The previous edition of the NHF Code of Governance dates back to 2015 – a time when the world seemed a very different place. Imagine picking up a newspaper then and seeing very little in there, if at all, about Brexit, Covid, or Donald Trump. The housing sector was still in shock about being asked to reduce rents by the new Conservative government. And of course, the appalling events at Grenfell Tower were still a couple of years away.
All codes evolve over time in response to a changing environment and ours is no exception. I believe the new code, developed by a group I was pleased to be part of, is a significant advance on what we had before, and in one respect – safety – it is fundamentally different.
It seems odd now (although I don’t recall thinking it at the time) that the previous version of the code said nothing explicit about the role of housing associations and their boards in ensuring that residents, staff and visitors could be safe in their homes. Of course, we all knew that we had responsibilities, and safety was certainly implicit in the requirements of the 2015 code when it talked about accountability, or putting the ‘…needs of existing and potential service users at the heart of business decisions.’ Some may argue that our responsibilities for safety were effectively covered in other documents and policies – but some things ought to be spelled out.
In contrast, the new version makes clear right from the outset, that there should be robust oversight of measures to keep residents, other customers and staff safe. In later sections, there is mention of the board needing to seek regular assurance that there are policies in place reflecting that safety is an overriding priority.
How could it be otherwise? Given that this is a sector-specific code of governance, and the one thing that all housing organisations have in common is that we manage homes where people live, isn’t it obvious that their safety and that of staff and other customers should be our overriding concern? And yet – until recently, I don’t believe we have given the topic the specific attention it deserves.
For example, have boards emphasised when recruiting new members that the main thing we, as board members, are there for is to take every opportunity to ask questions and check that safety is always being actively considered? How else can we demonstrate that we expect our executive colleagues to follow a culture of safety first if it is not top of our list of priorities?
For a new version of the code of governance not to have been explicit about our responsibility for safety in 2020 would have been unforgivable. Its prominence is therefore a welcome reminder to us all of our duty of care.