Yesterday I did two interviews for BBC TV on housing – I know that this was picked up by several BBC radio stations as well because of the tweets that I have had.
I have been a councillor connected with housing for 36 years now at a local or national level. For 10 years I have been a member of a housing association board and have recently become its chair. I know that housing is a politician’s grave yard. Quite simply we look for quick answers as politicians – in housing there aren’t any. If you think I am exaggerating just think of this one fact; any house that we build now will have to last at least 275 years at the current rate of stock replacement. Even at its peak in the last decade it was still a 200 year replacement programme. I remember that we had 9 housing ministers in 13 years under Labour and I don’t think Grant Shapps will be with us for long before he gets the promotion that he has set his heart on.
So we know now what the UK will be looking like in 100 years time – much of it will look like it does today. Sorry Jetson supporters the future is here already!
It seems to me that there are three areas where all of us working as practitioners in the field of housing are going to have to look at radically different ways of doing things:
- Management of the stock. I am very proud of the fact that when I chaired the housing committee between 1979 and 1981 Liverpool had the biggest housing cooperative programme in the whole of Western Europe. Inevitably the ability to provide housing co-ops has shrunk over the years with the impetus for big and cost-effective development programmes. But we could all go further in introducing tenant control. When plus dane decided to relet its repairs and maintenance contracts last year it was a tenant panel who really took the big decisions about who to use. When I was interviewed for the position of chair it was tenants who gave me the hardest grilling. I intend to bring in the right of tenants to call me and the other board members to account. It’s their money that pays for it; it’s their knowledge that can be captured to develop local solutions – they should be in the driving seat.
- Development. Most building sites look remarkably like they would have done 50 or even 100 years ago. On a site in Runcorn we have been working to develop modern methods of construction with much of the building work being pre assembled in factories where quality can be maintained, waste reduced and building sites better ordered and controlled. It also saves money but we are moving far too slowly in this field and major savings could be made if councils; RSLs and developers worked together much more to specify basics which could then be readily adapted for specific users.
- Financing. Plus Dane makes a profit but does not take a profit. In addition to seeking grants wherever possible we seek to make a profit wherever possible. For example we are building a commercial shopping centre in Runcorn and are acting as agent for 96 flats within the L1 development. We make a profit for those activities which we use to subsidise or capital and revenue work in poorer areas. There is a lot of money in housing associations not doing all that much. Some RSLs are not developers – there is nothing wrong with that and they have ceased to be developers for a whole host of valid reasons. What we are working on with the HCA is the idea of a housing bond whereby they can use that money in an entirely safe investment vehicle to fund work from RSLs who are still developers. Add £500 million to what is available through the Government’s programmes and you don’t get all you need but the government money will go a lot further.
These are just some of the thoughts that I and people who work with me are having at the moment. You might not like them – you might think you have better ones. Great – my concern is not that there are not enough people having new ideas and too many in the housing field stuck in a stodgy conservatism.