2017 Housing Perspectives #6: We must always remember our social purpose
by Terrie Alafat
Terrie Alafat CBE, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, says the sector must do more to prepare for the challenges which lie ahead in the latest of our exclusive articles compiled as part of the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report.
“The best way to predict your future is to create it,” Abraham Lincoln
The biggest challenge facing tomorrow’s housing professionals will be to create a future in which they can meet the housing needs of our nation in an increasingly difficult and uncertain environment.
Thankfully we live in a very different world than the one Beveridge described so vividly 75 years ago, but of all of the major challenges he identified the lack of decent, affordable housing is certainly still one of the biggest issues facing the UK. Though it is true we have built many new homes in the decades since the report and there have been significant improvements to the standard of housing, there is still so much more to do. Indeed, we ended 2016 with the lowest level of affordable housing delivery for 15 years and a concerning and continuing increase in the number of homeless people.
In recent years the policy and funding landscapes have become more unpredictable and there’s no sign that will change. Meanwhile, Brexit serves to create an additional layer of uncertainty. As a result housing professionals and their organisations will need to take their future into their own hands more than ever and find solutions to the housing problems faced by communities across the UK. So how can they do this?
One thing they will certainly need is the ability to think into the future; to look for solutions outside of the housing world and to use creativity and ingenuity to adapt to changing circumstances.
As housing organisations continue to do more with less and diversify into new service areas, there will be more focus on competency, attitude and skills rather than just the ability to fulfil specific functions.
Modern housing professionals will need to be equipped to handle this. They will need, more than ever, to be multi-skilled, flexible and be able to turn their hands to different jobs within the housing profession. A few years ago we put together a report called Frontline Futures which looked at the changing face of the sector and the core characteristics frontline housing workers would need. Knowledge of a particular role was still seen as important, but a whole new range of skills including problem solving, negotiation, change management, resilience, and responsiveness were also identified as essential.
The report also highlighted the additional demands on housing professionals as a result of welfare reform and the changes in the provision of social and health services.
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Innovating will be a key part of meeting the challenges the sector faces. As a sector we are beginning to embrace technology and change. As I write we are in the process of shortlisting for the UK Housing Awards and it is pleasing to see the innovation category is one of the strongest by far. But there is still work to be done and there’s an argument that the increased pace of change in the housing world means we need to be more dynamic and move faster. We are behind the curve compared with the tech sector, for example, where five years is considered long-term for the delivery of new products.
The importance of skills is reflected in the new apprenticeship standards which take effect from April of this year. These changes will put housing organisations at the heart of apprenticeship delivery, where they will be supported by a training provider to develop a programme of learning that will enable apprentices to realise their potential.
It is vital that housing organisations are aware of these new standards, which were led by employers in the housing sector, because embracing new talent will be a vital part of ensuring we are attracting the talent and skills the sector needs to meet the challenges which lie ahead.
CIH actively encourages the engagement of young people in the sector to develop their skills and confidence to become leaders of the future through activities like our Rising Stars programme and the Graduate Employment and Mentoring Programme (GEMs) in partnership with Incommunities to encourage graduates into the sector. In addition, we have developed an ongoing event – the Big Conversation – a platform for young people to come together, plan their career and network with others to develop as future leaders.
We also need more diversity in the leadership of our sector. In 2015 we launched a commission to tackle this issue and we have seen some progress. But to coin a phrase by our then president Steve Stride, our sector is still too pale, male and stale. Getting new perspectives into the sector will be crucial to make sure housing organisations continue to provide services which meet the needs of the many people who need housing. If housing organisations are to truly serve their communities then they must better reflect them.
Housing organisations could also benefit significantly from opening up more to recruiting from outside of the sector. Of course, there is invaluable experience in the sector which we cannot dispense with, but combining this with new viewpoints and experience could give us the crucial edge we need.
As the professional body, CIH has a pivotal role to play in exploring and supporting learning and skills for the housing industry of the future. It is an arena in which members can share knowledge, innovate and equip themselves to deliver cutting-edge practice. We also provide a forum in which the housing industry can collectively grow its capacity, competence and voice. In this sense the challenge to the sector is very much a challenge for CIH and we are continuing to develop our offer to make sure we support the professionals of tomorrow.
There’s a crucial caveat to all of this. In our efforts to meet the challenges faced by the new housing landscape we must always remember our social purpose.
Recruiting expertise from outside of the sector, gaining new skills, embracing technology – all of these are positives, but they must supplement and not detract from the core purpose of a housing organisation.
We recently rounded off our centenary celebrations at CIH and it is well worth remembering the purpose that drove the pioneering women behind the formation of the first professional body in 1916. They were students of Octavia Hill who had worked tirelessly to build communities. The minutes of their early meetings remain at our offices and paint a vivid picture of the utter determination those women had to make sure people had access to a decent home – decades before Beveridge’s seminal report revealed the need for widespread reform.
Of course, much has changed since those days, in large part as a result of Beveridge’s recommendations. But one thing remains – the desperate need for decent, affordable housing. In fact, it goes way beyond that – it’s a need to build communities and to serve them. This was Octavia Hill’s driving force when she transformed slums in London for the first time. She wanted to ‘make lives noble, homes happy and family life good’. Over a century and a half later it is difficult to think of a more incisive summary of what social housing should strive to achieve.
And though there is no doubt modern housing professionals will need to adapt to meet the multitude of ever-changing challenges the sector faces, they must never forget the social in social housing. That word encapsulates so much of what we do.
If anything the sector has moved on even further since Frontline Futures was published, but one thing remains relevant, and in fact it was at the heart of Octavia’s work all those years ago – modern housing professionals will need ‘a social heart and a commercial head’. By 2025 it would be good to look out at a more diverse sector which has continued to professionalise, embrace technology and acquire new skills to meet the challenges which lie ahead. But I also hope we have a sector which has the same heart and the same determination to make a real difference to people’s lives.
The biggest challenge to the housing professionals of tomorrow and the organisations they work for will be to find a way to do both.
This article was written for the Webb Memorial Trust and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty as part of the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report and is part of a series of articles we will be running in the coming weeks.