Saying the unsayable?
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Mick Kent, CEO at Bromford, has written an open letter sharing his opinion on the implementation of Welfare Reforms and the battle to repair deep rooted cultural damage caused by years of dependence on the state.
The letter has been sent to:
Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions
Lord Freud, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Welfare Reforms
Kris Hopkins MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
Another weekend, another shock welfare reform headline – this time it’s “Affordable homes to be demolished due to bedroom tax”
It’s not hard to find negative things to say about the current round of reforms and the way they are being planned, tested and implemented. But here at Bromford we think it’s good to “be different” – it’s officially in our DNA. So here’s a different take.
I am probably in a minority in the sector, in that I feel a reform of the Welfare System is long, long overdue, and the current arrangements which are clearly not now sustainable have produced very damaging long-term consequences - for individuals, families, society and the economy which will take generations, not just the life of one Parliament, to turn around.
The system has worked well for housing associations, producing a steady stream of tenants whose rent is paid direct to us via housing benefit. We make the case for state subsidy for affordable housing by claiming, rightly, that a decent home is fundamental to delivering better outcomes in education, health and the economy. Yet no-one - landlords, politicians, funders, the regulator - has taken any real responsibility for ensuring that homes built with state subsidy are managed in a way that maximises the social return on that investment. Nor is there any effort applied whatsoever in linking awards of scarce government capital funding to the success of bidders in helping customers reach out to achieve their true potential. It’s all about units and lowest common denominators.
There are some exceptions, but supportive interactions with our customers have often been focused largely on ensuring they are claiming as much as they possibly can in benefits – throwing them a lifebelt rather than teaching them to swim. The rationing of social housing, more and more in scarce supply, and its allocation according to greatest need and vulnerability, has led to a 'race to the bottom' and a focus on what customers CAN'T do rather than what they CAN do. This in turn has led to a dependency culture and caused deep and untold damage to society. I offer these views as a CEO who spends major amounts of time listening to front line colleagues and meeting customers face to face, on home visits, sign ups, interviews and on the 'shop floor'. And I say this with great sadness, as someone who has devoted his working life to social housing, but in the last 20 years we have been party to creating a dependency culture where qualities like enterprise, self-reliance, perseverance, skill and above all service to others, have been steadily devalued. Of course many of our customers through their own admirable efforts have still achieved great things. However I question whether collectively we have failed our fundamental mission and purpose, which is way beyond bricks and mortar - to inspire people to be the very, very best they can be.
That’s why we introduced the Bromford Deal – a something for something approach that requires and helps our customers to take personal responsibility, build their self-reliance and if they are not working or training to take steps, with our support, on that personal journey. We’ve been criticised for this by some colleagues inside “the sector” who feel this is unfair and undue interference in people’s lives. But that’s not how our customers have reacted. They have jumped at the opportunities we have offered them and welcomed the conversations we have opened up with them and their families about what they really want to achieve and how they can make a start on this. This emphasis on what people can do, rather than on what they can’t, has helped identify all kinds of hidden abilities that can be channelled into strengthening our local communities as people gain the confidence to help each other and contribute to society.
So what’s my view of welfare reform? Well, it feels right that taxpayers should not be subsidising people to live in homes that are bigger than they need but the way the “Bedroom Tax” has been implemented has clearly been unfair to many people. Most of the people who need a spare room due to disability will probably eventually be covered by the extra discretionary money made available to local councils but the government has failed to recognise that the children of divided families need a place to stay with each parent or that teenagers need space for study without a younger sibling sharing their room. And failing to understand that not all bedrooms can accommodate two people is inexcusably stupid.
Something else that has not been taken into account is that capping household benefits to ensure people are always better off working sounds sensible but the current cap ignores the fact that most working families on average earnings also receive very significant top-ups from housing benefit and tax credits.
Similarly the principle of merging the tax and benefits systems is absolutely right but it’s incredibly difficult to implement and we can all see Universal Credit going the way of so many other government sponsored IT projects.
But if and when the Universal Credit system does work, should housing associations and council landlords then still expect their rent to be paid direct to them? Let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. People are expected to manage their budgets to pay their own gas, electricity and food bills – so just why should they be deemed incapable of paying their rent themselves? Our experience working on Universal Credit pilots show this is eminently achievable. Of course we will need safeguards and support for those least able to manage their own money but that should be the driver rather than the lazy desire of some landlords to continue to have as little direct contact as possible with their customers.
I do believe that given the huge economic mess we are in, and the choices we now have to make about this country’s future, the overall principles of Reform are fair and should not be confused with the consequences of poor implementation and attention to detail. But I find the profession is perhaps too quick to indulge in wholesale 'bashing' of all reforms, based often upon fixed positions taken way before the changes actually started rolling out.
Here at Bromford we try to adopt a more balanced approach to change while working with our customers to help equip them for a different and far more demanding future. But I acknowledge that this is about deep-rooted cultural and institutional change, and no-one should expect that this can happen quickly or cheaply.