This month housing association leaders struggle to come to terms with yet another tragic and avoidable death due to the inactions of a social housing provider. This time damp and mould leading to the sad loss of Awaab Ishak whose beautiful smiling face can be seen across the media.
For over a year now a young man Kwajo Tweneboa has been running a single person campaign highlighting dismal conditions in social housing. This has coincided with an ITV series covering the same ground. Recently the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) and Michael Gove issued a press statement entitled “Time’s Up For Rogue Landlords” it started with the cancelling of Rochdale Borough Housing’s development funding and included reference to a letter to councils and housing associations about raising the bar in their action on damp and mould.
There is a real sense that social housing providers are on trial, as the need for more social housing has never been more pressing. It is a conundrum. Last year a person experiencing homelessness died roughly every 12 hours according to data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). There are almost 100,000 households in temporary accommodation including well over that number of children. The country needs a social housing sector more than ever, however it needs one which lives up to its values and purpose.
There is a danger that because organisations have been set up to do ‘good’ that they are indeed ‘goodies’. We need to ‘walk the talk’ (it’s almost impossible to find a housing association which doesn’t have a version of ‘putting customers at the centre of our work’ as one of their values). I have worked in this sector for over thirty years and have seen much good in terms of service and accommodation. I have also seen the dark side. In the 1990s a friend of mine started working for a council housing department and heard tenants on benefits described as ‘sub-normals’, I also remember visiting a council flat as a local councillor which had more mushrooms in it than Sainsbury’s. It was a in a block of ‘Cornish’ flats built in the 1950s from concrete panels on a steel frame. Its been demolished, houses now stand where it was. However, many thousands of substandard post-war buildings remain, difficult to heat, expensive to renovate. Add to these hundreds of tower blocks well past their sell by date. The country needs a large rebuilding as well as a building programme. Replacing existing homes could free up valuable brownfield sites on existing ‘council estates’ helping to regenerate those areas and also develop zero-carbon neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, there is no regeneration funding and social landlords are only able to obtain grant for ‘net additional homes’ making it unviable.
Under the last Labour Government, social landlords were directed to improve the quality of their homes based upon the ‘Decent Homes Standard’ but not enough homes were built. Under the Coalition the regulatory regime for providing quality services was dismantled and the focus shifted to delivering the maximum number of homes for the minimum level of funding. Now the emphasis is shifting once again to investment in homes, in their safety and thermal efficiency.
To make the real difference we need to be able to do both (to walk and chew gum), to regenerate estates, replacing homes, building new while improving the existing homes. However, whatever the financial and regulatory regime associations we need to demonstrate true empathy and respect for the people who depend upon our services and regain our right to be classified as ‘The Good Guys’.