Monday, June 16, 2008

“After the Housing market fails…”

This packed lunchtime fringe was addressed by Pete Challis, the UNISON National Officer (Local Government and Housing) and Alan Walters from Defend Council Housing. The meeting was chaired by John Martin, Chair of the National Community and Voluntary Sector Forum.

Alan spoke first and he appeared to be very conciliatory towards Housing associations and their staff. Making it clear that DCH was not against them as such, rather that they wanted a equal playing field for tenants to make meaningful choices between remaining tenants of Councils or transferring to a Housing association (or ALMO etc). He felt that tenants were being blackmailed into voting for Housing associations by government policy. While DCH did not have a “fetish” about Council housing, they feel that “warts and all”, Council housing has provided decent housing for working class people for many years. He pointed out that there are still 2.5 million Council tenants and some 200 Councils who have still kept their stock. The “success” of DCH he believes is due to it being a unique broad base coalition of tenants, trade unions and councillors from all political parties.

Alan argued that such is the failure of the market in recent times means that there is no alternative to Council’s building homes again and he pointed out that now is an ideal time to obtain (not buy interestingly) all the properties and land banks that private developers cannot sell.

DCH has been very controversial in my branch. Some members are very, very opposed to the DCH and are genuinely concerned about their tactics and motivation. However, at our AGM a motion for our continued affiliation to DCH to continue was passed with fairly widespread support. All the major unions remain affiliated as well.

For years Housing issues use to be thought as a bit boring and very much a side issue. Nowadays, as Pete Challis pointed out it is top of the agenda. Social, Economic and Political. So far over 23,000 homes have negative equity, there is a mortgage famine, repossessions (45,000) are starting to creep up and there are fewer new build starts (from 42,000 down to 32,000). Developers such as Persimmon and Barratt have had their share price decimated. Council lettings and transfer have begun to dry up in certain areas as existing tenants now cannot move out and buy in the private sector. This means that overcrowding and homeless needs are not being met. Existing 106 agreements (called after a section 106 of a housing act – private developers pay for environmental and social improvements in return for planning permission. Many associations rely on this to build social housing) are in danger and new ones of course will be more difficult. This means that the viability of many regeneration schemes is in danger.

Peter also pointed out the issues regarding the cuts and long term uncertainty affecting Supporting People funding (which pays for housing workers who provide vital support for vulnerable residents). The major housing association, London and Quadrant, has recently decided to pull out of Supporting People putting many jobs at risk and affecting 1850 vulnerable tenants.

There is in one small way an upside for housing associations since they have an opportunity to add to stock. Since many developers are desperate to sell. However, often such developments are not always suitable for social housing (for example they may be built in an area with no good public transport links)

He also pointed out the awful wages and conditions that many housing association staff receives. While UNISON members earn far more on average than non-members, some 25% earn less than £17,000 per year; some earn less than £6 per hour; 20% have either no occupational pension or a poor quality money purchase scheme; 1 in 6 have had no training in the last 12 months! UNISON is developing an organising strategy to take these problems on.

While she was housing minister, Yvette Cooper announced that there will be a review of the infamous Housing Revenue Account (HRA). “To ensure that we have a sustainable, long term system for financing council housing”. Yvette has now moved on (as housing ministers do) but she is now by co-incidence a treasury minister who has responsibility for the HRA. Many, many years ago I attended a meeting of residents and their local councillor, who was quite a senior figure. For nearly every local problem that came up, regardless of whether or not it was estate based, he said “Charge it to the HRA”. Due to “right to buy” is it appropriate that tenants only should pay the full cost for estate based community schemes even though 25% of tenures in that estate are now lease or free hold?

Finally, Peter made the key point that you will not make any sustainable headway in dealing with education, health, environment, child poverty, climate change, community cohesion or community safety unless you make housing policy part of it. This is what I call “joined up” thinking.

In the Q&A (or statements from the floor) I asked Pete whether or not housing associations could use the “downturn” as a reason to restrict pay rises of staff! I felt he was genuinely surprised that this could be used as an excuse. We had a good chat about it after the meeting.

Chair, John Martin, ended the debate, remaking as he did that he has been in construction and housing for many, many years and he never seen the market in such state. He is really worried about the future.


Anonymous said...

You should have asked him what the labour slogan "No more boom nor bust!" meant.. and whatever happened to lucky Gordon the so called "Iron Chancellor" and his great cluncking fist? The latest poll puts him as more unpopular than Neville Chamberlain after Dunkirk. Labour are just incompetent when it comes to the econmoy...and now they can't spend their way out of impending disaster because we are fully taxed up and have the highest levels of debt in the developed world..brilliant. A few hundred tanker drivers on 40K each holding the country to ransom just about sums up this bunch of amateurs.

Anonymous said...

Hi John, great post plenty to think about, bring us back a stick of rock please. a diet one

John Gray said...

Hi Anon
wait and see - wait and see. It ain't over yet!