Tuesday 21 November 2006

Leadership in communities

Conference for smaller housing associations, London, 31 October 2006

This annual event organised by the National Housing Federation, was a corporate jamboree with an eye on the contemporary political agenda, as suggested by its snappier subtitle ‘Leadership in communities’. Small housing associations, said the blurb for the opening keynote, ‘are essential to the well being of a community and more importantly, the sense of community’. Their new ‘wider role’, we learned in the second plenary, required associations to be ‘community anchors’, an argument put forward by Heather Petch, director of Housing Associations Charitable Trust (HACT). An argument that I, speaking on the platform with her, opposed.

Petch advocated that housing associations become ‘community builders’ rather than builders in the community (geddit?). This would be an opportunity to influence the government, as it courts the independent sector in an ostensible drive to ‘devolve’ power and ‘involve’ communities. Never mind that this is a distraction from the pressing need for more and better homes, surely housing associations’ ‘core business’, to use the jargon. Indeed, Petch was keen to endorse the proposal in the Housing Corporation’s Neighbourhood Strategy Consultation to relax the current restriction on non-housing business to 49%. The uninitiated would be forgiven for thinking that this figure should be closer to the 100% mark, given the ‘housing’ brief of housing associations.

But this would be to underestimate how politicised social policy and public service delivery has become since the New Labour government came to office in 1997. The health service doesn’t just treat the sick (but cultivates the worried well), schools don’t just attend to young minds (but to the contents of their lunch boxes too), and housing associations don’t just house people. They are set on course to becoming the ‘landlords from hell’ by intruding more and more in tenants’ lives. By adopting a policing role and turfing out antisocial neighbours, for instance. Or by encouraging a therapeutic relationship with residents by trying to reduce teenage pregnancy in the area, or tackling ‘financial exclusion’ (on which I will elaborate in a moment).

I suggested that rather than becoming new intermediaries in the government’s demeaning (for all involved) politics of behaviour, they instead stick to what they know. Not only because the politics of behaviour is intrusive but also because it is evasive. Instead of promoting ‘decent’ behaviour in ‘decent’ neighbourhoods, housing associations should concentrate on ensuring that it’s housing stock is ‘decent’ ie up to standard, and in sufficient supply. A couple of agreeable delegates approached me afterwards to say they had been made weary by the insistent haranguing that they engage with their communities. They were evidently only too happy to manage their housing stock (rather than their tenant’s lives), and content to engaging with tenants on the appropriately narrowest of terms. I pointed out that the government was not only courting housing associations, but (extended) schools, children’s centres and even hospitals, as new community centres or ‘hubs’ around which community life would circulate. They couldn’t all play this role even if it were a desirable one.

I had been accused by one delegate of ignoring poverty and deprivation. But the point, it seemed to me, was that housing associations were being asked to do the government’s bidding, by ‘connecting’ with local constituencies on its behalf. This flirting with the sector was a self-serving and cynical political exercise, that could only trivialise the real problems and hardships experienced in the poorest of neighbourhoods. And in prostituting themselves in this way, it seemed to me, housing associations would inevitably undermine their relationship with tenants and the communities of which they were part. This was confirmed by another delegate outraged by my ‘naive libertarianism’. Her outburst about pregnant 16-year-olds jumping the housing queue and Polish bus drivers on drugs, only confirmed the likely consequences of this descent into the petty politics of behaviour. It no doubt appeals to the prejudices and interests of the more reactionary associations keen to keep a tighter rein on their inadequate tenants.

Which brings me back to the painful ‘breakout session’ (don’t you just hate those?) on ‘financial inclusion’. It wasn’t just that we were instructed to toss inflatable dice around the room to show how unlucky hapless tenants are, or that we had to read stock answers from cue cards that bothered me. It was more that the patronising, infantilising tone wasn’t restricted to delegates but also used to talk about tenants who, we were led to believe, are not only poor, but even poorer because they’re stupid when it comes to holding on to what little money they have (or ‘financially illiterate’).

Are all tenants gullible, lacking in common sense when it comes to budget management or just the ones in Manchester from where our charming hosts hailed? They weren’t saying. Were tenants more illiterate than before, I asked? Probably not said the chummy facilitator - we’re just more ‘aware’ now. The jolly husband and wife team - he couldn’t help but slip in the occasional reference to the size of his housing stock, amongst ‘smaller’ friends - slid all too easily from tales from the estate about how helpless tenants were at the mercy of loan sharks; to corner of the mouth advice, landlord to landlord, about how intruding on the budget management decisions of your tenants, ensures they pay their rent rather than buying that big telly they always seem to find the money for. Cue: knowing laughs.

Poverty does not emanate from the intellectual failings of tenants, but from the historic failure to develop the material base of localities affected by long-standing economic decline. But again, as I tried to get across in my speech, this debate isn’t about deprived communities but about a political elite deprived of ideological sustenance and a wider legitimacy. It is the poverty of politics that is driving the community agenda. Fragmentation, the absence of a coherent set of values and behavioural norms, I argued, are projected onto run-down and poverty-stricken estates - but they originate in Westminster.

As the blurb for an earlier session made plain, these smaller housing associations hold their independence. and their closer links with communities of which they are a part, dear. ‘Why change?’ it asks. Why indeed? Playing the game in the hope of attracting much-needed resources might seem pragmatic, but it comes with strings attached. Heather Petch complained that associations are ‘straitjacketed’ by regulation. But I think the opposite is the case. As the workshop on community cohesion encouraging delegates to consider how they might ‘create and maintain vibrant communities’ demonstrated, they are being over-stretched. The Third Sector (that is, voluntary and community organisations) now has a seat in government, a corner in the Cabinet Office. They are charged with revitalising civil society, a role they cannot possibly fulfill. The housing sector, keen for a piece of the action, would do well to resist the modest charms of the government as it simultaneously sucks them dry of resources for new homes. To coin a phrase, they are being financially excluded. I only hope they are not as gullible as they think their tenants are.

An edited extract of Dave Clements’ speech can be found on the SocietyGuardian website. He will be chairing a discussion on The Therapy Rooms: building esteem or housing discontent at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London on Tuesday 27 February, 2007.


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