How the UK’s Housing Associations committed suicide just in time for Cameron’s Conference speech

If David Cameron thought he’d have a serious battle on his hands in taking on housing associations – part of his relentless war against social housing – he thought wrong.

When his election manifesto promised HA tenants the Right to Buy at a discount, it was pointed out to him that under current rules this would be illegal as HA are charities and as such cannot be forced to dispose of assets. Moreover, efforts to change the legislation would be unlikely to be passed by the Commons and even less so by the Lords.

Plan B looked a bit desperate. The Communities Secretary Greg Clarke offered a “deal” whereby instead of legislation, HA would sell “voluntarily” – but still sell to any and all tenants wishing to buy. The sector was given all of FIVE DAYS to approve the deal. Miraculously, they did – just in time to allow Cameron to crow about it at the Tory conference.

HA’s have never been known to act so quickly on anything, let alone their own death sentence. For this is what this is. In his speech the PM announced that the National Housing Federation had agreed that every housing association tenant will have the right to purchase a home with a substantial discount.

The government will compensate the housing associations for the discount – from the public purse, of course – and allow them to keep the cash to reinvest in building new homes, which will be for sale. The main supporters are the sector’s fat cats, the so-called G15 associations (not at all pompous). Most of them believe won’t feel the difference. They are already more developers than social providers, paying themselves handsome salaries.

I am old enough to remembers the beginning of the Housing Association movement in the mid-70s. It was a small, intermediate idea to allow people a choice between the free market and council renting. Known as “the third housing sector”, it was mostly made up of architects, surveyors and builders. The first home they designed, with some government grant, were, er, for themselves, and the rest were rented at sub-market rents, if still well above council rents.

HAs didn’t come into their own until the demise of council building in the 1980s. They then became the fig leaf of the Thatcher, Major and Blair governments, kept handy to cover up the dearth of social housing and the failure of the private sector to make up the numbers. At the same time, “social housing” evolved into “affordable housing”, a wonderfully vague term which was never defined and hardly ever affordable.

During this period the bigger associations became increasingly like private landlords. Their behaviour was often so bad that a special Housing Ombudsman had to be appointed to protect tenants and neigbours. Not very idealistic, but salaries in the sector ballooned and several CEO now get paid twice or more Ministers’ salaries.

Today’s David Cameron needs no fig leaves. Blue in tooth and claw, he has decided to privatise the housing associations and must be delighted that they have embraced his “deal” without a fight and will now go like lambs to the slaughter.

Once the small amount of dust has settled, the “third housing sector” will be no more. Associations will battle it out with developers, and most will lose – especially as their main source of dependency, Section 106 Planning requirements for social housing, are also being abolished.

Out in the Tory world, it will be Buy or Die. Put your life savings into a shoebox-sized “Cameron starter home” or move into a real shoebox in middle o’troad, Monty Python style. Whichever you opt for, the government won’t give a fig leaf. Just ask IDS.

There is one epilog here.

I will have no regrets as HA’s cease to be. I just hope that, as they abandon the very people they were meant to look after, their featherbedded leaders who accepted the chop on their behalf quickly and quietly do not cry all the way to the bank.

Martin Wicks, a council tenant and union activist from Swindon, said: “NHF chief David Orr surely deserves a knighthood or a seat in the house of lords for his crucial contribution in facilitating the destruction of ‘social housing’.”

Fellow housing activist Phil Campbell said: “This may be good for the NHF, but not for the homeless,  people who can’t afford to buy their own home, and private tenants who get nothing.

“David Orr has protected the housing associations who pay his wages but stabbed the rest of the housing sector in the back.”


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