Blog: Reflections: why housing associations have never lost our social purpose – and never will

David Orr

In the latest in a series of blogs looking back at his time as chief executive of the National Housing Federation, David Orr writes why he thinks some people say housing associations have lost their social purpose (and why it’s simply not true).

  • A2 - The Association is formed for the benefit of the community. Its objects shall be to carry on for the benefit of the community:
  • A2.1 - the business of providing and managing housing, including Social Housing, and providing assistance to help house people and associated facilities, amenities and services
  • There, in summary, it is. This is an extract from the rules that all housing associations use. Every housing association in the country, whether charitable or not, exists for the benefit of the community. No-one and nothing else.

    Everything a housing association does must, at its core, be for the benefit of the community. In delivering that benefit, we provide social housing, other housing, assistance to help people and other facilities and amenities. If you are allowed the privilege of calling yourself a housing association, that’s what you are for and what you do.

    That may seem like a statement of the obvious. It is absolutely what people expect when they hear about housing associations. It is what housing associations do – every single one I’ve ever visited. Yet it appears that many people are questioning whether housing associations have lost their social purpose. Why?

    It seems to me that this misconception comes about because housing associations have had to make big changes to the way they do things. For a long time, we had a simple business model where the Government provided some subsidy, we borrowed some money, and we built homes for social rent which we kept for that purpose ‘in perpetuity’. Over time, government grant decreased and the private borrowing had to increase, but the basic model changed very little.

    Then came the change. In 2010, the coalition Government decided that it would no longer provide public subsidy for social rented homes. If we were to continue to build new homes for people on lower incomes – the heart of our mission – we had to change the mechanism by which we did it. So we did.

    With courage and creativity, boards concluded that the mission remained the same but that we had to find a different way to deliver. That meant generating income from other sources, such as building homes for sale on the open market and using the profits to build social and affordable homes. I explored this in more detail (in a previous blog), make no mistake: the social and affordable homes we built during this difficult time could not, and would not, have been built any other way.

    As may be clear, I have little patience with those who accuse housing associations of having lost their social purpose because they have become more commercial. They have become more commercial in order to deliver that social mission – and have done so with increasing effectiveness.

    I have even less patience with those who complain that housing associations are too focused on development. In the midst of a severe and growing housing crisis, why would housing associations not strain every sinew to deliver as much as they can? We are about ‘the business of providing and managing housing’. Research the Federation commissioned with Crisis shows that we have a shortfall of 4 million homes. Of course housing associations build homes.

    Being driven by a social purpose doesn’t mean we get everything right all the time, of course. I know that we don’t. Some have suggested that we have not collectively been as good as we should be at the ‘managing’ part of our mission – the core relationship between landlord and tenant that should be at the heart of everything we do. Evidence suggests that there is some truth in this claim. Most housing association residents believe they have a great home and that they get a good service from their landlord. This is not, though, universally the case, and for some tenants, the core service is not good enough and they do not feel listened to.

    This is a critical issue. Every single home we provide is at the heart of the lives of the people who live there. Every single one of these is a relationship we have to care about and get right. We’ve not got this right often enough, and we must become more responsive, more helpful, more transparent, more open to input from our most important stakeholders of all, our residents. The work the Federation is now doing with members and tenant organisations on defining and improving our offer to tenants is partly in response to this.

    But we need to be clear that getting things wrong is just that. It needs to be fixed but it is not evidence of a loss of purpose. That purpose is there in all the unseen things that housing associations do in their local communities and in the way that boards test their thinking against their mission.

    What we need to do is be open to scrutiny, unafraid of challenge, proud of the work we do. Telling the story of our social purpose partly means being more transparent. We must invest in being open, honest, responsive to the people who live in our homes – and worthy of the trust and support of the nation.

    This article was originally published on the National Housing Federation website.

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