By Dr Louise Dunne, Lead Advisor, CIPFA Housing Network
There has been a growing public debate in recent months about the real or perceived growth of commercialisation in the social housing sector. Muddying the waters of such debates is the fact that providers are not uniform, with different accounting and financial regimes, governance structures and regulatory codes, not to mention the sheer difference in the number of properties they manage, or variations in rental streams, or skill and resource bases they use to deliver services. This makes it difficult sometimes to separate out which bits of ‘creeping’ commercialisation apply to which types of providers, and why.
In the registered provider sector, talking about what commercialism means for the top 100 providers as against the hundreds of organisations with less than a few dozen properties is a very different issue, or is it?
Self-financing may have released authorities from the constraints of annual subsidy, but in terms of a conversation about the growth of commercialisation in the sector, political priorities, size, scale, recent histories, resources and skills base all play a part in determining the extent to which local authorities are keen to embrace, or reject what they see as private sector practices.
With all this ’difference’ how can we even begin to understand what is happening in relation to commercialisation across the sector – particularly in a time of financial austerity and welfare reform. And how do we separate out the good, the bad and the indifferent from the perspective of the provider, that of the tenant and resident, and that of the wider community and other stakeholders?
We know that the ideological premise of ‘public sector service’ was that some basic human needs should be met irrespective of income, and that this required/requires a majority social consensus that we are all happy to pay for it, however what does it mean for our society when that consensus no longer applies? Witness the sheer number of people in the UK dependent upon food banks for example, and the number of people on low income and the elderly struggling to keep warm in winter. Witness also the endless national surveys reporting that as a nation we overwhelmingly believe that welfare reform and in particular cuts to welfare are long overdue.
Without this social consensus, and with continued cuts to public services, we may find that we have no choice but to adopt a more commercial approach if we are even to survive.
Our focus at CIPFA has been to look at what financial managers need, now, and in the future, to strengthen their skills base and their capacity to take ‘public’ services forward over the coming years – whether these are skills more traditionally aligned with commercial enterprise or not.
Social housing is big business – and we will be debating the pros and cons of commercialisation at our forthcoming National Housing Conference on 22 May 2016 in London. For more information and to book contact the events at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 0207 543 5892.