The endless debate

My SHOUT-y friend Alison Inman asked an interesting question on Twitter last week. “Optimum size for a HA? How big is too big? How small is too small?”

It received dozens of responses, of which more below. But it reminded me of an article I wrote 21 years ago for Housing Today (now defunct) entitled Dawn of the Monster Age, describing the rapid growth of housing associations. It’s not available online but I’ve posted a copy of it here.

In the article, I asked a few questions and made a few statements. Some examples:

“How long before we see the first RSL with 50,000 units?”

“In the mad rush for growth, the future for small and medium-sized housing associations seems bleak”

“Big is beautiful seems to be the new orthodoxy”

“My experience of large landlords is that they tend to be remote from their customers, poor at internal communications and struggle to provide a good service”

“At a time when the break-up of large monolithic local authority portfolios is being actively pursued, it seems to me strange that that we are promoting the growth of even larger RSL landlords, which have both a fuzzier geographical focus and poorer levels of governance and accountability than their local government counterparts.”

“Are we in danger of slaying one set of monsters in order to create another?”

I went on to compare and contrast the two very different associations I’d worked for: one large (Circle 33, since absorbed into one of the very largest providers); and one small (Hundred Houses – it still exists as an independent outfit).

My analysis of the data at that time was that big was not necessarily better.

Anyway, the responses to Alison’s question were very mixed. The consensus was that there was no consensus, although geography seemed important for some people. One said:

“It’s not size that matters, it’s spread. Being over-spread leads to remoteness of decision-making, poor service, inefficiency and no role in social and economic regeneration. There’s no upside to spread. There are some benefits to size, if it’s a lot of homes in one area”

Others said:

“…it depends on geography, origins, history, situation and circumstances… I am not really sure there is one size fits all”

“If you need more than one office to be logistically viable and connected to your residents – you’re too big. If you employ <20 people you’re (probably) too small.”

To which one smart aleck replied: “Why does a housing association need an office?”

“20,000 optimum in my opinion within a 1-hour travel distance of main property management hub.”

“10,000 max in a given geographical area.”

There seemed to be a common view that the largest associations had lost their way:

“I used to work for a very large HA. I left when it lost its soul and became far too corporate and more interested in the corporate brand than the customers. In a smaller organisation it’s easier to find solutions for customers and think outside the box/try something different.”

“I think any HA that is more than 50,000 is too big and I think too small is anything below 500”

“Having observed the evolution of Housing Associations since about 1976 I’d say about 6k. 100k is obscenely, inefficiently large. Lumbering beasts”

The analysis supplied by Ian Parker at HQN quoted by Alistair in his latest YouTube presentation is that there’s no clear link between size and costs above 2,500 homes. Associations below 2,500 homes have much higher median costs of £4,800 per annum but the lowest median cost of £3,400 per annum is in the 10 to 20,000-home cohort, whereas above 30,000 homes this rises to a median cost of £3,700 per home.

There are significant outliers in each cohort but this analysis doesn’t tell us anything about overall resident satisfaction – how “good” an association actually is – so, the proposed tenant satisfaction data proposed by the regulator might help us to join up the dots between size, costs and satisfaction.

But compare, for a moment, our sector to the wider corporate world. McDonald’s and Amazon are found all over the world. Whether you eat a Big Mac in Bristol or Brisbane, the quality and customer service will be of the same standard. Amazon parcels are delivered just as efficiently whether you’re in Camden or Canberra.  Neither of these firms think for a moment that an optimum size is desirable. Their aim is global domination, and customers seem to like their products and service.

In my work for some HQN it’s notable how some very large providers appear in the tables for complaints and regulatory interventions again and again, whereas similar sized rivals/peers rarely appear. It seems to me that the issue isn’t so much about size as about leadership, culture and a relentless drive for improvement.

So, in answer to Alison’s question perhaps the answer should be as follows:

“What’s the optimum size for an association that’s badly led, has a poor culture and unhappy tenants and isn’t bothered about improving? Answer: zero homes.”

What’s the optimum size for an association that’s well led, has a great culture and happy tenants and a relentless drive for improvement. Answer: no optimum, no limit.”

Anyway, no doubt this debate will go on and on and if I’m still around 21 years from now perhaps I’ll be writing another article with a different perspective.

But thanks to Alison for posing the question.

Why are we waiting?

It is over three years since the Social Housing Green Paper was published, offering to “rebalance the relationship between residents and landlords”. 

Over two years later the Social Housing White Paper was published, calling itself a “Charter for Social Housing Residents” and offering a menu of seven key principles: safe housing, more transparency and accountability, swifter resolution of complaints, stronger consumer standards, empowered residents, good quality decent homes, and (they couldn’t resist) support for homeownership. 

In launching the White Paper, Robert Jenrick promised that “never again would the voices of residents go unheard”. In their 2019 manifesto the Conservatives promised to “empower tenants and support the continued supply of social homes”.

So far so good, but here we are over a year after the White Paper appeared and there is still no legislative timetable for social housing reform.

In the interim, ITV and others in the media have become de facto regulators, exposing horrendous conditions on social housing estates, and now moving on to examples of alleged racism in the way that social housing is run. 

The reputation of the sector is being shredded day by day.

Why are we waiting?

To fill the vacuum, the Regulator of Social Housing (RSH) has published two recent reports that have some bearing on the White Paper. First, an updated sector risk profile was published on 19 October.

It highlights recent changes in the economic outlook (inflation up, interest rates up, labour shortages up, supply chain problems up) and the impacts of the pandemic and Brexit.

But its focus is almost exclusively on the economic standards: debt finance, diversification, income insecurities, labour shortages, pensions, and fraud, with only a passing mention of service delivery. 

I was told a while ago that the RSH had around 250 people working on the economic standards and only two working on the consumer standards.

Whether that balance is still the same I do not know but if the ratio is still anywhere close to 125 to 1, then it tells a sad story about the lack of urgency with which the regulator treats consumer regulation. Money talks.

Last week, like a nervous dinner guest filling an awkward silence, the RSH published some “preliminary ideas” about how the consumer standards might look in the future.

“Reshaping consumer regulation: our principles and approach” is a strange document because, not only is it badly written, but it says very little of any consequence other than setting out some vague principles about how regulation might work in the future.

The paper accepts that “most of these changes can only be made when parliament has passed legislation to change our objectives and legal powers” but it calls upon boards to pre-empt any legislation by looking at “how they can improve their services and engagement with tenants”. 

I would imagine any half-competent board is already doing that. But the “principles” and the “vision” set out in the report are also hardly new. We read that “landlords (should) maintain tenants’ homes so that they are safe and of a decent standard and that landlords provide a quality service. Where things go wrong, complaints are handled effectively, and things are put right. The relationship between tenants and landlords is underpinned by shared expectations of fairness and respect and a shared understanding of their respective rights and responsibilities. Landlords demonstrate that they understand the diverse needs of the communities that they serve, and their services reflect that.” 

Does this even need to be said? All of this can be found in the existing standards and guidance.

The report says that the key themes to be included in the consumer standards are safety, quality, neighbourhood, transparency, engagement and accountability, and tenancy. Again, is any of this new?

Probably the most encouraging proposal in the paper is a scheme to measure tenant satisfaction, and presumably this could be used to rank landlords in some way, and perhaps apply sanctions, although there is no clarity on how it could be implemented.

If the experience of Trustpilot is anything to go by, it could be open to manipulation by some landlords.

One of the key criticisms arising from the ITV reports is that the RSH does not talk to tenants. Daniel Hewitt of ITV tweeted about this in August: “So when we exposed the appalling living conditions on an estate in Mitcham owned by Clarion, the regulator launched an inquiry. It spoke to Clarion to get their side, but didn’t speak to any tenants or visit the estate. The regulator then cleared Clarion.”

The most telling diagram in the RSH report is this one. As you can see, there is no direct link between the RSH and tenants.

RSH image

Unless the long-awaited legislation allows the regulator to show some teeth, and make direct contact with tenants, I fear the criticism will grow louder.

The strange thing is that the regulator has the teeth, it is just that it has chosen not to bite. It also has the power to visit tenants in their homes. If you read this RSH document (‘Guidance on the regulator’s approach to intervention, enforcement and use of powers’) ,the 2008 Housing Act gives it a wide range of enforcement and regulatory powers.

It can instruct Homes England to stop grants, it can demand information, it can arrange surveys of properties (meeting tenants in the process) and re-charge the provider for the privilege.

It can order inquiries, impose fines, and require compensation to be paid. It can impose a manager, remove or impose board members, freeze bank accounts, and enforce mergers. To my knowledge, apart from imposing board members, the RSH seldom uses many of these powers. I would be happy to be told otherwise.

Perhaps if it actually sank its teeth into a handful of habitual offenders – pour encourager les autres – it could galvanise the sector to a degree that any number of inspections could never do, and be a lot cheaper to boot.

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network on 24th November 2021)

A man called Gove

So, we have a new Secretary of State; a ‘new’ Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC); and a housing minister who has managed to survive for over 18 months, which is quite a record given that we have had over 20 of the blighters since 1997.

Actually, I am slightly more optimistic about Michael Gove than some. He may be a poor dancer, but he is a big-hitter with plenty of political capital; he is articulate and clever, and his back story (adopted at four months by Labour-voting parents) is intriguing. He did some good things as environment secretary (even George Monbiot grudgingly praised him) and he founded Policy Exchange which, despite some awful ideas about selling off social housing, is at least in favour of a mass housebuilding programme and taking on the nimbys.

He was also a shadow housing spokesman between 2005 and 2007 so he knows the territory. When he left university, he applied for a research job at Central Office and was told he was “insufficiently political” and “insufficiently Conservative”, so he became a journalist. This also means that he knows how to tell a good story and how to sell his ideas.

During his 2016 leadership bid he said, “I was so very reluctant (to stand) because I know my limitations. Whatever charisma is, I don’t have it; whatever glamour may be, I don’t think anyone could ever associate me with it. But – at every step in my political life – I’ve asked myself one question: what is the right thing to do? What does your heart tell you?”.

I think the danger for the housing sector is whether his “right thing” will genuinely be the right thing or mere political pragmatism. Despite appearances, I think he has some liberal tendencies, although that might just mean he shifts with the wind. Ministers who are overwhelmed by the noisy minority are not usually much good.

As for social housing, in his 2016 pitch for the leadership he said, “We need a national ambition to build hundreds of thousands of new homes a year, both private and socially-rented – led by someone who will not take no for an answer and who will push for diggers in the ground and homes for all come what may”.

In his 2019 leadership pitch he was not explicit about social housing but said, “Everyone has the right to own their home”, and he pledged to “reform planning laws in order that more homes are built”, to tackle the abuses of the big volume housebuilders (in not releasing land) and to make it “easier for communities to build beautiful homes”. In fact, the whole Create Streets and building beautiful homes stuff seems to originate with Gove, who has been banging on about it since 2013 at least.

But the fact remains that he is the MP for an anti-growth Surrey seat where he has personally opposed a large housing development of 50 homes (around half were affordable). At the planning inquiry, which he attended in a personal capacity, he made it clear that he supported more housebuilding – just not this specific scheme (the cry of nimbys everywhere). One of his first actions at MHCLG/DLUHC was to abolish the proposed planning reforms, even though they came straight out of the Policy Exchange manual.  

This contradiction between what Gove says and what he does seems to me to be reflected in Conservative policy more generally. 

For example, they want to build beautiful homes but they relax planning controls and allow, via permitted development rights, offices and shops to be converted into homes, often with disastrous outcomes: ugly, small, poorly located, and not fit for habitation.  

They want to build 300,000 homes a year yet they constantly cave in to self-interested home-owning nimbys who want no building anywhere. They want a mass housebuilding programme and yet they scrap proposals to reform the planning system and do nothing to deal with the restrictions of the green belt and other wasted land (golf courses, pony paddocks) that add to land prices and stoke house price inflation.

They do not tackle the housebuilding cartels. They want everyone to have the chance of owning their own home, yet they pump billions into schemes like the Help to Buy that inflate house prices. They want to revive high streets, yet promote planning policies that create out of town shopping centres and refuse to tax the online retail giants who are helping to destroy the high street.  

As for levelling up, they propose to put in about £5bn but central funding of local government has been cut by more than £10bn since 2010. And it is not just a case of poor north suffering at the expense of rich south. If you look at government deprivation data, there are pockets of extreme deprivation in the south east (Margate, parts of London, Hastings, and Jaywick, officially England’s most deprived place) and pockets of relative affluence in the north – off the top of my head, Alnwick, Harrogate, York, and Durham. So, the whole levelling up agenda seems to be more about votes than hard facts.  

To conclude, if we are faced with years of Conservative government I would rather have Gove than Jenrick (who was rather disliked by Conservative Home voters). He faces a plethora of challenges – not least sorting out the catastrophic cladding scandal, steering through the Building Safety legislation, confronting the housebuilders, stopping the dire wastage of funds on Help to Buy, reforming the planning system in a way that will not upset the Tory heartlands too much, and bringing forward social housing reform. Not to mention investment in new homes. Whether he will do the ‘right thing’ by social housing, or just the politically expedient thing, we shall have to wait and see. 

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network on 22nd September 2021)

A Squalid Tale

Daniel Hewitt’s documentary Surviving Squalor on Sunday night was both shocking and hard to watch. It condemns our sector, and should make everyone who works in it thoroughly ashamed.

It makes me wonder if I have been wasting my time for the last 40 plus years working in and advocating for social housing – some of those images made Rachman look benevolent.

I thought that social housing was meant to rescue people from the evils of private rented housing?

It would be very easy to claim that the cases highlighted in Hewitt’s film are one-offs, but he says he has received thousands of messages and emails with similar stories.

They are clearly the summit of a very large iceberg and provide evidence of some degree of systemic failure.

It seems to me that many of the awful cases highlighted in the film were repair jobs that could have been fixed relatively easily – but had been ignored causing more widespread damage.

So, who or what is to blame for this state of affairs?

There is a gang of six ‘culprits’ in my mind. 

First, the government, of course. The absurd and illogical fetishisation of homeownership since 2010 has condemned social housing to a second-class status and added to the culture I mention below.

Second, the boards and housing committees running these landlords are not leading and controlling in the way that they should.

For councillors to allow disrepair like this – managing homes in a discrete geographical area – is unforgivable. What happened to councillor surgeries? To complaint systems? To accountability and democratic control?

For the large housing associations in the film, the disgraceful images are, to a degree, more explicable. These outfits have become too large to fail but too big to provide the humane, local service that tenants deserve. Their board members, too often recruited from banks, law firms, and the corporate sector, have little or no notion of the human lives that are under their control.

The message for these boards should be: escape from your ivory tower and experience the reality of life in your homes; overhaul your systems to allow tenants a real say in your affairs and a proper redress for problems; ensure that all of your homes are brought up to the Decent Home Standard as quickly as possible.

Even if this is not possible, keeping homes watertight and dry should be an absolute priority. Divert funds from newbuild to invest in what you have.

Third are the (mostly) male senior executives who set the tone for their organisations. I have been in the sector for too long and I know what drives too many of them – empire building, growth at all costs, awards, conferences, status, testosterone – rather than basic service delivery.

The recent stream of self-congratulatory tweets coming out of Manchester was evidence that the pandemic has changed nothing, other than its utility as a cover-all excuse for all failings.

Fourth on my list is the regulator.

The standards are too weak, and they are not properly publicised and enforced. The RSH has allowed mammoth mergers to take place without demur and has failed to enforce stock transfers or to break up failing landlords. The fact that tenants have been unable to approach the RSH directly, or that the RSH cannot inspect even the very worst offenders is not good enough.

Tenants should be provided with a hotline where they can speak directly to an investigator. If your electrics are sodden with water, if you are breathing mould-infested air, that amounts to serious detriment by any measure. Yet I doubt if Mr Sheikh in his south London council flat had even heard of the Regulator, yet alone knew how to take a complaint of serious detriment through the stages.

Next on my list is the culture that still pervades many parts of social housing.

Apart from the growth-at-all-costs issue I mentioned above, there is still a widespread view in the sector that tenants are a nuisance; that no serious citizen would willingly be a social housing tenant; that many problems (condensation, anti-social behaviour) are down to lifestyle rather than landlord neglect. Notions of the deserving and undeserving poor still pervades the sector.

Some councils resent the fact that they own social housing at all (the ghost of Lady Porter is still hovering in some quarters). In Hewitt’s film, the response of one landlord to a complainant was telling: “Angela’s case is not straightforward.

Treating people as cases and customers rather than human beings and legally protected tenants is part of the problem. If you watched Channel 4’s recent Grenfell:  the untold story or the interview from 2018 with the powerfully articulate Eddie Daffarn, the Grenfell activist who foretold the fire, you will see where this unhealthy culture can lead.  

Sixth on my list are the trade and professional bodies. The NHF has stood by and said nothing whilst these mega empires were being created.

So long as their subscriptions were being paid they kept quiet, held to ransom by the largest landlords. Meanwhile, the CIH has failed to build up sound professional standards. When I studied for my CIH qualification we spent ages learning property law, and the technicalities of construction and mechanical and electrical services.

As far as I am aware, this has slipped in recent decades and the qualification levels are now much woollier. I recall a past CIH chief executive telling us that professionalism meant “being as good as you can be”. I am sorry, but if I go under the surgeon’s knife, I would like it to be with someone who knows what they are doing, rather than “the best they can be”. 

Do we know what we are doing?

The overwhelming themes of Surviving Squalor were of tenants being ignored, not being taken seriously, and not being treated as human beings; of staff who would not listen or act, who were either incompetent or negligent, or both; and of boards and councillors who were remote and ignorant of problems. The regulator was an absent presence.

So, we need a root and branch review: governance, regulation, competence, culture, and a return to the founding purposes of social housing.

Putting people back at the heart of everything we do is an absolute necessity. People as human beings, who deserve to be listened to and respected. Unless we put our houses in order, the rot will continue. 

(This blog was first published by the Housing Quality Network on 16th September 2021)