April Fools

It appears that the world has temporarily gone mad. Or at least temporarily remembered that life is incredibly different if you have lots of money. But, a bit like anger at the banks for pretty much bringing this country to its knees then having the cheek to ask for a helping billion or two, the swell of indignation will die down leaving but a few angry vessels beached on the sand dunes of rage. Once that occurs maybe we can sit down and have an adult conversation.

Things to learn

How often has the sector been on the back foot struggling to explain a concept many outside of the sector don’t understand?

Firstly, what is it with us British and mentioning sex and/or money? A slight whiff of those topics and we go all Hugh Grant in a 1990s rom-com. For once I am largely on the side of our Prime Minister (shocking, I know). Whilst some would have you believe otherwise Mr Cameron Snr has legally, and to a large extent morally, done nothing wrong. Guilt by association doesn’t mean guilt, which is funnily enough something the UK Justice System found out to its cost this year. What Mr Cameron Jnr has done wrong however is drop the ball regarding his response to a non-event. But more crucially he failed to grasp the general feeling and perception around the issue at hand. For the uninformed this is an interesting take on  the ramifications of Blairmore-gate in the Economist online. However, setting aside the embarrassment of David Cameron, there are one or two things for housing to pick up here.

Your argument is as good as there are ears willing to listen

You can have facts, figures and the belief in a moral argument on your side, but that doesn’t mean you will win the argument. Sound familiar Housing Comms people (pay attention at the back). I’m not going to overly slag off how we do things. Though if you are feeling the need to feed your masochistic tendencies Mr Halewood is always on call to rightly pull us up on where things have slipped a bit. But how many times as a sector have there been inaccurate, but morally on point attacks against Chief Exec pay, or the amount of homes we build? How often has the sector been on the back foot, struggling to explain a concept many outside of the sector don’t understand. As G.I Joe notes, knowing is half the battle, if we don’t push what we do it is left for those outside the sector to fill in the gaps. This will not always be in a positive light.

Just as an FYI if you can fully and utterly explain the workings of the Camerons’ ‘Investment’ scheme I would be grateful. I get lost somewhere around the dollar-denominated global…zzzzzzzz bit. Sorry nodded off again. The FT have a good stab here mind.

When to go hard, when to go home

Ultimately it’s about being a bit more nuanced around news stories that affect the sector. The recent attack pieces in the Times and predecessor articles in the Standard and the Times (again) are easy to bat away on the figures side because the journalism around them has frankly been a bit haphazard. However, they tie into popular perceptions around the sector with those in power if not the general public. Knowing when to go full balls, and knowing when to be a bit more subtle is key to shaping the debate, and as the NHF keeps on saying ‘Own our future‘. Getting some press outside of the trade magazines and the Guardian Housing Network wouldn’t go amiss either. Stop preaching to the converted.

What we don’t need

A fucking hash-tag. Seriously, one more of those bloody things to promote yet another BS marketing/event ploy and I will be getting out the wet plimsolls and slapping (metaphorically of course) sense into people. A hash-tag based awareness/marketing approach on its own does not a successful campaign make. Or for someone with good intentions (I guess) like Alan Duncan going so far off message as to send the poor Conservative PR lass/guy into early retirement. To see him in full flow winning muppet of the day just go here. Tell me Alan, is there a cut off point for low earners, or is it tapered in, much like Universal Credit and now Starter Homes discount repayments? In fairness to the chap at least he attempted to clarify his statement, I think. I was to busy being synthetically indignant at being told about what is fair by someone who claimed over £4,000 of public money to have his lawn mowed (he did pay it back, and got demoted for his troubles). Behave and have a Snickers you silly sausage.

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The Liar, The Witch and The Wardrobe

The latest attack piece on the sector isn’t about the ‘shock’ of Housing Associations not ‘pulling their weight’ in terms of building homes. It is Neo-Liberal fetishism disguised as a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

Just a Case of History Repeating

Setting aside the deja vu of Channel 4, The Times piece v1.0 and The Spectator‘s look at the sector (the latter managing to significantly undermine its argument by getting their figures very, very wrong).The argument that social landlords should be facto property developers studiously (and deliberately) ignores and conflates the nature of the beast.

As social landlords we don’t just do development or basic ‘bricks and mortar’ work. Many act as welfare states within a welfare state; providing money advice, tenancy support, employment support services, apprenticeships, out-reach programs, oh and of course new housing. Often in the areas where the state has all but decided to fuck off. Those services are essential to the nature of who we are, and what we do and belie the notion we are just required to build homes. Ultimately it is why painting HAs as bumbling builders misses the point. But then again, that is the idea with this type of attack.

No Smoke Without Fire

Though I’ll be damned if I take anything seriously from those nutters at the Tax Payer’s Alliance. Get out more and read a little less Von Hayek and Friedman you loons. I am not going to blindly defend the sector. A number of the points raised by the article are a little too close for comfort. In particular, efficiency and getting value for money is of concern. Whilst claims of inertia over building is an unfair and loaded accusation given the broader context of what we do. We are occasionally too slow to develop and innovate, largely because we’ve never had a pressing need to, apart from when Government Policy changes.

We also have too many chefs in the kitchen. The fact that you can have several social landlords operating in the same street is just utterly bizarre. And although commendable for the work they do, as a small organisation development opportunities are limited. Merging or entering into a Group Structure with a larger set of organisations is probably the best move forward. Frankly if you’re under 5,000 units you will struggle in the next decade. Ultimately, as a sector you can’t own your future if you are a disparate bunch of fiefdoms pulling in different directions. That helps no-one, collapsing down is inevitable, embrace it when and where it works for your organisation.

You’re talking crap mate

As someone who works in Performance its the utter lack of context that befuddles me. Numbers in a vacuum (or in this case a deliberately narrowed tunnel of vision) mean nothing. To measure the worth of an organisation on one isolated variable, to conflate building with performance, is utter bullshit. External policy is underplayed as a influencing factor, all the additional work we do as a sector is ignored in its entirety. In short the overall context is deliberately skewed. Exactly why doesn’t become clear until you look at the end piece tied to the headline. It is a push for the debt of the sector to be wiped, and for HAs to be ‘free’. Presumably at this point being ‘born again’ for-profit organisations they could pay Chief Execs whatever they wanted?

Whilst written with an attachment to the real picture at hand that is tenuous at best, here is the rub of it. The article by The Times holds the crux of the debate as to where we are heading as a sector, it is also a warning shot to the sector from Central Government. Selling off HA debt and giving ‘freedom’ to the sector is the basis of one the Policy Exchange’s their main policy papers on Housing. And whilst I am delighted that Alex Morton is leaving his role Housing Policy Advisor to No10, they still hold a lot of clout. Consequently, lobbying hard to ensure this doesn’t happen will be a key challenge of this Parliament. That’s if the big boys and girls want to. I have a feeling some will be watching the potential for going solo with great interest.

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Rumour, Misinformation and Gossip

I’m not usually lost for words (I’m not quite Deadpool, but I’m not far off) however I do find myself at a bit of a loss at what to say following the utter hatchet job undertaken by The Spectator. As someone who works in a heavily performance/data focused part of a housing association I am well aware there is more than one way to skin a cat. The issue is you actually need a moggie in the first place. Alas the Spectator should have gone to Specsavers because whatever it has been skinning, it ain’t a feline.

Inside Housing has done a very good job of debunking a number of figures thrown about with alarming disregard for their origin or the context in which they exist (see below for my favourites). And as much as they are to be commended it would be nice to have seen slight sterner stuff come from the sector’s representative bodies. Something akin to “this is utter bollocks; we are not going to even dignify it with a full response because my 2-year-old child could have done a better job sourcing those figures” for example. Whilst the NHF has done well to rally the responses have lacked a certain punch.

Myths Debunked:

‘Places for People built 792 homes last year’- This is true although the piece does not mention the association’s plans to complete a further 6,631 homes over the next three years.

‘Housing associations managed [to build] just 23,300 homes last year’- As Inside Housing’s development survey shows, the top 50 largest associations alone completed 40,213 homes in 2014/15.

‘Over the last four years housing associations received £23bn* in government grants’ – This has already been corrected by The Spectator itself. In fact, housing associations received £4.5bn of grant through the affordable homes programme between 2011 and 2015.

*I’m glad I wasn’t the only one who went ‘eh!?’ at that particularly erroneous figure…

What the article does show is two things 1) Not many people outside of the sector have much of a clue on what we actually spend our money on – it ain’t just new homes kids, unlike a lot of private landlords we reinvest in our properties. Though occasionally we do balls this up, like really bad. 2) We need a new PR agency… stat. Maybe not so much #ImInWorkJeremy more like #ImDoingMoreThanJustBuildingNewHomesYouDicks. An excellent example has come via Phillipa Jones and Bromford (sorry I know I use these guys a lot but this is a simple, easy to use eample to prove my point). This is the kind of detail we need to set out – publicly, not just in our annual report, because who reads them, honestly?

I think what really narks me is that despite the utter shitness of the article (#sorrynotsorry it really is shit) there is a grain of truth in what is being said. We do need to build more, we do need to be more mindful of how much the upper echelons get paid. We also need to be far more proactive in the PR game. Because it ain’t even half time sweethearts we’re 3-0 down and we’re not looking pretty.

What I’ve also been saddened by is the lack of people pushing the wide range of activities we undertake. Admittedly only in the short 8hrs or so since the article hit. But Housing Associations are essentially mini-welfare states in the communities they operate. Money advice, debt advice, day care centres, training/skills classes, community regeneration are just the tip of the iceberg of what we do. For fuck sake we do so much unheralded work with the people who live in our communities (with being the operative word) but because we can’t pull our fingers out and highlight what we do (outside of 24Housing and InsideHousing) we’re getting smashed.

I will be watching Channel 4 tonight to see what is occurring; honestly I hope it’s better than the preamble that have so far been put out. If its not, I’ll be doing what all middle class people do and write a strongly worded letter…

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