Q & A with Tony Stacey: Forging an alternative narrative about social housing

Tony StaceySince setting up in 2008, Placeshapers has become a network of more than 100 housing associations driven by the desire to forge an alternative narrative about the role social landlords can play in their localities. Chair Tony Stacey, chief executive of South Yorkshire Housing Association, talks to New Start about why we’re sleepwalking into a housing crisis


How did the Placeshapers movement begin?

It started six years ago as a reaction to a fairly mindless, ‘big-is-better, everyone is going to merge with everyone else’ narrative [in the housing association sector] that was getting too loud. I’d been to an National Housing Federation conference called ‘To merge or not to merge’ and everything on the programme was about how to merge. There was nothing about why you might not want to merge. This powerful narrative had an air of inevitability about it and if you keep saying it, boards start thinking they’re standing in the way of progress if they don’t merge. And yet all the evidence shows it doesn’t drive greater efficiency. Placeshapers was a reaction to that and, because of what we’ve done since, the drive to merge is not taken as a given anymore. We’ve made it ok to carry on at the size you are if that’s the right thing for your organisation. But as well as playing an influencing role, Placeshapers has developed another arm around sharing best practice – we have 750,000 homes between us and want to co-operate with each other, not compete. As soon as a member is on to something they share it with others.

What sets your members apart from the rest of the sector?

Mission. Our members have a shared mission because they are asked to sign up to four principles: putting our residents and customers at the centre of what we do and ensure they have real influence; providing more than just landlord services because we care about the people and places where we work; recognising the importance of a local focus; and we believe there’s strength and benefit to residents and stakeholders in maintaining a strong, independent, diverse, values-driven housing association sector.

The best story I can give to explain how we’re different is when one member, Shepherds Bush Housing Association, was at a meeting with a local authority along with other landlords. None of the other housing associations liked what was being proposed by the council and said, “Iif you’re going to do this we’ll work somewhere else”. Shepherds Bush HA stayed at the table. They didn’t like it either but knew they had to find a way to work with the council – they were a placeshaper and weren’t about to abandon the area where they were based.

Another example is how we work collaboratively, sometimes making it up as we go along. South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA) formed a northern Placeshapers group with two other members – Gentoo Group and St Vincent’s Housing Association – so we could jointly put a bid into the Department of Health’s Over 2 You fund to bring users of our services in as quality assurers of care and supported housing. They act as inspectors but also gain skills that could help them gain employment. We were the only social landlords that were successful and out of 100 approved bids we were among three pilot projects to be showcased by the department.

Given your focus on people and the sustainability of places, how do you continue that in times of austerity – particularly when there is so much emphasis on house building? Can you do both?

It’s not just about building social capital but also about building homes. Our members are above average when it comes to using our capacity to invest in development projects. We try to make sure that everything we are doing has the maximum possible impact for the places we work in. But we have to have proper strategic discussions with our boards about how we get that balance right. We also need to continue to develop an approach to social value and tell the story in terms of how we measure the outcomes of what we do. Most members use methodology developed by Hact to do that at the moment.

We’ve also needed to make sure the regulator [Homes and Communities Agency] doesn’t just measure value for money in terms of bricks and mortar. We got it changed to make it clear that it’s not just about building more homes.

Is government listening to the Placeshapers’ message?

Absolutely. Brendan Lewis was in complete agreement with everything we said at out last meeting and asked how he could get others to adopt our approach. The general pitch of Placeshapers chimes really well when we meet the main political parties.

And at a government policy level?

I think so. We try to make sure we keep on top of the various policy documents and as soon as we think something is going to be hostile to Placeshapers we get on to it. They will hear the ‘big is best’ narrative about rationalising the sector from time to time. We just need to make sure they hear us talking about localism and placeshaping three times as often.

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