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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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.

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.

Housing Perception Survey 2016

IMG_0793Housing probably seems pretty dull right? But we all want a safe and secure place to call home don’t we? Without it, everything else just doesn’t work.

I work in housing, and I’m surprisingly passionate about it. I write about it here on my blog (along with politics and PR) and I’m currently researching peoples’ views of housing in England and Wales.

I want to better understand what people think about their home, new development, affordability and to get opinions on the role of housing associations too.

So, I’ve put together a really simple, 100% anonymous and no-more-than-10-minute Housing Perceptions survey to get as many thoughts and views as possible.

I hope you can take part too. The survey will close Friday 27 May, and I’ll share the statistics and the stories right here on my blog in June.

Please do come back to see what the survey says or, if you’d like, you can subscribe by email to my blog so you don’t miss the results.

Bringing down the houses

img_0622We’re very lucky to have a democratic political system, where we all get a say in who represents us in Parliament.

But having watched how the Housing and Planning Bill has been put together, perhaps it’s time to consider alternative ways of making and shaping policy that affects us all.

Housing is, for all of society, a vital and surprisingly emotionally charged subject. It is a refuge, a place to build a family, an investment and so many other things.

And making policy is complicated, but it is made more so when politics takes over.

As I said in my 2016 predictions, the Chancellor, at the Autumn Statement, said ‘above all, we choose to build the homes that people can buy. For there’s a growing crisis of home ownership in our country’.

Rightly or wrongly, this specific view of the housing crisis has driven all subsequent policy decisions.

Then we come to the Bill itself. Late night/early morning debates, potential conflicts of interests and a swathe of last minute amendments all meant the Bill didn’t get the attention or detailed debate it deserved – as the Independent dramatically pointed out.

I’m not going to go into the merits of the policy itself, but I do want to discuss how policy is made.

How to make a Bill

Here is a video from the UK Parliament, explaining how a Bill becomes law. It sounds good, right?

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How laws are made

But once we’ve cast our vote, the policies which are made and voted on by our MPs for the following five years may no longer be representative of our views.

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Homeowner nation: In 2015, homeowners were the Conservative’s core support

The party with the majority, despite any fuss and bluster of the opposition, will often win out due to their sheer numbers. But how many of those MPs voting deeply understand the issue? How many have been whipped into line?

Experts, from industry or the third sector for example, can submit evidence to the committee, and some are called to give evidence.

But it is the experts trying to influence the politicians, when perhaps it should be the other way round.

So what are our options?

Turn thinktanks into policymakers

Thinktanks are a great place to test policy outside of the parliamentary process.

Let’s expand their role, perhaps create a broad independent thinktank, with representatives across the political spectrum, to co-create policy that meets the government’s manifesto commitments, while balancing the needs of the rest of society.

Crowdsourcing comment

In 2013, Iceland attempted to crowdsource their new constitution. A monumental task which, ironically, ultimately failed when it reached parliament, but there were two particularly unusual features that we could learn from.

The first is a National Forum, made up of a demographically representative group of 950 citizens. This group were brought together to discuss the principles and ideals they wanted to see in their country.

The second was an assembly of constitutional drafters, which excluded professional politicians. Again, independent from politicians, with experts and policymakers making policy.

From digital inclusion to digital engagement

I saw recently the Government Digital Service are now turning their focus on digital engagement.

So let’s get policy into the public arena through digital channels.

Back to Iceland, they received around 3,600 comments on their constitution via Facebook, Twitter, email and mail. Pretty good stats.

I got in touch with the head of GOV.UK, Neil Williams (@neillyneil), to ask if the 2011 vision for online consultation and policy engagement had ever progressed. They’ve achieved so much with GOV.UK, but this had not taken off.

He said it there is momentum in government and maybe it was time to revisit this idea.

I hope they do, opening up government, making policy more independent with crowdsourced ideas can only lead to more creative solutions, generate buy-in from the public and ultimately shape better and fairer policy.

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2016: Predicting the unpredictable

IMG_07892015 was an unpredictable year.

All the pollsters and pundits were flummoxed by the general election result, as voters decided that one coalition parliament was enough.

Even on the night, as more reliable numbers started to come in, Paddy Ashdown said he’d eat his hat if the predictions of a 47-seat loss were correct. He ate a hat-shaped cake on the following week’s Question Time.

Then, Jeremy Corbyn went from the 150/1 outsider to storm the Labour leadership contest.

So, if we’ve learnt anything from the last year, is that we cannot predict the future.

That uncomfortable fact aside, here are my predictions for housing in 2016.

We’ll build more homes – but still not enough

The government has set its sights on one million new homes by 2020. Or 200,000 a year.

Not bad. But back in 2007 the government set a target of building 240,000 new homes a year by…2016. Ah.

Even then the report that now sits in the House of Commons library said there was debate about whether this figure would actually meet demand and deal with the backlog of unmet housing need.

At the time private house builders were building around 190,000 homes, but then the market crashed. There’s a recovery going on, with starts and  completions increasing, but even 200,000 will need a huge effort from both public and private sectors.

We need to set our sights higher, aiming to build far more, if we want to meet that new as well as pent up demand.

Home ownership will increase – but affordable housing will suffer

Here I’ll just point you towards the excellent brickonomics blog from Brian Green.

He quotes the chancellor, at the Autumn Statement, saying ‘above all, we choose to build the homes that people can buy. For there is a growing crisis of home ownership in our country.’

The package of measures, from starter homes to the relaxing of shared ownership rules, the Voluntary Right to Buy and continuing Help to Buy will undoubtedly support people to buy a home. It’s hard to predict if it’ll hit the target of one million new homeowners, but the chancellor will certainly see a rising percentage of home ownership.

However, in Brian’s words, ‘note too, from the Office for Budget Responsibility analysis, that the Chancellor is willing to slow the housing delivery from housing associations, at least in the short term, in his pursuit to boost home-ownership rates.’

Time for a graph.

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The summer Budget, mainly due to the 1% rent cut, put the brakes on housing association development.

However, the Section 106 changes to prioritise starter home for sale, and the eventual sales of social rented homes through the Right to Buy may mean that it is the affordable rented sector that suffers in the short and long term, creating a different type of housing crisis in the future.

Prices will keep rising

I’m  lucky enough to own (a bit of) my own home. And as my family grows I’d like, one day, to be able to move to a bigger house. But as I live and work in the south east, that’s getting harder and harder. I can’t imagine how hard it is for people just starting out.

Prices rose more than 10% nationally in 2015. Newham rose a staggering 22%. Wages are recovering, but the longer you take to save, the further out of reach the houses become.

I can’t see this cycle ending yet. We’re just not keeping up with demand and supply-side policies will inevitably see prices continue to rise.

Housing associations will adapt

I’m biased here, I work for a housing association, but I think the sector will do some great work next year. It will be an incredibly difficult year for the sector, particularly the financial impact of the rent cut, but I believe they’ll adapt.

In 2014/15, as featured in Inside Housing’s annual survey, the top 50 developing housing associations finished 40,213 homes across a range of tenures. This compared to 26,214 completed by the 50 biggest builders the year before.

They forecast 34,526 completions this year, rising to a very impressive 106,250 by 2018.

Given the Budget, as you can see from that graph from the OBR, that’s going to be tough. But I suspect housing associations will meet the 34,000 figure and push on, minimising the impact.

There’s no surprises here, they’ll change the mix slightly, they’ll have to be smarter on asset management strategies and they’ll have to be more effective and efficient in everything they do.

And finally, some political stability.

Despite the very public positioning to take over from David Cameron, the shadow cabinet unrest with the new Labour leader and the usual 12-month career of a housing minister, my final prediction is one of stability.

I think, given next year will be dominated by the escalating immigration and Syrian crisis as well as the EU referendum, I suspect Cameron, Corbyn and Lewis will still be in their current jobs next time we sing Auld Lang Syne.

What’s your prediction for 2016? Leave a comment below and scroll down to follow this blog via email for more housing debate next year.