Housing 2020: What do the next five years hold for housing associations?

June 29, 2015

Where is the housing association sector heading? Indeed, is it even possible to describe housing associations as a sector these days? As part of its ongoing commitment to the (r)evolution of the housing association sector, PwC hosted at a roundtable dinner for leaders from across the sector at this year’s CIH conference to begin to address these questions.  The conversation was thought-provoking and engaging.

Across organisations of many shapes and sizes from all parts of the country, the commitment to the ethos and values of affordable housing and investing in communities was the pole star on which all attendees agreed  At the same time it is clear that the routes towards this goal will be different and diverse - in a world without boundaries, or indeed, grant funding. 

What does this mean in practice? While housing associations need to be confident, assured and resilient about both their values and purpose (whatever they may be), they also need to adapt to survive.  Associations must not become trapped, like 'creatures of statute ', to policy reference points that have since been redesigned and fiscal settlements that have been irretrievably redrawn. 

The necessity to innovate and the need to deliver a 'new deal' to Government was explored and there was an appetite for rapprochement not resistance, with a number of unifying themes emerging for the sector.

The importance of engagement with stakeholders around a new settlement was discussed - including central, city-regional and local government and the health sector, and communities themselves.  At CIH, we also launched a new guide to social value to help housing associations embed social value throughout their organisations as a means to improving community relations, as well as delivering savings. Importantly, the need to get aligned to, if not ahead of, the devolution debate was recognised.

Some housing associations will achieve this alone, some through collaboration and partnership and others through mergers.  Credibility and success will come through; delivery, embedding reform and leading the policy debate not reacting (negatively) to it.

Irrespective of the policy environment, the economic reality for many organisations will mean they will have to set a new path for their organisations in order to realise their commitment to affordable housing.   The anticipated impact of welfare reform on hitherto near certain revenues and the uncertainty of the impact of Right-to-Buy will increase volatility.  It will rattle some and shake others and the fall out might be, for better or worse, further consolidation and diversification.

Whatever the approach, it was clear from the conversation that the mood amongst leaders was very much one of self-determination.  Looking inwards, there were some common challenges and opportunities identified.  Leadership was unsurprisingly cited as being vital in a time of change. Does the sector have enough leaders who have experience of dealing with the sheer force of the threats ahead?  Where and how talent is sourced, developed, and retained was seen as an important challenge.

We also discussed technological change and whether, in the absence of competitive pressure, this is currently as high a priority as it should be. Technology can create the capacity for more effective face to face services and the ability to deliver more responsive and tailored services for less - but is its potential understood?  Or even of interest? 

Looking externally, it was agreed there is a major challenge of identity and perception for housing associations. The sector’s ability to address these two fault lines might well define its future role and relevance and, rightly or wrongly, perhaps more so than the number of homes it builds.

Richard Parker | Partner
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