Some dodgy exempt-accommodation providers have achieved housing-association status, says Ashley Horsey. The National Housing Federation is tightening its membership rules in response. But is the sector doing enough?
After 32 years in the sector, I feel there is something special and important about the role housing associations play: the ability – some might even say the obligation – to be innovative and additional in supporting local authorities up and down the country, which have the legal and statutory duty to house those in housing need.
Once thought of as a housing movement, some in the housing association sector sadly feel we have lost our way at times over the intervening three decades. We have perhaps believed the hype that we can do it all; or too willingly accepted from various governments the hot potato of being a political tool to beat local democracy and undermine local authorities.
“I am increasingly dismayed that, for some, the value of the housing association badge is a passport to avoiding regulation, a mere licence to print money operating under a business model that can deliver cash in abundance, but quality in scarcity”
But why this nostalgic rant from someone who, if they were anyone, is definitely yesterday’s man? It goes back to what I said at the start: I was and I am proud to have spent my career in the housing association movement. I think the housing association badge is important and means something – if nothing else, a determined drive to do good and house people in the best possible way.
I am therefore increasingly dismayed that, for some, the value of the housing association badge is not a sense of personal or organisational commitment, but actually a passport to avoiding regulation, an exemption from certain rules and requirements; a mere licence to print money operating under a business model that can deliver cash in abundance, but quality in scarcity.
This is most egregiously exploited in the scourge of the non-commissioned exempt-accommodation sector.
In many areas where there is a real problem with exempt accommodation, within the typically convoluted system of private landlords, investment funds, leases, sub-leases, management agreements and service contracts, a registered provider (RP) is involved at some point. An RP is a social housing organisation that is likely to be carrying the much-valued housing association badge. A quick flash to the housing benefit department can open up huge rent far above market, and certainly mainstream social rent, levels that is justified by a vague notion of providing something more than minimal care or support.
“I am delighted that the housing association trade body, the National Housing Federation (NHF), has this month come out with a renewed stricter policy on membership for those delivering exempt accommodation”
There are already strenuous efforts under way across the country, especially in cities such as Birmingham, which are at the epicentre of this activity. The city council, the voluntary sector and good providers are looking to improve standards, encouraging organisations to learn, to improve delivery and meet the needs of residents and local communities.
Local councillors and an increasing number of MPs are raising the effects of non-commissioned exempt accommodation in town halls and parliament.
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has put up money for pilot projects. This is very welcome and we await the results with anticipation. The Regulator of Social Housing has been determined to use its limited powers to make things better, and is gearing up to be even more proactive as its role in consumer standards develops.
“There is a risk wholesale changes to supported housing funding could upset a whole range of important, well-run and absolutely much-needed supported housing schemes”
National charities are using their megaphones to highlight the issue, which is brilliant, of course, and something we are keen to ramp up ourselves in the battle to crack down on dodgy providers.
Commonweal will host a series of open webinars in September to explore different aspects of the issue.
I am therefore delighted that the housing association trade body, the National Housing Federation (NHF), has this month come out with a renewed stricter policy on membership for those delivering exempt accommodation. Recent articles in Inside Housing from Kate Henderson and Diana Warwick go some way to recovering the value of the badge.
With the exempt-accommodation sector shamed by too much sub-standard accommodation, exploitation and even organised crime at its extremes, conventional wisdom would suggest that the trade body of the sector would be a vocal ally in the fight for a fairer, better system. It is great that they are now making that stance public.
Some of the poor exempt-accommodation performers have access to that much-esteemed housing association badge. They have secured registered provider status and the RSH regulation that comes with it, but also membership of the NHF – another prized and valuable badge.
I know that wholesale changes to supported housing funding – a very real sledgehammer that could be deployed to crack the exempt-accommodation nut – would be difficult and could risk upsetting a whole range of important, well-run and absolutely much-needed supported housing schemes.
Therefore, it is good to see the Fed, the RSH and others using existing and emerging powers to improve, not abolish, the exempt-accommodation sector. I hope the vast majority of the NHF’s members, those that are as proud as I am of what it means to operate as a housing association, will support this new stance. They should, for it is they that are at risk of being tainted by those abusing this great badge of honour.