Housing Associations: Friend or Foe?
Housing associations have moved far from their roots in Victorian philanthropy and ’60s radicalism, says GLYN ROBBINS
BRITISH housing policy is at a crossroads. Now the Housing Bill has limped through Parliament, vital questions about how it will be implemented will come to the fore.
There are huge implications for local councils, but also for housing associations (HAs), organisations whose character has changed fundamentally and are often both misunderstood and misrepresented.
The origins of HAs have two main roots. Some can be traced to Victorian philanthropy, others to ’60s radicalism.
Since the 1980s they’ve developed rapidly with government financial support, initially from the Thatcher government which saw them as a friendly alternative to council housing.
As well as receiving direct funding, some HAs have become bigger and richer through the transfer of 1.5 million council homes, particularly under New Labour.
This growth has produced a new culture within HAs, many of which have expanded further through mergers and acquisitions to create group structures far removed from the cosy image of local “social landlords.”
As government subsidy has decreased and HAs have become more reliant on private finance, they’ve adopted increasingly commercial practices, building more homes for the private market and diversifying into other money-making fields and speculative financial investments.
One feature of these changes has been large salaries for the bosses of HAs — now officially renamed as “registered private providers” — and a squeeze on the terms and conditions of HA workers, many of whom are not well paid considering the often stressful demands of their jobs.
There are currently six HAs where workers represented by the Unite housing workers branch are in dispute.
At Catalyst Housing, one of the G15 consortium of big, commercially oriented HAs, staff are working to rule against an employer which won’t recognise their union.
Another G15 member, Circle, has recently downgraded pay and conditions in advance of a planned merger with the Affinity Sutton group.
This would have created the biggest HA in the country, were it not for the more recent announcement of a mega-merger (involving 135,000 homes and £30 billion in assets) between London Quadrant, Hyde and East Thames.
After a successful strike in 2014, workers at St Mungos-Broadway (another merger!) are again fighting against threatened cuts and job losses.
Another HA providing vital services to vulnerable people, SHP, wants to impose new working rotas through coercing its staff to accept new contracts. Perhaps most significantly, Unite members at the government agency that regulates HAs, the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) are due to go on strike on May 19.
They’re in dispute over an average 1 per cent pay offer the HCA is seeking to impose in breach of contractual and union recognition agreements.
A vivid indication of what’s happened in the “social housing” sector is the fact that the new boss of the HCA is a “business change specialist” who previously worked for Virgin Money.
The situation at the HCA has additional significance in the context of the Housing and Planning Act.
Among the many malign aspects of the legislation, but one of the least noticed, are plans to deregulate HAs and push them further towards the model of private property developers that many of them are already aping.
The new law will allow HAs more freedom to switch from social to market housing, something they may feel compelled to do as they lose homes through the Act’s extension of the right to buy.
One of the biggest HAs, Genesis, has already said that it’s “getting out” of the social housing “business.” These changes represent a real threat to HA tenants and workers alike.
HAs have enjoyed a place in the housing policy sun for two decades. Successive governments have allowed them to become the sole providers of non-market homes under the subterfuge that they are effectively the same as local councils.
This “third way” thinking argues — as it has in relation to health, education and other public services — that who provides services doesn’t matter. The track record of HAs proves that it does. Despite their favoured funding status, HAs have failed to build enough of the homes we need, partly because they are not democratically accountable, either to their own tenants or the communities where they operate.
I used to work for an HA and I saw all these changes with my own eyes. What started as a small, independent organisation with deep roots in the local community and a genuinely social outlook became more interested in making money than meeting housing need.
When I started recruiting colleagues to the union, it was met with hostility by the self-appointed clique who sat on the board. Not long after it was swallowed up by a bigger HA and disappeared.
Such has been the fate of many others and with them has gone the idea that HAs can play a distinctive, complementary role in housing policy.
Too many people, including some in the labour movement, still harbour illusions about HAs.
But in the context of the massive threat represented by the Housing and Planning Act, HAs are not the enemy, although their attempt to make a sweetheart deal with the government at the Act’s early stage again exposed their conflict of interests.
We need to rebalance our housing policy with an emergency programme of council housebuilding and by restoring HAs to their original social purpose. But we can only do that if we kill the Bill.
- HCA picket lines will be held between 8am and 11am on Thursday May 19 as follows — London: Home Office building, 2 Marsham Street, London, SW1P 4DF (nearest Tubes: Westminster, Victoria, Pimlico); Manchester: City Tower, Piccadilly Plaza, Manchester M1 4BT.
This article by branch member Glyn Robbins appears in todays Morning Star