If you write novels for a living it’s a lonesome, deskbound business. So, like a lot of writers, I leap at the offer of a non-fictional assignment – it gets you out of the house for starters.
But when I was invited by the Gosforth-based housing association Isos to be their ‘author in residence’ and write an investigative book about what they do as a social landlord – renting homes at fair rates to people who can’t afford the market price – I was more than usually excited by the brief.
That’s partly because housing has what writers call ‘universal relevance’ – we all need a roof over our head, and ideally we want to call it home.
But then it’s also a fact that the UK is currently enduring a nationwide housing crisis: we haven’t been building enough houses, the ones we’ve got are too expensive, and this has been going on for years.
The North East partakes of that wider problem; and the way it impacts on social housing is of huge importance given that 24% of the region’s households are social renters.
I come from Newcastle but now live in London, where house prices and housing shortage are endlessly up for discussion, and will undoubtedly be a big political issue on the doorstep at the next general election in May 2015.
So, just as Isos were keen to get my outsider’s perspective on the current state of the North East’s social housing – also perhaps to help get its political priorities pushed up the agenda of talking points – I was very keen to roam around the territory where Isos operates (a triangle of sorts, from Berwick down to Teesside and west to Carlisle) and try to assess how big is this region’s share of the national predicament.
One thing instantly clear to me from talking to Isos staff (not that I needed telling) was their concern that social housing – from the bricks and mortar of its estates, to the people who depend on it and the communities they form – has been stigmatised over the years, regarded as the ‘inferior’ tenure next to home ownership and private rental, a ‘last resort’ option for those who can hope for nothing better.
The pointless snobbery of that perception was also obvious to me as soon as I had visited some Isos tenants, heard their stories and elicited their views. Social landlords have a duty to provide decent shelter to people in extreme need – from the elderly and those in ill health or with disabilities, to young people leaving care and women fleeing domestic violence. I observed Isos discharging that duty honourably.
Michael Lisle, an Isos tenant in Wallsend who lives with disability but still works as a tenant ‘rep’ relaying customer concerns back to the company, was especially passionate about its level of commitment: “I think Isos strive very hard to put people first, particularly people who are less fortunate. They have a social conscience, I think.”
These days a good housing association does more than allocate a property, collect the rent and attend to repairs on request. Isos goes to lengths for its tenants, investing the rent money to educational and training opportunities, supporting community initiatives of all sorts – from seed-funding new business start-ups in the ex-colliery village of Lynemouth to helping young people in Stobhill to overcome patterns of worklessness and find their first job.
Some difficulties are more entrenched. Isos has been involved in the large-scale regeneration of ailing estates such as Cleadon Park in South Shields, and the properties and facilities now on offer there are enviable.
But other Isos stock is older and un-modernised, some of it in a fairly bashed-about state, since social landlords have to manage some difficult customers. Certain neighbourhoods pose more of a challenge that others in banishing stigma, and the costs of attending both to the places and the people can be stubbornly high, while levels of funding only get lower.
Some older Isos tenants – maybe, also, the wider public – argue that a social landlord’s prime purpose (particularly in crisis times) is to be building new houses, not spending the rent on schemes, however worthy. After all, the North East’s municipal waiting list for social housing runs to more than 80,000 households.
But then new house-building comes nowhere near demand even in London, where population growth is more heavily concentrated than anywhere else on this island. The north east population actually fell (by nearly 2%) between 1991 and 2001, and yet more households were formed in that time, simply because of the demographic trend toward solo living. (30.7% of households in the region are single-person.)
The North East probably has sufficient housing stock already. But as Isos chief executive Keith Loraine puts it ruefully: “We haven’t got the right thing in the right places.”
And the main problem Mr Loraine observes is that the houses we do have are “in the wrong places for jobs.”
By this analysis, housing only takes its place in the larger set of socio-economic problems that have beset the North East for all my life. We still routinely have the highest unemployment rate of all the English regions, and the highest proportion of employees in the public sector.
Not that there are too many public sector jobs in the North East – we want all the jobs we can get. But as Lord Adonis identified in his North East Independent Economic Review of 2013, we need more (better-paid and higher-skilled) private sector employment to begin to dream of significantly more new housing.
As we know, this region still makes things and exports them, manufacturing generating about 15.5% of the region’s total Gross Value Added. Nissan, though, comprises a notably big chunk of those figures.
New businesses, especially hi-tech ones, are now getting born in the North East at an encouraging rate, and people who instinctively believe that ‘not enough is done’ for the region might yet be surprised by what people in the region can do for themselves. But that growth remains a work in progress.
Still, the region’s economy provides the ‘whole market’ context in which its share of the housing crisis will have to be solved. The hard thinking about housing has to be done ‘big-picture’, with local authorities closely focused on where economic growth can happen and how it is to be served.
As Mark Henderson, CEO of the Newcastle-based housing association Home Group, explains it pithily: “You can’t build a housing estate and expect Nissan to relocate next door. Decisions about housing have to be tied to economic activity.”
Mr Henderson has long argued for what he calls ‘new housing enterprise zones’, directed at a more integrated approach to housing development, employment opportunities and physical infrastructure. The just-published Lyons Review, commissioned by Ed Miliband to bulk up his pledge to get Britain building again if Labour form a government next year, gestures similarly to a need for ‘housing growth areas.’
Money, though, will carry on being tight. Labour has promised no new funds for housing, only re-prioritising within capital budgets. And no party now seeking your vote intends to borrow £5 bn annually just so the state can build 500,000 houses.
Housing associations of Isos’s particular size depend upon government subsidy to build or improve properties. But state grants for social housing development schemes have been on a steady decline since the 1970s, and since the Thatcher era housing associations have had to rely on private finance.
That process, though, should not be distrusted as the devil’s work. After all, the first housing association to solicit the City of London for funds was from Newcastle. In 1987 North Housing – predecessor of today’s Home Group, led by chief executive Alan Kilburn – raised £100m for a scheme that was groundbreaking in its day.
Housing associations are public-private partnerships, independent but state-regulated, and whatever surpluses (ie profits) they make are not dispersed to shareholders but reinvested in new development. In my view, as long as their performance is creditable year-in year-out then associations ought to be trusted to use bank loans and bond issues intelligently, so as to serve the neighbourhoods they know and the wider needs they identify.
To take only one example, Isos excels at ‘extra care’ apartment complexes for older people, such as The Manors in Prudhoe, carefully designed to offer dignified independent living rather than the stultifying atmosphere of an ‘old folks’ home.’
Nationally the biggest single group of tenants in social housing is not – as is often supposed, and not always kindly – the working-age unemployed, but, rather, retired people. And while the North East population figures are fairly flat, the numbers of over 65s are rising – they reached 448,300 (17% of the region’s population) in 2010.
The challenge of keeping decent roofs over our ageing population is one that housing associations are, by experience, well positioned to meet.
The degree to which housing associations such as Isos serve their tenant communities will always be scrutinised closely, and rightly so. But as long as they keep passing their tests I’d say they deserve our support in the great endeavour of meeting our societal needs for shelter and, moreover, some place to call home.
* Richard T Kelly’s book Our House, Your Home: The Past, Present & Future of Social Housing is published by New Writing North in association with Isos Housing.