Bedroom tax for inept ‘social’ landlords is change quickly or die

This Saturday 19 October 2013 is day 202 of the bedroom tax which is Room 101 but twice as bad for ‘social’ housing. Time for review of these 202 days of misery and the issues an impacts they have raised, many of which were well-known and foreseeable and some unforeseen and a few which are genuinely surprising.

Here I argue that social landlords are not social and there is no such thing as the ‘social’ housing sector and that ‘social’ housing providers and their national lobbies were ill prepared for the radicalness of the welfare reforms and have responded in true Luddite style to them.  They have failed to frame the arguments and consistently on the back foot in having to respond to the coalition agenda and when they try to change that they prove themselves to be inept at doing so. A sole rocket up their backsides is far too little.

Private Registered Providers (PRPs) to give housing associations their correct name – though they like to call themselves RPs and miss off the ‘private’ bit – were ill prepared for and have responded badly to the radial nature of the welfare reforms of which the bedroom tax is just one element.  Council landlords and all their variants such as ALMOs were also ill prepared for and have reacted naively to the bedroom tax policy. 

Collectively they are usually called ‘social’ landlords though as ‘social’ means of the people the bedroom tax has proved ‘social’ housing to be a misnomer. These purported social landlords have seen housing as ‘bricks and mortar’ and not personal or of the people and that mindset still pervades despite ALL of the welfare reforms being about ‘people.’  The bedroom tax is about how many people live in a property not about the property itself and increasingly the appeal tribunals are looking at ‘housing need’ – the need of the people resident there not the property itself however ill described it may be. Yet these landlords still don’t get it and still see ‘social’ housing as bricks and mortar and lines on a balance sheet.

For a decade or more these purported social landlords have positioned themselves as ‘community champions’ or similar vague PR terms delivering a ‘housing plus’ service, that is not just a landlord but they champion the community and are best placed to deliver ‘added services’ such as anti social behaviour and help form credit unions or as Peabody announced today co-ordinate and administer food vouchers to their tenants.

The reality once you scratch under the surface only slightly is that this is smoke and mirrors and PR spin with very little substance.  Or in the worst extreme throwing good money after bad as alleged ‘social landlords’ spend £325m per year on anti-social behaviour yet their tenants get a worse service as the police who should do this work and are paid to do this work typically respond to enquiries about this with you’re a social tenant go to your landlord.  The Police of course cannot do this for the private tenant or the owner occupier and have to investigate which reveals why and how the social tenant gets a worse service.

However let’s get back to the bedroom tax and the radical changes it enforces on the social housing model.  The bedroom tax IS radical and IS an attack on the social housing model.  Landlords are being blamed by central government for their allocation policies and are being blamed for not building enough social properties, yet this is yet another smoke and mirrors exercise by government as the real fault lies with successive governments’ not prioritising social housing and not allowing the building of social housing units.  This coalition is particular keen to pro-actively blame all and sundry rather than face any criticism of its lack of intent, will and (in)actions towards social housing.  It is not just a deflection to a symptom of the real problem, the massive shortage; it is a case of the coalition framing the arguments, which of course the woeful and inept social housing ‘sector’ has allowed.

In reality there is no sector just a lot of uncoordinated landlords who are led by two national organisation and lobbies in CIH and NHF.  The NHF to their credit have tried to openly and publicly challenge the coalition’s welfare policies yet with little success as I will explain and is a huge issue for social housing.  The CIH are an irrelevance and the public silence from them has been deafening and when they have gone public it has only been with poor and errant advice from an organisation which self titles itself as brilliant!

But how dare I attack these organisation will be the stock response.  I am not aware of private lobbying that has gone on, etc will be the defence to my claim that CIH and NHF have two major problems.  One their lobbying of government is woeful and secondly they just don’t have a clue how to raise awareness in the general public, the hearts and minds of public opinion that matters so much in almost all sectors.

I am well aware of the amount of lobbying that goes on and kept informed by many who do this and have done this.  However, the purposes of lobbying whether in public or in private is to change and challenge government policy and in that regard housing lobbies have been woeful.  I don’t have to say any more than that as not one scrap of change has come forth from landlords lobbying.  The only two changes to the bedroom tax, the treatment of soldiers and foster carers has come from outside of housing circles and been successful because in the eyes of the general public these are deserving cases and unlike the undeserving case of the archetypal and stereotyped social tenant the Wayne and Waynettas who sit on their arses all day behind closed curtains watching Jeremy Kyle – that government perception that social housing lobbies have ALLOWED to become mainstream in public opinion.

Remind me when has a social housing provider or lobby challenged that view and stated that there are a million working people claiming housing benefit?  When has it been argued that private housing rents being so much higher than social rents ARE the biggest cause of the ‘welfare dependency’ argument?  When have social housing providers said the initial capital subsidies they receive save each taxpayer £170 in tax each year and save the country about £5bn as without them housing benefit costs would rise to private housing benefit payment levels?

I could go on with many more examples yet social housing provider and their lobbies have NOT framed or produced proactive arguments for the huge economic justification it has.  Instead they have let ‘social’ housing be seen and perceived as the housing of last resort.  How ironic is that given it is half the cost of private housing and provides a much better service to its customers and has millions on its waiting lists!  In what other sector would such dereliction of business duty be allowed to happen!

Much of the above is social housing providers variant of ‘we have always done it this way’ and ahead of the bedroom tax a strategy of ‘if it aint bust why fix it!”  Yet that totally neglects the radical nature of the bedroom tax (and other welfare ‘reforms.’)

What has happened since is illuminating.

In terms of PR and of the hearts and minds of the general public we saw just how ill-equipped social housing providers were in January 2013.  The NHF released an article which said that despite their efforts 57% of tenants were not aware of the bedroom tax.  Note that the bedroom tax received Royal Assent in March 2012 and so social housing providers had at least 10 months in which to tell its customers that if they have too many bedrooms they will get their HB reduced by the bedroom tax amount. Ignoring the huge knowledge within housing of the bedroom tax well before that it was 10 months time from March 2012 to January 2013 to tell just its own customers, the tenants which in number is far fewer than the general public.  That’s 220 working days to inform 660,000 tenant households or 3,000 households a day by the over 1000 ‘social’ landlords.  Each landlord to inform 3 tenants a day and they couldn’t do so!!

Now less than 10 months into the bedroom tax is there 57 people in the whole country who do not know what the bedroom tax is?    If that is not ill preparedness and inept practice then what is?

There was chronic ineptitude in social housing providers informing their tenants, their customers.  However much an individual landlord will say but we informed out tenants and the ‘sector’ knew and we ‘lobbied’ government etc., and that one issue alone reveals that what did happen was inept and incompetent.

So how come social housing providers and their lobbies didn’t get articles on TV and radio and in the national press – the places where they have been ever since February and stubbornly refused to go away since.  How come it took the widespread attention that the Independent newspaper got 6 weeks ago for the general public to realise that there are only enough smaller properties for less than 4% of the bedroom tax affected households to downsize to?  Yes across housing media this was rife and had been since the bedroom tax was announced but how come the claimed ‘sector’ never got that message across to the hearts and minds that is the general public?

That is an incredibly serious point.  I am fully aware that NHF and others said and issued releases to say there are too few smaller properties.  The point is while the world and his wife of housing knew that why didn’t the general public?  How come the ‘sector’ failed to get that point across and just who is responsible for getting such messages out?  The bedroom tax has revealed a chronic deficit in that area by the ‘sector’ and that has to be addressed.  Was it that the ‘sector’ did not see the importance of the hearts and minds of the general public or they just didn’t have a clue how to reach them?

The Independent article not only put the lack of smaller properties into the hearts and minds, it persuaded them that the bedroom tax is unfair…for the first time.  60% of the general public believed that just after the Independent article was widely read and reported, and that is not coincidence!

The idiocy of then 4 large housing associations releasing a report to say 20% want to or are feeling they have to downsize this week is not only evidence of a lack of thinking and a huge own goal, it is yet another example of the splintered nature of the claimed ‘sector.’  There is no unifying sector and no uniform response to the bedroom tax that any real sector would have.  Instead we have 4 ‘large’ housing associations going their own way and as I have argued created an own goal for all landlords.  Just like KHT reclassified difficult to lets and took a financial hit has done the same.  One individual landlord seeking good PR for a ‘precedent’ which constrains all others.  In the same way but to a different purpose Coast & Country Housing fully backed a tenant appealing the bedroom tax.

Where is the united response a sector should have? Even the Coast & Country Housing position which I applaud and loudly is yet another example of a landlord going their own way for the claimed ‘sector’ which in fact is not there and if it is not a sector it most certainly can’t be called a ‘movement’ as some myopic idealists in housing term it!

What this demonstrates is a simple set of questions.  Just who is responsible for lobbying government for social housing providers?  Is it an individual issue or a collective one?  If collective then surely the terms of reference and the usefulness of the national lobbies in NHF and CIH needs to be looked at carefully.  Is it left to individual landlords?  So the biggest have a bigger voice and the smallest have none?  Has the ‘sector’ (sic) been hoodwinked into this divide and conquer by government or is it just the failure of the national lobbies who are woeful at leading as well as lobbying? Contrast that with any tiny attempt at regulation in the private rented sector and they then respond as a sector with unanimity yet 90% of private landlords have less than 5 properties it is claimed.  The many little guys getting together and being led by organisations who know how to lobby – what a hugely stark contrast that is!!!

The alleged social housing ‘sector’ is anything but and has proved to be inept in dealing with the radical change the welfare reforms present.  It was ill prepared and is responding to the radical nature of the reforms with the usual ultra conservative and timid responses that comes with years of forelock tugging by those allegedly leading the alleged sector.

Change or die and change quickly else the reality and speed of the welfare reforms will see the social housing model I have known for the past 20 years, the model that is so economically good for the country at large will disappear because of the inept indifference of the alleged sector and their inability to respond to change and challenge.

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