'If ever there was a time to re-evaluate the purpose of social housing, it's now.'
In the first of a series of comment pieces we are running alongside our Rethinking social housing project, Optivo chief executive Paul Hackett says it is a crucial time to re-evaluate the purpose of social housing.
If ever there was a time for re-evaluating the purpose of social housing it is now.
We are in the midst of a housing crisis, with rising homelessness, deteriorating affordability and declining homeownership featuring amongst a depressing set of symptoms.
Housing associations will play a significant role in tackling this. But that role could take different forms dependent on the nature of the homes we build and the customers we target.
We are also in an era of substantial change. Diminishing government grant has prompted exploration of new, more commercial opportunities with some providers developing homes for market rent and outright sale. Our homes and customer-base is changing. We also have a more hands-off regulatory approach – especially in respect to the consumer standards – offering more scope than ever to define our missions and modus operandi. Add to that the wide-ranging ramifications from the Grenfell fire and now seems an opportune time to ask some existential questions. What are we here to do? Who are we here to serve? And how do we do it best?
I think it’s is vital we involve people living and working in the sector when answering these questions. Residents, shared owners and leaseholders – our collective customers – can help us direct our efforts to where they’re needed most.
At Optivo we have a longstanding tradition of involving customers in scrutiny and decision-making. They’ve helped us become one of the most customer-focused housing associations in the country with sector-leading satisfaction. Success, Satisfaction & Scrutiny, our 2015 report co-produced with the University of Westminster, empirically assessed the benefits of our approach. It showed customers had helped us secure efficiency savings amounting to £2.7m annually through input into the likes of procurement and complaints handling. They continue to help us design services to maximise value for money. So we’re convinced customers have much to offer in re-thinking social housing.
The same applies for colleagues. They bring a breadth and depth of knowledge, talent and experience which we must tap in to. Colleagues have seen the sector change over time. They know through experience what works and what doesn’t. More recent joiners offer fresh ideas, new ways of thinking and, in many cases, transferable knowledge. When we held sessions to co-create our new organisation back in 2016, colleagues and customers attended in huge numbers and had plenty of ideas to share on our future mission and strategy. I’m sure they’ll be equally keen to shape the future direction of the sector.
One ambition I think we can unite around is for social housing to improve social mobility. We have seen recently how life chances are substantially affected by where you live. Our aim should be for social housing to enable real, tangible improvements in life chances, with our homes acting as a springboard for improved health and well-being. Some recent government policy has focused on ensuring social housing falls into the hands of those who need it most, with Fixed Term Tenancies and the now voluntary Pay to Stay underpinned by a desire to make best use of stock. But making best use of stock is a subjective concept and these policies risked residualising social housing. As Sajid Javid has said recently, we need to restore a sense of pride in social housing and that means fostering mixed communities.
This is a real juncture for the sector and the right time to ask some searching questions. We’re delighted the CIH is engaging as many stakeholders as possible. Rethinking Social Housing offers a platform to share views and engage in some stimulating debate. We hope to come out of it with a renewed sense of vigour, compelling recommendations and a clarity of purpose.
Paul Hackett is chief executive of Optivo - a Rethinking social housing sponsor.