Was stock transfer a good idea? The odd thing about the question is that those answering ‘no’ straddle the political spectrum. Of course, Defend Council Housing has been opposing stock transfer since it was set up thirteen years ago when Labour was first elected. It was affronted that the new government not only continued but accelerated the transfer programme: the next five years saw the peak of transfer activity. But just recently the right-of-centre think tank Policy Exchange came out against it too. They argued for stock transfers to be brought back into public ownership, along with their £41bn estimated debt, because stock transfer housing associations have ‘failed to achieve their goals’.
So a dispassionate look at the reality of more than two decades of transfer is very welcome, and here we have it in a book by two experts in the field, Hal Pawson and Dave Mullins. Usefully, the book straddles the whole of Great Britain, so is able to take account both of the early Scottish transfer experience, the massive change that took place in Glasgow seven years ago and the recent move towards mutual-based transfers in Wales.
Although there were earlier small scale transfers, by common consent the story began with the Chiltern transfer in 1988. It is difficult now to remember that at the time a quarter of the population still lived in council housing. For every home owned by a housing association, thirteen were owned by councils, even after the loss of properties from the first years of right to buy. Chiltern Council began a process that was to see associations become the majority social landlords only two decades later. Add in the growth of ALMOs after 2001, and now only one household in twenty lives in a home managed by their local authority. And most of this change took place under a Labour government.
Did this bottom-up revolution deliver better housing and more accountable housing services? Not surprisingly, the authors conclude that the picture is mixed. Transfer and ALMOs have delivered a massive improvement in stock condition, given massive stimulus by the decent homes target set in April, 2000. Tenants now consistently say that they are more satisfied with their housing than before.
But the author’s argument that transfer could hardly be described as contributing to ‘choice’ is surely correct: it was the choice of those stuck between a rock and a hard place, and once the ballot was won not all landlords subsequently paid much attention to empowering tenants. There are exceptions of course. Some urban transfers led to new associations that developed their engagement with residents and have maintained a strong community base. More recently, we have seen a limited number of ‘community gateway’ transfers and five ‘community mutuals’ established in Wales. But overall, the hopes of creating locally-based landlords that involve tenants at all levels of their governance were delivered on a bigger scale by ALMOs than by the mass of stock transfers.
If right to buy was the biggest change to affect social housing in Britain and was of course instigated by government, it remains an oddity that the second biggest change – stock transfer – was essentially led from below. Governments caught up, of course – not just in Westminster but in Edinburgh and Cardiff. But without those councillors and officers in a small district in Buckinghamshire taking a brave decision 22 years ago, it might never have happened.
Original post: Housing Magazine