SOCIAL HOUSING - A PERSONAL VIEW


 

After a career in property investment in the City and general practice surveying I started a new job in social housing in the 1980's collecting rents over a counter and worked my way up over 25 years to managing the estate services and staffing for 3000 units in Upper Holloway. Eventually I called it a day, feeling that social housing had lost it's way, as successive governments wanted control, rather than leaving this important provision in the hands of local authorities. This is my brief analysis as to what went wrong and how there is still time to change it.

The Government has just realised that restricting the housing supply by not building local authority dwellings is inflationary and accordingly contributed to property price rises. It has taken 28 years to realise that selling off Council homes and not building more is not a good idea. It is one of the biggest privatisations.

In the 70's there was a fantastic legacy of council housing as a result of pre and post war building. Had this been maintained and council ownership expanded, what an amazing help it would have been to social services. By providing the basic need of secure housing it would have taken pressure off other services leading to greater well being and generally overall more wealth as persons would have more money to spend, rather than on high rents and mortgages. From 1980 council tenants had a right to buy their home, but councils were prohibited from using this money to build new homes.

As it is, apart from those who are fortunate enough to have a council tenancy (by whatever route - homeless, waiting list, vulnerable or succession) or other affordable tenancies or homes, housing goes to those who have the most money either to rent or to buy. Consequently the “have's”, have more and the “have not'”, are stuck thinking how they can either get on the property ladder or find some affordable way of leaving home and starting on their own. However those wealthy enough or are already with an affordable property are ok.

Had social housing been sustained and developed, access to housing would have been available to more on lower incomes, effectively reducing the income divide by allowing more money to be spent on other things. Under the council housing allocation system all council housing eventually returns to the council as persons die and/or succession runs out ensuring the pot of available council properties remains at least constant. Had council building continued, this country would have continued to provide a good supply of affordable housing like no other with people happier, wealthier and more contented.

Instead we have stagnation whereby it is hard to find an affordable dwelling. This leads to all sorts of ingenious schemes and incentives. For example; so that persons can qualify for a mortgage based on income, they can part own and part rent a dwelling but still large amounts of income goes on their housing and they can own as little as 10 per cent. The rental market has alarmingly high rents due to shortage of supply as affordable housing declines in proportion to need.

After two decades of incentives of trying to lure council tenants away from council ownership the government played a powerful card; on condition management boards are set up to run local authority housing grants will be available for new kitchens and bathrooms. Councils, seeing no other way of securing funds (or not wishing to be in bad light) set up the ALMO's (Arms Length Management Organisations) and quickly found themselves under scrutiny where the Government could interfere further with the running of the housing organisation. The Government via the Audit Commission and a body of inspectors rate the ALMO's on their performance. So they still might not get the money if they do not do as the government wish.

To tighten the noose the government brought in the decent homes standard putting more pressure on local authorities but not giving access to funds, unless they became an ALMO!

All this was put forward on one premise and that is the success of social housing was an embarrassment to the Government. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly they believed that the private market would provide. But how could it? Housing Associations are one way, but self controlled they have their own rules and regulations and can only be regulated by grants and favourable loans. Local authority tenants prefer their council and view Housing Associations as a lesser secure option. Housing Associations generally provide housing for specialist areas of need and do a good job but could not be part of a nationwide plan as the government may have hoped.

Secondly the government is worried by subsidised rents preferring to issue benefit by housing and council tax benefit for which they give local authorities a subsidy provided of course they do everything correctly! The complete dismantling of local authority housing would have given them the control they wanted but this has not happened.

Is it to late to save council housing? I think not if we get back to basics and put the provision of affordable housing in the hands of local authorities who are experts in this, whether or not the government find it embarrassing.

The debate on globle warming, immigration, terror and knife attacks may have made politicians sit up and think about reality rather than politics, as we see both the major parties taking a more socially conscious view about housing.

I look forward with a degree hope but it is sad that it had to come about as a result of past failures when much damage has been done. As the parties continue to align with each other, they dig deep to find something new. They continue to make the same mistakes, as they should be looking to develop a safer and more just society rather than looking for political initiatives.

Let them be judged on their good decisions rather than trying to score points over their rivals One way to do this would be to scrap ALMO's forthwith and return social housing to be directly managed by local authorities and build more homes.

Roger Hayman   November 2007

Update January 2010

So what has happened since then? Not a lot. To be fair the Local Authority Housing Departments have done well. They went along with the setting up of ALMO's and secured money to improve their service. They tried as best they could preserve their identities with no fancy names and all were either called (the council name) Homes or Homes for the (the council name). Council tenants realised that they were still dealing with the same outfit but were impressed with a better service, although some complained that they did not need a glossy magazine as money could be better spent.

If the setting up of management companies was needed to make Housing departments sit up and smell the coffee then who can say that the exercise was not worth it. A word of caution ....... fine if it ends there. The urge to tamper with social housing is strong as it is successful and governments would like to see it as a profitable organisation in private hands so they can tax it and effectively make money out of it. Also the responsibility could be off loaded taking this powerful resource out of public hands and losing a powerful political tool. Depoliticising local authorities is clearly to the government's advantage as they prefer central regulation (benefits, grants and watchdogs - eg Ofhouse perhaps!) to local control.

Whilst all is quiet at the moment a future change of government may see the housing football kicked back into the arena when a piece of legislation may require Authorities to put their ALMO's out to tender. The alternative is to let the ALMO's remain as an ugly embarrassment that serve no function but to just be there and really get in the way of a unified Local Authority structure.The ALMO's should be scrapped. Keep the names and their more modern image (glossy magazines and all). Keep the aims and standards. Keep the board but call it something else and give it only advisory status. Merge the management back to the local authorities. That's easy, just delete the word ALMO.