'At a time like this it's what we are and who we're for that really matters.'
Riverside chief executive Carol Matthews says it's a crucial time for us to 'reclaim social housing' and create a narrative for the government and the public in the latest of our Rethinking social housing blogs.
Social housing is under the spotlight. No longer the toxic brand it seemed to be a couple of years ago, the tragic events of the summer have accelerated a firm desire to reclaim its’ purpose and soul. The sector’s role is being re-examined at what seems like a watershed moment, not least through the CIH’s own Rethinking social housing project.
It’s true that we’ve witnessed a distinct change in tone from Theresa May’s government, one where social housing – not just affordable housing - is firmly back on the agenda. Starting with last February’s Housing White Paper, it seems that we have the ear of government once again, as they acknowledge the important role housing associations and councils play in tackling the country’s housing crisis: no longer portrayed as part of the problem, but firmly seen as part of the solution
And it’s not just the tone of the debate that’s changed. Tangible progress has been made around each of the key pillars of rents, benefits and funding, surely reflecting the fact that sector has won back some trust and demonstrated its commitment to the government’s value for money agenda, doing more with less during years of rent reductions and austerity.
Whilst this moment feels significant, in reality there is so much more to do. A sober assessment would suggest that over the past couple of years our policy focus has largely been on damage limitation – avoiding a negative rather than pursuing a positive. So we need to use the current climate to flip the polarity of the debate and show the huge and positive contribution we can and do make as a sector. With the country in the midst of a deep and complex housing crisis, it is imperative that the sector steps up to play an even greater part in providing low-cost, quality homes to those who need them most, stretching ourselves to provide new and innovative solutions.
As part of this, and with 3.7 million working people now living in poverty in the UK, we need to ensure that our products and services remain truly affordable and appropriate for those who need them. We shouldn’t complacently drift back into blanket policies of above inflation rent rises, without examining the local incomes for our customer groups and developing a deeper understanding of rent affordability. We also need to ask ourselves searching questions about how we listen to and work with our tenants, and ensure that the homes they live in are safe and fit for purpose.
During a period of deep reflection, it is essential to start with a clear point of reference. This is where we must look to our origins: the social purpose that is our touchstone. At a time like this, it is what we are, and who we’re for that really matters. Of course diversifying activities is perfectly legitimate – most charities have commercial arms as a means of generating income. But it’s about balance, and having the clear vision to differentiate between the means and the ends.
There is now a huge opportunity for the sector to reclaim social housing and create a clear narrative for both Government and the wider public. We need to emerge from this period of reflection stronger and more united; a group of organisations that are seen by the people at large and their political representatives as the ‘good guys’. That’s why we’re delighted to be backing the CIH’s Rethinking social housing project. I would encourage you to engage in the debate as it gathers steam in the New Year.
Carol Matthews, chief executive at Riverside Group, one of our Rethinking social housing sponsors.