The relationship between councils and housing associations is vitally important for meeting local housing needs, but works more or less well in different places and, as this guide says, austerity and national policies on housing “have put the relationship between local authorities and housing associations under a significant degree of pressure.”
All credit then to housing association VIVID, ARCH (the membership body for stock-retaining councils) and CIH for coming together to produce what, a bit modestly, badges itself as a “guide”, but also actually does a very good job of explaining the social, economic and policy context in which the relationship between councils and housing associations is set, and posing challenges, which I think may be uncomfortable in some cases, to both sectors and central government.
The report is thorough and in-depth (183 pages). After explaining the context, its meat is in four chapters dealing with: leadership and partnership culture; land and housing supply; allocations and homelessness; and affordability and rents. At the end, there is a summary and an appendix setting out the evidence base on housing needs and homelessness. Each of these chapters combines explanation of the context, recommendations for the sector and governments and case studies. I found the latter particularly interesting: they bring to life what creative organisations have done in challenging circumstances, without pretending to be the answer for all organisations and in all circumstances.
However, going beyond the conventions of the practice guide genre, there is plenty of meaty editorial comment about mistakes and risks to which councils, housing associations and government are all subject, for example how the housing association sector needs to overcome legitimate fears and concerns about rent flexibility, councils need to get on with producing up to date local plans, and the government needs to let councils make sensible decisions about disposal prices for land.
The misgiving I had about the report is that it is very focused on core housing issues. Housing associations, of course, want to affect for the better their residents’ lives across the spectrum, including health and wellbeing and employment and skills. Even more so, housing is just one of a very big and complex jigsaw councils are struggling with, in the face of rising service demand and budgets which have suffered far more under austerity than other parts of the public services. Unless it is just a particular obsession of mine, I didn’t think there was nearly enough about the challenges posed to both sectors by the ageing population.
Of course, dealing with all this as well as what is covered very well in the report as it is could have turned an already large document into a monster. However, for housing association readers especially, I feel it would have been useful if there had been a bigger picture of councils’ wider challenges, as well as the devolution which is happening in places, especially where there are Mayoral Combined Authorities. That the report hardly mentions the new metro Mayors suggests that there is probably a whole further useful piece of work on the pitfalls and opportunities of working across functional economic and housing market boundaries.