Housing associations must take on their critics, says Barbara Thorndick
This year sees the 20th anniversary of the creation of the first stock transfer housing association, Chiltern Hundreds, which is now part of the Paradigm Group.
Because we're worth it
West Kent Housing Association’s 20th birthday will be in March next year and we intend to celebrate.
Not everybody will join me in such celebrations, though. Indeed, some politicians seem to have become openly hostile towards housing associations and I’m concerned to know why. Housing associations are a success story. We have a long, proud history, starting with almshouses for the elderly and ‘deserving’ poor. In the 19th century, wealthy benefactors such as George Peabody and Samuel Lewis responded to the appalling housing conditions in newly industrialised London by setting up housing trusts. Enlightened employers such as Joseph Rowntree built decent homes for their workforces.
In the 20th century, the plight of homeless people was recognised by the whole country after the groundbreaking docu-drama Cathy Come Home featured on TV. As a result, the newly formed campaign charity Shelter received a huge boost to funds, which helped it assist a number of new housing associations get off the ground.
It was two pieces of radical legislation, though, that really moved us from being bit players to the centre stage. The 1974 Housing Act changed the role of the Housing Corporation and made it the vehicle through which central government could channel funds directly to housing associations for new development. The 1988 Housing Act set us up as ‘private sector’ organisations, enabling us to borrow money from banks and for it not to be counted against the public sector borrowing requirement.
The 1988 act not only enabled existing housing associations to develop more new housing for less public money, it also paved the way for stock transfer by allowing councils to sell their stock to newly formed housing associations, who could raise enough private money to not only give the council a capital receipt, but also to pay for much-needed repairs and improvements.
Seemingly a win-win and, what is more, both acts had cross-party support. Labour passed the 1974 act and the Conservatives the 1988 act, but when governments changed, these were built on by subsequent legislation and not repealed.
Today, just over half of social housing is owned by housing associations and we undertake practically all new development. So is this more dominant position the reason why we have become ‘fair game’? I don’t know the answer, so I’m taking the time to ask my local MPs and the local authorities with whom we work what they think and how we can better serve the community. As chair of the PlaceShapers Group of housing associations, I have asked the other 50 members if they will do the same. The results of these discussions will be published on our website, www. placeshapers.org, later this year.
I suspect part of the problem is our unusual status. We work closely with public sector bodies to help deliver on their agendas but we are not the public sector and cannot be directed or controlled as though we are.
We have private sector status in terms of how we can raise finance, but our ethos is not private sector, we are all non-profit making and many of us are charities.
Despite unfortunate headlines about chief executive salaries, the housing association world is crammed full of people who care deeply about what we do. We want to tackle homelessness, inequality and social injustice and provide decent quality homes. So can we answer our critics? I think we can.
Yes, there was a ‘golden age’ of council house building and it occurred when it was most needed after the devastation of World War II. Will the current housing crisis be solved by a return to a second ‘golden age’ of council house building? I think not. Should local authorities be able to keep their capital receipts from right to buy sales and any surplus on their housing revenue accounts to carry out repairs and some new development? Yes, why not.
But you cannot turn back the clock – my view is that this country has a highly successful model that works. It is flexible, innovative and cost-effective to the public purse. Of course housing associations can improve on what they deliver and become more accountable and responsive to residents and partners.
Many of us are working hard on exactly these issues. And whatever happens, we cannot afford to ignore political opinion: our successful growth was created by legislation that received cross-party support. If we lose that support it is bound to impact negatively on our tenants – and that is what should matter to us most. Housing associations have come of age and I for one hope that our local politicians will celebrate with us and come to our 20th birthday party next year.
Barbara Thorndick is chief executive of West Kent Housing Association