The world of housing is in flux. As the fog of war begins to clear, we can begin to see what the future may bring.
The next few years will not be comfortable for housing associations. Vulnerable tenants and deprived communities will be at the sharp end of cuts in public services, not to mention rising food and fuel prices. The ranks of the unemployed will swell with those losing their jobs in the health service, local authorities and other public organisations. A new system of benefits will be implemented against a backdrop of reduced public spending, and pensions are set to drop.
In the housing sector, our twin regulatory and inspection bodies are to be scrapped. Our funder – the Homes and Communities Agency ? is set to become our regulator. And some rents will rise to 80 per cent of market level, with proceeds funding more near-market rent homes.
Functioning as social businesses, housing associations will need to get better at strategic asset management, ‘sweating’ existing assets to produce new homes. Property maintenance will be an increasing challenge, even if the loss of inspection will mean that excellence becomes less of a priority for some.
So where is the silver lining?
Well – for a start – it could have been so much worse. Housing associations have not had to make swingeing job cuts (yet). The rent-setting formula has been agreed for the next few years, and brings much-needed stability in income streams. Even if 80 per cent market rents are far from being social housing, at least there will be some development of new homes to satisfy the intermediate market. And given how much we’ve loved to complain over the last few years, the reduction in regulation and inspection can’t be all bad.
Looking at the bigger picture, the Big Society agenda plays to many housing associations’ strengths. We are about neighbourhoods, partnerships with tenants and civil society for social change. The new government may not love associations, but for now, we are at least a necessary evil, with an important role in delivering new homes. There are genuine new freedoms for associations, with the possibility of moving to a more independent future.
True, there are many questions, but at least there is a system, and people who are keen to make it work, so that some people, albeit not those in the greatest need, will be housed by it.
The new world will be risky, uncertain and uncomfortable. But in less than four years a new government will be in power, with new priorities, which we hope will include social justice and housing. So let’s all make the best of things for now, so we and our tenants survive these turbulent years, ready to take things forward when the time comes.