I have been listening to the news from Greece where an anti-austerity party has won a great victory by challenging the status quo and giving hope to those who were suffering the most from an economic strategy that penalises the many for the mistakes of the few. I can’t help but compare the situation to the UK where all but one of the political parties squabble over the neo liberal middle ground and offer no real economic or political alternative to austerity. Already the Greek government are rolling back the anti-austerity measures and showing there is another way. As the situation develops the bankers and financiers are beginning a fight back to protect their interests and put pressure upon the stock market and elsewhere. I wonder where it will end? Some of us are old enough to remember what happened to Allende in Chile in 1973.
Back in the UK, we in the social housing sector appear to have accepted this politics of despair without question, even though it attacks the very roots of our sector and the people for whom we provide homes. Further evidence of the damage being done was highlighted recently by the Institute of Housing and my old boss John Perry who predicted that by the end of the year 120000 social homes would be lost through conversion to much higher rents and the Right to Buy. This is the equivalent of 10 large housing association closing down. I began to imagine the effects of this and the response it would provoke. In my naiveté I expected an angry reaction from our housing leaders at the loss of so many homes at a time when the need for them grows daily. Apart from a small number of exceptions, the silence was deafening.
I believe that those who have the privilege of leading housing associations as executives or non executives are merely stewards. As stewards they are keepers of the values and assets of their organisations. They have a duty to preserve and protect them for future generations. Some are clearly failing to do this. I often wonder if the legacy of this generation of leaders will be that they presided over the slow death of social housing and did nothing? My twitter feed is full of chief executives telling me that the majority still believe in the true values of social housing. I have no reason to doubt this. But If it is true, surely it is now time for them to raise their voices as one and SHOUT out to protect what we have and to campaign for proper investment in social housing.
Many in the sector are strangely silent on the issue as if they are ashamed of our main product and not concerned about its loss. As far as I am aware the subject is not on the agenda for the Leadership Conference or The Board Members Conference. I remember a National Housing Federation Conference in the 1980s where the final morning session was taken over by a group of women because the leaders of the time would not allow a debate on race and diversity. I supported the motion to allow the debate. Much to the disquiet of the then Chair of the NHF who also happened to be my boss. I am not suggesting that it is appropriate today to storm the platform of the Leadership Conference or the Board Members Conference. I am saying that all those who truly believe in the values of social housing and want to protect it from further attack should be lobbying our sector’s leaders to ensure that it is debated at every conference as a matter of urgency in the next 12 months.
I am proud to be a member of The SHOUT Campaign as I believe that it gives the only true anti-austerity message in the sector and provides hope for those in need. We argue that even in the current economic climate it is possible to borrow to invest in social housing by providing higher grants to housing associations and allowing local authorities to fully utilise their borrowing capacity. I would go further and add that if borrowing is beyond the pale for future governments they could be really radical and use quantitive easing. If the process was good enough to bail out the banks surely it would be better to use it to invest in our children’s future.
I have been asked many times if I am a supporter of the Homes for Britain campaign as well as SHOUT. I believe that like all umbrella campaigns it has its faults. It tries to be all things to all people and doesn’t make the case for investing in social housing strongly enough. However before the General Election in May it is the only national campaign that is calling for an increase in the supply of housing. For that reason I am a supporter. How could I be otherwise? I have supported the National Housing Federation in almost all that it has done for the last 40 years.
I urge all of you who believe in social housing to join SHOUT and add your voice to the Homes for Britain Campaign. To give it the cutting edge it lacks and to ensure that the message that “you can’t solve the housing crisis, in a generation” without substantial public investment in social housing” is heard by all.
As I listened to the news from Greece I heard a Greek politician who is now the Finance Minister explain the result by quoting Dylan Thomas. He said that the Greek people had seen that austerity was killing off all hope and opportunity and they had decided to fight back. Dylan Thomas had captured the moment in a poem written about the death of his father,
“Do not go gentle into that good night, … Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
It seems to me that the flame of social housing is being gradually extinguished and we who truly believe in its values should not only be SHOUTing but also raging against the dying of its light.