From the summit

I followed last week’s leaders’ summit from a distance via Twitter and a couple of subsequent blogs.

A few key messages seemed to be coming out of the day. We must do more to sell our message, we must engage with politicians, we must stop criticising each other, we must be optimistic and less negative, we need to tell the story of how the future can be better than the present. All good stuff but, in short, nothing that hasn’t been heard a thousand times before.

It seems the National Housing Federation (NHF) has spent a pile of money on some stakeholder research, which revealed that the politicians we speak to like us and those we don’t, don’t. Apparently these non-spoken-to politicians pick up on ‘third-party’ rumours that housing associations are inefficient and don’t build enough homes. And who spreads these rumours? Other housing associations apparently. Eh?

In the great scheme of things, I do not believe that it is other housing associations snitching on their colleagues that causes the sector’s image problem, either with politicians or the wider public. The summit appears not to have touched on the real issues that create negative perceptions; the issues that I and others have been going on about for some time, such as executive egos and inefficient empire-building, a lack of openness and transparency, a growing commercialism, an abandonment of core values, executive salaries, upsetting communities through half-cocked regeneration schemes, evicting young people and leaving habitable properties empty, constant attendance at scammy awards’ ceremonies – all of the issues, in fact, that the National Housing Federation has mostly refused to take a view upon. For the wider public, housing associations, if they register on their consciousness at all, are outfits that work in the shadows, “sucking on the teats of the state” yet not subject to the same scrutiny and democratic accountability as other public bodies.

The problem is that the de-regulation measures set out in the Housing and Planning Bill, much desired by the NHF, will only worsen these negative perceptions. If housing associations are seen as suspect because of their increasing commercialisation, then allowing them to buy and sell properties as they please gives them carte blanche to ignore local communities and politicians. I can guarantee that there will be many more complaints about the disposal of high-value but much-needed social housing once the regulator has no role in disposals. The pace of unregulated mergers will also pick up and will happen regardless of the views of tenants or local politicians. Again, more complaints. The freedom to set rents will upset more people than it pleases, by the law of confirmation bias. More complaints again. How can the NHF possibly believe that deregulation will improve the image of the sector? Perhaps they don’t.

One of the most worrying issues arising from the summit appeared to be the constant refrain that criticism should stop. The danger of this first amendment prohibition is that it will close down genuine scrutiny and debate and create a yet more autocratic and secretive sector. If people, whether within or without the sector, have strong views about the direction and strategy of individual housing associations, or the sector as a whole, they should be free to air them in public, without the threat of being labelled negative or divisive. After all, the sector is about to enter uncharted waters and there is a real risk that some associations, perhaps led by strong chief executives and weak boards, will go feral. Accountability and transparency will become even more important.

A summit is defined as “a collection of high-level leaders to agree a programme of action”. It’s hard to see what the programme arising from this summit is, other than to carry on as before but with less free speech. The fundamental, structural problems are being ignored. Apparently, during the researchers’ presentation, two of the most prominent words in their stakeholder Word Cloud were ‘inefficient’ and ‘complacent’. That sounds about right.

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