There is much that Red Brick would criticise about housing associations – their acceptance of higher (‘affordable’) rents and low grant rates would come top of the list. But the sweeping attack they have been subjected to this week is really an attack on social housing as a whole.
The pieces in the Spectator and The Times both launch into the inflated salaries which are paid to some of the sector’s chief executives, and Red Brick is certainly not going to defend those (although notes in passing that public and social sector salaries get far more scrutiny than those in private firms). But the Spectator in particular accuses associations of being the main cause of our housing problems: that compared to the private sector they are failing to build, they are over-provided with grant and even so are building more expensively than private developers. In short, it is associations, not the private sector or the government, who have ‘no answer’ to the housing crisis.
Inside Housing has already done a fact check of the Spectator piece and there is no need here to list all the things it gets wrong. Apart from their misuse of statistics, the magazine’s language in deriding social housing is what stands out. Housing associations are supposedly ‘managing the remnants of social housing left behind after Mrs Thatcher’. Their stock is really ‘a pile of ex-council houses given to them on a plate and which were once managed by a clerk of works and a team of rent-collectors on no more than £30,000 a year’. As well as being based on a fundamental misunderstanding about where housing association stock comes from (only around half is from transfers), the Spectator clearly has an even lower opinion of council housing than it does of associations.
Let’s be clear that these attacks are all part of a softening up process in which social housing is recast as a contributor to the housing crisis rather than part of its solution. Why throw more money at housing associations when they are incompetent in comparison with the private sector? Why maintain council housing when both the people who run it and those living in it are beneath contempt? In the world inhabited by those who write for the Spectator and The Times, it’s assumed that all sensible people want to be home owners, and social housing is just getting in their way. Sell it off as quickly as possible and perhaps the stalled growth in owner-occupation, which is the real housing problem the country is facing, will be put back on track.
In quick succession the government has presented us with the breaking of a ‘ten-year’ commitment on social housing rents, a simultaneous breach of the three-year old settlement of council housing finances, the extension of right to buy to associations, enforced sales of high-value council houses, a plan to penalise tenants on modestly decent salaries if they don’t move out, and yet another threat to secure tenancies.
Insiders are making clear (if it wasn’t in any case obvious) that this is all part of a deliberate plan. This government is only interested in home ownership and doesn’t give a stuff about tenants, whichever sector they are in. Within this overall perspective, its attitude to housing associations is not unlike its approach to the BBC: like the Corporation, associations are difficult to get rid of, but by cutting their income and having them ridiculed in the right-wing press we can persuade them to sing from our song sheet, or else… . The message is: kick up a fuss about right to buy, especially if you challenge the legislation in the courts, and you’ll see what happens next. Already the DCLG has been told to reappraise its spending programmes to concentrate far more on promoting home ownership: how long before there is an announcement that the Affordable Homes Programme’s rental output is to be suspended?
Even this government will find it difficult to eradicate social housing by 2020, but we can already see that what happened to council housing in the 1980s is being dished up again, with a few differences, for what the Spectator calls the ‘remnants’ of the sector. Investment cuts, enforced sales, jeopardised business plans, falling credit ratings and – of course – lampooning of chief executives, are all on the menu. People who live in social housing will be branded even more as failures than they have been so far and, of course, by implication those who work in the sector (the ‘clerks’ and ‘rent collectors’) will be seen as losers too. How soon before Cameron dusts off the plans he started to form under the coalition, to reintroduce the disastrous and totally ineffective ‘compulsory competitive tendering’ for housing management that Margaret Thatcher tried and failed to implement?
This week it was confirmed that, because of his new policies, the Chancellor is faced with the threat that housing association borrowing might be brought into the public sector. Having £60 billion added to the national debt will be mightily inconvenient. But, if it happens, won’t the quid pro quo be even more severe attacks on housing associations? Won’t they get the blame (rather than Osborne) for having the temerity to disrupt the government’s ‘long-term economic plan,’ and be made to pay the price for their insouciance?