I was pleased to see so many people marching against the Housing and Planning Bill recently in London and Nottingham. There was a time when housing associations would have been leading such a protest. Sadly no more. No doubt there were individuals from associations involved, but as a sector we remain conspicuous in our absence from the anti-Housing and Planning Bill debate.
Some of my colleagues from SHOUT were marching. I could not be with them as I was sharing a platform with mountaineer Sir Chris Bonington at the conference of The Outward Bound Trust
I discovered he is a strong supporter of social housing and a critic of the Right the Buy. Like many, he could not understand why housing associations have accepted it without a struggle, when there is so much evidence of the damage it has done to social housing and will continue to do in future.
I still ask the same question, even though I am reminded constantly in the housing press that housing associations have to accept the reality of working with this government as there is no alternative. I find it strange that we should want to work with a government which, in the view of almost all other housing experts, is determined to kill off social housing and inflict further financial hardship on many of its tenants and residents.
We are told that, despite this, the future is positive and that we must own it – whatever that means?
I have no doubt there will be a golden future for some housing associations in the new world. Sadly the future is not so bright for the many who suffer under the relentless onslaught of government policies. The very same people who used to look to housing associations for help and support.
The news recently has been full of evidence that for them the future is looking even bleaker. The levels of homelessness are rising, something I experience daily as chair of an Emmaus Community. This is a result of the lack of social housing and the government’s attack upon welfare benefits. Recent reports also show that inequality and poverty is increasing and that those who live in social housing are suffering the most from the welfare cuts. I witness this as a board member of Plus Dane.
In addition, the Chartered Institute of Housing has estimated that by 2020 there will be a net loss of over 370,000 social rent homes. Almost all housing commentators believe that this haemorrhage will eventually lead to the death of social housing, unless it is stopped. And what are housing associations doing to stem this bleed out? The answer is very little. We are told that innovation will provide the answer and a transfusion of new blood in the form of ‘sub-market’ rent homes. I see no sign that this is happening. There is little evidence that sufficient social homes are being built to replace the net loss, let alone increase the supply of homes that people on low incomes can afford.
In my 40 years of working in social housing, I have been involved in some of the most innovative funding and development schemes. None has provided the scale of replacement and additional new homes that are required today. I challenge those who claim that it is the answer to produce the evidence that it is happening.
Even the business model upon which most place their hopes is at risk. As Inside Housing reported recently, there are signs that the London housing market is softening. As some of us predicted, housing associations could soon be dealing with this threat rather than increasing supply. It will undermine the model which seeks to fund low-rent schemes with profits from sales and markets rents. Remember that during the last crash some housing associations had to be bailed out by the Homes and Communities Agency and others. That option no longer exists.
I no longer fear for the future of housing associations. The traditional business model is such that it is almost impossible to fail. Most will survive. I fear for those who were once the focus of our work, for whom we provided homes, hope and so much more. I ask again, who will provide this for people on low and no incomes in future?
I hope that I am wrong and that David Orr is correct when he says “it will still be housing associations”. I fear that this is looking increasingly unlikely, unless there is a change in approach by the government and housing associations. I predict that in future more people will be taking to the streets as the housing crisis deepens. Maybe then some housing associations will join them.