Why housing associations have few friends

When Channel Four aired its news report – ‘why are housing associations failing to build enough homes?’ – I was at a discussion about how a number of major schemes were delivered by Camden in the 1960s. In some ways these were pioneering, innovative schemes, using difficult sites and working within a complex subsidy system, but they were monumental and were delivered with no involvement from potential residents.

As they were completed, the new breed of housing associations were emerging; inspired by the recognition that homelessness, squalor and poverty were still the life experience of too many people in our country. These new organisations were trying to address the challenges of uncritical redevelopment, though getting rid of damp, dank and dirty slums should not be criticised too heavily, by improving solid houses to give them another 30 years of useful life. Working from small offices, driven by a conviction that we could do better.

These social entrepreneurs, though they would have been mystified by the term, were motivated by doing what they believed was right. This view was shared across the country and legislation was passed that set up a generous subsidy system which held down rents.

Roll forward 40 years, those fledging organisations are now multi-million pound businesses with large workforces, corporate offices and the trappings of success. So when the criticisms were made the response from the leaders of these major businesses was fast and furious. I shared much of the righteous indignation, but there were mistakes in material presented and a willingness from journalists to mix comment with fact. Nevertheless, what I wasn’t aware of was any significant voices from outside what used to call ‘the voluntary housing movement’ or the ‘third sector in housing’ being heard in support.

There has always been a strand of opinion that saw housing associations as undemocratic and unaccountable, taking on responsibilities that properly belonged to elected councils. This has been made stronger by the transfer of local authority housing to associations whether for redevelopment or simply as a way of bringing in private capital.

Interestingly there seems to be a view from another perspective which sees them as rich but grouchy, tending to ask for special consideration. People were happy to support a locally based, charitable organisation but feel less well disposed towards what looks and feels like a large commercial company. The third way has become a bit of gooseberry.

With the introduction of the Right to Buy for tenants of charitable housing associations there has been a suggestion that the entire the £60bn of housing association debt should be classified as public sector borrowing; the Office for National Statistics is considering making the change. This would move housing associations firmly into the public sector, which could have major implications on how they use their assets and how closely they are controlled by government.

Quite a journey for organisations that are rooted in social and charitable responses to poverty, squalor and homelessness; filling the gaps in statutory provision.



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