What lazy consensus?

By Tom Murtha - on 25/06/2012

HACT's Chairman Tom Murtha provides a critique of the prevailing view of Westminster Housing Minister Grant Shapps in Welsh Hosuing Quarterly.

For my recent presentation to the TAI 2012 conference, I researched the current housing position in Wales. I was pleased to find that your Housing Minister appears to be developing, in consultation with your sector, a real housing strategy which has clear objectives and dare I say it, targets.

We in England have a Minister and a Government which has no strategy or vision and governs by a series of dictats and initiatives, the latest of which called Pay to Stay will prevent our sector developing the mixed vibrant communities which inspired Bevan in his post-war housing strategy. For the sake of a few thousand extra lettings, which might be created by introducing a maximum earnings cap, the opportunity to create a ‘rich tapestry’ in our communities is reduced. More worryingly, the chances of social housing communities becoming ghettos of residual housing increases.

This latest in a series of initiatives comes at a time when a report produced by Shelter, CIH and the National Housing Federation shows that the Government’s housing policies are failing to mend Britain’s broken housing market. The Minister’s response to this evidence-based report is to deny and to criticise. What concerns me most is that each of the Minister’s new initiatives are barbed with negative comments about the housing sector and its customers. His latest article in Inside Housing again used the term ‘a lazy consensus’ to describe the sector. This was the title for the session I shared with Philip Bond at TAI 2012. In my presentation I challenged the Minister’s attempts to demonise the sector. Of course, I accept his right to challenge complacency if it exists, but I believe that it is not acceptable to continue to criticise, and more importantly, it is factually incorrect to do so.

I believe that the social housing sector continues to thrive in an increasingly difficult climate because it is able to innovate and change to overcome the many challenges that we have faced in recent years.

We are the most successful example of social enterprises in Europe and we have raised billions of pounds to fund new homes based upon the strength of our businesses. We are a source for good in our communities and I would argue that in many cases we have saved our inner cities. The evidence for this can be found in almost all housing associations, both in England and in Wales.

Until recently I had the privilege of leading Midland Heart, one of the largest housing and care organisations in England. Through merger and transformation, Midland Heart, with its customers, created a business that was both an operational and a financial success which delivered excellent services for its customers in the height of a recession. This success created direct customer involvement, which lead to more than 15% of residents being directly involved in creating and monitoring day-to-day services. It produced satisfaction ratings of over 90% and a credit rating of AA2, the highest for a housing and care organisation in the sector. The Decent Home target was achieved 2 years ahead of the deadline and this improvement culminated in many customer service awards.

Over the last few years Midland Heart has invested over £200 million into the local economy creating thousands of new homes and thousands of new jobs. It is interesting to note that under the new Grant system in England, for every 4 new homes that are built we, or more correctly our customers, pay for 3. This success enabled Midland Heart and many like it to create opportunities for our customers and to safeguard our communities.

Many other associations in England and Wales mirror this success. This is clearly not the work of a ‘lazy consensus’. It is the work of a sector that is constantly innovating and changing to deliver excellent services despite a recession and the actions of our Government. It is a sector that is still driven by strong values; values that once inspired great post-war housing ministers of all political persuasions. It is a pity that these values seem to be lacking today. Social housing is a source for good in this country. It was yesterday, it is today, and it will be tomorrow. In England, the real threat to social housing is not a ‘lazy consensus’, it is a Government that has no vision or strategy as the housing crisis grows.

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