Before becoming Sadiq Khan’s Deputy Mayor for Housing, I was a councillor in Islington – and like many local councillors, my relationship with large housing associations was severely strained by the fallout of the government’s 2016 Housing and Planning Act.
This Act laid the ground for an extension of the Right to Buy to housing association tenants, with discounts to be funded by proceeds from the forced sale of council homes in higher value areas. It pitched the interests of housing associations directly against those of many councils. It is a great relief that – following sustained calls by many of us – forced council home sales seem finally to have been abandoned by ministers in their last social housing green paper.
To give credit where it’s due, many housing associations in London have worked hard to improve their relationship with Sadiq Khan and councils since that falling out. When we took office at City Hall, we were determined to build homes at social rent levels, despite there being no national funding for social rent at all. We developed an innovative way around the problem and, thanks to many housing associations working with us, last year we started work on more homes at social rent levels than in any year since the responsibility for housing in London was given to the Mayor.
Likewise, the g15 – the group of London’s largest housing associations – recently set out its new “Offer to London”, which includes, amongst other commitments, an offer of expertise and practical assistance to support new council housing. We hope this will help boost efforts of the 28 councils across London who are part of “Building Council Homes for Londoners” – City Hall’s first-ever programme dedicated to council housing which the Mayor launched earlier last year.
But we should continue to be honest with housing associations where we think they could do better. A desire to build more homes can make mergers seem attractive, as they can bring an increase in housing associations’ capacity to build. But getting bigger can risk making management more remote from, and less responsive and accountable to, the residents for whom the housing associations are landlords.
My appeal to housing associations facing this tension would be to make sure that, as they work with us to build more social rented and other genuinely affordable homes, they must maintain a focus on providing the best-possible services for existing residents too.
This feeling was evident amongst housing association tenants who my team and I met, in a series of discussions we set up to help inform the Mayor’s response to the government’s social housing green paper. The most common complaint amongst tenants we spoke to was that landlords’ procedures were inaccessible or slow, and lacked transparency. The best solution in many people’s view would be for there to be a single named person, locally based, to act as a point of contact for complaints and concerns.
At City Hall, we have made clear that, although social housing regulation is run nationally and not devolved to the Mayor in London, we will nonetheless regularly monitor housing associations’ performance where we have concerns. More broadly, I hope that housing associations will make sure the quality of service for residents is a key part of their approach in line with their social purpose – and indeed, many housing associations I have raised this with have been aware of these concerns and already taken these points on board.
It is vital that, through providing the best-possible service, housing associations maintain the trust of their residents – and indeed councillors, MPs, and mayors. This trust will help us all proceed with confidence to work together to build the new social rented and other genuinely affordable homes that Londoners so desperately need.