Raising the Roof: A new social bar for housing associations

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Write-up: Raising the Roof: A new social bar for housing associations

Housing associations have always been about more than building homes and picking up rent. As ‘social’ rather than ‘private’ landlords, a wider community role is essential to their identity. This role must now adapt to some major public policy shifts. The localism agenda, the (Public Services) Social Value Act 2012 and enormous changes in welfare and public sector provision are posing new challenges and opening up fresh opportunities. Localism has tipped the balance of power towards institutions which are locally based, such as associations, churches and civil society groups. The (Public Services) Social Value Act has also rightly promoted social value to a more prominent position in public service provision.

As key players in some of the deprived neighbourhoods in the UK, housing associations must therefore innovate and expand this wider community role: to boost the social value they create and foster in their communities. As state-regulated bodies, they must do all this within a regulatory frame which increasingly seeks to safeguard public housing investment from risks inherent in innovation and expansion.

These shifts in the political and legal landscape have left housing associations in need of a new ‘social bar’ to seek and reach. As the political consensus on falling public spending consolidates, registered social landlords must maximise the production of social value in neighbourhoods. As ResPublica’s report Responsible Recovery suggests, this requires re-thinking the way they work with locally based businesses, service providers and their wider community; associations need a new ‘social contract’ for growth.

The increasing focus on localism and social value has also brought into relief an institutional deficit in the UK. We need more institutions which treat individuals holistically, taking time to discover what citizens want instead of enforcing paternalistic ideals. This institutional space is one which housing associations are well placed to fill. With extensive neighbourhood-level networks, they can act ‘hyper-locally’, helping to establish and nurture social value economies both directly as socially responsible businesses and as ‘incubators’ of fledgling social enterprises.

Registered social landlords are however also under pressure to direct their relatively healthy balance sheets towards another pressing enterprise: house-building. This plants their feet at a crossroads. Should they concentrate on new build or on social value creation in their existing communities? With so much need in their existing neighbourhoods, are they getting the balance right? These questions emerged as key in this conference, with compelling cases heard from both sides.

What has become clear is that progressive housing associations maintain an appetite for such questions. They are not afraid to innovate as they recognise new needs in their communities. Based on the insights shared at ResPublica’s ‘Raising the Roof’ conference, this paper charts some excellent practice by leading innovators in the sector. Keeping true to their original social ethos, the best housing associations are boosting social value by helping tenants get jobs and careers, improve their health and wellbeing and become social entrepreneurs in their own right. Participants also explored whether shifts in the way they are being regulated will act as a choke or an aid to innovation.

But good practice is not as widespread as it could be. The sector as a whole must raise its game. With this conference, we intended to demonstrate housing associations’ potential to boost the social economy; and in doing so, create places in which their tenants and wider communities want to remain rather than leave.