What could housing associations do? What should housing associations do? How should individual associations respond to the risks and opportunities presented by an increasingly demanding environment? What sort of future is shaping up for the sector?
These are questions that many housing association boards and senior management teams are turning their minds to. They are also the sort of questions that the sector has shown a willingness to deliberate upon collectively. Over the last six months the National Housing Federation – under the HotHouse banner – has been facilitating a series of events at which senior practitioners come together to share their readings of the situation, and to work towards an articulation of what the world could look like for housing associations in 2033. It is a process I played a very small part in.
This week the NHF published An ambition to deliver – housing associations unbounded, a distillation of this thinking into a relatively brief vision statement.
I’m not entirely sure that I had very strong priors about what this document might look like. So I can’t really say whether it feels like it offers any big surprises or not. It is a fascinating document nonetheless.
It is fascinating for many reasons. Perhaps foremost among them is the way the document seeks to position housing associations. The positioning is in terms of scale, sector, self-identity and self-determination.
Ambition envisages a much bigger sector by 2033 – housing 12 million people rather than the current 5 million. It envisages a sector that caters for households of all types across tenures and market segments. It is a vision that includes a substantial increase in involvement in market and near market housing. That point is noted in the document but it is perhaps not quite as transparent as it might be. But a substantial move into market activity would appear to be the implication of a vision that sees the number of households in the sector double while the income of the sector increases fivefold.
The positioning in terms of self-identity is perhaps the most interesting dimension of the vision. The message is that housing associations are “social enterprises: independent private bodies that exist for social good” who will be “building, maintaining and managing good quality homes across all tenures” and going beyond housing by “investing in economically and socially healthy and resilient communities”.
The words “independent” and “private” are perhaps the leitmotif of the document. The NHF is very keen to put some distance between housing associations and any suggestion that they are best understood as a delivery arm of government – a mere extension of the public sector by other means.
Indeed, you could construe the document as heralding something like the dawning of a new era in the relationship between housing associations and government. Housing associations will, it suggests, continue to assist in achieving public policy objectives in meeting housing need. But that will not define the sector and, one might infer, it cannot be assumed that assistance will be available however unfavourable the terms dictated by government.
Indeed, the other major theme of the document is that housing associations do not have to wait. They do not have to seek permission or approval from government to act in ways that are for the social good. Much can be done working independently of government.
Yet, achieving this vision cannot occur without substantial assistance from government. Housing associations will need some new tools. The vision will not be realised unless government is willing to change some of the rules of the game, including those around funding, greater freedoms in allocations, and the use of public land. It would appear to endorse the need for something along the lines of Labour’s “use it or lose it” policy for planning permission.
So it would be unwise for housing associations en masse to adopt too antagonistic a stance towards government.
There is quite a subtle balancing act to be performed here.
An ambition to deliver appears to be a conscious act of differentiation. It offers a vision for the future in which housing associations not only move decisively out from under the wing of government but also, to an extent, distance themselves from their established core business of housing lower-income and vulnerable households. In that respect you could draw clear parallels with earlier initiatives such as iN business for neighbourhoods.
Ambition is thus a deeply political document.
Ambition sets out what many in the sector will find an enticing vision. It includes an invitation to individual housing associations to publicly express their support for bringing this vision into being. It will be interesting to see how much support it attracts, and from which segments of the social housing world.