Keepers of the Flame 

Autumn is often a time for board away days. That time of the year when non executives and executives get together to refresh and renew business strategy. It is also a time to confirm the vision and values of an organisation. In the housing association world there is never been a more important time to do this. The political economic and social climate is testing the values of housing associations in a way that I have not witnessed in my long career in the sector. We will need new strategies and new ways of working to overcome these challenges, but if we are to continue our role of providing low cost rented homes for those in the greatest need our values and purpose must remain steadfast.

A recent survey in Inside Housing revealed that 32% of housing associations would no longer be building social or even affordable homes in future. I predicted this when Neil Hadden made his infamous statement recently. My first reaction to the survey was to ask whether association boards had confirmed this change in purpose. Such decisions must be made at board level and not based upon the whim of a chief executive. I have not seen the detail but I presume that 32% is a large proportion of housing associations in terms of homes in ownership. I would imagine also that it is made up of a majority of those who voted in favour of the “voluntary” deal on the Right to Buy Extension.

Following the publication of the Housing Bill, I wonder if any housing associations will now revisit their decision to support the “voluntary” deal. My Mam used to tell me never to buy a pig in a poke. That is exactly what we have done. The deal is not voluntary as it will be enforced by the regulator. There is no guarantee that money will be made available to compensate for the loss of social homes. There is already talk of rationing funding. Even if it is made available finance will come in the form of a grant with strings attached. Given the governments obsession with home ownership it is highly likely that grant will be conditional upon building homes to buy. If Inside Housing is correct 32% of housing associations have said already that this is what they will do. And of course local authorities will have to sell off social housing to pay for the deal. By any definition the Housing Bill shows that the deal is a bad one for those organisations who still support the provision of social housing and for those on low incomes who will need it in future

Most housing associations claim that they had no choice but to accept the “voluntary” deal. Some hope that the reward for support will be the deregulation of the sector. There is only one sentence on this in the Housing Bill and it is not clear what the government intend to do. Policy Exchange and some housing associations have been campaigning for independence for some time with the support of the National Housing Federation (NHF). A previous chief executive of the NHF used to say to those seeking deregulation and independence in the past, “for what purpose?” If deregulation is introduced, it places a greater responsibility upon boards to define their role and values. If the 68% of housing associations who still support the provision of social housing truly believe that is their role in future, they should say so clearly and think carefully before signing up to the government’s ideologically driven agenda. Those that do sign up will be seen by many potential allies as being delivery agents for the government’s ownership crusade.

It is good that 68% say that they still support the provision of social housing and I am pleased that they are making their voices heard. I am equally impressed that a few chief executives of the largest associations have declared openly that it will still feature in their work. I find that there is a strong correlation between the chief executives that do this and a real understanding of the values of social housing. However it is not solely the responsibility of the chief executive to be the “keeper of the flame” of our social values. As stewards of the long term purpose of housing associations it is one of the board’s main roles. In this season of away days there has never been a more important time for trustees and non-executives to ensure that this flame still burns brightly, in order to pass it on to the next generation.

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