What next for the Social Housing Green Paper?

One of the few issues to break through the wall-to-wall coverage of Brexit recently has been housing, with the Prime Minister making it her personal mission to solve the housing crisis.

Like Brexit, it could also be a defining issue for many when the country returns to the polls at the next General Election, whenever that comes round again…

And yesterday, the consultation closed on the Social Housing Green Paper, which was described as a ‘new deal’ for social housing.

There was early criticism that the plans failed to address supply but Government has made great strides elsewhere by lifting the cap on council borrowing and creating strategic partnerships with housing associations. There’s more to do, particularly on land, but we’re moving in the right direction.

But given the tragedy at Grenfell Tower and feedback from social housing tenants at the government tenant events, this was always going to be about other issues: stigma, safety standards, transparency, customer service and accountability.

It was only really welfare that was really missing from the consultation, which to me remains a fundamental part of the future of social housing and creates stigma.

With the consultation having now drawn to a close, all eyes will be back on government to see what they decide to do next – and whether any changes need legislation. If they do, given the current political atmosphere and an understandable focus on the challenges and workload Brexit will bring, that may be a long drawn-out process. I hope I am being unnecessarily pessimistic.

Whatever and whenever the next steps arrive, I think the process of getting to this point has already had a significant impact.

It’s made government, the public and all those working in social housing take a step back and face up to their role in creating stigma. We saw a marked change of tone in Theresa May’s speech at the National Housing Federation conference.

But it’s about us too. How do we talk about our residents/tenants/customers? How do we market our own home ownership products – is it always a step up, on to the ladder and so on? How often do tell stories where we’re the hero, rescuing the vulnerable or turning lives around? Do we really give a balanced view of the millions who live in social housing?

It’s brought safety standards into the light, with some really excellent reporting from Inside Housing maintaining the publicity and the pressure. Frankly, anything that makes the homes where people live a higher quality and safer can only be a good thing.

And, in thinking through the questions over the last few months, housing associations have asked themselves if they provide the best service they can, how involved are their residents in shaping and scrutinising services, how transparent are they in demonstrating their operational performance – and the difference that they make?

It’s absolutely made employees – from trades operatives to chief executive officers – listen harder to their residents; we need to make sure that genuine desire to listen and have honest conversations – and learn from them – continue far beyond the consultation period.

The sector does some really fantastic work, it delivers where the market doesn’t, it challenges stigma and fights for those who do not always have a voice, and it does set itself high standards. It’s done this for years, long before the public backing it’s currently enjoying from government.

But I’m sure every employee in every housing association, in considering the Green Paper themes, will have realised that there’s something they can do to make things better – even if it’s a small change – today.

Let’s not wait for government, let’s act now.

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Trust me, I’m internal communications

TrustRecently, as we’ve started thinking about the future of internal communications here, we’ve talked a lot about trust.

And, after a year of ‘fake news’ and deeply divisive politics, it’s perhaps no surprise people’s trust is becoming hard to win, and harder to keep.

As the world becomes more uncertain, that mistrust and anxiety has understandably begun to spread to the workplace and its leaders. This year, for the first time in 17 years, the Edelman Trust Barometer found that trust fell for the first time across media, government, NGOs – and business.

This international survey found people simply did not trust these four institutions to ‘do what is right’. Leaders were also judged harshly, with high levels of mistrust in their credibility.

While business remains comfortably clear of the media and government, this is a wake-up call for leaders – and internal communications specialists.

A social leader; a modern, connected business

The phrase social CEO often seems to be used to describe a leader who has a social media account and Tweets occasionally. But it has to be more than that; a social CEO has to blend business skill with the ability to build strong and influential relationships, on and off line, at every level.

They can no longer manage from the top down, or make decisions for the people. They now need to make them with the people too, empowering and listening to their employees and customers.

Internal communications can come in many forms, but the area where I believe this profession can make the most impact is by creating connections, telling an authentic, shared story and helping to build trust in a business and its leaders.

This year we launched Workplace, an internal collaboration network from Facebook, to our 2,000 employees. The rationale was to give all employees a voice, to own their own story and to better connect leaders, teams and colleagues.

There’s a lot to do, but we’ve had some success. One example that sticks with me is one of our employee and training advisors who shared a story of a single mother who he’d helped from being homeless to find a safe, affordable home and setting up a business. It was pretty inspirational stuff.

It may not sound much, but our Chief Operating Officer left a comment saying well done, good work – she mentioned that story to me when we met later that week too.

None of our traditional channels, newsletters, intranets etc, could have brought those two people together in such a powerful, personal way.

Future of internal communications

So as we start to reshape and rethink our approach to internal communications we’re starting to define the principles.

  • An authentic story – our stories must be real and honest, told in an accessible tone of voice
  • Communications is everyone’s job – we’ll create places to get the information they need and support to communicate brilliantly, especially line managers
  • Content that works for you – as far as possible we’ll personalise our content, using more film, animation and infographics to get the message across quickly
  • Smarter channels – tailored content will be delivered to you via your channel of choice, whether it’s your intranet, newsfeed or line manager
  • Connections and conversations – wherever we can, we’ll get people together, on and off line, to build relationships, overcome mistrust and co-create our future

These conversations are in the early stages, but working in internal communications is fundamental to not just building trust in business, but making businesses and its leaders more worthy of our trust.

Is time running out to save Great Britain?

At 10pm on Thursday 23 June, polling stations across the country will close. Boxes stuffed full of scraps of paper will be taken to halls to be counted and, unlike a General Election, the result will have irreversible and lasting ramifications.

It’s a big responsibility.

So it’s a decision for the head, right?

I’ll admit, when the referendum was called I intuitively felt remain was the right choice. But I wanted facts. What frustrated me was both sides claimed to be the expert on every topic – the economy, immigration, education, the environment, housing and so on. Facts, ones you can be really confident in, were, and remain, hard to find.

But almost all world leaders, scientists and most economists seem to back remain. In the Sunday Telegraph yesterday, which actually backs leave, they listed the main supporters for both sides. On the leave side they included Ian Botham and Sol Campbell. While Beefy is an excellent cricket pundit, 14 centuries and 383 Test wickets does not make him an expert on what’s best for a nation.

So it’s got to be heart then

I want Great Britain to be a country the rest of the world looks towards. We’re a small island with a big history, a nation of just 65 million people that has grown to have a large say on the way of life of the 7.4 billion people living around the world.

We’re lucky that we remain in a position to show the world what democracy can achieve and that we make the right decisions when push comes to shove. As a nation we feel deeply, and we give what we can. The outpouring of vigils, words and even financial support for Jo Cox’s fund in the days after her murder is just one example.

Times are tough right now, I know years of austerity makes it more difficult to look beyond our own homes and family’s needs, but we shouldn’t neglect our moral duty to stand up for those that cannot stand up for themselves around Europe and the world. Immigration is an issue, so let’s have a grown up debate, but by leaving the EU and taking the ‘Trump’ approach to our borders is not one that’s good for us or the world.

And it’s true that anti-EU feeling is not a UK-only trait. Brexit could lead to others following, a splintering of the continent that has brought decades of peace and prosperity to so many.

The UK should be a country that leads. And no-one leads from the back of the pack, let alone from the sidelines.

It’s not just a vote for you

I’ve got two kids, aged one and four. If we leave, what will they ask when they look back at the referendum in their history lessons in ten years or so?

They may ask why we isolated ourselves when the world was moving towards greater collaboration. They may ask why, after the ‘empire’ had collapsed, we thought a return to greatness was through severing ties with our closest neighbours. They may want to know how we couldn’t see it as the first step towards the end of the United Kingdom itself.

Stronger, together

There’s a reason nearly all major companies have collaboration as a ‘value’. Why, when the world is becoming a more competitive market place, would UK PLC want to purposefully put itself into a silo?

The EU obviously has faults, like all major governance structures. But what the EU does is create an opportunity to make a difference on the big issues of our time. Issues that don’t follow borders or respect a national flag.

Tackling terrorism and crime, alleviating poverty, making major companies pay fair taxes, peace keeping and environmental threats – they all need more collaboration, not less.

Ticking the box

I’m sure all these arguments could be reversed, but I know I’ll vote to remain on Thursday. I’ll vote for a future within the EU because I believe the UK is stronger by keeping our seat at the top European table, that it’s the right thing to do to use our influence to do more for our people at home and around the world.

I’ll do it because I think it’s the right choice for my children and, one day, my grandchildren.

But, honestly, I fear that we’ll decide to leave this week, or, maybe worse, we’ll vote remain by such a narrow margin that all the hatred and divisions created by this campaign will never get the chance to heal.

The big stories on Super Thursday

It’s Super Thursday, with voters heading to the polls across the country. Here are some of the big stories to watch out for.

Has the Panama Papers scandal and EU rift damaged the Conservatives?

Cameron concernsA few months ago the Conservatives were unstoppable. Even with a small majority, they were pushing legislation through parliament at pace while the media focused on the chaos on the other side of the House.

And then came Europe and Iain Duncan Smith’s astonishing attack on his former cabinet colleagues. Since then the party has been divided as Conservative heavyweights campaign against each other ahead of the EU referendum next month.

Throw in the Panama Papers scandal and Cameron’s particularly uncomfortable week as he slowly revealed his own family involvement – and it could be an uncomfortable night for government.

Can Corbyn continue the recovery?

Take a bow CorbynIt seems a long time since Jeremy Corbyn was criticised for not bowing deeply enough at the Cenotaph.

While the party has been hit by a divisive anti-Semitism row, Corbyn and his grassroots supporters have survived longer than any commentator expected.

But today is the first public test of Corbyn’s leadership. Labour are likely to win back London, but will that be enough to show the party is getting back on its feet?

Have the Liberal Democrats delivered on their fight back promise?

IMG_7248Paddy Ashdown eating his own hat is a haunting image of the 2015 general election. The polls had been so wrong and the LibDems were in ruins.

Tim Farron picked up the reins from Nick Clegg and started what he called a fightback. There were good early signs with a big spike in new memberships, but the damage has been done and today will be too soon for the Liberals to make a significant step in returning to former glory.

Can 16-year-olds be trusted with a vote?

IMG_7250In Scotland, 16 and 17 year olds will join their more mature peers to cast their vote. Not so for those south of the border and government blocked moves to extend the vote to these teenagers for the EU referendum.

But it’s a step in the right direction, engaging the younger generation in politics and hopefully one day every 16 year old will have a say.

Will UKIP make local elections a signal post for the EU ref next month?

IMG_7251The smaller, topical parties will be hoping to ride anti-European sentiment into local councils.

With the EU referendum next month, today’s votes could throw up a few surprises. While many won’t win seats, a good show of national votes for Brexit parties will make Cameron and the StrongerIn campaign very nervous.

How will voters react to an evolving language of politics?

hustings01In the US, a defining policy of Republican Donald Trump was the Trump Wall to keep immigrants out. Here in London, Zac Goldsmith was criticised for a ‘passionate plea’ in the Mail on Sunday – which included an image of the 2005 London bombings.

The language of politics and politicians defines and reflects the society and culture in which we live. Zac apologised and blamed poor picture choice, but the article was an attack on his opposite number, far more than setting out a vision for the world leading city he believes London can become.

But, while this approach has been criticised online and the doorstep, will it make the difference when a voter is behind the curtain casting their vote?

Is it good enough, to just do good?

signThere’s no denying Kids Company, the charity run by the iconic Camila Batmanghelidjh, did great things to help inner city children during its 20 years.

But serious financial and governance problems caused it to close its doors; and it’s perhaps the most famous example that doing good, in the end, wasn’t good enough.

Housing associations are charitable, which means they’re not-for-profit, no shareholders expecting a return on their money, and any profits are put back into new homes and services. Housing associations are well known for providing homes for those in housing need, investing in services that help their residents get on in life, and working to build great places to live.

They’re officially public sector bodies right now too, but later this year, they’ll be deregulated by government.

Deregulation will bring new freedoms to a sector that has been tied closely to national and local government for so long. And with increasing control over its own destiny, pressure and expectations for it to deliver – both for its residents as well as building much-needed new homes – can only increase with it.

So, in this new world as private, commercial organisations, will doing good be good enough? Or, like Kids Company, can they carry on doing good if their businesses are not good enough?

A balancing act

There’s always been a need for housing associations to balance three interlinked but sometimes conflicting pressures. What’s best for the business? What’s best for current and future residents? What’s best for society?

Government policy – rent reductions, benefit changes, an unerring focus on homeownership – will continue to pile on the pressure on housing associations to deliver, threatening to unsettle this delicate balancing act.

So, associations, particularly at Board level, will need to be alive to this, and not allow commercial objectives overshadow the social purpose – and vice versa.

Getting the governance right

Just like at Kids Company, Boards have such a crucial role to the success of their organisation.

There are some excellent chairs and Board members from associations large and small, who bring substantial experience and a range of skills, from housing and other industries.

But these Boards will be tested in a deregulated world, and collectively they will need to ensure they have the right skills and experience round the table as the world continues to change around them.

They also have to lead, setting and scrutinising an appropriate strategy, making sure the business is strong and stable enough to navigate difficult waters, achieving commercial and financial success alongside demonstrable social impact.

Given the pressure to increase homeownership and the financial benefits of an expanding private rent portfolio, they must also act as the guardians of the homes our communities need for an affordable rent (with a very deliberate lower case).

Keeping the money coming

Deregulation will obviously move housing associations away from the financial safety of the government and its Treasury. They’ll still be sound places for investment, but lenders may well be more wary.

Government grant has all but dried up for affordable homes and when you add in the rent reduction, which devalues a housing associations assets, lenders might lose their appetite for housing or at the very least impact the low interest rates the sector has enjoyed for so long.

When I’ve met funders who’ve supported housing associations, they wanted to see that healthy surplus and strong balance sheet – but they also wanted to see that social ethos too. It is that balancing act again.

Redefining partnerships

It’s certainly time for new partnerships. After a rocky start a working relationship is forming with government – housing associations can be the answer to the conundrum of how to build one million new homes. But there’s also a need to redefine the way they work with local government. This historically close relationship is under strain as they try to balance the books while meeting the needs of their communities.

Ultimately we share similar values and objectives and can help each other, but it needs to be an equal and open relationship. We’ll need to work closely to make housing developments viable and affordable.

And, of course, true joint ventures with housebuilders will get more homes built, share risk and provide benefits for all partners and the community at large.

But what about doing good?

Expectations on a deregulated housing association sector will certainly continue to rise. Government wants them to build, build, build. Local authorities want them to meet their local housing needs. Lenders want a safe return on their investment. Residents, rightly, demand a decent home and a service to match.

Ultimately new freedoms will give housing associations more control over their destiny. Freeing them to build more and do more. They’ll have to behave like a business and think like a charity.

I know there’s some concerns over the so-called ‘mega mergers’,  but as long as the starting point for discussions is whether they can do more good and provide decent services by becoming stronger businesses, then it should be encouraged.

In the end, what makes housing associations different is that every decision is a balancing act at all; they’re social businesses in the truest sense. Each decision should continue to balance the benefits to current and future residents and wider society, as well as the commercial gain.

So this social ethos will be tested when the sector gets hold of its new freedoms and flexibilities, but I’m sure that doing good, but doing it even better, will remain central to their purpose.

Has Cathy Come Home yet?

CathyOk. I admit it. I’ve worked in housing for many years and I’d not seen Cathy Come Home. When people mentioned it I’d nod knowingly and quickly move the conversation on.

Well, enough was enough. So last night I watched the famous Ken Loach film.

And while the documentary turns 50 in November it was still a hard-hitting, incisive and emotional story of how a family can, through some poor luck and a couple of bad choices, fall to the deepest depths – and be failed by the society around them.

When it aired in 1966, 12 million people watched, a quarter of the population, caused a public outcry, a discussion in parliament and a swell of support for Crisis and Shelter, which were set up within a year of broadcast.

But what has changed?

The slums have gone, and families are no longer split apart, but in a BBC Inside Out interview marking the 40th anniversary, Ken was unconvinced by the lasting impact of his iconic film.

And when he spoke at the National Housing Federation’s Homes for Britain rally last year he said, simply, ‘it is much worse now’.

So what can we learn from the 50-year-old film today?

The spiral can be sharp and fast

The descent from happy couple with a child on the way, living comfortably and dreaming big was rapid. An accident at work, an illness, family and financial breakdown can escalate quickly. Cathy and Reg were an ordinary, everyday family – it could easily have been me and my family.

And without a home, a stable place to build from, it is hard to put the other bits of your life together – as this graphic from Homeless Link starkly sums up.

Pay-It-Forward-Infographic

Meanwhile The Guardian featured an article on how poor housing affects mental health.

It found children who’ve lived in temporary accommodation for over a year are three times as likely to have mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, compared to their peers.

We’ve not changed our language

We still have a problem about how we talk about people in housing need.

In 1966 you’d hear words like ‘scrounger’, ‘lay about’ and ‘lazy’. That language wasn’t out of place in the skivers v strivers debate a few years ago.

Language matters. How we talk about poverty shapes the policies we create to tackle it.

There’s a great Open University podcast, The Language of Poverty, featuring political commentator @OwenJones84 and social policy lecturer @GerryMooney60, if you want to hear more about this.

We need a new film – but we need a movement more

The film was powerful. 50 years ago many were upset, many supported the emerging charities such as Shelter or Crisis.

So while much has changed, much has stayed the same too.

It made me want to grab a camera and film a new Cathy Come Home, for 2016 – anyone interested?

But as Ken said: “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.”

The captive BBC audience has gone, but the rise of social media would help spread a powerful idea and the issue quickly. 

But to solve the housing crisis – tackling homelessness right through to affordable homeownership – can only be possible with a collective, committed long term plan involving government, house builders, local authorities, housing associations and charities.

So when Cathy turns 60, in 2026, I hope we can say how bad things used to be, not be reminded of how far we have to go.