The purpose of a housing association: Growth, place or people

The crisis in the supply of housing in the UK, particularly those who are most vulnerable or in need, is now a national infrastructure challenge of 25 years making.  Rising to this challenge requires organisations with capability, capacity and clarity of purpose.

Since 1949, private enterprise has provided on average 150,000 new homes per annum and in 2016 the annual figure was just 138,000.  If we need new build numbers to hit 250,000 homes per annum, then housing associations have a key role to play in the production of multi-tenure and good-quality homes. They delivered 20% of supply from 2013 to 2016, but now need to provide even more.

The recently announced The Future Shape of the Sector Commission neatly encapsulates what’s on everyone’s minds and no doubt many in the sector look forward to contributing their ideas.

In our work across the sector we’ve identified three distinct roles that housing associations must play: they must build homes, they must work within communities to shape and regenerate places and they must provide the critical services that enable people to thrive. Each role is critically important but that doesn’t mean that every housing association has to fulfil them all.

Housing associations can and should deliver a broad set of imperatives, but in general, we find that too many competing priorities or operating on too small a scale can diminish effectiveness. Across the sector, it also makes it difficult to see where delivery gaps might lie.

Based on our observations, in our new paper Growth, Place or People, we’ve imagined a new model  in which everyone knows how they contribute. A model that fulfils the key objectives at the sector level while allowing individual housing associations to focus their energy and resources on delivering what they do best.  At a time when the acute shortage of homes is the key challenge to which the sector as a whole must respond, we see the need for prioritising and aligning strategies and resources to make a meaningful contribution to resolving the housing challenge.

Most leadership teams would admit in private that they are better at some things than others. So why shouldn’t housing associations focus wholly on the areas in which they can truly deliver? If they excel at building homes then they should lead on delivering new homes. If their expertise lies with service delivery then they should pick up that mantle, because those services are definitely needed. If they can contribute to place shaping and building communities - including high quality regeneration, that’s a vital role as well. There’s room for everyone to add value.

In 2015 we published Housing Association 2020:  Distinctive by design, looking at the challenges of rent reduction and welfare reform and the opportunities of closer working and merger. Many associations rose to these challenges, taking the required action in order to continue to deliver housing and services to those in need.  Many expected that worse was still to come but it was in fact perhaps the unplanned political and economic uncertainties which  led to the wave of mergers now taking place.  These mergers offer the perfect opportunity to consider the purpose of the newly merged association and what role it could play within the sector.

We can’t still be having this conversation in another 25 years so something has to change. Housing associations should pause and consider their strategic focus and how they align strategy and resources appropriately. This will free them to deliver with the passion the sector has long been known for and will be a key part of resolving this crisis.


Matthew Williams | Director
Profile Email | +44 ( 0) 7730 733 790

Read more articles on