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.

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