Kate Davies is Chief Executive of the Notting Hill Housing Trust. Kate has also been a Council housing director and has worked with Councillors from all parties in London and the south east. She offers some tips on how Councils should engage with Housing Associations.
Many Councillors and MPs, of all parties, often criticise Housing Associations, and say they are unaccountable, terrible at delivering services or more interested in making money than in helping the homeless.
And many Associations will counter that over the past 40 years we have been turned from independent charities, with lots of vim and vigour, into bodies that are little more than an agent for national and local government.
In my view HAs and councils are very similar bodies. Both are trying to deliver centrally driven targets for new homes, decent homes, homeless acceptances and length of time in temporary accommodation. We build homes to a size and shape specified by government, house the people the government determines must get priority, and run our services in a way that is fixed by the Audit Commission. Not much room for innovation, entrepreneurship or responsiveness to the variety of desires and wishes of our customers. Our staff soon become demoralised as they scurry around trying to make the estates cleaner and the tenants happier.
How could Councils get more out of associations? Here is my advice:
- Treat them as independent bodies that you can influence but not control.
- Always remember that associations are politically neutral and work with many different types of Councils, not just yours.
- Meet their boards and get to understand their objectives. Try to find common ground. If they are very different from yours, try to influence them. You have been elected to represent local people, after all. Some HA s would welcome a Councillor on their Board, but not all associations. In general cultivate relationships and be open about what you would like to achieve.
- Share your strategies and experiences with them. What is your vision for your own housing? How can housing providers do more to help tenants find work, behave responsibly and progress into home ownership when they can afford it?
- Suggest joint approaches where you have common ground eg on green issues, great design, customer involvement, transfer policy, getting tenants into work, education or to learn English, etc.
- Use Council newsletters and the local press to push a positive message about what housing associations can do. This usually works better than irate Councillors saying that HA s are inefficient, hopeless, etc.
- Work together to challenge Government orthodoxies if they get in the way of what you are trying to do at a local level. A national housing policy is neither achievable nor desirable. But not all associations are the same either.