Shock and Orr

It’s like being mugged by Private Walker from Dad’s Army. “There you go guv, special deal just for you. No pressure but I’m only in town for the week see, so you’ll need to decide soon otherwise the offer’s off the table.”

If the Twitter debate was anything to go by, there was a massive disconnect between those in the conference hall who appeared to have been lulled and seduced by the dulcet double act of Clark and Orr, and those outside the hall who seemed to be shocked by what was being offered up to the sector. I certainly was.

Having read the offer document I can see the appeal of this “voluntary” deal if it retains the sector’s independence and avoids all the potential dangers of privatisation should housing association debt be placed on the PSBR. Many will argue that government’s come and go and that this is a short-term Faustian pact that will save the sector in the long term. Perhaps they are right.

But there are some wider questions that need to be answered. First, expecting housing associations to make such a momentous decision in just six working days is not reasonable, (although some associations clearly felt they could sign up within minutes of the announcement being made, presumably because they had early sight of it). Why did it have to wait until yesterday for the details to be revealed? How will shareholders and tenants be consulted, if at all? The NHF Code of Governance requires Boards to make decisions based upon “timely and accurate information”. The draft Board report provided by the NHF is lacking in any detail and omits to mention details of any legal advice, discussions with DCLG, ONS etc. Any self-respecting Board should refuse to make such a momentous decision based upon such a weak report.

Second, do the National Housing Federation and individual housing associations have a mandate to sell off public assets that have been funded by millions of taxpayers? Should the wider public, or the 66,000 homeless households living in temporary accommodation or the 1.4 million households on waiting lists have any say on the matter? Housing association Boards are the custodians of these assets, not the owners.

Third, why should Parliament be denied a chance to debate this critical policy, which was included in the Conservative manifesto at the last moment? The government’s majority is slim, some Tories are uneasy with the pledge, many peers are opposed. Why not allow a full debate where every clause can be scrutinised?

Fourth, what happens if a significant number of associations vote against? Would legislation still be required? Right to Buy is an all or nothing commitment from the manifesto so how would it be possible for some associations to avoid it? My assumption is that Right to Buy will become a regulatory requirement, so those who vote against will be compelled to do it. If that is the case, and private assets are being forcibly sold then surely they become public assets? What view would the ONS take of this and did the NHF consult with them?

Finally, discounts will be funded by the sale of high-value council properties. Did the NHF consult with local government bodies before offering this deal? If not, it’s not very comradely is it?

Then the details of the deal need to be scrutinised. Associations would be free to build replacement properties anywhere they like, and of any tenure, so one high value sale in inner London could fund five shared ownership homes in Hastings. They could even buy off the shelf properties, so no one-for-one replacement. Exempting rural, specialist and non-grant funded schemes is to be welcomed, but this is already causing the Conservative press a certain amount of concern. Everyone knows that the government’s track record on Right to Buy replacements has been patchy at best, so why should this be any different in the future.

Going back to point four above, if the outcome (£60 billion of debt going on the PSBR and the resulting loss of independence) is the same whether we go down the voluntary route or the legislation route what is the point of making a hasty decision now? The Federation will have backed itself into a corner, and kicked its local authority partners in the teeth to boot.

All in all, this is a high-risk strategy for both the NHF and Greg Clark. How it will pan out will be clearer by the end of this week.

(First published at Inside Housing 25th September 2015)

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