Council housing dwarfed by London's financial district. Photo: Oxfam.

Housing associations raked in a record £3.5bn in profits last year as the number of homes available for social rent in England continues to dwindle, leaving some critics questioning whether they’ve lost their “philanthropic roots”.

These supposed champions of social housing increased their turnover by a whopping 6% in 2017, despite a 1% cut in annual rent introduced by George Osborne in 2015 and only building 597 homes for social rent.

Writing for the Guardian, Colin Wiles says: “I couldn’t help thinking of this closing scene from Animal Farm when I read that the UK’s housing associations made record operating profits of £3.5bn in 2017.

“Many critics have argued that housing associations have drifted so far away from their philanthropic roots that it is often hard to distinguish them from red-at-claw property developers.”

Data shows that 22,858 new builds were completed by housing groups in England last year, but the vast majority of these (18,280) we for so-called “affordable rent” – available for 80% of local market rents, which is still beyond the reach of many families. Only 597 were for social rent.

Housing associations argue their turnover has increased as a result of efficiency savings, including a 14% drop in spending for repairs, but with such high profits many people will ask why they aren’t using at least part of this windfall to help boost social housing numbers?

Meanwhile rough-sleeping is on the rise, as is the number of families housed in temporary accommodation, and young people are left ‘sofa-surfing’ because they cannot find homes at an affordable rent.

Figures published today by Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government show the number of households in temporary accommodation in December 2017 was 78,930, up from 75,740 or an rise of 4%.

It’s true that successive governments have failed to build the homes we need for our growing population, but housing associations should not absolve themselves of their own social and moral obligations, especially considering their so-called non-profit status.

Colin Wiles writes: “In recent years housing associations have increasingly diversified into market sale and speculative developments. This activity has increased dramatically over the past five years, accounting for 18% of turnover in 2017.

“Conversely, housing associations’ core business – social housing let at low rents – has been shrinking, and now represents only 69% of turnover.”

He adds: “Housing associations appear to have come through a period of belt tightening very much the victor, while residents continue to suffer. For those at the top end of housing associations, it appears to be business as usual.”