Friday, December 22, 2006

Housing associations - how beautiful is big?

The Forward to the "Growing Up" report from the Future Shape of the Sector Commission comments:

The largest associations do have some important natural advantages - their ability to lead and deliver strategic mixed tenure communities, develop more homes with less public grant, and the scale of social capital they can generate within neighbourhoods to name but three - so it is critical for customers, for government and for the sector’s future that we capitalise on them.

I agree that large housing associations (even "mega-associations") can contribute to regeneration and development on a scale beyond that smaller organisations. However, I have some concerns.

The thought of the largest housing associations rivaling some of the huge council housing departments fills me with a degree of concern. I suspect that the size of some housing associations may have contributed to the wariness evident in, for example, in transfer ballots. Large associations have to work that much harder to stay in touch and, when in trouble, be turnaround.

I have dusted off my copy of the Chartered Institute of Housing's "A briefing on the size, efficiency and effectiveness of housing associations" which looked at a range of measures of "big is beautiful" including:

- cost in terms of the Operating Cost Index and financial Performance Indicators (average operating cost)

- effectiveness in terms of repairs, rent loss, tenant satisfaction, etc

Many of the results were ambiguous. It summarised the findings:

We have found no compelling evidence that size has real benefits in terms of the efficiency of organisation, better delivery of services or costs of borrowing. Indeed it appears from the evidence above that a focus on outcomes and effective management is more important than structures.

The CIH Briefing went on to conclude:

In the absence of clear evidence that larger associations deliver better outcomes, there is a need to question whether the possibility of a sector dominated by a small number of large developing associations working within a strong central government agenda is in reality going to deliver the best homes and services in localities.

Without the disciplines of a market or a real means of localised accountability there is a danger that the needs of producers rather than customers will predominate.

While I am positive about many of the sensible recommendations of the Shape of the Sector Commission, I am not so enthusiastic about the prospect of housing associations of 100,000 plus properties.

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