When I joined the sector, the housing model was very traditional. It was slow in terms of achieving change and not hugely responsive to the market. The customer was not terribly well understood at that time.
That said, social housing has always remained true to its roots, despite significant political challenges. The social purpose that lies at the heart of housing, coupled with the passion within the sector, created a drive to improve. When I joined the sector, there were definite steps towards improved commercial thinking and looking beyond housing to find new ways of doing things.
At the time, I recall Inside Housing – the sector’s key publication –predicting that I wouldn’t last three months because I had come from outside of the sector. But the need for a new approach meant that more of us ‘outsiders’ were being welcomed into the fold and, almost a decade later, I’m still here.
While we continue to operate in the midst of a housing crisis, I’m certainly encouraged by how much of a spotlight social housing received at this year’s party conferences. Refreshingly, both parties are calling for more housing in similar ways and consistency of approach will be key to support sustainability.
I think one thing that has changed is the sector’s enterprising nature – although, we will always remain true to our core purpose. We are more inclined to generate our own income through the build and sale of a wide range of homes, allowing profits to be reinvested back into affordable homes and services for the people who need them the most. Another key priority for us is ensuring that those homes and services meet the needs of our customers, which is why we invest so much in our customer involvement work.
Currently, stigma towards the sector is shifting. We carried out some research last month that shows that Brits are more inclined to welcome social housing developments than they would be developments generally. I think that, as a society, we are responding to the crisis.
We’ll never tackle the housing crisis if we keep doing the same things. Housing is, by its nature, traditional but innovation is key. In my view, we need to disrupt the system and that’s why, at Home Group, we’ve invested in product innovation expertise.
I believe there are several ways we can readily disrupt the system:
Firstly, by diversifying our building types and techniques: offsite construction, flat-pack housing and cross-laminated timber sheets all offer the potential to build in modern factories attracting a whole new cohort of engineers and construction professionals.
Secondly, I am keen to see a proper and strategic pipeline of land, linked to infrastructure investment, properly assembled and released to developers in efficient and effective ways. This will mean that we get the right kind of houses in the right kind of places.
Thirdly, we also must look to new forms of investment. Housing associations are safe and solid organisations for investors. We can create large new developments that provide a mix of rented tenures to provide guaranteed income.
Finally, we should also flex these tenures to suit customer needs over the lifetime of their housing journey – whether that involves starting out with subsidised rent, before moving into market rent and on to equity share and full ownership.
Much of this is already beginning to happen. What I would really love to see, however, is a cross-party housing strategy to offer us consistency. That would be a real game-changer and I hope that, by working in partnership with government, investors and development partners, we can scale these innovations up to make a real difference.