Being commercial is the how, not the why

An article in the Guardian this morning, written by a council housing employee, talks about the importance of frontline social housing employees in building a better housing future – I couldn’t agree more.

But the author also said that ‘making social housing more commercial has eroded workers’ skills and knowhow.’

Since I started working in social housing around nine years ago, the debate being between commercial and social has been ever present. But, for me, they are not mutually exclusive.

But I suppose we should start with what is commercial?

Being commercial is about trying to be the absolute best what we do. This means being as efficient as we can so we can provide affordable homes, offering valuable but value-for-money services, as well as building much-needed new homes.

It’s about being strong financially so we can invest in improving our homes and have the ability to rent them out to people below the market rate, at a price that’s actually affordable.

While government’s financial support for building new ‘social’ rent, has eroded, housing associations on the whole continue to protect their existing social rented homes and, where they can, are building more. For a truly commercial business, the financial cost would outweigh all other considerations, but housing associations  take into account the impact of their decisions on their residents and their communities too. Sometimes something is just the right thing to do.

On the frontline, whether that’s housing officers or property services operatives, it’s about having the best people, trained well, supported by the right technology and backed up the ‘business’. Housing is a really tough job, so they need the support and space to get on with their important work.

So many housing associations are looking at investing more in IT and finding modern and innovative ways of working, so residents ultimately get a better service.

But being commercial is the how, is it not why housing associations and council housing exists.

We’re here to provide decent, affordable housing. Many provide extra services too, that help residents live more independent lives or to go on to achieve their aspirations.

Residents, like customers of any major companies, should drive the business. At Sovereign, where I work, we realise the value of residents getting involved in what we do so we’ve just refreshed our approach to resident involvement.

There’s three layers, a Board Partnership group, linked closely to the top of the business, co-creating policy, helping set strategy and challenge decision-making. Then there’s a separate, resident-led scrutiny group and finally we’re setting up local community groups, to make sure we retain those local connections where we work.

For many years the sector has been under intense pressure to focus on building more, both to rent and to buy, to help fix the broken housing market. This has meant it’s had to change and adapt, be commercial, be the best it can be.

After the absolute tragedy at Grenfell, the focus is understandably shifting towards regeneration, community investment and integration and making sure our existing homes and buildings are as safe as they can be.

To continue achieving their broad social purpose of providing decent, affordable homes, of building more and more, of investing in the future of residents and our communities, of offering great services that really change lives by talented and committed frontline housing teams – housing associations will need to be more commercial, not less.

Advertisements

A modern manifesto for housing

It can take years for a new home to go from concept to construction. We put down deep roots, we secure mortgages for 25 years, we rent or buy our forever home. But housing policy is made and remade every few years.

It’s time to take a longer view, to take control.

More than a roof over your head

The heart-wrenching scenes at Grenfell Tower has been a brutal reminder of the scale of the responsibility entrusted to housing associations and local authorities. 

We do not just build affordable homes; we do not just invest in and work to strengthen communities; we do not just help people get into work or build a career. We do all these things – and it’s our job to keep people safe.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen a sector respond to the tragedy with urgency and compassion.

Homes and housing officers were immediately made available, many travelled to London to volunteer and those further away gave what they could to various funds. 

Meanwhile, right across the country, checks continue to be made on homes to make sure our residents were safe and protected, while housing teams reassure worried people.

This attitude is not new.

Over the years, as funding dried up, I’ve seen a sector continue to care and invest in their communities and residents. Continued to work hard to support those hit by waves of welfare reform.

I’ve seen a sector carry on building right through a recession, even as government grant fell by around 90%. Building affordable homes too.

While some are building homes for sale too, its not because they’ve stopped trying to make social rents stack up – it’s the opposite.

And, as residents’ expectations of us change, I’ve seen a sector begin a transformation from ‘traditional’ landlords to modern businesses, providing brilliant online services and pushing innovation in customer service and housebuilding.

I’ve not met a single person in social housing that doesn’t recognise the value of what we do – or passionately want to play their part in making even more of a positive impact in people’s everyday lives.

What we’ve achieved has been in spite of the world in which we work, often on the wrong side of both housing and welfare policy. 

Government financial support has dwindled, our were rents cut. Residents have felt increasing pressure on their finances too – supported housing, benefits cap and LHA cap hits pensioners, families and the young. Employment has changed, it’s less secure, wages have stagnated and work benefits trimmed. Now inflation is starting to spike. 

All the while we’re deep in a housing crisis, with demand for quality, affordable housing growing all the time.

A crossroads

We’ve known all this for years, but what happened at Grenfell Tower has brought the sector out of the shadows into the intense pressure from the media, the politicians and the public. 

Our former housing minister, Gavin Barwell, is now Theresa May’s chief advisor.

We’ve been here before, with Benefits Street and the ‘curtain twitchers’ dogma, and later accused of not building enough. 

But this time it’s different. We are, perhaps, at a crossroads.

The government that was supposed to last forever is wobbling. While the truth is more nuanced than the headlines, Labour’s revival has been based on a manifesto that stood for the many, not the few.

There’s talk, at last, of more support for schools and students, public sector workers like nurses and fire fighters.

There are opportunities ahead.

Theresa May, if she is to survive and rebuild a government, must begin to deliver on her vision of ‘social Conservatism’, with state intervention where it made sense to do so, that she promised when she first became leader.

There are a lot of people she described as ‘just about managing’ on the steps of 10 Downing Street who’ve not seen or heard her fighting for them as she promised – and they sent her a reminder on 8 June.

Housing associations are part of the solution – politically, socially and morally. We work with people and organisations right across our communities. We’re here for the long-term, far longer than any government can hold on to power.

So, now is the time to be clear and determined as a sector, have a clear ask and offer so we can deliver our ambition for thriving and sustainable communities.

My personal wishlist is below, others will have their views too:

  • To uncouple housing from politics. We need a long-term, housing strategy for the country that allows us to build the range of homes we need.
  • A sensible, open approach to land. Housing associations, local and national government and public/private sector working together can get better results.
  • To invest in a range of housing (from social rent to shared ownership) as crucial national infrastructure, with 10-year+ programmes. With a broken market, social rent is simply the firmest base from which people on low incomes can achieve.
  • To create pathways from homelessness to housing, with local authorities and housing associations co-creating solutions.
  • The same for health care to home care, freeing up the NHS and helping people live independently as they get older.
  • To join up welfare and housing policy. Just one example, but the benefit cap, the Local Housing Allowance and Shared Accommodation Rate will make people lose their homes, impact their lives and limit their futures.
  • To ensure our regulator, which we need, retains a common sense approach, the power to intervene and calm nerves in a crisis (which I believe they currently do).
  • To remake and set out that commitment to providing a service to our communities and our residents, to work together with them to improve where we live and work.
  • To look again at standards – including design, environment and fire safety. It’s not about red tape; it’s about building homes people love, can afford to maintain, and keep them safe.

Let’s be clear. It’ll be difficult, but I don’t see a sector that’s shying away from the challenge. 

Working in partnership with government, our local authority colleagues, residents and communities, the NHF and the CIH, we can put forward a sensible, long-term plan to end the housing crisis.

We have politicians and a public who are listening.

Social media is the real king maker

While there were many factors in the shock election results, for PR professionals, the role of the media and power of social is a game changer.

In 1992, The Sun claimed it was them ‘wot won it’ after John Major upset the odds to keep out Labour’s Neil Kinnock from Number 10.

Sun wot won it.jpgThey are iconic headlines and, while many have played down Kelvin MacKenzie’s bold claim, our national newspapers did held immense political and social power.

And this week, as we approached the snap general election, the headlines could easily have been lifted from the early 90s.

Papers.JPG

However, these damning front pages failed to stop a Labour party that has spent nearly two years in disarray with deep internal divisions, confounding the pollsters and securing 40% of the popular vote – just 2.4% behind the Conservatives.

It’s clear that social media is now the real king maker.

The power of social

So how is social media changing politics in the UK?

  1. Politics is no longer for the few

If you’re as old as me, you’ll remember how you used to update your Facebook status in the third person… Now it – along with Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and so on – are powerful places to share content, comment on news or events as they happen, give everyone a soapbox or a forum to debate with friends.

My news feed has been alive with political conversations. With people from all parties and perspectives, all walks of life, every bit of the country and demographic. With a smart phone politics is in our hands 24/7, delivered in bit size pieces, in films, in memes, with outrage and humour, shown to us by our friends.

It’s impossible to ignore. It’s much harder to not be part of the moment, not have an opinion , not get out and vote than ever before.

2. Social media is different to media. It’s social.

I know, it sounds obvious, but it’s not enough just to have an account and push out content every now and again.

Comparing Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May’s various platforms immediately shows the different levels of engagement in their personal brands and political message.

In an election that came down to leadership, much like with Trump and Clinton, this personal brand was so important.

Jeremy Corbyn far outweighed Theresa May  in terms of followers. His account appeared to be personal, rather than managed, and his posts received substantially more likes, retweets and shares.

He was able to reach and have a direct conversation with millions more people than Theresa May.

3. Content is the Prime Minister

Adapting the old adage that content is king – this election proved great, compelling and shareable content will beat direct advertising any day of the week.

In 2015, the Conservatives were rightly recognised as the masters of ads and ‘dark posts’ on Facebook as well as promoted ads across social media. Making the most of their focus group insights and voter data, they really honed their message to the individual.

This time, the Labour campaign countered this online attack through something far more powerful – endorsement.

They created content that people liked – actually liked as well as clicking the thumbs up. They connected to the message while enjoying or reacting to the meme, the film and so on.

Then they shared it and said to their friends – I believe in this, you should believe in it too.

4. Your social media says who you are – invest in it

Theresa May received a lot of a negatively because she refused to debate with the other party leaders on TV, her press visits were said to be tightly controlled and any questions from the public carefully managed.

Her social media accounts were equally stage managed and, despite this potential direct connection with millions voters, she failed to get her personality, as much as her message, across.

Theresa May was understandably missing from sofas of the Sunday politics shows, but Jeremy Corbyn was there and he’s on Facebook, on Twitter and Instagram too, sharing and commenting, continuing to build his personal brand.

Who knows if Theresa May will tweet again before she has to update her bio.

Current

Six types of media interview disaster

In a 24/7 news world, there’s an almost unquenchable thirst for people to have their say on almost any subject.

The media therefore provide a fantastic opportunity for an organisation to talk directly to their audiences – whether it’s to promote, or defend, their product or performance. So PR teams spend a lot of time and money trying to help their spokespeople be brilliant ambassadors for the brand.

But it doesn’t always go to plan. Here’s six examples of when a 3-minute interview became a never-ending nightmare.

1. The hospital pass

One of the most painful interviews to watch. In 2012, George Osborne changed his mind on increasing fuel duty. Good news? Not for Chloe Smith, the treasury minister sent out to meet the press calling the then chancellor’s U-turn an ‘omnishambles’.

Lesson: Put forward the right person, even if it’s going to be a tough interview.

 

2. The robot (or the overprepared)

When the Barbie range was undergoing a facelift, the CEO decided to front the interviews and sell the new-look doll. Unfortunately she seemed to have been pre-programmed with a very limited suite of phrases…

Lesson: Prepare, repeat your key phrases, but it must be authentic and flexible.

3. Panic stations (or the underprepared)

Housing, and in particular affordable ones, is something very close to my heart. During the 2015 election campaign housing was also a big part of the Green party manifesto. Unfortunately, leader Natalie Bennett hit a brick wall when trying to remember the detail on LBC.

Lesson: Know your topic – which is why it’s better to have an expert rather than a ‘spokesperson’ fronting  interviews – and back up your messages with evidence.

4. The walker

I wanted to show ExxonMobil CEO Lawrance Rawl storming off Good Morning America after being interrogated about the Exxon Veldez oil spill – but I couldn’t find a clip online.

So, instead, here’s man of the moment President Donald Trump walking out on CNN in 1990. Looks like his dislike of the channel has been in the making for some time.

Lesson: Be prepared for tough questions, even if you’ve discussed the scope beforehand – and finish the interview.

5. The dodger

An interview with Conservative MP Michael Howard was Jeremy Paxman at his challenging best, repeatedly demanding a yes/no answer to his question.

Lesson: Answer the question.

6. Breaking the fourth wall

Interviews can be hard work, especially if you’ve done a lot and been asked the same question…a lot. But in this clip Quentin Tarantino breaks the ‘fourth wall’, revealing that the interview is really just a marketing strategy.

Lesson: You’ll have your motives for arranging or accepting an interview, to sell a product or manage reputation, but it shouldn’t become the topic of the interview itself.

Did I miss a great example? What’s your favourite interview disaster? Let me know what you think in the comments section.

 

 

Building influence, building homes

While housing associations build everything from foyers to hostels, homes to communities, it is influence the sector needs to build if it wants to end the housing crisis.

And that is the purpose of the National Housing Federation (NHF) Influencing Academy, which kicked off in Manchester last week. The academy brought together sector leaders as well as operations, policy and communications professionals from across the country and from every corner of the housing sector.

I was proud to be involved and to be part of telling our shared story better, demonstrating the difference we make and starting to redefine our relationships with those who have a say over our future.

It’s stronger, more strategic partnerships that’ll help us build more, give us greater control over our destiny and ultimately mean we can provide the homes our communities need now and in the future.

One housing sector

I’m passionate about housing and proud of the sector I work in. I see the value each diverse organisation brings, often having been created to solve a problem others had been unable to tackle.

However, at times I’ve felt our sector is too diverse to come together with a single voice. When I walk around Tesco to get the weekly ‘big shop’ it can be hard to see the connection to my local grocer. When I’m choosing an energy company, I see more difference than similarity between the big four and the new wave of environmentally-friendly energy companies.

But housing is different.

What struck me from talking to others at the academy was our similarity at the heart of what we do. Whether we managed 100,000 homes or a single hostel, whether we build 1,000 homes a year to rent and buy, or build homes specifically for our former military men and women.

We all genuinely cared about people.

We all want to provide decent, safe, secure places from which to build a life.

We all want to do it better, learn from others, innovate.

It didn’t matter if we were supporting the elderly or selling homes to first-time buyers. Our purpose, fundamentally, is the same.

More relationships, less conflict

In its perception audit last year the NHF found those in government saw our sector as inefficient, not building enough, not doing enough to bring down the benefit bill.

And they have a hand on the big levers that affect us, whether that’s reducing our rents, regulating our business or creating policies that impact our residents such as benefit or Local Housing Allowance caps.

We need to change their minds about us. We need to be part of the conversations that take place before the announcement. Then we need to show that we dondeliver – that means taking control of our statistics as well as our story too.

This also includes working strategically with our partners in local government, the new metro mayors, our house builder colleagues, investors and think tanks.

People make change happen. We’re all influenced, positively and negatively, by the world around us. Opinions can be moulded, or can become long-held and entrenched.

So we need open, long-term relationships to turn it around. We need to understand what they need, clearly set out our stall and then work pragmatically towards solutions.

This has not always been easy given the average lifespan of a housing minister, but it also means having a longer-term, apolitical view.

Building relationships locally, where we deliver for communities every day, talking to those rising stars coming through the national ranks on both side of the House, will mean we’re not continually stuck in the five year spin cycle of government.

It’s important to note that a new relationship doesn’t mean less challenge; when they get it wrong, we should be able to tell them so and then work towards fixing the problem together.

Time to stop talking…and start talking

Success, health, happiness, financial security – it all starts at home. Without one, none of it is possible.

We all build homes, invest in our communities, and change lives.

Our sector has a big responsibility to deliver, but as we touch the lives of so many, it also means we have a lot of power among politicians – power we’re not making the most of at the moment.

So we need to get our story straight, building on that shared purpose – and I’m excited to be part of that work in the south east.

Then we need to be bolder, sharing stories of how we make the difference, showcasing our new homes, introducing our residents to those that can help us so they can hear their story first hand.

Then we can have those equal, open and strategic conversations about how we can work together to end this housing crisis once and for all.

 

You can read more about the NHF’s Owning our Future work, or get in touch with me here or via Twitter.

Time to deliver our ambition

Housing took centre stage in Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement – now it’s up to us to build them.houses

For a few years housing associations have had the shackles on: it’s been a tough market, too many strings attached to government cash, a squeeze on welfare. The ripple effect of that rent cut.

Despite those obstacles the sector built more than 40,000 homes last year. About a third of all new homes built in England, which is a great effort.

But now it’s time to step up.

The productivity drive

With uncertain times ahead, the chancellor is putting his – and a lot of borrowed – money into creating the right conditions to allow business to flourish.

This translates to more, better infrastructure, with a £23bn fund set up to invest in tarmac, tracks, telecoms and…houses.

He talked about the negative ‘effect of unaffordable housing on our nation’s productivity’ and rightly placed housing in the same bracket as roads and broadband.

Housing is essential infrastructure. It creates jobs, creates a boost throughout a local economy and creates safe and secure places for people to get on in life.

But there’s a housing crisis.

And housing associations are a big part of the solution.

And now the sector has been given some money and flexibility to deliver. We can build the right homes in the right places, where they’re needed most, especially affordable homes for rent.

Time to build

The National Housing Federation’s recently relaunched Ambition to Deliver includes a goal for housing associations to be building 120,000 homes a year by 2035/36.

I believe we need to move faster.

There have been headlines about housing association completions falling recently, it’s no surprise given the end of the last government programme and the rent cut, but this is a chance to reverse that trend.

Let’s be realistic, this is not a return to the dizzying grant levels of the Housing Corporation/Homes and Communities Agency pre-2010.

But we have to find a way.

Housing associations have spent years overcoming the falling grants by focusing on efficiency, making the most of their land and assets, diversifying where it makes sense to do so.

That may be enough to add another 5%, but can we do more finding strength in numbers through a group structure, a development consortium or a merger? Can we share risk with a developer in a joint venture? Can we work even more closely with local authorities to make the most of valuable public land? Can we make the most of modern, off-site construction techniques?

We want to end the housing crisis, now we’ve got some more tools to work with.

The just not managing

But what makes housing associations different is that we don’t build, sell and leave.

Our connection to our estates and communities continues after the last brick is laid, as a resident moves in and makes that house a home.

And for many, times have been really tough.

So while the ‘no further welfare savings’ was a welcome message, it won’t be much relief for those already near or over the edge.

A rise in the living wage and increasing personal tax allowance is welcome, but I’m certain we’ll start to see the impact of the benefit cap soon, particularly in expensive areas such as the south east.

If the cost of living goes up as expected next year, the freeze on benefits will only widen the gap for those just not managing at all.

The just not managing feel the freeze

The just not managing feel the freeze

Housing associations have a responsibility to support their residents through these tough years as best they can, and make sure they have a voice when government is making decisions about future policies that impact them.

A boring white paper

The next milestone is a white paper, due to be published this year, setting out the future for housing. I hope it’s dull.

I’ve seen a fair few reviews into housing in my short time in housing. And the answers are often the same, shifting the balance between planning  (and I’m including land here), regulation and investment.

But for the first time in a long time, it feels like government is starting to act on all three areas, a commitment to not just free up public sector land but really unlock it with supporting infrastructure, housing associations are to be given freedoms and there may be a new-look regulator in charge, and then there’s a few billion to get the work started.

Let’s keep their focus there, keep it simple. Then let’s prove that with the right freedoms, the right mix of land and investment, housing associations can deliver their ambition.

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but this is a chance for the sector to show its commitment and skill at really solving the housing crisis, building a significant number and range of homes that meet our communities needs – while holding true to that social purpose that makes this sector so unique.

#Housingday

If Theresa May wants to build a country that works for everyone, she should come and talk with housing associations. That’s what we do.

  • One of the most successful private/public partnerships, mixing social conscience with commercial skill
  • Manage 2.5m homes for 5m people across England
  • Provide homes for all of society, for the young and old, for those starting out or those that need a bit of extra help
  • Built 46,000 affordable homes for people in housing need last year, to rent or buy – that’s 37% of all homes built
  • Work hard, alongside local authorities and partners, to make great places to live and work
  • Generated £3bn of surplus, a profit for a purpose, which is reinvested in homes and services
  • For those that need it, work with residents on employment and skills to help them back to work or retrain for a new career
  • Invested £1.9bn in existing homes, including keeping bills down by making homes more energy efficient
  • Major employers, investing in local communities and businesses, improving estates, bringing groups together and working to tackle anti-social behaviour
  • Directly employed 12,000 apprentices over the last three years
  • Built 3,500 market rent or outright sale – providing good landlord services for those in private rent

Have I missed anything? Let me know in the comments section below.

As demand and prices continue to rise, quality and affordable housing remains out of reach for many.

It’s #housingday. Today, be proud of what the sector does, enjoy the stories, and then get back to it.

Work hard and try new ways to be better, more efficient, more effective, so that we can do more for people. Build more homes, invest more, make more of a difference for our current residents – as well as that growing group of people in need of a housing association home.

(Sources: A mixture of National Housing Federation, DCLG and the Homes and Communities Agency.)

Does #ukhousing need activism or slacktavism?

My arms hurt. It’s day 7 of my #22pushups challenge, the latest social media craze, where people are posting videos of themselves doing (in my case terrible) push ups.

Here’s my day one video, with a little help from my boy.

It’s got people engaging, sharing and talking about veteran mental health – an issue that doesn’t normally get attention. But is this just ‘slacktivism’? Do people just feel like they’re making a difference with minimal impact?

And is there anything #ukhousing can learn from these crazes?

The #22pushups challenge

The challenge was started by #22KILL, a campaign group based in the US – to honour those who serve and to raise awareness for veteran suicide prevention through education and empowerment.

The ‘22’ bit comes from a survey in 2013, which said 22 veterans commit suicide each day in the US.

Here in the UK, CombatStress, a mental health charity for veterans, is supporting the campaign, seeking donations to help those veterans left battling stress and depression.

But does it DO anything?

It’s a PR dream. Huge celebrity endorsement. Wall to wall media coverage around the world. Social media is stuffed full of people talking about the issue with their friends (for 22 days each!).

The problem is the original message can get lost in translation. It becomes just a challenge, rather than connected to the original cause or issue. And sometimes charities and causes bustle with each other for the online attention – and donations.

As I’ve done the challenge I’ve donated to Combat Stress, something I probably wouldn’t have done unless I’d taken part and gone on to find out more about the issue.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t donate to the last charity that posted something through my door, hassled me in the street or paid for an advert on the TV.

Another success story was the Ice Bucket Challenge. The money raised for ALS has left a lasting impression, as their infographic shows.

InfoGBut, as with all trends, the world moves on, and the issue often remains unsolved. This is never truer than the headlines about the Calais refugee camp running out of food as donations dry up – other issues have crowded it out, for now.

Is activism better?

Junior doctors are proving that activism can get your cause attention with a bit of rebellion. But will it ultimately get them the result they want?

I have an occasional photography blog on Facebook called One Million Lives. It’s a collection of photos and stories.

One incredible person I met was Angie Zelter, a campaigner and founder of a huge number of international pressure groups. She started her activism career chained to the fences of the US base at Greenham Common in the mid 1980s, protesting about the nuclear weapons there.

Angie_4_webThat passion has grown and intensified, and I met her outside one of the AWE (Atomic Weapon Establishment) sites in Berkshire in the summer, where she’d organised a month-long protest.

She was passionate, informed and has dedicated her life to this cause.

But despite this, media coverage was light, her message didn’t carry to the masses. MPs voted heavily in favour of renewing Trident just weeks later.

So what can housing learn?

#Ukhousing has felt that it’s struggled to get its voice heard for many years.

There have been some great campaigns, with lots of engagement – you can never doubt people working in the sector don’t believe in its importance or social purpose.

But we’ve not struck on a moment recently, mixing the activism – to fight for what we feel is right – with a slacktivism hook that gets people talking, engaging and sharing. That gets the housing crisis on the front page of the Daily Mail. That gets politicians clamouring for change.

The last time we had that powerful connection with the public was when Cathy Come Home appeared on our TV screens some 50 years ago.

We could do with another moment, but more than that, we need a movement.

A moment or a movement?

As Ken Loach said of Cathy Come Home, ‘a film isn’t a movement, it’s just a film. A film can agitate a little, illustrate, but it’s part of the process. Unless you organise, nothing much will happen – people turn off the telly or walk out of the cinema and that’s it’.

A moment is not enough for what we need.

Dan Slee asked Twitter this week what were the three main challenges facing the sector. It was a good list. Lack of money, lack of houses, welfare reform and so on.

As well as needing a long-term, non-political plan to meet the broad housing needs of the country, the main problem, in my view, is that housing’s stakeholder map encompasses everyone.

Whether you’re a politician, a landlord, a developer or a labourer. Whether you’re a renter, a homeowner, a landowner… or none of the above.

Everyone has a stake in the game.

As the sector comes under greater and greater pressure, housing communicators have a vital role to play in bringing people together through a shared cause.

This means getting the story right, absolutely. But this also means focusing on fostering the right relationships – strengthening some, rebooting others. With so much change politically this year, if anything now is the right time to take stock and rethink how those with a role in housing can make it work for everyone.

Yes, we need to agitate, to create a moment that connects people with housing – but it’s only through true, new and progressive relationships that we’ll build the homes our communities need, at prices they can afford.

Right, I’m off to film my first #HomeRun challenge.

Housing perception survey 2016

Four out of five people agree there’s a housing crisis.

Crisis means different things to different people, but a recent survey revealed the root is the same: decent, affordable homes are becoming harder and harder to find.

What is more surprising perhaps is that four out of five people would also accept more development where they live, so maybe we’re not a nation of ‘not in my back yard’ after all. We’ll need that local support for housebuilding given we need around 300,000 new homes each year, double the levels we’re building right now.

I feel like I’m never going to be able to buy a house and that scares me. What happens when I retire?

Female, 25-34, south east, private rent

And the survey says…

I’ve worked in housing for many years now, and I’ve seen how something as simple as a house is intrinsically bundled up with people’s emotions, their aspirations and their financial security.

It’s not just a castle for an Englishman. It’s a bank, a springboard, a safety net, an investment, an inheritance, a pension.

So I decided to carry out a survey. As house prices cannot carry on booming, I particularly wanted to track the trends as the market shifted, but mostly I wanted to hear firsthand what housing meant to people.

I had around 140 responses, mostly through Facebook and Twitter, spread right across England and Wales, from homeowners to renters, from families to singles.

The majority were in the south east and I appreciate it’s a small sample size. But what was most eye opening were the individual stories that people shared. Housing, the place we call home, is so vital to our quality of life.

I was homeless for 3 months last year! The b&bs around our area were bursting at the seems. My housing officer said its the worst they’ve seen since they’ve worked here.

Female, 35-44, Yorkshire and The Humber, private rent

When is a crisis a crisis?

A third (32%) of respondents said they were worried about keeping up with their mortgage or rental payments.

Given record-low interest rates, this was higher than I was expecting. But, on average, houses cost first time buyers 4.5 times average incomes in the south east – up from 2.6 times in 1996.

Where I live, a 3 bedroom home can cost £500,000.

Getting on the property ladder to be a first time buyer is near on impossible despite good incomes the deposits are astronomical.

Female, 25-34, south east, social/affordable rent

And low rates often benefits those with a home, bought a lower price and with some equity. Those buying at a peak of house prices will take on a larger debt, albeit at low rates. Should rates rise payments will quickly become more difficult to meet.

(Note: the survey was before the EU referendum, so people may feel more secure if rates stay low or fall as they’re expected to in the short term.)

As well as house prices, rents have been on the up over the last few years (as the graph shows below), while wages haven’t kept up.

What should government do?

Government has always been interested in the housing market. It impacts on jobs and economic growth, consumer confidence and spending, social mobility, health and education – it affects the income government can receive from taxes and it simply makes people feel wealthy. It’s importance is not in question, but where government gets involved – or leaves to the market – varies greatly.

The survey question assumed that government would invest in housing, and respondents were split fairly evenly on where they thought they should put the money.

Not surprisingly affordable homes to buy topped the shopping list, but affordable homes to rent was seen as a slightly greater priority than helping first time buyers. 

Perhaps, the solution is about combining cheap, long-term finance options for those starting out with building more homes that everyone can afford, from first-time buyers to those looking for the home for life.img_7659

It was reassuring to see tackling homeless was a priority given the survey was an exclusively housed group of people. But interestingly private rent was low down the list, as was older person’s accommodation.

Perhaps the reason for the latter was because most respondents fell in the 24-45 range, but the issue of decent, affordable housing – with the right level of care and support – will only get more important as our population ages.

What are housing associations for?

I work for a housing association, and have been in this sector for about seven years now.

Since I’ve been here there’s been a concern that the sector doesn’t have a unified voice, a single elevator pitch for what it’s for.

img_7655This is reflected in the words people used to describe housing associations (left). People know we provide affordable homes, they know we’re ‘social’ or charitable and many are positive about the difference they make.

When asked about where their priorities should lie, while being a good landlord was the main focus, they recognised housing associations role in building new homes too.

Interestingly, and probably not surprisingly however, people didn’t see  helping those on middle-incomes as such a high priority. These housing options, such as shared ownership and private rent, do meet a need (people on middle incomes can also struggle to buy a home while some want the flexibility that comes with renting).

img_7658While you can argue whether it is for housing associations to meet these needs, the truth is that to build more affordable housing, housing associations have had to change how they operate. In the past, housing associations would have received government grant to subsidise the construction of a home so it can be rented at sub-market rents. This grant has all but dried up, so housing associations have been adapting, seeking other sources of finance to keep the building going.

Selling properties and providing more homes for private rent is one way to bring in more money to replace the grant. This income then makes it possible for housing associations to build more affordable homes and provide services for those that need them.

Housing associations provide a vital safety net for vulnerable people.

Female, 35-44, London, own – mortgage

Housing associations may not always get it right but they are doing their best and have a hugely important role in helping people who are usually doing their best to get on in difficult circumstances.

Female, 45-54, south east, own – mortgage

How to solve the housing crisis

We’re not building enough homes, many are not available at a price – to rent or buy – that people can afford and that meet the needs of our changing and ageing communities.

There is no way the housing crisis will be solved, as no-one is doing enough about it – government, housing associations or councils.

Male, 25-34, South East, private rent

The main levers government has to affect housebuilding are planning, investment and regulation.

But getting the balance right, given financial and political constraints, is the challenge. If you bring one down, you need to dial others up. For example, if you reduce investment you could mitigate the impact by removing planning restrictions and red-tape. But you don’t want to reduce it too far or you could impact the quality of the homes or not build the types of homes that meet the broad range of needs in an area.

Government can try to force those who can build but don’t (or are not building the type of housing needed, or not quickly enough) while incentivising those that want to build, but can’t.

I believe that housing associations have a big role to play. Last year the top 50 housing associations built 40,000 homes (Subscription required). This is a decent effort, but we need to go much further.

I disagree with the respondent that said government, housing associations and councils don’t want to solve the housing crisis. They all do, and, in difficult and uncertain circumstances are doing what they can to build more homes.

But what struck me most from this survey, which came through strongly in the individual stories, is how many different types of crisis’ there are. Every person, couple and family, at each stage of life need a safe and secure home.

The challenge is knowing which crisis to solve first.

A divided kingdom

We woke to a new reality on Friday 24 June, and a new direction for our country.

If, like me, you’d hoped to remain, I’m sure it was a disappointing moment when you realised the result had gone against you.

If you’d voted to leave, I’m sure you’ll be excited that the United Kingdom will have the chance to take back control of its destiny and stand on its own two feet.

As the dust settled, the pundits have looked for reasons why we turned away from Europe.

You could blame anti-immigration, anti-Conservative, anti-Cameron or anti-Corbyn, anti-European or anti-establishment. You could blame years of EU-myths and the right-wing media. You could say it was about freedom, fear or hate.

But it was probably all of them. And what this referendum has revealed, especially when combined with the divisive general election results, is how fractured we are right now.

A very British revolution

Owen Jones in the Guardian wrote that this was a working class revolt, with millions fed up with the system. And when there was nothing to lose, leaving, making a change, was never a gamble. It’s true that for so many the system has failed them again and again.

Meanwhile the young have been left speechless and powerless. Politics is cyclical, and with 75% of 18-24 year olds voting remain, the next generation will have their day, someday.

Migrants and European workers in Britain will be uncertain about what the future holds for them – and what their place is in their communities is.

The butterfly effect

The ripples from the vote are already being felt.

The markets and pound crashed (and bounced), some big businesses and financial institutions revealed plans to leave themselves, our EU neighbours postured (some calling for a quick exit and tough deals and others demanding their own referendums), and political leaders toppled (or perhaps began to topple slowly). While Spain eyes up Gibraltar, it’s likely, and understandable, that Scotland and Northern  Ireland will try to seek their own freedoms too.

David Cameron promised One Nation politics. Sadly his legacy will be a country that’s never been more divided.

This may be a short, sharp shock. It may be the start of another recession, job losses, falling house prices and rising costs of living. We’ll see, no one could really predict the future on the campaign trail.

I’m sure we’ll all roll our sleeves up and get on with it and we’ll make Britain a success in the long run. But we’ll be judged on our efforts, there’ll be no-one else to blame or bail us out from now on.

Stronger, together

But the real challenge is how we get our society back together.

The first step will be for both ‘remainers’ and ‘brexiteers’ to work towards building a new country together (I’m working through the change curve, I promise, I’ll get there).

Theresa May’s leadership – and her choices for her top government posts – will be crucial in starting to heal the country and recreate much-needed stability. Her vision of a country that works for everyone is an honourable one – one that Cameron would have endorsed – now we’ll see how successful she can be.

And we all, and I mean all of us not just the political class, will have to stand up and start healing the rifts.

Whether you backed remain or leave, hold Labour, Liberal or Conservative views, we now have to make the most of this opportunity, put the past few months behind us, reengage positively with our neighbours, next door, across the channel and online, and try to reunite our United Kingdom.