The Case for Council Housing

On 22nd July Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick stated in an interview with ITV that Housing association “executive pay was out of control” and they need to return to the “strong and social moral mission”. Jenrick said this as a deflection tactic when discussing the lack of social housing being built (only 6,000 last year with over 1.1 million on waiting lists nationally). However, it is nonetheless true that housing associations no longer serve local needs, whilst simultaneously becoming poor employers and paying themselves very well.

For example, CEO of L&Q, one of London’s biggest housing associations, David Montague, has seen his pay rise by a massive 74% since 2010, to nearly £350,000. Similarly, Peabody boss Brendon Sarsfield had an increase of 17%, bringing his pay to £278,750 in 2019. David Cowans, of the national housing association Places for People, received a salary of £528,870 in 2018 — a rise of 9.8% from the previous year.

Teesside based Thirteen Group CEO was No 2 on the highest pay rise category, as published by Inside Housing magazine, with a pay rise off £44,848, taking him to £208,064 per annum, if you include pension contributions this takes his total pay package to over £240,000. Eight other members of staff are paid over £110,000. Compare that to the derisory pay award made to staff this year of £250 (plus a one-off bonus of £250) amounting to less than 1% for many, a real terms pay cut.

Beyond Housing, who look after properties mainly from Recar to Scarborough, are little better, despite being half the size of Thirteen Group. Their CEO gets a salary of £147,900, plus a car allowance of £13,500 giving her a total salary of £161,400.

Given that Thirteen Group were formed mainly from Middlesbrough, Stockton and Hartlepool Councils, transferring their stock and Beyond Housing being formed from Redcar and Scarborough doing the same, it is worthwhile comparing executive pay in some of those councils. Stockton Council has only four members of staff earning over £100K while Hartlepool have five, neither earning anything like the amount that CEOs in Housing Associations make.

It would be fair to point out that both nationally and locally these ‘not for profit’ housing associations can afford these huge wages as they build up ‘surpluses’ annually in the many millions. For example, our biggest local housing association, Thirteen, in 2019/20 recorded a surplus of £20.0m and in 2019 recorded a surplus of £23.1m.

Who gets to make these decisions you might well ask, where is the oversight? Again, to use our biggest local supplier of housing, Thirteen, as an example. They have a board; however, it is selected from within and has no elected council members on it, nor representation from the mayor’s office. This is despite a large proportion of its income coming via the benefits system and is therefore public money. The board members, not unreasonably receive an allowance and expenses, however, they added up to £176,000 for the year ending 2020.

If you are starting to think as some of these figures are starting to add up and it might be cheaper and better value for money to do this in the public sector under Local authority control, or even mayoral control, you might be right.

So, with all this money floating about, tenants must be getting a good service? I would argue no. When tenants got a vote on stock transfer, part of the sell was that the new landlord would not be part of some bigger organisation (the council) that provided education, social services, bin collections, etc. and that they could wholly focus on the housing needs of the community. This both nationally and locally became history very quickly as over the next few years, the ex-Stockton council arm’s length organisation amalgamated with Housing Hartlepool HA (ex-Hartlepool council) to form Vela and Erimus HA (ex-Middlesbrough Council) amalgamated with Tees Valley HA to form Fabrick. Vela then amalgamated with Fabrick, even though, when an organising committee of mainly residents, but also including councillors and Trade Union representatives had looked at the options for Tristar, they had voted unanimously to reject the approach of Fabrick. Since then, Thirteen, have greatly centralised their services and no longer have the numerous estate offices which were easily accessible to tenants and reduced them to one office in Stockton, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough, with no estate offices at all in places like Thornaby and Billingham.

Finally, what about the housing stock? The country has a housing supply problem; 1.1 million according to the government. Teesside is part of the problem; we may not have huge numbers sleeping on the streets. However, we will have many living in overcrowded accommodation under private landlords who frankly aren’t that bothered as long as they get the rent, as well as the sofa surfers who rely on the good will of family and friends. Britain has the oldest housing stock in Europe, much of it terraced housing dating back to the industrial revolution or built post war-built council estates which Margaret Thatcher put an end to in 1979. This has been made worse by the right to buy which resulted in much of the best housing being sold off, a great deal of which has ended up in the hands of private landlords who rent it out, not at a ‘social rent’ but at a ‘market rent’, making it unaffordable to many.

At the time of writing, I am unaware of any social housing being built in Teesside, this has been the case for several years now as housing associations await government grants through Homes England that are not forthcoming as the grants are focused on specific high affordability pressure areas of Newcastle, Leeds, Harrogate and York. Therefore, because of this failure of government policy, housing associations tend to build ‘affordable’ housing, which is frankly a long way from that for a large proportion of people. Thirteen, for example, the proportion of its stock that is social housing has fallen to 81.62% but having built 1200 ‘affordable houses’ the proportion of that type of home has risen from 10.43% to 12.57% in the last 3 years. This is an issue because “Affordable rented properties are defined as up to 80% of market rent but Social rented properties can only be rented out at up to 50% of market rent. This in areas where rent is comparatively low may not seem to be a huge amount in cash terms, but in those same areas there is also a great deal of deprivation which means that cash difference may well mean that social rented homes are – for low-income families- much more affordable than Affordable Rent.

It is as the Housing Secretary said, time for Housing associations to re-engage with the communities by embedding themselves within them, turn over some of that large amount of the cash they have held in reserve to build large amounts of social housing instead of the profit making unaffordable, ‘affordable housing’ for a not-for-profit organisations. Either that, or the housing should be given back to local authorities which would allow local people to decide what their priorities are in their town rather than the directors, many of whom don’t even live in the same region as their housing association’s tenants. It is also time for him to put the Government’s money where its mouth is and start to level up some of the housing provision in this country.

Paul Weston is a Labour Councillor and an ex-Trade Union Convenor at Stockton Council, Tristar Homes, Vela Group and Thirteen Group. He was also a member of the Steering groups which set up Tri Star homes & Vela group.

South Bank Community Land Trust

Following concerns of residents about the increasing number of empty homes in the town a group came together and agreed to form a Community Land Trust (CLT). The intention was to obtain, refurbish and rent homes to local people at affordable rates.

That was 4 years ago. In conjunction with our partner registered housing provider 13 Group and with grants from Redcar & Cleveland council and Homes England, we have purchased 5 properties and are about to embark on refurbishing them. We hope to conclude this stage of the process by summer and in the meantime will be looking for tenants who will be selected by a resident driven allocations policy.

Residents are a key part of our board, recently established and now meeting regularly to oversee our project. We are registered with the Company’s House. We have had welcome professional support and where we can, we will use local contractors for our work. We will also be working with the local college to provide training and practical work experience for young people.

In addition to the housing project, for several months now we have been operating an Eco-Shop which enables local people to purchase 10 items for £2. This is proving very popular and is run by volunteers. We als have an allotment, yet to achieve its full potential, although tools and materials have been generously donated to us.

Our ambition is to increase our rent income by developing more properties, expanding our community activities and in the process become self-sustaining.

CLT housing initiatives are being developed across the country and are supported and advised by the national CLT network. Whilst the process can be a little daunting, developing our own skills and utilising those of others has been crucial.

Further information is available on our website southbankclt.org

Ian Jeffery

The Teesside Eviction Crisis

On 1 June 2021 hundreds of thousands of people across the country woke up to the shocking news that they could face homelessness, due to the government’s ending of the eviction ban. Across Teesside, local residents are finding that the last safety net separating themselves from being forced out onto the streets has been removed, with the incomprehensible decision by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick to end the ban on evictions and reduce eviction notice periods without any additional measures in place to help renters or cancel arrears.
This has prompted a national crisis. Research has shown more than 840,000 people across England and Wales, including 5% of all renters in the North East, have built up arrears because of covid-19, and are now vulnerable to being forced into homelessness. The hardest hit are young people, self-employed people, and those working in the construction and computer services sectors. Hundreds of thousands of families with children are worried about being evicted within three months.
We know this looming homelessness crisis will hit Teesside hard. A huge number of people in our communities are trapped in poor quality, precarious rented accommodation. Middlesbrough has the highest proportion of its wards in severe deprivation of any local authority in the country, with other towns across Teesside not far behind. Local attempts to regulate the private rented sector have been resisted by threatened legal action by landlords. Local councils have services in place to support those in housing need (if you are facing eviction please contact your local council’s housing service to find out what they can provide), but they have been overstretched by drastic cuts to council budgets since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. In addition higher deprivation creates more demands on council budgets – in Middlesbrough for example 35% of the town’s budget is now spent on children’s social services, three times more than a decade ago, which leaves less funding available to face this coming homelessness crisis.
While the end of the eviction ban will doubtless bring on more misery and homelessness, Teesside residents have long become used to poor and precarious housing. Many find accommodation through informal routes, with no checks to ensure prospective housing is in a fit condition. There is evidence of private landlords sometimes pocketing their tenants’ housing benefits while failing to provide them basic utilities. Adding to the unregulated housing market is the impact of the government’s cruel ‘hostile environment’ against those born outside the UK, including 1,500 current asylum seekers in Teesside who have less access to state benefits or legitimate routes for housing and so are sometimes forced to rely on less secure housing options.
We also know that in our area, while we have not had the levels of rough sleeping seen recently in larger cities, there are still many experiencing street homelessness. They have reported through the pandemic that many services which they relied upon have dried up due to covid-19, leaving them even more vulnerable. We know there are still excellent volunteers and workers on the ground supporting the most vulnerable, but the fear is that with the end of the eviction ban, the homelessness crisis locally will grow exponentially and services will be stretched even thinner.
Housing Action Teesside, are a group of local residents campaigning for fairer and more secure housing in our community which puts people before profit – with anyone who shares our aims welcome to join us. The government may be content to leave the most vulnerable renters in a dire and precarious situation, but we believe collectively we can fight to leave nobody in our communities behind.

Tom Zagoria
email@housingaction tees.uk

The UK Housing Crisis

The UK has a chronic shortage of affordable, decent housing that dates back to the 1980’s and is completely due to the decisions that successive governments have made. Margaret Thatcher lit the fuse to the housing crisis bomb when she decided to sell council houses. These homes were built in the couple of decades following the second world war when the UK was far more financially impoverished than it is today. This was the biggest programme of social housing construction in UK history and it transformed the lives of millions of people. Thatcher’s decision to privatise the UKs social housing stock was made simply to benefit multi million pound construction companies by creating a housing shortage and taking away any meaningful competition. The result has been house prices and rents spiralling out of the reach of many people. Today around £10 billion in housing benefits each year go straight into the pockets of private landlords rather than funding secure social housing. Over recent years the housing crisis has been made even worse by the austerity politics of successive Conservative Governments. Their brutal cuts to local council finances has forced them to give what remained of their council house stock to housing associations. Austerity politics has also resulted in real terms wage deflation creating “In work poverty”. This is a daily reality for millions of families and when coupled with the destruction of social and health care services, has left many people destitute. The previously rare sight of UK citizens living rough and being forced to beg on our streets to survive has become the norm in our large towns and cities. Across Teesside, we have seen that too many of our private rented and housing association homes are of very poor quality, and with the end of the Covid-19 eviction ban many more tenants will be facing eviction in the coming months.

What’s the Solution?

Collective action is the only way to deal with the UKs housing crisis. HAT is a group of Teesside residents campaigning for decent, secure and affordable homes for all. We believe the housing crisis was created by political choices putting private profit ahead of people’s needs. We will organise alongside our neighbours for real change in our community, fighting housing injustices, and pushing for better policies in our local authorities and in central government.

What do we believe in?

We believe that the rights of Teessiders to decent, affordable homes must come ahead of private profit. We know that for decades, our council housing has been sold off, and replaced with a profit-driven private rented sector that left too many facing exploitative rents and insecure private tenancies. We believe we can achieve positive changes in the housing sector through organising as a community, showing solidarity with each other and demanding better from central and local governments. We will support other groups that are also campaigning for these aims, and we will support our members and link them up with housing advice and assistance.

How can you get involved?

Join our group! We hold regular meetings where we discuss local housing concerns, and plan outreach and campaigns.

Homelessness Bill of Rights

The Homelessness Bill of Rights is based on the principles of basic human rights that are enshrined in European and International law. It has been drawn up to counter the increasingly common actions taken against homeless people by those local authorities and Police forces, who deal with their homelessness issue by effectively criminalising it. This can take a number of forms such as direct action against homeless people, resulting in arrest and fines or indirect action using “Public Space Protection Orders”. This policy has been described as a form of “social cleansing” and neither approach addresses the complex issues that are the reason why so many people end up without a home. It simply adds to the many problems and issues that homeless people have to face on a daily basis.

The Homelessness Bill of Rights doesn’t try to solve the homelessness crisis on its own. It is simply a way to show people experiencing homelessness and rest of the local community that the local authority is taking a compassionate and pragmatic approach to the issue of homelessness. Local Authorities who sign up to the Homelessness Bill of Rights demonstrate that they do not support the use of legislation such as the “2014 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act” against “behaviours” associated with homelessness such as begging or rough sleeping, and that they view any contact with someone who is living on the streets as an opportunity to provide help and advice, an offer of accommodation and referrals to other services.

Housing Rights Watch is part of a European network of associations, lawyers and academics, who are committed to promoting the right to housing and they provide support and guidance on implementing the Homelessness Bill of Rights (https://www.housingrightswatch.org)