Reflections: and so to the future

It’s been an interesting exercise for me writing the other blogs I have published this week. All of them have been to a significant degree reflective – a look back at 13 years in my brilliant job. This one, though, is my very last as Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation and I’m publishing it on my very last day. So this is all about the future and the opportunities I see for housing associations.

David Orr

By David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation

28 September 2018

As I said in my address to the Summit last week, I think we are at one of those occasional moments in history where things have the potential to change. I call it a launch pad moment. 


In the modern history of housing associations there have been a number of these. There was the community activism of the mid-sixties which led to the birth of so many of the successful and well established housing associations of today. 

There was the 1974 Housing Act, which introduced housing association grant and set us on a path of large-scale development, and the 1988 Housing Act, which required us to borrow commercially to invest in new homes and services

The Government introduced large scale voluntary transfer as part of the decent homes agenda, which helped us transform some of the most economically deprived places in the country into thriving communities.

There have, of course, also been moments which had a much more challenging impact on our work. The global financial crash and the move to the economics and politics of austerity was one obvious one. Challenging, yes – but as I have argued earlier this week, a moment which led to real creativity and focus on how to continue to deliver the mission.

So why is now a launch pad moment?

There is nothing as obvious as a new Housing Act, a major change in financial arrangements or a new approach to land supply (at least not yet – we live in hope!). There is, though, a genuine political commitment to new homes and the start of a national conversation about social housing through the Green Paper. For the first time in many years, the Government and Opposition finally share our strong, long-term commitment to get to grips with the housing crisis.

How we respond to this moment is in our hands. The early pioneers of our movement saw a problem and said, ‘we can do something about that – we’ll set up a housing association’. They took risks – and no-one ever changed the world without taking risks. 

Fast forward to 2018. Our sector still has people who say that this is our job, our mission. We are now backed by the 160,000 people who work in our organisations, the 8,000 committed and talented people who sit on our boards, the 6 million people who live in our homes. We have assets, the ability to organise long-term finance at historically cheap rates, the support and encouragement of politicians across the political spectrum. We invest for the long term and at our best we understand the communities where we work as well as, or better than, anyone else. 

And we have a job to do. We have a housing crisis. Some places need new homes because there is a desperate lack. Others need them because the homes there are too far from jobs, or are of very poor quality and need to be replaced.

It is a time to be bold and courageous. We cannot be risk averse. We have to know and understand the risks, take sensible steps to mitigate them, ensure we have the skills needed to do the job well – but, like the visionary people in the 1960s, we need to take risks to do everything we can to end the housing crisis.

Housing associations of all types and sizes have a contribution to make. Smaller, neighbourhood-based organisations know the small sites in their neighbourhoods. Specialists know the kind of homes they need for the particular requirements of their residents. Bigger housing associations combine social purpose and a mixed tenure, mixed economy business model, making long-term investment and putting the profits back into their social mission. As far as I can see there is no real parallel to our sector, and its potential, anywhere in the world.

Government policy of course makes a significant difference. But unlike all our previous launch pad moments, this one is not because of something that the Government has or has not done. It is a launch pad moment because we have a commitment to end the housing crisis, to own it as our mission. We have, as we have said often over the past five years, an ambition to deliver. With the courage to take risks and be creative we have the opportunity to ensure our future contribution is even greater than what we have delivered until now. 

This is our launch pad, our moment. We need to grasp it with both hands.

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