Lime Legal

Yes we can

Published 06 May 2023

On the eve of his departure from Shelter, chief executive Adam Sampson issues a warning on the prospects for boosting the supply of affordable homes. Tony Marshall reports.

Outgoing Shelter chief executive Adam Sampson fears that plans to revive council building without a big influx of funding could undermine the expansion of social housing by pitting local authorities against associations.

The Conservatives have added their voice to pleas for the rules on local authority funding to be relaxed in favour of councils that want to restart house building programmes.

But Mr Sampson, who is quitting the charity in May to take up the post of ombudsman at the Office of Legal Complaints, warned that such moves could damage prospects for boosting the provision of affordable homes.

‘What concerns me about the idea that we need to re-energise council building is that there is a danger that local authority attention will be turned away from providing land and support for housing associations into councils gearing themselves up to be the deliverers of social housing,’ he told ROOF.


He said that housing associations should remain the chief vehicle for delivery. ‘We should return to council house building only if it would deliver a massive increase in supply, and only if that would be over and above what would be delivered by housing associations.’

Mr Sampson said that a switch to council house building would be subject to delay and could not be regarded as a quick solution to the housing crisis. ‘It would take some time to implement,’ he warned.

Even if councils were allowed to build the 100,000 affordable homes a year that many believe is the minimum required to halt the rise in council house waiting lists, it could hurt housing association development plans by depriving them of government funding. Competition for resources between councils and housing associations, rather than being a source of growth, could add to their woes.

‘Increasing the money that goes to councils to finance new housing could be seen by Treasury as part of the same pot that goes to housing associations and you simply introduce into housing provision a competition between councils and housing associations which is unhelpful for both parties.’

Mr Sampson is leaving Shelter after six years as head of Britain’s biggest housing charity – at a time when the recession, which began with the collapse of the sub-prime sector, has pushed the search for solutions to the housing crisis to the top of political agenda.

The rise in repossessions and tenants’ fears of eviction and homelessness as a result of financial problems and increasing unemployment have also resulted in a huge demand for Shelter’s advice services, which he described as the organisation’s ‘life blood’.

‘Shelter is a campaigning organisation, but that’s only half of what it does. What’s not talked about is the way it has delivered help to the millions of individuals who have contacted us in the past few years.

‘Staff in England and Scotland are seeing people in desperate need and finding them solutions. The fact that we are doing more of that work, to a higher standard for less money, is hugely creditable to all involved.’

‘There is now an absolute political consensus that housing supply is a problem’

Reflecting on his six years in the hot seat – a job that he admitted had sometimes been a bumpy ride – Mr Sampson said he was satisfied that there was now an ‘absolute political consensus’ that housing supply was a problem and that a big increase in supply was called for. Political parties were vying to come up with answers, which was a huge victory for that charity’s strength in campaigning.

But Shelter was now operating in a completely different political landscape from the one it had to deal with when it was set up 40 years ago. ‘The world has changed. Forty years ago, we were still in an era of big government. Housing policy, social policy, financial policy was still principally made in Whitehall and Westminster by elected politicians and officials.

‘We are now in a very different time where government is much smaller, markets rule and we have to develop relationships with the private sector. It is no longer a question of just influencing government policy. We have to influence industry. We can no longer conceptualise private industry merely as the problem and the state as the solution. We have to see the private sector as potentially part of the solution as well.

‘That means building relationships with the private sector which will range from taking money in corporate partnerships to working with them on issues of common interest, and developing new business models which may deliver social objectives and fulfil our mission without the need for public money.

‘What’s important is that we’re much more efficient at using the cash that’s given to us. People don’t give us money to prop up inefficiencies in contract delivery; they give it to pay for things that the state will not pay for.’

The number of people helped by face to face phone and email had risen by more than a third in the past six years with the same funding base. ‘If you add the hundreds of thousands of people who are now getting advice through the website, it’s clear Shelter’s reach has hugely increased. More people know about Shelter and are influenced by us. Public awareness and support has increased significantly.’

Shelter was behind the recent setting up of the 2020 Group which is pressing the government to stick to the target of three million new homes by the end of the next decade. The group consists of economists, local authority representatives, trade unions and the housebuilders’ organisation, the National Housing Federation.

‘One of the reasons Shelter set up the group was that we had a target for three million homes that was more like an aspiration than a real target which could guarantee delivery,’ Mr Sampson said.

He said the move had grown out of doubts about the government’s commitment and the realisation that the credit crunch had rendered current housing models unable to deliver. ‘What we should be aiming for is the guarantee of a massive increase in affordable, well-designed, well-located housing for people in need who have an indefinite security of tenure. And subsidised rents. That’s what marks out social housing from market housing.

‘It should not be an article of faith that it is owned by local authorities. We should not worry about who owns the stock, who manages or finances it. What matters is the deal between the tenant – the terms on which the tenant occupies the house – and the house itself, the physical quality and location. And the price. Those are the things that matter.

‘That the state has to take on an enhanced role in the current market conditions is absolutely right. Social housing has been dependent on the private sector for the past few years. We’ve been in a position where more than half of new social homes are built under the auspices of section 106 agreements – even if in most cases they are dependent on government grants.

‘The only way you can get the sums to add up for social housing is if the government grant, instead of putting in 40 per cent of the cost, is putting in 60, 70, 80 per cent. But none of that says automatically that the state itself must take on the role of developer or that councils appoint themselves providers of direct labour, owners of the land, and managers of the resultant stock.

‘It is possible for councils to take a leadership role without employees lifting a trowel’

‘It is possible for local authorities to take over a leadership role in finance from central government without local authority employees themselves ever lifting a trowel or managing the end result.

‘The Conservatives understand that there has to be greater incentives for councils to take on that leadership role. We do need to find mechanisms to incentivise local authorities to move away from an automatic bowing down in favour of an entrenched interest in their areas, to have a default setting in favour of seeking to meet housing need.’

Mr Sampson said Shelter, the charity’s supporters and the people who work for it could be proud of their achievements. ‘Shelter has seen its mission quite rightly as addressing the housing needs of the poorest in our society and that’s what it should continue to prioritise. Most of the people who come through the door of our advice services are not homeowners.

‘But the poorest and most vulnerable are at the mercy of the home ownership market, because when it fails, it has a knock-on effect on social housing. Pressures on the private rented sector and on housing supply critically impact on our main constituency.’

Goodbye Shelter, hello Home Office

Adam Sampson graduated from Brasenose College, Oxford, and was appointed junior dean at the college in 1986.

He then worked in the criminal justice system, first as a probation officer in London and then as deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust.

In 1994, Adam joined the new prison ombudsman’s office. After three years as assistant ombudsman, he returned to the voluntary sector as chief executive of RAPt, the national drugs charity.

He has been a member of a number of government task forces, and is on the board of several non-governmental bodies, including the End Child Poverty campaign and the UK Drugs Policy Commission.