Housing associations are under pressure - but we're doing our best

Housing associations face a fraught future - but this deal is a good one, says David Orr.

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I read with interest Tom Copley’s piece on the offer that that we at the National Housing Federation are considering making to government on their manifesto commitment to extend Right to Buy to housing association tenants.  His is a voice worth listening to.  Since his election as a member of the London Assembly he has been a strong advocate for solving the capital’s housing crisis and he has regularly been at the forefront of London’s debate on the issue.

However, Tom has misrepresented the nature of our potential offer to government and in doing so has cast aspersions on the housing association movement as a whole.

Firstly, and to be completely clear, the offer is voluntary.  Our offer, if accepted by the government, will mean that housing associations will have discretion not to sell.  We offer a presumption in favour of sale in most circumstances but the final decision rests with the board.  With a statutory RTB, the decision is taken by the government.  The discounts that the government wishes to offer to tenants would in some circumstances be portable and the sector – all 1,100 of the associations we represent – would adapt and distribute the burden amongst themselves depending on their specific organisation’s priorities.  Some would sell many homes whilst others might sell few.  It is that flexibility which makes this offer much more suitable for housing associations.

Tom points out that the Conservative manifesto says the scheme will be paid for by the government requiring councils to sell off high value empty homes.  This would require legislation and can be challenged in Parliament.  We in the Federation have not endorsed this proposal and we don’t do so now. 

Tom goes on to accuse us of “collaborating” in a “shady deal” to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.  I will ignore the loaded implications of his language here and instead focus on the facts.  Housing associations are independent social businesses. The Conservative government won the election on a manifesto that included the extension of Right to Buy to housing associations.  We believe a statutory obligation to sell our homes would compromise the independence of housing associations and lead to a high risk that they are classified as public bodies.   Our offer would substantially reduce that risk.  The risk that housing associations might lose their ability to make their own decisions, determine the use of their own assets and own their own future is one I cannot take.  The consequences for our ability to build the homes we desperately need would be severe. 

Finally, Tom says agreeing to this deal would be an act of “self-interest not social conscience”.  To that I say – if it is self-interested to want to retain our independence, which has been fundamental in enabling us to secure £76 billion in private investment over the last 30 years, build 50,000 homes last year and provide five million men, women and children across the country with homes and security, then I plead self-interest.  But do not question the social conscience of the thousands of people we represent who work tirelessly every day to build and run those homes for those men, women and children who need them.

I understand the strong feelings on this issue.  I believe that we share with Tom a commitment to providing the new homes the nation needs. But I firmly and passionately believe that the offer hope to make to government safeguards housing associations’ businesses and social missions in the years and decades to come and allows us to deliver that ambition.

David Orr is Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation.

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