The merger of two housing associations, Affinity Sutton and Circle Housing, will create one of the largest housing associations in Europe. Nearly half a million people across London, from Bromley to Brent, from Chelsea to Chingford, will become tenants of this new social landlord. It will own and run 127,000 properties.
Housing associations should be a vital part of the solution to Britain’s housing crisis. They provide affordable, quality, rented and shared-ownership accommodation, and the best ones are anchored in their communities. Many provide specialist housing services, for example for people with disabilities. Some housing associations have historical roots in the nineteenth century, and the mutual and co-operative traditions.
But in recent months I have become concerned that these progressive aims have become subverted, and the not-for-profit ethos of housing associations is being undermined. Some housing associations which were designed to be responsive to their residents and on the side of local communities have become more like the private landlords to which they were supposed to provide an alternative.
If the merger between Affinity Sutton and Circle goes ahead in the form proposed, it may mean local housing offices close. After much protest, the initial threat of closure the office on the Roman Road in Bow in my constituency was dropped. However, the question of local accountability remains. Earlier this year, residents in the East End staged a mass protest against this erosion of accountability. More than a thousand residents have signed a petition calling for Old Ford to remain a locally accountable housing association as promised in the stock transfer which created it.
When Circle Housing took over the housing stock from Tower Hamlets Council, residents of the Old Ford neighbourhood were promised that their landlord would remain a community-based housing association, locally-managed and locally-accountable. I wrote to the chief executive of Circle to express my concerns that this merger will see local residents lose this in place of an impersonal conglomerate.
In other ways, Circle Housing have systematically failed local people. I have had to deal with hundreds of complaints from residents living in housing managed by Circle Housing. Other MPs have told me of similar cases. Last winter, it failed to manage its heating repairs properly, meaning many tenants had no heating or hot water for days. Many other examples have been brought to my attention, of missed appointments, repairs left undone, poor quality work conducted by contractors and a failure to communicate with residents. Tower Hamlets Council has called on the Homes and Communities Agency to take further action on the performance of Circle.
Some of the cases are heart-breaking: residents carrying umbrellas indoors because of leaking ceilings; a heavy heater falling off a wall, near small children playing on the floor; lifts breaking down on a weekly basis; 30 flats left without lights for weeks. No-one should have to live like this.
It is 60 years since the Rachman scandal shocked the country, and ushered in new protections for tenants from unfair rents and intimidation. Yet here in the East End, the spirit of Rachman lives on, in the shape of a body designed to be so much better than an exploitative and uncaring landlord.
Unlike private landlords, though, the housing associations receive billions in public subsidy from the taxpayer. Between 2010-2016, Circle Housing alone received over £250m of Government funding. They are regulated by the Housing and Communities Agency (HCA), which was established in 2008. The HCA has some duties to enforce consumer rights, but these do not go far enough. We have a right to expect greater enforcement of service delivery standards, especially on repairs and upkeep, by the regulator. We need more robust systems to process complaints, adjudicate in disputes and provide redress when things go wrong. Wherever possible, tenants should be in the driving seat of planning programmes of repairs, because they know best what the priorities are.
I don’t believe for a moment that Circle is alone in providing a shoddy service, nor that the merger is the only one of its kind in the UK. Instead, there may well be a trend towards bigger, more remote, less accountable housing associations, with multi-million pound turnovers and substantial assets and reserves, behaving like companies, not serving their communities. This is the antithesis to their founding principles, and the opposite of what is needed now to fix the housing crisis.
A Circle Housing spokesperson said in response to this op-ed:
“As a responsible charitable housing association we are committed to providing secure social housing at sub market rents and a good responsive repairs service to our tenants and these aims will continue to be a priority for the new organisation. We are continuing to make improvements to the repairs and maintenance service that we offer to our customers in Tower Hamlets, and this is on top of the £100m Circle Housing has invested in improving homes in this area.”