In the not too distant past housing associations were small, local groups doing good work for those with special needs or in other ways complementing the social housing responsibility of local councils. They could even buy existing properties, thus saving them from becoming holiday homes.Then came the Right to Buy legislation that, among other things, stopped our councils from building new properties. Over time this role passed to the housing associations, who were now told to amalgamate or grow, with those that failed to do either being ‘demised’.
Social housing responsibility had transferred from impersonal and bureaucratic councils (boo!) to cuddly and approachable housing associations (hurrah!). But problems soon became apparent, especially in rural areas. Properties were being built for which there was obviously no local demand and for which tenants were appearing of whom neither hide nor hair had previously been sighted. Worse, many of these arrivals were not exactly model citizens; some obviously had – and all too often caused – what may delicately be called ‘problems’.
This is the situation that has obtained now for almost two decades: Vast amounts of money have been spent on social housing for people who have been brought in from God knows where to tenant that social housing. It is difficult to explain this system.
So a few weeks ago I decided to ask a few questions of Community Housing Cymru, the “membership body” for Welsh housing associations. My first question was (knowing already that surpluses generated must be re-invested), ‘If financial supluses have to be re-invested what would a housing association do if there was no local demand for more social housing and no way of spending all the surplus?’ The response was, ‘ . . . the surplus would be spent on community needs to overcome social disadvantage other than housing’. ‘Bollocks’, I thought. Even so, I asked, ‘Who would decide where and how the surplus was to be spent? Can you provide some case studies for where this has happened?’ This final e-mail was sent on August 3rd, I’m still waiting for a reply.
Quite clearly our housing associations are re-investing all their money in new properties . . . even when there is no local demand for those properties! They are little better now than private landlords. They are out of control, they are exceeding their stated role and they therefore need to be reined in. Now that the Notional Assembly claims to have authority over housing there should be no reason to delay the measures that are so clearly needed:
All surpluses generated that are not needed to meet established and proven local social housing need within a given locality will be spent on that locality’s other needs.
Housing Associations must have restored to them the right to buy existing properties.
Strong local connections must be the paramount criterion applied in the allocation of all social housing in Wales. And whilst those fleeing genuine persecution might be accepted there is no justification for someone who made themselves deliberately homeless in Birmingham being allocated social housing in Barmouth.
We need a national debate on the best means for providing Welsh social housing in the 21st century. The current arrangement of local councils working alongside housing associations and an increasing proliferation of other ‘enablers’ is an utter mess and becoming even more fragmentary and incomprehensible.
All involved must surely accept that the housing associations model that we have known for the past twenty years has failed Wales. It is time to move on to a new arrangement that costs less while also giving priority to Welsh needs and interests.