HAs can generate larger profits by developing for market sale and rent than from any other activity. Inevitably, the profits are greatest in London where house prices are higher. The boards of HAs increasingly gravitate towards construction, and especially in the South East. Driven by government policy, institutions such as the regulatory bodies and the finance houses concerned with the sector, all support this line of travel.
As a result, leading housing associations are losing their integrity as charitable organisations and are becoming indistinguishable from private developers entirely focussed on private rents and sales.
Because of the need for development and finance expertise on the boards of HAs, people from these backgrounds have come to dominate the boards of large associations. The corporate plans they develop inevitably reflect this area of interest. The vicious circle is complete.
Analysis of the sector shows that there has been a considerable shift in its stock profile over the last few years. For example, in 2019 the largest percentage growth across categories of housing was in those earmarked for market sale (non-social leasehold), jumping almost 16% (8,500 units) on the previous year (SDR Statistical Release 2018).
The change in profile over a seven years period spanning 2012 and 2019 illustrates a sharp jump in Low Cost Home Ownership (LCHO) units, and a corresponding decline in supported housing (ring-fencing of grants under the Supporting People programme ended in 2009) , (SDR Statistical Release 2018).
Stock profile changes include conversions from one tenure to another. Conversions have only ever been made from social rent (capped at 50% of market rents) to ‘affordable’ rent (capped at 80% market rents) or market rents, and not the in the other direction in (SDR Statistical Release 2018).
What this shows is that HAs are increasingly focussed on building for outright market sale, and that they are gradually converting their rented properties from cheaper to more expensive rent levels.
Property lawyers Savilles captured the rationale behind this trend in May 2019:
The amount housing associations generated from new open market home sales increased 16% (£221 million) to £1.61 billion between 2016/17 and 2017/18, with 37,000 homes for sale contractually committed to be built in the 18 months from December 2018.Savills, 2019
Savills further comment that “The majority of the increase in turnover from sales is in London-focused housing associations, accounting for £305m (91%) of the increase” .
Such figures have proven irrisistable to the boards of associations and they are developing an insatiable appetite.
As commercial property developers, HAs inevitably seek out new board members with experience of finance, investment and construction. Peabody is a case in point.
Meet the Peabody Board (2020)
According to the Peabody website, the association has a total of 13 members on its board, plus the CEO, as follows:
- Bob Kerslake, the Chair, has a portfolio which includes a role as Chair of London Pension Collective Investment Vehicle.
- The Vice Chair, Iain Peters boasts “30 years experience in the financial services and energy sectors in executive leadership roles”.
- Phillipa Marsden “has over 30 years of experience working in the planning and development field [plus experience working for] several global property advisory firms.”
- Jennifer Daly “is a Chartered Member of the Royal Town Planning Institute … with a strong development and commercial focus”.
- David Hardy “has over 20 years’ corporate finance, M&A, fundraising and deal closure experience spanning infrastructure, PFI and renewable energy projects.”
- Paul Loft had “a 25-year career in retailing, in senior finance and general management roles”.
- Jane Milligan’s background includes service commissioning and procurement.
- Dierdre Moss “has worked in the insurance industry for over twenty five years with FTSE 100 companies.”
- Francis Salway “was Chief Executive of Land Securities, the country’s largest commercial property company”.
- Peter Vernon has “extensive experience of complex real estate transactions and in place making”.
Of the non-resident board members, only one (Helen Edwards) has no obvious ties with commerce, finance, or investment companies. The remaining two members are a tenant and a resident. The profile of the Peabody board is no outlier. It is typical of all large associations.
Lack of democratic accountability to workers and tenants
To help ensure that associations are unchecked in this direction of travel, HAs are moving away from democratic influence by tenants and residents, preferring methods of engagement over which the landlord has control.
Tenant and Resident Associations (TRAs) which are the most democratic of engagement models, are being replaced by Tenant Scrutiny Panels whose members are appointed by the landlord. This is akin to the derecognition of a trade union in favour of an employer appointed staff council – something that many associations seek also seek to do.
The sector needs to be fundamentally and structurally reviewed. Control needs to be ceded to tenants, residents, and workers who are directly impacted by leadership decisions. Ultimately, only democratic accountability can force the change in direction needed.