UK property market: Why Victorian housing associations are just as relevant today

 
Grahame Hindes
At a time of scarce public resources, Hill's values serve as not just a defence of housing associations (Source: Getty)

The problem for many housing associations with this week's Housing Bill is that a focus on extending home ownership or even on supply alone serves only to deal with some of the problems facing those on low incomes.

For those now too old for a full mortgage, constrained by the limits of zero hours contracts or living in areas where properties are increasingly unaffordable for even those on moderate incomes, the security of rented social housing often offers a far more attractive option than the private sector alternative.

For this group the targeting of limited public money at shared ownership, Help to Buy and more Right to Buy discounts, offers little comfort.

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It was to support those on the lowest incomes that many associations were formed. Far from the “public sector bodies” which David Cameron described in response to one of Jeremy Corbyn’s first questions, many associations grew out of the personal mission of philanthropists and social entrepreneurs.

It was in defence of those wider objectives that some of us recently voted, albeit somewhat reluctantly, to support the proposed voluntary offer which has now been accepted by the Prime Minister.

One of the founders of the modern housing association movement, Octavia Hill was driven to start her work with the poor of Victorian London by the conditions she witnessed.

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In one case she describes the private landlord who failed to collect the rents "Yes miss, of course there are plenty of bad debts. It's not the rents I look to, but the deaths I get out of the houses.” By changing this arrangement and dealing with the dirt and the vermin in the dwellings she started the work of repair and rent collection that forms the basis of contemporary housing management.

Hill’s approach to housing offered the chance of something better even to those on the lowest incomes. She was not alone and along with George Peabody and others she inspired a movement that gathered widespread cross party support and led governments from both parties in the 1990s to promote the transfer of Local Authority stock to similarly structured organisations.

It is a model that has worked and has led to billions of private investment and it is why it is a model that deserves to be defended, even if it means a compromise.

Hill’s vision deserves attention because it encompassed but far exceeded the provision of housing. She campaigned for clean air, she raised money to protect open spaces and was one of the three founders of the National Trust.

She worked to inspire and train young people, care for the elderly, and when necessary she supported “her tenants” by providing opportunities for employment.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the first property purchases by Octavia Hill and to celebrate this milestone we are preparing to publish a collection of writings on the relevance of her ambition in a modern context.

At a time of scarce public resources perhaps this Victorian woman’s personal ambition should serve not just in defence of the independence of housing associations but, on a scale worthy of the rest of her achievements, as a broad based alternative to the narrow economic focus of much public policy.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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