Shifting ground leads to a review of purpose for housing associations

Periods of rapid and unsettling change can often trigger introspection and reflection. The last 18 months have undoubtedly seen seismic shifts in both the global and the UK political outlook. At the same time, the social housing sector has experienced its own ‘local’ shocks to the system, such as the 1% rent reduction of July 2015,  a series of unexpected government policy shifts and, of course, Grenfell.

Sam McGrady is a Director at David Tolson Partnership

Sam McGrady is a Director at David Tolson Partnership

2 August 2017

Not surprisingly, housing providers have been taking stock and formulating their response. And for many, it’s provided an opportunity to reassess their very purpose. The senior housing professionals we speak to say they have taken time to reflect on this as the world and the sector has changed around them. 

For some, there has been a clear shift to a more ‘back to basics’ approach. This has meant a move away from community involvement and investment to focus on core services – providing a roof over people’s heads at an affordable price. Some ‘gold standards’ of service provision have been declared unaffordable and dropped. Staff numbers in many organisations have been cut back.

We’re seeing some providers take a more commercial approach. The squeeze on rents is forcing the sector to develop other income streams, which of course brings its own challenges.

Significant and regular policy changes, coupled with Brexit and the election, have created an almost perfect storm, where rapid change is seen as the new normal. In response, many providers are telling us they plan to review their purpose regularly, in some cases every year. In this new landscape, strategic direction will become critical; organisations will need to be flexible and agile in order to respond effectively.

There is pragmatism and realism in the sector. Certainly the sector wants to work with the Government rather than against it. But don’t be under any illusions – that willingness to compromise won’t be at any cost.

“We’re not stopping improving lives”, one senior executive told us. Although it didn’t take long before the realism set in: “the issue is that we can now probably improve fewer than previously.” One vision we’ve heard is of a sector that should be the go-to vehicle for solving the housing crisis. Bold indeed.

A greater focus on purpose will probably accelerate the diversification of the sector that we have seen unfold in recent years. All the signs suggest that this will continue, with different providers focusing on different activities.

But while many will head off in different directions, few will have the luxury to ignore issues such as the need for efficiencies and cost savings. And all will face the same pressures and be affected by inevitable, and as yet unknown, change. However, if the social housing sector continues to demonstrate a willingness to reflect and adapt, perhaps it will show itself to be more resilient than some might have imagined.

DTP is an independent consultancy providing high quality advice and support to housing providers across the UK.

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