Housing associations can drive the localist agenda

Anyone reading the press and professional journals over the past few months could be forgiven for concluding that localism is something of a ‘dead duck’; that the government and its advisors have moved on.

Try telling that to the hundreds of communities that have been working their socks off for years – and in some cases decades – to make their neighbourhoods better places to live. There has never been a time when local people have been more engaged in the future of their communities. Whether encouraged by new opportunities opened up by the localism act or in response to the withdrawal of public sector funding, many communities are just ‘doing it for themselves’ and they are doing it with great determination and no little skill - but not all of them.

It’s time we balanced things up – opening up practical opportunities for those communities which, for whatever reason, haven’t yet had much of a say or a stake in their own future. And pushing the boundaries of localism much further in those communities which have already shown themselves ‘fit for purpose’. The key question is how do we do it – and that’s where housing associations come in.

Social housing is one the single biggest investments by the state in most of our communities – £43bn in the past 35 years. Nearly 3 million households live in homes owned and managed by housing associations. The asset value itself is enormous – more than £109bn – not much less than the amount we currently spend on the whole of the NHS each year.

The social housing sector is big, but it’s also diverse. The largest housing associations are most definitely big businesses – with huge property portfolios spread across the country – the smallest are more rooted in local communities, catering for specific groups or localities. And in between are the many stock transfer associations which have progressively taken over local authority estates.

Whether fuelled by the competition for government development funding, the relentless pursuit of value for money or the egos of their chief executives, the consolidation of the sector has continued apace; size has become a preoccupation for many and housing associations have not been the key players in social policy and action that other players have been in our communities. For many housing associations, localism and support for community initiatives, has simply not been a core activity.

But there are exceptions and this report highlights a number of them. These housing associations invest around half a billion pounds a year in community activities – still a small fraction of their turnover, but certainly not an insignificant sum. They are doing a very good job, but they need to do more, and they need to be joined by those associations who have only tinkered at the edges.

The potential of the sector to do more is immense. Housing associations are almost uniquely placed as potential intermediaries for communities and as ambassadors for localism. There are few communities of any size where housing associations do not have a long-term stake. They have – or should have – a strong vested interest in helping to build community self-help and resilience. And they have the resources – people and money – to help make it happen.

So what do they need to do?

ResPublica’s report, published last week, focuses on three key areas:

  • EXTENDING THE RANGE OF SERVICES housing associations offer – well beyond their core role of providing social housing, creating new and dynamic partnerships with local communities and public sector agencies to make a real step change in empowerment, through things like community budgeting and neighbourhood planning.
  • SUPPORTING SOCIAL VALUE in every aspect of an association’s business – redefining and strengthening their social purpose – through their procurement practices, supporting social enterprise, being much more strategic about their community investment and beginning to measure and report on the social impact of what they do. We want to see housing associations establish a new social contract with the communities in which they work. We want them to continue being good quality providers of affordable homes, but we also want them to be more local and we want them to be more social. Where they are failing to do so, they should be open to challenge by the local community.
  • And we think housing associations should be prepared to TRANSFER SOME OF THEIR ASSETS AND SERVICE DELIVERY over to community-led organisations, where this can be done on a cost-effective and sustainable basis.

In short, we want housing associations to be localism intermediaries, facilitating real change in our communities.

None of this is easy; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Some housing associations are doing it now. Acting on localism is, however, a challenging issue for many of them – it gets right to the heart of what they are about.

Housing associations face some big choices; they are being pulled in different directions – given more freedom and less regulation; under pressure to build more homes with less public subsidy; struggling with the implications of welfare reform for their tenants and the way they manage their homes. Change is a constant these days – something often seen as negative and frustrating, but it can sometimes throw up new opportunities to do things differently and better.

These new opportunities now include a much more strategic and long-term approach to local communities – helping to put them in the driving seat and giving the localism agenda a much more radical edge.

HOW GOVERNMENT CAN HELP
Government needs to respond positively to all of this – not by being prescriptive or increasing the layers of bureaucracy (quite the opposite), but by oiling the localism wheels; disseminating good practice; giving housing associations more freedom to manage their assets for community benefit; encouraging them to transfer the ownership and management of some of their assets to well founded and sustainable community-based social enterprises; making it easier to form community owned and led partnership companies; removing some of the blockages that hold back innovation; and joining up its localism initiatives with its support for tenant empowerment.

The government’s interest in housing associations should extend well beyond how many new homes they can deliver from any given amount of public money, important as that is. If this report can encourage them, housing associations and others to be much more proactive in initiating, supporting and in some cases underwriting community-based localism, then our communities will flourish. There is an opportunity here which should not be missed.

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