The Big Society – practical steps for mutualising social housing

There are a number of steps the Housing Minister should take to realise the aspirations in the government's "Big Society" agenda.
Jonathan Rosenberg
19 July 2010

As David Cameron launches his "Big Society"  drive to empower the voluntary sector, OurKingdom publishes a series of reflections on the idea and its potential.

Subsidy is no match for revenue stream: it takes undue effort to obtain and has costly strings attached. Ultimately, grant is at the whim of someone else. And now it’s gone. So let’s concentrate on the alternative, which is for communities to own valuable assets, to be responsible for collecting their own money, and to be democratically accountable for spending it wisely according to local priorities.

In June 2008, a Conservative Party policy green paper (A Stronger Society: Voluntary Action in the 21st Century) called for government to “promote co-operatives and mutualisation as a way of transferring public assets and revenue streams to the voluntary sector … to play a bigger role in running and owning community assets and services”.

Take, for example, the huge potential for realising the Big Society vision to tackle ‘broken neighbourhoods’ on council estates. Here is a large-scale opportunity to devolve assets so as to empower thousands of poorer communities to transform their lives and environment.

Council estates in areas with high property values are especially ripe for transfer to democratically controlled, mutual housing associations and community land trusts. Housing shortages guarantee revenues sufficient for neighbourhoods to maintain their homes and surroundings to a high standard, fund their own community services, and generate surpluses for growth.

Legislating for Community Land Trusts should be part of a wider strategy to mutualise the social housing sector. The Housing Minister could remove the barriers to social housing estates becoming independent community landlords by:

  • Seeing through the proposed reform of the Housing Revenue Account in such a way as to facilitate viable stock transfers to mutual associations and community land trusts.
  • Making the regulations for S34A of the Housing Act 1985, which requires councils to co-operate with requests from tenant groups to transfer their estates.
  • Encouraging housing associations and local authorities to ask their residents whether they want to take over their homes, and where they do, to support the mutualisation of assets into community associations and land trusts.
  • Requiring local authorities to give registered housing associations first preference for housing homeless households at benefit cap rents, so as to prevent leakage of taxpayer’s money, bolster revenue streams to support further mutualisation, and help finance affordable housing.
  • Freeing up housing associations to further diversify their income by offering differently priced accommodation, from traditional affordable housing through intermediate and market priced housing, whether for rent or for sale; and by investing in economic, retail or other development, such as green energy or broadband provision.

These practical measures would be a significant step towards achieving the "people powered" society Mr Cameron aspires to.

Jonathan Rosenberg founded the country’s single largest mutual housing association, Walterton & Elgin Community Homes, where he is a tenant and vice chair of the resident-controlled board. He currently advises communities on how to take social action to achieve collective ownership. 

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