This article was originally commissioned by ‘The Guardian’ back in August. They then backed off it, apparently under legal advice. I’m not sure what they were worried about, but I’m going to publish and be damned (or sued) because I think the recent and current actions of one housing association illustrate the future, particularly if the Housing and Planning Act comes into force. In the run-up to the national ‘Axe the Housing Act’ summit on 22nd October, it would be great if people could share. I’ve also been in touch with one of the tenants Riverside is trying to evict and the struggle continues, so it would be good to draw some attention to it.
UK housing faces a very uncertain future as the Housing Act spreads deep anxiety throughout the sector. The legislation is due to return to parliament and campaigners are demanding the government thinks again. But some of the threats are already becoming apparent, including those to housing workers.
The increasing pressures on staff are already biting. Our union is receiving more complaints of cost-cutting and heavy-handed management, particularly as housing associations (HAs) react to the double whammy of 1% rent cuts and the looming financial dangers of the Act.
But big HAs can’t just portray themselves as victims. They have significant discretion about whether or not to implement the government’s policies, but some seem to be using them as a pretext for job cuts and attacking workers’ pay and conditions.
Unite has expressed its ‘dismay’ at proposed redundancies at Riverside HA, an organisation which last year made a £45 million surplus and paid its chief executive £183,781. Despite this, Riverside plans to cut 64 jobs in Cumbria as the first wave of what could be 300 – 400 job losses across its national operation of 52,000 homes in 150 local authorities. Among those threatened with losing their jobs are skilled trades people, precisely the occupations we need to protect if, as Jeremy Corbyn argues, we’re going to build and maintain the homes we need.
Cuts affecting housing workers and tenants go hand-in-hand. Earlier this year, Riverside slashed 22 jobs in Carlisle when it closed its Careline operation which served 4,000 vulnerable and elderly people. A spokesperson for the Carlisle Tenants and Residents Federation says:
‘We’ve monitored Riverside closely since it took over the city’s 6,000 council homes 14 years ago. We’ve found them unaccountable, bossy and dictatorial.’
At the other end of the country, the organisation has issued ‘no fault’ eviction notices to 7 households in a 33-home block in Maidstone, Kent. The existing tenants complain about Riverside’s poor repairs service and failure to respond to complaints, which they link to the organisation’s aim of emptying the block where they live of ‘social’ tenants, including families with children.
Andrew is one of the people Riverside is trying to remove. He received an eviction order with no warning, but he’s fighting it.
‘They’re callous and incompetent, but it’s obvious what they’re up to. They even have a subsidiary of Savills advising them! The rent for my 3 bedroom flat is £650 a month. The full market rent would be between £950 and £1,000. I can’t afford that, but Riverside wants to cash in.’
One of the major concerns within the Act is the extension of the Right to Buy to HAs. That puts more jobs at risk, will lengthen waiting lists, increase homelessness and ramp up the pressures on front-line housing workers. But instead of joining the broad alliance of opposition to the Act, or at least waiting to see how the deeply flawed legislation fares when parliamentarians get another look at it, Riverside chose to be part of a pilot project for selling off its homes! Turkeys and Christmas spring to mind. But this is too serious for flippancy, when the Chartered Institute of Housing is predicting the loss of 350,000 social rented homes by 2020.
Riverside’s activities are symptomatic of a broken housing policy with the wrong priorities. Steve Power from the Unite union in the North-West says:
“This is happening everywhere. I was at a conference recently where a HA CEO said ‘Social housing is finished. From now on staff will be expected to work on a completely commercial basis.”
Some HAs have become increasingly detached from their founding principles, replacing local face-to-face relationships with remote call centres and impersonal layers of management. Under the Housing Act they’ll be given even more freedom to pursue commercial activities with less supervision. The culture-gap between big HAs and the people who work for them and live in their homes will widen.
But dehumanised housing services don’t work. Housing workers won’t let our sector become like Sports Direct and tenants won’t accept being used as pawns in a corporate property game. Together we can Axe the Act and put people back at the centre of housing policy.