The only subject on everyone’s lips at Housing 2016, the CIH conference and exhibition, has been Brexit and its implications. Most agreed that the campaign opened a box of anti-immigration rhetoric and racism which had remained dormant for many years.
Some had attended a session where the Daily Mail’s Isabel Oakeshott completely misjudged her audience when she denied that her paper had helped to legitimise racism and had no response when many referred to headlines that showed it had.
She also admitted that even though she had supported Brexit, she was surprised politicians had no plan now they had won the vote. I am told she did not seem that concerned about the financial, political and social crisis that it will cause.
In the afternoon, I met my new chair who talked about his fears for public order and the breakdown of community cohesion.
I explained to him the potential threats for housing associations which I had discussed in the morning with the chair of the Homes and Communities Agency’s Regulatory Committee, Julian Ashby. He suggested associations were better placed to face these threats as most had been stress-testing for this, and that he expected them to have contingency plans in place.
I began to wonder if associations had considered the threat to community cohesion in these plans. This was becoming the common theme of the day. People were fearful about the increase in racism, the threat of public disorder and the breakdown of community cohesion.
Later in the day, I had a discussion with the ex-chief executive of a very large association. She explained her concern that the potential breakdown of community cohesion was happening at the same time as associations were investing less in community initiatives.
She argued the sector should be challenging the regulator on its view of value for money. It should be recognised that community investment is justified and added value, especially in the current climate. Housing associations should be encouraged to continue to play the ‘anchor’ role in communities.“If we don’t, who will?” she asked.
As I left the hall, I was greeted by a demonstration in support of social housing. I talked to one of the demonstrators. He felt that housing associations had abandoned the poor and the homeless in favour of more lucrative developments and markets, and warned more protests would happen. He said with some sadness that housing associations were seen once as their friend, but now some were regarded as part of the enemy.
As I reflected on my day, I was left in no doubt that what the referendum had done was to expose faults in society that had been festering for some time.
Unless we recognise this and the potential threat to community cohesion in our work, the threat to public order will grow. One of the biggest demands from many who voted to leave was a home that they and their families could afford.
Yet new figures on current build shows the lowest number of social rent homes ever. We cannot allow this to continue. Social unrest has happened more than once in my lifetime. It could happen again.
This article first appeared in Inside Housing on 30th June 2016