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We have sleepwalked into acquiescence

May 2014

Tony Stacey
Chief Executive

I refuse to use the term ‘affordable rent’. It is a misnomer. If I have to refer to the wretched thing it is always as ‘AR’.

AR was invented as a temporary measure aimed, we were told, at a niche market. As the National Housing Federation has revealed, there is no difference between the people who move into social rented and AR properties. We were sold a pup.

Three articles in the national press have shone a light on this. The FT’s Tim Harford wrote about the steady erosion of social housing and Kate Allen, in the same paper, described it as an ageing product – the stock is getting older and so are the tenants.

In The Guardian, John Healey said that Cameron and Osborne have been pleased to see its demise. Where, asks John, are its defenders? There have been few protests from Labour and housing associations have been silent as we have not wanted to be seen as whingeing lefties – anyway, isn’t there something macho about pretending we don’t need grant (as the shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds was told recently by a HA chief executive)? We have sleepwalked into acquiescence.

Meanwhile, a couple of former maths teachers can build up a buy to let portfolio of over 1,000 homes and, when social policy turns against the poor, they can cheerfully serve notice on their 220 tenants on benefit. So where are poor people supposed to live?

I am optimistic. The penny has dropped. The JRF and the NHF are investigating the links between housing and poverty. A campaign to defend social housing, SHOUT, has been established. The Lyons Commission has received many submissions arguing that subsidised housing needs subsidy. Many are considering the advice in Colin Wiles’ blog – “just say no” – or, at the very least, “not much, thanks”. This can’t carry on. Boards and chief executives will find their voices, and the local authorities will support them. Rising homelessness and the public reaction to destitution will change the political narrative.

My second theme is the diversity of the sector. I have chaired PlaceShapers for the last four years and it has tripled in size. There are now 106 of us. We have never once placed an advert – it has grown through attraction not promotion. PlaceShapers started as a reaction to the clarion voices pronouncing the end of small and medium-sized associations. Mergers were, so the narrative went, inevitable and, once the obstinate chief executives of smaller associations retired, the inevitable would happen. A group of medium-sized South East associations got fed up and set up PlaceShapers. It became okay again to talk about a future where customers came first, places mattered and focusing on your local area was a legitimate strategy.

PlaceShapers has changed the agenda. Our voice matters. PlaceShapers account for 40% of the chief executives on the 24housing Power Players list. PlaceShapers are great organisations to work for and they have fabulous leadership – 21 of the Sunday Times Best 100 Not-For-Profit Companies are PlaceShaper members, including South Liverpool Housing which tops the list.

PlaceShapers is not anti-merger. Many of our members have group structures and have grown through merger. What we are against are mergers driven by the self-interest of chief executives approaching retirement and the mindless mantra that ‘big is best’. In the parallel universe where Paul Tennant is right and there will only be 10 associations left by 2033, a new movement will spring up of community-focused associations led by people with insight and passion. Nature abhors a vacuum, and it will get filled.