housing estate Peabody Trust estate on Horseferry Road, London. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Join the workers’ alternative to the Housing Association Awards gala dinner on May Day, urges Richard Allday

I got sent via Messenger a request to sign a petition protesting the Peabody housing association auctioning off 15 of its properties, including a two-bedroom refurbished terraced house with a reserve price of £730,000. This puzzled me, as I thought the Peabody Trust was there to provide housing, not sell it off.

London-based American banker and millionaire George Peabody set up the Peabody Trust. Its original aim was to provide model dwellings for the poor of the capital and this is still a ‘core objective’, along with regeneration and community projects. It currently owns approximately 55,000 properties across London and the South East. It rang a bell with me in connection with the scandalous treatment afforded to the Tidemills Gardens. It made £175M profit last year – yes, you read that right, £175,000,000 profit. I didn’t realize that charities were operated for profit. They also paid their Chief Executive Officer £278,750 (to save you doing the maths, that’s over £5,000 a week).

Which made me think: “Why would a charitable trust, whose remit is to provide ‘housing for the London poor’ be selling houses and community amenities rather than buying them? How come they make such a massive profit when there are still so many homeless people?  Who is running this outfit?” And here’s what I found out:

The chair of Peabody is Lord Kerflake (plain “Bob” to his mates), who previously headed up David Cameron’s Depatment of Communities and Local Government, and was head honcho of the Civil Service. Prior to that, he was Chief Executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, responsible for “new and affordable housing supply (question: if he was such a blinding success at his job, why is Peabody required?); supporting the regeneration of cities, towns, and neighbourhoods (curiously, now part of Peabody’s wider remit); improving housing stock and advancing sustainability and good design” (a la Grenfell Tower?). He was Chair of Kings College Hospital Trust until a year ago.

His Vice-Chair is Ian Peters, who – according to Peabody’s “Know your Board” blurb – has “30 years experience in the financial services and energy sectors”. So 30 years in the sector that caused the 2008 crash, and the sector that has been ripping off consumers since the privatisation of energy supply; tailor-made to head up a charity for the ‘London poor’ then. He is Chair of the Barts Health Trust. (The privatized ancillary staff at the Barts Health Trust had to resort to strike action to get their pay within touching distance of directly employed staff. The dispute started less than three months after Peters took charge. At that time, the Royal London Hospital – part of the Barts group – was paying £2.4million week interest on the biggest PFI deal in the UK.)

Curiously, the Peabody blurb fails to mention that Ian has also been appointed as a non-Executive director of the Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust (effective since December 1) where he can renew his acquaintance with fellow non-Exec director and fellow-Peabody Board member Helen Edwards.

Peabody Board member Phillipa Aitken, who has “over thirty years of experience in planning and development” started her career in local government then “moved to several global property advisory firms” – obviously only those with a clear commitment to developing good quality, affordable housing. I’m struggling to think of one. She is, strange to say, also a member of an NHS Foundation Trust, but Peabody coyly fails to mention which one.

Other Peabody board members include Helen Edwards who was in a previous life Director General of Criminal Justice (when legal aid was being slashed) and then, from 2013, Director for Local Government – where Lord (“Bob” to his mates) Kerflake was Permanent Secretary. She is betimes a non-executive director of … yes, the Central and North London NHS Foundation Trust (Hiya Ian).

Which brings us to fellow Peabody board member David Hardy (a member of the Audit and Risk Committee). His professional expertise includes being a director of John Laing Capital Management (part of the Laing group) with “over twenty years in corporate finance, M&A … and deal closure experience spanning infrastructure, PFI and renewable energy projects”. Prior to joining John Laing, he was a corporate finance partner at KPMG. The John Laing group made its name through PPP/PFI – privately funded public sector projects in infrastructure, schools and hospitals … like the Royal London Hospital.

Another board member, Jane Milligan, became in 2012 the Chief Executive of Tower Hamlets (in which borough lies the Royal London Hospital, and Barts NHS Trust – chair: one Ian Peters) Clinical Commissioning Group (CSG). Tower Hamlets is the borough which covers the Royal London Hospital, and the Barts Health Trust. She has been, since December 2017, “Strategic Partnership Lead” for all seven CSGs covering NE London.

I struggle to see what qualifies these individuals to head up a charity with the chief responsibility for providing housing for London’s poor; why they seem to spend more time on selling properties than acquiring them; and how they have the time to sit on so many intertwined NHS-related quangos, let alone what qualified them for these freebies in the first place.

In the interest of balance, it should be pointed out that there are two Peabody residents appointed to the board – presumably to give some kind of democratic veneer to an otherwise pretty autocratic set-up. I know nothing of the personal character of these individuals, but I would make the following observations: one, they are not elected by Peabody residents, so they neither represent, nor are accountable to, the persons most affected by Board decisions; two, they are outnumbered 6:1 by the ‘professionals’ on the Board, and I have little doubt are regularly reminded that the preferred decisions are preferred by persons with great expertise and experience – i.e. the landgrabbers, development moguls, Merger and Acquisition gurus and the rest who make up the bulk of the well-rewarded Board.

This is a growing trend among Housing Associations, to remove elected tenant representatives in favour of appointed nominees, and marries well with the paternalistic ‘we know best’ approach (honed no doubt by years of glorious isolation in the rarified atmosphere of central government mandarins, and global corporate finance). This is not to say they betray the wishes of their philanthropic founder – indeed Peabody (like the Fords, Cadburys et al that shared his vision) was quite clear that he wanted to provide decent dwellings for the ‘deserving’ poor. Those that wanted to blow their wages on booze, or the horses – or, God forbid! Trades union or socialist agitation – could go hang.

PS: Besides being Chair of Peabody, (and until Dec 2017, Chair of Kings College Hospital Trust) Lord (“Bob”) Kerflake manages to squeeze in a couple of other earners as well – Chair of BeFirst (a “regeneration company in Barking and Dagenham”); President of the Local Government Association; Chair, Centre for Public Scrutiny (someone having a laugh there); and Chair of the London Pension Collective Investment Vehicle. Busy busy busy.

Given the evident moral stature of the Peabody Trust, could I please invite you to return to my opening paragraph, and click on the link to sign the petition? Nothing in their background compels me to believe they give a hoot about public opinion, but you never know.

I don’t want you to think that Peabody are the only moral lepers in Charityland. They are just one of the bigger players. In fact, the shenanigans that ‘social housing’ landlords have been getting up to means that the total social housing stock (council, Housing Association, Trust-owned etc.) has been diminishing at the rate of over 25,000 houses a year for the past decade.

For further information of residents fighting the ‘land grab’ tactics of all too many ‘social housing’ landlords, the Social Housing Action Campaign (SHAC) seeks to unite housing association and coop workers and residents, and works closely with Unite’s Housing branch (the infamous LE1111 branch) and can be contacted through shaction.org or visit their Facebook page

They are also picketing the “Housing Association Awards” gala dinner being held at the Grosvenor Hotel, 86-90 Park Lane London W1K 7TN. Tables can be booked for as little as £3,000, but SHAC and the Housing Workers branch will be holding an alternative event outside – free! – and will be presenting their annual Alternative Housing Awards the “Tarnished Trophies”. Ironically, these 21st century Rachmans have chosen May 1st for their shindig so SHAC and Unite hope to remind them of the significance of May Day to the workers’ movement.

For more info on the event, read Suz Muna’s article.

Hope to see you Wednesday.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.

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