Social landlords have often been left open to the charge of being too quiet on the issues that affect their customer base. In the interest of self-preservation it may now be necessary to become a bit more vocal.
The social housing sector is often caught between a rock and a hard place. We operate in, provide homes for and work with, those on the margins of society. However we are also compelled to work within a highly political context. Not only dealing with whims of Central Government, contradictory policies from different departments. But also muppets who have epiphanies on inner city housing estates in Glasgow (who then go and miss the point of said epiphany). And that is before the minefield of dealing with a myriad set of Local Authorities and councillors with their own agendas. As a consequence we tend to be a bit vanilla in our criticisms of Government.
A couple of pieces caught my eye earlier this week. The first involving Isabel Hardman and how we as a sector can get more of an influence in westminster. Noting that moaning about a policy and then using it isn’t the best move. And that as a sector we have an image problem with the ‘Right’. The second was from Hannah Fearn noting that too much power lies with social landlords and not enough for their tenants. Whilst I don’t agree with all her points I am firmly with her on the statement that we should serve best our tenants, not Government. Key to both these pieces is that they reinforce the problem for our sector. In an attempt to be all things to all people (politically speaking) we become not much of anything. Or worse still, we piss off all sides.
The current set of welfare reforms have never been about just getting people into work. They are cost cutting measures, part of a long-term move to reduce state support and intervention. In short, they are a neo-liberal wet dream. The problem with such fantasies is that they are often only workable for the people who dream them up. It always narks me that those who make ‘tough decisions’ have probably never really had to make a tough choice in their personal life. Well I guess if you include the horrific decisions to be made over chilli humus or quiche then maybe, but you get the point.
Yet despite the impact the reforms have on our customer base we have always been too focused on the direct impact of the changes on our bottom line and not openly angry about indirect ones. At least not uniformly. For me this is all the more bizarre because from a housing point of view we are paying for these reforms (and associated cuts in budgets for Local Authorities) 3 times over. 1) In higher rent arrears as more draconian sanctions cut benefits for a larger group of people, who then can’t pay us. 2) Because we then have to pay for interventions to help assist those having to deal with the fall out of ‘tough decisions’. 3) We then have to pay for schemes that provide a service formerly under the auspices of local authority but jettisoned due to budget cuts. As a sector we appear to have failed to be convinced by the moral argument to publicly oppose the reforms, at least en masse. Maybe a financial one will do the trick?
There are a few that have been systematically quantifying the impact of the reforms and being very vocal about their impact. Real Life Reform, the JRF and the LSE have all produced research pieces showing the detrimental impact of the reforms. SHOUT have also been very active in promoting the case for more social housing and the negative impact of the current Government’s policies. But as a sector we have more often than not done the equivalent of tutting, going “too bad” and moved on. The consequence? Just look at the figures. The number of social homes is at its lowest for years. Capital grant is at its lowest point for decades. The number of households relying on food banks is rising, as is the number of working households claiming HB. We have gone through 3 (or is it 4?) housing ministers since 2010. Frankly that paints a picture of being crap at influencing.
The Benefit Cap and right to buy policies are popular but when people learn more about the ins and outs of many of the welfare reforms support falls (as G.I Joe always said, knowing is half the battle…). We have a Government that relies on soundbite policies delivered to an uninformed public to drive through its agenda. It is part of our duty to address this imbalance when those policies affect us and the communities we ultimately serve. But maybe that’s just me being a bit naive.
Regardless of who wins the next general election we need to look at our approach to influencing. We need to be better at understanding how housing influences (and is influenced by) changes in other policies areas. We need to be better at supporting our tenancy base in its battles against the unintended (and intended) consequences of poor policy decisions. We must accept the fact that in the game of politics passivity is not an option.