The commitment of new funding over the long-term will help larger housing associations develop the high volume of affordable well managed units the UK desperately needs
The National Housing Federation’s annual conference is a major event in the social housing calendar. I’ve been attending since the early 1990s and you can usually expect a rousing speech from the visiting politician and a host of insights into how the UK’s housing associations are coping with the various challenges they face.
This year was remarkably different. For the first time in the conference’s history, the Prime Minister gave the ministerial address – at a time when her Brexit plan and negotiations are never far from the latest news headlines, no less. Not only did her presence emphasise the role that housing associations have to play in solving the UK’s housing crisis; she acknowledged the unique position that housing associations occupy – having often been borne out of local need.
She went further – acknowledging the valuable contribution that housing associations already make and their critical role moving forwards. This was really a call to arms – in return for £2bn in new funding, announced at the conference, the government wants housing associations to not just provide good housing management but to act as lead developers of new housing communities. It believes that given the wider social purpose of many housing associations and the unique local partnerships that they have developed, they are well placed to create the new homes that are needed for those that cannot afford to buy or rent in the private market.
This marks an important shift in government thinking. In 2015 in the Cameron/Osborne era the focus in housing was on owner occupation and many housing associations wondered whether the government would continue to support the sector at all.
The funding was welcomed and left the room feeling buoyed and positive, but we cannot underestimate the significant shift for housing associations too, and the support and opportunities needed for everyone to play their part and make a measurable impact.
The commitment of new funding over the long-term will help larger housing associations develop the high volume of affordable well managed units the UK desperately needs. They are geared up to deliver capacity and their expertise will be critical. They have also demonstrated their ability to lead on major housing projects, working successfully in partnership with private developers and local authorities. This will undoubtedly be a continuing theme.
As an industry, we will deliver the best result for our communities if both large and small housing associations are engaged and can bring their different offerings and approach to bear. There is always the possibility that smaller housing associations may find it harder to access this type of funding, and this is where we are likely to see more innovation moving forwards.
Smaller operators may not be able to deliver homes in their thousands, but they are more locally based and able to deliver in areas and at a volume where larger players have less focus – completing the other part of the puzzle if you like and helping the UK to deliver a diverse social housing offer. Many smaller housing associations have grown out of a sense of social purpose, which remains at the core of their operation and they have a strong sense of the community they serve, enabling them to tackle issues like affordability and ownership.
There was an upbeat mood after the Prime Minister’s speech and a sense that everyone wants to play their part. We must engage operators both large and small in the drive to build more homes to ensure we draw on the community knowledge of locally based organisations as much as the expertise and experience of the larger operators.