England needs more homes – especially social homes.
We know we need significant government investment in affordable homes to achieve this. If this were ever in doubt, the re-emergence of government funding and the resulting 13% rise in housing association starts thoroughly confirms it.
There is never just one answer to a question, though, especially in housing. That’s partly why housing associations are such a brilliant invention. As varied and nuanced as the problems they exist to solve, they find new answers: less obvious, more innovative, more challenging answers.
And that’s just what we found in our unflinching examination of the challenges involved in building more homes. The Supply Conversation, which publishes its interim report today, asked more than 300 housing association leaders one question: how can we work together to build more homes?
Of course, many people told us that we need more money to build social homes – £12.8bn to meet housing need, plus action on land and more resources for planning.
But we also identified some challenges that looked past the external policy environment and economic uncertainty and tackled barriers within the sector itself – things that housing associations can own and, crucially, do something about.
The first of these challenges was skills. Housing associations have a development skills shortage. To be fair, so does the whole country. There aren’t enough development professionals coming up through the system, partly because there isn’t an obvious training route or qualification. Demand for development staff is growing, with local authorities also now recruiting, and this limited pool of talent is making it harder to expand teams and retain good people.
“If we want to build high-quality, safe and sustainable homes on the scale that’s needed, we must bring in bright new thinking, as well as retain past knowledge”
Why is this a problem? Because of the time and resource it takes up, but also because it affects the sector’s agility and skills base.
If a major new housebuilding programme kicks off, we need to be ready to jump into action. If we want to build high-quality, safe and sustainable homes on the scale that’s needed, we must bring in bright new thinking, as well as retain past knowledge. Right now, we’re not always doing this. We need to work out how to change that.
The next challenge was partnerships. Partnerships are universally seen as a really good thing, whether with other housing associations, local authorities, devolved bodies, or the private sector. They give organisations access to skills they may not have, money they can’t free up or clout they don’t have alone, and they’re a great way for local organisations to unite – around a vision for a community.
But they aren’t easy. Partners need to click, have shared goals and be willing to trust one another – and crucially, they need to be prepared to act for the collective good. This is at the heart of the housing association mission, but competition for land or Section 106 can work against it.
Partnerships also require you to adapt to someone else’s processes and commit to relationships for the long term, and weather possible future change. With all this practical ground to cover, the motivation and the initial relationship has to be strong.
So how can we make space for more connections like this to spark? How can we celebrate and promote the benefits of partnership working? And how can we make those tricky initial conversations and thorny process questions easier?
“Partners need to click, have shared goals and be willing to trust one another – and crucially, they need to be prepared to act for the collective good”
And then, finally, there’s the balance between risk and ambition. Every housing association we spoke to was ambitious to do more to end the housing crisis. Even if their mission and local need drive them to prioritise community investment, extra support or regeneration, everyone agrees that more homes are needed and they would help deliver them if they could.
But how, in these uncertain times, do you weigh ambition against prudence, or find the resources to do it all?
The answer is: by doing things differently. Housing associations have a creative, entrepreneurial streak born out of social roots, their campaigning heritage and their independence.
They have shown, not least through the federation’s own groundbreaking innovation scheme, how good they can be at collaborating and innovating for change. They already do this every time they find a new cross-subsidy model, form a new partnership or build social homes with nothing except the funds they themselves have raised.
We’ve got to build this ambitious, collaborative culture around supply.
We can overcome these challenges together. The National Housing Federation is now working with members to develop a plan to do this.
We want to hear from housing associations around the country: how can we work together to build more homes? How can we solve the skills shortage? How can we build excellent partnerships? And what can we do get the balance between risk and ambition right?
We’ll be reporting back in full in the autumn.