Standing up for social tenants and leaseholders
A big part of my role as a councillor is supporting tenants of social landlords or Housing Associations (HAs). This post is designed to be an extended general explanation of the history of HAs, my experience of them since my election and what I am doing to represent residents in Bow West.
Background and history
Housing Associations are an invention of the Blair/Brown government and were initially intended as a way to improve service provision for tenants or leaseholders of social housing. Councils previously managed their social housing stock in-house, meaning all repairs, maintenance and general upkeep of properties was managed centrally alongside the council’s other service areas. The service suffered from poor management and funding, which resulted in poor service for tenants and leaseholders.
The invention of the social landlord was a welcome change for many residents. Initially, the social landlords were small, local not-for-profits. Repairs personnel were often local residents themselves, or became deeply embedded in their local areas. Strong local relationships made for efficient service and a positive interpersonal experience for most. While there were of course frustrations, the levels of service were greatly improved.
Incorporation into larger organisations
However the honeymoon did not last long. These small local landlords started to be bought up by ever larger organisations. The argument in favour of merging organisations is always one of efficiency: why should 40 social landlords exist in Tower Hamlets with their own separate IT, HR and administrative functions? Surely it would be better and cheaper for tenants and leaseholders is all these could be combined?
And so, across the borough, small local landlords were progressively incorporated into ever larger landlords. In Bow, Old Ford Community housing was bought up by Circle, which later became Clarion.
The upshot of this efficiency drive, however, is that the benefits of the invention of social landlords were immediately lost. Size really does matter in these circumstances. Managing housing stock is extremely challenging and often requires a coordinated response to resolve individual issues. Coordination in smaller organisations is easier because issues can often be managed with a minimum of administration. Larger organisations rely on technology and effective administration to work well, which often is lacking because of poor management structures.
If the council struggled to maintain good service on their housing stock when it was managed in-house, it’s unlikely that a huge national organisation like Clarion is going to be able to do a better job.
What does this mean for tenants and leaseholders?
All of this means that a huge proportion of my casework involves chasing social landlords to do, in some cases, very basic repair works. More often than not, however, there are multiple issues which have remained unresolved for years and tenants have given up pushing for them to be fixed because it’s just too difficult to get their landlords to properly fix things.
Since being elected, I’ve accompanied tenants/leaseholders to meetings with their social landlords to hold the landlords to account over their inaction or overcharging of service charges. Often there is no easy answer to resolve the issues and tenants are understandably extremely frustrated at the length of time that issues have taken to resolve.
Why do HAs get away with doing a bad job?
The primary issue I see that needs resolving is the lack of oversight on social landlords. They have no external threat of competition; the council has limited resources to police their actions and hold them to account; their revenue streams are never threatened because tenants and leaseholders aren’t able to organise a rent strike on a large enough scale to be effective.
What am I doing to tackle these issues?
I sit on the Housing and Regeneration Scrutiny Sub-Committee which is designed to monitor the performance of the social landlords. However this committee meets only 6 times per year and is already overworked, so its scope to monitor the situation and effectively hold these landlords to account is limited.
In my role as ward councillor, I do my best to hold the biggest players in my ward (Clarion and Gateway) to account on a case-by-case basis in bi-weekly meetings. However this is laborious and highly detailed and only focuses on the symptoms rather than the causes of the issues.
I am unable to say what a perfect solution would be to this situation. However I’m clear that the current situation is untenable. Large organisations like Clarion are making tenants and leaseholders’ lives miserable while having no governance structures in place to ensure consequences for their failings. This would be unacceptable in the private sector, so why is it okay here? I see this as yet another way in which working classes in our society are penalised for no other reason than being poor.