Saturday, 17 June 2017
Instant housing experts. Where have you been all these years?
I sit on the board of a housing association. We have thirty or so high rise properties and the issues relating to these properties have been foremost in our minds for some long while. Not just the sorts of problem that led to the terrible fire in North Kensington (although we've had a problem with cladding being dislodged during stormy weather) but a more fundamental issue - not only are these properties unpopular with tenants they're also expensive to manage. It's an oversimplification but we'd really rather we didn't have them but we've a thousand or so mostly pretty poor people living in them. It seems that managing high rises is going to stay right on the top of our agenda for the foreseeable future.
Right now I'm not going to say what should or shouldn't be the right regulatory response from central government - whether it's different cladding systems, sprinklers, alarm systems or more intensive housing management. It could be all of these things with the result that properties that are, at best, marginal to the business plan become utterly uneconomic. And before you all go off shouting about commercialising affordable housing bear in mind that we've over 20,000 former council homes and the business plan is about keeping all those homes up to a decent standard as well as finding ways to build a few hundred new homes for rent or sale. All set against a declining revenue (resulting from a central government instruction to reduce our rents by 1% per year) and rising construction costs.
My fellow board members will take all this very seriously. This board has overseen a massive investment in the homes we provide and will continue to do its best to hold the management of our business to account and to ensure that, within the limits of our resources, we provide the best we can for our tenants. Then I read, in the media or most often in ill-informed social media rants, of how organisations like the one whose board I sit on are somehow rapacious and greedy capitalists filled with board members only interested in cash or preferment - mostly from people who've done next to damn all to make their communities better places (unless you count going on marches or selling newspapers outside student unions as some sort of contribution).
I look at my fellow board members and I don't see the caricature painted by the leftist media. Instead I see some tenants, people who work for other social housing organisations, a couple of councillors, some folk from the supply end of the business, and some with financial or legal know how. All either doing it - like me and the tenant representatives - for nothing or else getting paid a small allowance and expenses. Up and down the country there are thousands of such people sitting on housing association boards and I'm prepared to make two comments about them - they really do care, enough to actually give up some time to help direct these businesses, and on June 8th this year most of them will have voted Labour.
The way we run social housing - whether through local council housing revenue accounts or through not-for-profit (or 'profit for a purpose' if you prefer a realistic definition) social housing businesses - may not be perfect but let's not start out by attacking the people who sit on the boards. If there's a problem it's one of accountability and understanding rather than greed or selfishness on behalf of management or boards. Tenant management organisations like the one responsible for Grenfell Tower are a great idea in theory - handing over power and control to the people who live in social housing is surely straight out of the Corbyn play book, socialism in action? But as we've seen the capacity of organisations like this to get stuff wrong is just as high as that of dreadful capitalist for-profit organisations - perhaps, given the lack of professional skills among the board members, even higher.
There are many questions here but central to all this is how we manage social rented property. Some of this is about regulations on how things are built, how we protect against fire risk and how we undertake housing management. Other questions speak to the very nature of high rise residential blocks - is this really how we want families to live? Among all this we need to ask something else - something about governance. Can tenants manage the property in which they live without ownership (collective or otherwise)? Are boards structured well enough with sufficient independent expertise to manage risks?
None of this is about the good men and women who serve on these boards. The eight tenant directors on KCTMO will be utterly shocked and shattered by what has happened, just as would be the hundreds of similar folk who serve on the boards of 'arms length management companies', housing associations, tenant management groups and other housing organisations. But in the end, just as with any governance, we have to take the expertise of those who advise a board with a degree of faith - that's why we have external risk assessments, inspections, annual certification. It's why us board members pay attention to things like having fire certificates and up-to-date gas certification.
So to all the people -journalists, pundits, writers, political activists, folk shouting on Twitter - who've appointed themselves instant experts on all matters to do with housing safety. Where have you been all these years? Are you volunteering your time to serve on housing association boards? Have you helped tenants action groups engage better? Trust me, if your expertise is a fraction of what you claim it to be, those organisations would welcome your help.