Stop throwing rocks at politiciansSwallow the cynicism and stop throwing rocks at the politicians (however tempting it might be), because as Steve Stride, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing tells Mark Cantrell, the next two years are going to be “make or break” for the sector
From the August/September edition of Housing magazine
This is a critical time not just for the housing sector, but also for the millions of people across the country looking to secure a decent home at a price they can genuinely afford.
Whether they are looking to the social sector, or private rent, or cling on still to the faded dream of owning their own home, people are depending on the housing industry and politicians to work together to find a solution to the undersupply of housing and the crisis in affordability, which is chewing its way through the social ranks.
“The Government needs to work with us, with housing professionals, because the housing crisis is affecting across the board now, across all communities, all classes if you like; they need to listen to us because of that,” said Steve Stride, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing.
But that’s not going to happen if the sector keeps on “throwing rocks”, as he puts it. Stride is adamant that it must engage with the politicians, especially now; the sector has plenty to say that’s worth hearing, after all, and the politicians are willing to listen, if housing professionals can ditch the cynicism about the political arena.
In this, the sector is doubtless reflecting the wider public disquiet and sense of detachment from the political process that has cast a pall over national democratic discourse for a number of years. But with a general election looming, the sector has a critical window of opportunity to make its case heard fully – finally – and get it implanted into the heart and mind of the next government, regardless of whether Conservatives or Labour or another coalition finds itself occupying the control rooms of State.
“In the past, as a sector, as an industry – and I am talking in the broadest sense – we have tended to throw rocks at whichever government is in power and we haven’t looked at ourselves enough. We have done things wrong in the past – we haven’t got it right – so we need to change ourselves. As a sector, as an industry, we’ve got to challenge ourselves,” he said.
“The other key point is that we need to engage with politicians, so it’s not just about throwing rocks at them, it’s about recognising we need to change as well. A lot of people in the industry, not just housing professionals, but wider than that, we distance ourselves from the politicians too quickly – we’re too cynical about them. So we need to get close to our MPs, speak to them about the issues, especially with this general election year coming up. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.”
So, it’s a make or break year; no, it’s a “make or break two years”, Stride emphasised. “It’s a unique opportunity because other issues will come [along] and cloud politicians’ minds… and at the moment everybody does see the housing crisis. It is a real opportunity to influence, and to combat some of the negativity that’s around at the moment about social housing.”
He refers here to the programmes such as Benefits Street and How To Get A Council House that have caused consternation among the social housing sector for the way they fed stereotypic views of council – and by extension housing association – tenants. Such programmes help stir toxic perceptions that make it that much harder to tackle the under-supply of social homes.
“Again, I say to people, yes that is bad and frustrating, but we have got to fight back,” Stride added. “Council Homes Chat and Housing Day [social media initiatives] and the SHOUT campaign, and all those things that are trying to go back against that are good. So it is as much about influencing and getting a positive view about us as well as putting the case for the whole housing system, and getting the investment to sort out the housing crisis.”
Staying positive, resisting the urge to throw rocks at the politicians, and engaging with them, reflects something of the theme of Stride’s presidential year – leadership. One might say, then, that he is calling on the industry, to play a part in leading them towards a solution, rather than browbeating or berating them into submission.
For that matter, one might argue, that when in ministerial office at least, politicians have access to bigger sticks. The signs are promising, however, that the politicians are prepared to listen, and are looking to those who have potential answers to the perennial question – how do we solve this crisis? For Stride, and with no disrespect to Kris Hopkins, that’s why the appointment of Brandon Lewis as minister for both housing and planning – at once promoting the housing brief, as well as ‘joining the portfolio dots’ – is a positive signal about the status of housing in Government circles.
“That’s a big step forward to combine those roles and to promote it in status. I’d almost say that’s quite exciting, because the Government is recognising that they’ve got to do something about planning,” said Stride. “What’s going to be interesting is that, whoever wins [the election], even if the Conservatives are back, they’re going to have to bite the bullet on localism.”
Even before Lewis’s appointment, it was clear that those in Government and Opposition circles have begun to sit up and take notice; before, during and after the CIH conference, rhetorical salvoes have been loosed that make it clear that housing is set to become a major election issue.
The election certainly places Stride – and his eventual successor Geraldine Howley – in a curious position. Sure, they stand aloof from the political machinations – it doesn’t do for a professional body to pick sides – but as the politicians start looking beyond the ‘Westminster Village’ to succour support, and develop election-winning packages, it opens up the scope for the kind of engagement Stride was talking about.
“I say to everyone that the pre-election year is important, because the manifestoes are being influenced, but as important is the year after. So next year, for Geraldine Howley, it will be a key year because that’s when the [new Government] is fresh in, whatever political party is in, and they’re going to be open to new ideas,” said Stride.
“That’s what we’re going to be getting over to them: that there is a housing crisis, that people think it’s important and they don’t think [the politicians] have got the answers, so they need to work with us and engage with us and listen to us. It can be a very big win for whichever political party picks it up.
“There are two big asks in that, and this is where my role as president comes in: that the next Government commits to solving the housing crisis in a generation, and to publish a plan to do so within a year of taking office, which brings in my point that it is not just this year, but the year after, that matters for influence.”
Time, then, not for throwing rocks, but for inserting a crowbar to apply a little careful leverage – and open up the political mindset to the possibilities of enabling housing of all tenures to deliver a solution.
This interview first appeared in the August/September print edition of Housing magazine. It was subsequently republished on the Housing Excellence website, 7 October 2014