Posted by: Jules Birch12/12/2010
Where exactly does localism fit with concentrating even more development in the hands of the largest housing associations?
The trend away from locally-based housing associations and local authorities was already pretty much inexorable but, only days before the government launches its Decentralisation and Localism Bill and its drive to restore power to local communities, we might have expected some sort of retreat from it.
Instead, according to today’s Inside Housing, the process is apparently to be accelerated through a new Homes and Communities Agency Funding regime that will allow associations to bid for the development of an agreed number of homes over the next four years rather than scheme by scheme.
I say apparently given that the HCA has not yet published details of the new bidding process and denies that the intention is to restrict bidding to a handful of landlords. However, that has not stopped fears about the future of smaller developing associations who must already be wondering whether they want to take part in the new era of ‘affordable’ rent.
With only £1.9bn of development funding to play with, there are good arguments for concentrating both grant and the new funding from ‘affordable’ rents in the hands of the largest players to maximise the number of new homes.
But when you measure that against the declared aims of localism it does not quite compute.
Here’s how James Morris, Conservative MP and former chief executive of the Localis think-tank, sees it as a reaction to an inexorable march to centralisation over the last few years. ‘Indeed, I would argue that this long march of centralisation has been one of the main causes of the problems that have manifested themselves over the last two decades – the collapse of trust in politics and the effectiveness of political decision making; the ineffective way in which central government has handled the management of public services and the general sense within local communities that political decision making has become remote from the grass-roots of social life. These forces also had the affect of snuffing out the culture of volunteering, of mutuality and sense of community which had previously been characteristic of many local areas.’
And Philip Blond, the Tory guru behind the big society, was quick to point out the housing contradiction in a report for the Respublica think-tank last month.
To Buy, to Bid, to Build, co-written with Steve Wyler, called for a radical transfer of assets from the public sector to the community. The launch was attended by Greg Clark, one of the key ministers involved in drawing up the Localism Bill.
Blond and Wyler argue that the introduction of state finance in the 1970s and leveraged private finance in the late 1980s ‘led to a consolidation of the housing association sector into fewer, larger management units, and a gradual separation between housing development and community
development. In effect, the housing associations that came to dominate the market became accountable in the first instance to their investors and regulators, and on a secondary level to their tenants – but no longer to the local community. The result: housing as a community asset was lost.’
Attempts have been made to redress the situation, they say, though community-owned housing schemes and community land trust initiatives, but ‘despite considerable energy being expended, these efforts have to date remained relatively marginal, and the consolidation of the existing
housing association movement has continued, with recent changes in housing finance threatening to increase further the pressure on associations to focus resources towards mainstream housing rather than community development. Although some do run exemplary community benefit initiatives, many housing associations have become remote from the communities they serve, in terms of ownership and control.’
The big chance, as they put it, for community-owned housing ‘to move from the margins to the mainstream’ is Monday’s Bill. Ironically, of course, many of the big associations have their roots in ‘big society’-style philanthropy and community action.
We know that it will include legislation on local housing trusts - but no additional money. It’s going to take a lot more than warm words to deliver real localism in housing.
From Inside edge
Housing commentator Jules Birch puts the latest news in context