Taking advantage of the inter-semester break I’ve been out and about doing fieldwork for my current Carnegie funded project on the contribution of housing associations to Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. One idea that has really taken my interest is that of housing association’s as ‘community anchors‘. As regulated, financially stable, social businesses with effective local partnerships and a commitment to transforming their communities for the benefit of local people, this ‘anchor’ concept seems a useful one for describing the work of the sector. It showcases what can be achieved through community asset ownership and community governance, and underlines the importance of connecting housing to other social policy agendas around health, education and so forth.
The idea that housing associations are more than just landlords is not a new one. Many have long been active in community development and community regeneration projects to tackle the social and economic challenges within their neighbourhoods as well as the physical ones. But as social housing budgets shrink whilst at the same time the relative poverty experienced by Scotland’s most fragile communities grows, the need for associations to connect the dots between housing and regeneration becomes even more critical.
In our most disadvantaged neighbourhoods housing associations are quite often the only agency with a physical on the ground presence. The relationship they have with their tenants mean they are often the first port of call when problems arise. Whilst many directly provide support services to local people, they are also enablers working in partnership with other agencies to deliver services such as money and debt advice, childcare, education, employment training, welfare rights etc.
Whilst I have been really impressed at the depth and range of community projects offered by the case study organisations I have been visiting in recent weeks, I was also struck by the sheer scale of the issues they have to deal with on a daily basis. Whilst they can use their skills and experience to attract funding and work with partners to alleviate some of the worst effects of poverty, on their own they cannot address the root cause of the issue. And for me, this is where Cameron’s Big Society falls down. I’m all for ‘local’ solutions and decentred decision making, but it is not cost free and it needs resourcing if it is to deliver real change. The long-standing, entrenched inequalities experienced in many of Scotland’s communities (which are still experiencing the fall-out from de-industrialisation) cannot be effectively tackled by volunteering or philanthropy alone; what is needed is a serious commitment to tackling the growing inequality in this country: and the ever widening gap between rich and poor. Given the changes afoot in the UK Welfare Reform bill it seems hard to imagine this will be achieved during the lifetime of the current coalition government.