Anthony Mayer has emerged from his time as chair of the Tenant Services Authority battered and bruised but, as he explains to Kate Murray, he still has “huge admiration” for what the Government is trying to do.
"I worked out that the period between the TSA standards coming into force on 1 April 2010 and the minister's announcement that the TSA was 'toast' was 53 working days. That makes you a bit rueful" Anthony Mayer
Anthony Mayer doesn’t do downcast. Even the very public – some might say humiliating – way the Tenant Services Authority (TSA) was castigated and then rapidly shut down by housing minister Grant Shapps doesn’t appear to have hurt him too badly.
Yes, the experience was “a bit depressing”, Mr Mayer concedes. But it has its upsides: “If I ever go for another chair’s job and they ask for my experience in change management, I will certainly be able to give a thorough answer. I had 18 months setting it up and 18 months to close it.”
Now he’s back on the housing scene, lending his considerable experience of the sector to One Housing Group as its new chair. It may seem a surprising choice. North London-based One, with some 13,000 homes, is not one of the biggest housing associations, nor one of the most high profile.
But the former chief executive of the Housing Corporation and the Greater London Authority says that’s just the way he wants it – back on the frontline of housing “getting his hands dirty for the first time in years”.
How would you sum up your time at the TSA?
The experience was a bit like a walk on the Amalfi coast. You go up a fantastic flight of steps, walk along a ridge for 50 yards and then go down again.
I worked out that the period between the TSA standards coming into force on 1 April 2010 and the minister’s announcement that the TSA was ‘toast’ was 53 working days. That makes you a bit rueful.
Do you feel the TSA was given a fair chance?
You’d have to ask Mr Shapps for an authoritative answer to that. My take has always been that quangos only exist at the behest of government to do jobs for government. They are not free entities. The TSA was set up by a Labour government with a huge commitment by Caroline Flint to promote the cause of tenants.
Mr Shapps came in with an agenda that they wanted a much cutdown regulatory system focusing on governance and finances. I am not able to say which is the right way to go but clearly Mr Shapps having said what he did, the implication was that the TSA would go. In the two years since they came into power, I’ve only met him [Shapps] once and that was that. At that meeting he had taken out a pink carrier bag, with the TSA logo on it. I thought: ‘Blimey.’ He has done a number of very imaginative and very good things. But if you ask me: ‘Did he take the TSA personally?’ I got the impression he did.
What do you feel were the achievements of the TSA?
And what could you have done differently? If I had my time over again – and you only know these things with the benefit of hindsight – I might have gone lighter on the pink stuff.
But I think we had three main achievements. Firstly the regulatory standards. They are a very, very clear, blooming good checklist and mini text book of what is expected of a housing association.
The second one is that I would say we played a really good role helping housing associations get across the financial crisis. Because the issues [with unsold stock for example] were sorted out. There was nobody in danger of going down. But had the issues not been sorted out, we would have had severe financial distress across the sector. The third achievement – and it might seem an odd one to be proud of – but we did close the place well. It was entirely seamless for the sector.
Do you think the new regulatory set-up – with only ‘backstop’ regulation on the consumer side – means that services to tenants will suffer?
There’s no doubt that the foot is off the accelerator in respect of national intervention to promote tenants’ interests. I’ve been hugely impressed at One Housing Group’s readiness to be selfstarting and to run with the tenant agenda. Most associations will be doing that – it goes with the culture.
What we are about is giving a decent deal to tenants. That said, one of my worries about the current agenda is, to use an analogy of daffodils, they will grow like billyo in Windsor Great Park by themselves. The big London associations will continue to provide a first class service for tenants and to do a great job. But if you are a daffodil in the Kalahari desert you need some water and fertiliser.
I would have preferred to see a duty on the regulator to make sure there is a vibrant tenants’ panel regime in each and every association. In the worst 10 percent performing associations you will almost certainly have problems.
How are housing associations placed to deal with the challenges of the next few years?
I think the sector has moved a hell of a long way over the last 20 years – but we are still building on a model that’s a voluntary model and yet you have got organisations with £1 billion in assets.
Many are relying on voluntary board members and I think that’s more and more inappropriate. A number of associations are behind the curve in behaving like businesses. Clearly the bigger ones have got it spot on but we have got a broad church here.
What else will be key issues?
I am astonished there has been so little debate on this whole issue of affordable rents. Associations are allowed to charge 80 percent of market rents. If in central London the rent is more than £300 a week (in Camden the average onebed rate is £315) then 80 percent of that is clearly well beyond the capacity of someone even earning £20,000 a year to service.
We have got to have a debate about exactly what we mean by an affordable rent and having done that, explore the way of deciding the balance between upfront capital grants at rates that reduce rents or lower grant and higher rents and more housing benefit or universal credit.
My personal inclination was to keep capital grants up and housing benefit down. Housing has never been seen as infrastructure but if you did a cost benefit analysis over 30 years, it is significantly cheaper to have upfront capital grant and lower rents and lower benefits. I’ve got huge admiration for what the Government is trying to do – these are very difficult issues – but we need terms that are understandable to people so we all know what we are about.
But aren’t housing associations losing their social purpose? One Housing was recently featured in the national press for selling ‘affordable’ shared ownership homes priced at up to £705,000.
That comes back to the need for a debate about what we mean by affordable. In an area like Islington land costs are going to put you in the position of very high prices. You could say you would like prices to be lower but how are you going to do that without bankrupting yourself?
The big thing for One Housing Group and other associations is that we are making surpluses on housing for sale and those surpluses are being distributed so that we are able to charge 60 percent of market rents. It’s a market that has worked and we want more of that. We are living in a different world from the ‘90s and we might as well recognise that.