Baroness Warwick: ‘We can still build for social rent’

Baroness Warwick has only been the Chair of the National Housing Federation for a year but she has already seen two governments and a Housing Act. We caught up with her to ask her about her experiences.

baronesswarwick

Describing the first year as Chair of the Federation as a “real rollercoaster”, Baroness Warwick was probably underestimating.

With more happening than in a Christmas special in EastEnders, she has had to fight many a political battle already.

Below are her full answers.

 

 

How has the first year in the role of Chair been?

“The new government have introduced policies that housing associations are getting to grips with, we’ve talked very productively with government, we’ve build a partnership with government and I think our members are really quite excited about what we are doing with government, and local authorities as well I hope, in order to deliver what the country needs.

“We know others are not going to be able to deliver and the fact we had the referendum and the uncertainty that has produced has meant there has been a downturn in shares of building companies so the private sector isn’t going to be able to build or it will be very cautious and moderate in its building.

“Local authorities have been hit hard in cuts to expenditure, they don’t have the development opportunities. If you think, local authorities built just under 2,000 homes last year, housing associations built 40,000. It is a huge difference.

“We can do more than that but what we want, and this is what we will be saying to ministers, is the flexibility from government to be able to deliver for them. We can deliver, we have a great ambition to do so, that has been part of our purpose and the whole hope is that it will come together to show that we can own our future but we need the government to back us.”

Importance of the VRTB deal?

I think the voluntary Right to Buy deal is important because it is voluntary and that is what we were able to achieve. It wasn’t where the government started but we worked with the government very closely in order to deliver a policy that could work.

“We think it can work, housing associations have always sold properties, not every housing association but many already market homes for sale as well as rent. What the sale of houses does is enable us to fulfil our social purpose of building affordable homes.

“If you remember, the government last year put no money into affordable homes so we have had to be able to generate the resource to be able to deliver on our social purpose and it is that social purpose that unites housing associations. That is really what we want to show to the country, housing associations can solve the problem.”

David Orr has been labelled by some as having sold out. How hard has he worked to ensure the deal works best for all parts of the housing sector?

“He has been totally committed to that. I think people have become to recognise the huge value of what David did. Without his intervention, without his contribution, I think we would have been in a very different place.”

What are your thoughts on the Right to Buy regulations?

“Well none of them have been signed off of course but we have a put a lot of work, not just from the Nat Fed but from our members from around the country, in order to make sure we can make the Right to Buy work in practice. I think we have done a lot of good work. Obviously we have to wait for the government to publish the detail but we think it has gone really very well indeed.”

What were your thoughts on the Housing and Planning Act?

“Of course the main thrust, and it is still with us as we have to see the implementation, was deregulation. To provide the freedoms for housing associations to be able to be independent and build their homes.

“Of course there were issues around Starter Homes which will be challenging for markets and I am hoping the government will be flexible around those sorts of policies because if they are not, we will be unable to respond to the overwhelming need for a much greater increase in affordable homes for rent.”

How have you worked with local authority partners to ensure you can produce more homes?

“I think it is very important to see local authorities as our partners, we always work with them and we want to go on working with them. If they can’t build homes, we want to work in partnership with them to ensure they can, they can share that building with us.

“I think it is hugely important we work with local authorities and I have a lot of sympathy for them. They have been really hit from every side but this is the choice the government made, not our choice.

“We will certainly be working with local authorities and whilst I understand the reaction, I think that has now moved into a recognition that we can all work together. Certainly when I have been around the country and I’ve met some local authorities and they have been very keen to work with housing associations.”

Do Starter Homes play a part for any housing associations in your briefings to members?

“I think they can. They are a particular part of the market but how big a part of the market they should be is the question to ask. That is why we always come back to government to say ‘look at the market, look at what is needed. If we are going to build homes, they have to be ones people need’. Starter Homes may be part of the solution in some parts of the country but in other parts they just won’t be relevant. I think it is really the flexibility we want to ensure.”

Housing Associations are getting more commercial, some say that could mean they lose their social purpose, what are your thoughts on that?

“Absolutely not. Housing associations are committed to building quality affordable homes for people as they need them. That will remain our social purpose.

“What we have got to demonstrate, particularly as there is no money for affordable housing, is that we can generate money through a commercial head but bring to it an ethical and moral heart. I think that will remain the substance, the purpose and the ambition of housing associations.”

Is it still possible to build homes for social rent?

“It is and we can do it. But we need the flexibility to be able to do it because if the government does not allow us to do it, then we are very restricted. What that means of course is that the government won’t meet its targets in terms of homebuilding either. We want to work with the government to achieve their ambition and our ambition to deliver more homes over the next five years.”

If I was to give you a magic wand to fix one thing in the housing sector, what would it be?

“If I can have a go at two. I would really like to think we could achieve a successful outcome for sheltered and supported housing. I think there is a fundamental issue there and I hope the government will acknowledge it. I also hope we ensure the problems in rural areas are given proper recognition, there are real issues there and they really need to be responded to.”

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