before striking out.
Whilst a number have come out vehemently opposed to the report, I must confess I sit on the fence. In terms of going it alone I think some in the sector a capable, frankly for a number of others I don’t think they would survive. We do operate in a cosy environment and this has bred a certain level of complacency. Will having more freedom mean we turn into ‘proper’ private sector organisations? I don’t know. What is the culture like in a LSVT organisation? Still a whiff of the former Local Authority way of doing things there? The culture of an organisation doesn’t change overnight. And it doesn’t just change because the operating remit has altered. As Jon Land notes, there may well be a parting of the ways on with those seeking ‘independence’ keen to take on a role many others will feel uncomfortable doing.
I do agree we should build more private sector rent and market sale properties. But I don’t believe that this should ever be our primary focus. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. As with everything there is a balance to things. I for one will be intrigued to see if an equilibrium between a drive for the production of more housing and providing for the social good can be maintained. But I would say this, social housing is fundamentally about people, about place and then about buildings. To state otherwise is to deny what makes us, us.