Last Sunday I set off for the Labour conference. As I approached Brighton I recalled this time two years ago, the hardest Labour conference I had ever attended.
One week before conference the NHF’s David Orr made an offer to Greg Clark, then Conservative Secretary of State for Communities – make your proposed Housing Association Right to Buy a voluntary deal and we will embrace it. Greg asked us to put David’s offer to the vote and gave us one week to prove that we meant business. And that was the week of the Labour Party conference.
At conference we walked through fire. At every fringe meeting we faced anger and accusations of betrayal. We had set back our relationship with Labour local authorities by ten years, we were told. We had abandoned our social purpose. We had denied parliament its right to scrutinise. And worst of all, we had opened the gates to compulsory local authority housing sales to fund our deal. It was a very bad time.
But as bad as it was, housing associations were there at conference to listen, to explain our position and to give what assurances we could.
In the following week we attended the Tory conference and were told that we weren’t building enough homes, we were inefficient, and we were paying our bosses too much. We ended conference season thoroughly beaten up. And for a while we faced a bit of an existential crisis.
But then something important happened. On the ropes, we reconnected with our ambition and social purpose. The NHF’s “Ambition to Deliver” was launched and we started to rebuild confidence and trust in ourselves and on both sides of the House.
For a while things were good. Housing and housing associations were on the crest of a wave. But as we consolidated, grew and diversified, some of our political stakeholders became concerned once again that we were losing sight of our social purpose and losing sight of our tenants. Then the Grenfell Tower tragedy brought all of these concerns centre stage.
So as I drove to Brighton I wondered what kind of reception we would receive. Were we working together to solve the housing crisis or were we part of the problem?
For me the litmus test was a housing fringe event that I had agreed to speak at with a small handful of housing association bosses, an MP, the shadow housing minister and London’s deputy mayor for housing. When we arrived the room was full to the rafters.
Karen Buck MP started the event on a positive note, thanking us for attending conference to speak, listen and engage. As each of us spoke we received a polite round of applause. Karen asked for questions and a sea of hands rose. There was some anger in the room but it wasn’t about housing associations; it was about housing, it was about homelessness, it was about poverty. And, naturally, it was about government.
The next test was a meeting with the same group of politicians that we sat with two years ago when we discussed the housing association voluntary right to buy. This time around we recalled how difficult our discussions were back then. But everyone acknowledged how far we had come.
I guess that’s why I attend conference every year; it’s an “in sickness and in health thing”. Whether things are going well or not, you just have to be there, because being there maintains the relationship. It gets you through the bad times and it builds trust. When things are good you can celebrate. But you can guarantee that it won’t be long before another curve ball hits you. And when it does it’s a lot easier to tackle if people trust you.
As I drove home I listened to the radio and heard John McDonnell promising to unwind historic PFI contracts. Once, as L&Q’s Finance Director, I would have said that these old finance deals were like asbestos. You just have to leave them alone because disturbing them is more risky. But as L&Q realised in its recent £2.6 billion refinance, sometimes it does make sense to remove asbestos, it just depends on what kind you are dealing with. The trouble with PFI is that there is a whole load of asbestos and it will take an age to deal with.
I listened to Dennis Skinner speaking with passion about borrowing to invest. “When someone sticks a camera in your face outside conference” he said “tell them we will do what the private sector does, tell them we will borrow”. From L&Q’s experience maybe he has a point. We have borrowed £5 billion and invested in more than 90,000 homes. Now those homes are worth £23 billion, they are returning a surplus every year and we are using that surplus to invest in more affordable homes. If local authorities had been allowed to borrow as we have since the 1988 Housing Act, maybe we would be speaking about the housing crisis in the past tense.
I heard Jeremy Corbyn promise a review of social housing policy and a radical programme of action.
And I saw the next curve ball leave the bowler’s hand. As a sector we have to deal with the concern that our tenants’ voices are not being heard. We have to deal with the perception that consolidation will lead to a poor service. And we have to deal with the belief that we are losing our social purpose. How? By listening to our tenants, delivering a great service and investing in homes and communities. But also by staying in touch with our political stakeholders, by being where they are. And by talking about the things which matter to them.
Next Monday Manchester and the Conservatives. Until then.