My most recent blog proved to be one of my most viewed and commented upon. I know that boxing is a controversial subject but I suspect that it was my call to unify housing awards that stimulated the interest and debate. I was pleased to see that many supported the proposal. Of course most people recognised the need to celebrate collective and individual success but many felt it could be done in a better and cheaper way. Especially as a housing award in currently advertising a table for 10 at £3000. Some argued for the retention of specialist awards and I support this. In the current climate there is a place for tenant awards and for those recognising the contribution of women.
One of the most interesting and perhaps the most controversial comment was from a housing chief executive who suggested that we go even further and merge all of the trade and professional bodies representing social housing in England. This was music to my ears. It is something that I proposed some years ago. I think the arguments for it are stronger now than ever.
There are a number of trade and professional bodies in the social housing sector and they all claim to represent a specific interest group. I have been involved in many of them in my career. There was recently a call for them to present a united housing manifesto for the general election similar to the “Homes for Britain” campaign.
However, if you study the individual manifestos from our housing bodies you will see some differences. Most recognise that government intervention and investment in social housing is required and call for it to be made via local authorities and housing associations. All of the parties seem to be responding positively to this. Strangely, the only one that doesn’t mention this appears to be The National Housing Federation which calls for the deregulation of housing associations to allow them to solve the housing crisis. Some would argue that the proposal to allow housing associations to set their own rents to fund new development is wrong and potentially dangerous. It is interesting to note that one of the Conservative proposals in the general election campaign is to cap prices in utilities that have only increased since they were deregulated and privatised some years ago.
It is possible to explain these differences by the makeup of our trade and professional bodies. The Chartered Institute of Housing and National Federation of Almos for example are made up of housing professionals who are often front line staff and in the case of the NFA many tenants. These people understand the extent of the housing crisis and the way it impacts tenants and residents. The NHF is dominated by large housing associations and their leaders some of whom see their main role as promoting their organisations and not the people they were set up to serve.
So how would it benefit the housing sector if our trade and professional bodies merged? The normal case for a merger applies. A united trade and professional body would be more efficient and cheaper to run. Where there is now duplication in research, promotion, lobbying and other back office functions there would only be a need for one of each, bringing together the best talent from existing organisations. There would only be one leader instead of many. And most importantly of all a united trade body could speak with one voice. A voice that would hopefully recognise the needs of the whole housing sector and its tenants.
I am sure many will say that this is a step too far and that we need to recognise the different roles that each individual body plays. Some will say that, even if it desirable, it would be too difficult to achieve. These arguments were once made about housing association mergers which are now commonplace. Other sectors have only one trade body. What is so special about social housing that it need more?
I have been involved in many mergers in the past and once brought together 13 separate organisations into one. The main key to success is recognising the true values of the existing organisations and ensuring this golden thread continues into the new body. Another is to ignore the egos of those involved. I know this might be difficult with some of our existing housing leaders. However, if we can do this anything is possible. And you never know we might finish up with a united trade and professional body that is proud to talk about and promote social housing again both to the sector itself and the wider world.