Housing without landlords (1)

Published on January 13, 2022

Published on January 13, 2022

In the extensive work that LTF carried out in preparation for developing The London Tenants Manifesto – a positive future for social housing, we held some discussion on ‘Housing without Landlords’

The following is a comment piece from that discussion by Ron Bartholomew, CEO Middlesex Housing Co-operative, in which he makes the case for independent housing co-operatives.

I was a local authority councillor for 16 years during which I felt that the council lacked the ability to do much worthwhile, despite my best efforts. This deteriorated further when Tony Blair forced the adoption of the cabinet model of governance. My home borough opted for a strong leader and cabinet – a dictator for the whole administration. That leader has the gift of patronage over who joins the cabinet, so the administration follows a fascist model. Every localised and bottom-up initiative has been whittled away donkey’s years ago.

In my working life, setting up and running Co-op Homes was originally intended as a secondary co-op owned by user co-ops. But it transmuted from there, as survival relied on growing larger. This was achieved through short-life housing, becoming the second-largest user of short-life grant in the country.

Then the plug was pulled when the largest short-life operator, West Hampstead went belly up. Housing Corporation supervision over Co-op Homes followed. West Hampstead had wonderful policies, complying with everything that those who “know best” would want. All these paper policies sat on shelves going dusty, never read. They operated appallingly badly as a business until forced into closure. Co-op Homes became the next target, forced to join a large housing association. I could not work in that inert environment, so I left.

The large housing associations are getting bigger and bigger, following a private enterprise business model. They are building up ever-higher levels of debt to finance “affordable housing” with declining levels of government subsidy.

To set the record straight, housing associations were never set up to be tenant-led. Many were started by churches. Notting Hill and Shepherds Bush were started by vicars, others by architects and solicitors, all paternalistic and top-down. They have all grown larger, now a mafia of people who want ever-higher salaries. There is little future for anything else, without ending dependence on private finance.

The reality is that council housing worked when local authorities could readily borrow and invest money. But they were forced to go down various disastrous routes, such as building tower blocks, encouraged by higher grant levels. Local councils have run their course sadly, so tenant-led organisations need to become independent of central or local government, to face up to the Blairs and Thatchers of the future.

Co-ops small or large can work very well. Those with 70-90 or more properties have more resources, but all the expertise that is needed can’t be expected within every small organisation. This is the reason that the secondary co-op concept is good, able to help support sustainability for small co-ops.

Whether residents participate or not at a specific time, the point is that the choice must be available, so people can grow to take control of their communities. After escaping from homelessness or another crisis, people need to become settled in. They can then develop with support and training, to take on responsibility. This can best be delivered by independent dedicated organisations, rather than departments of housing associations or councils.