I really enjoy listening to David Orr speak, I think he’s one of the best housing speakers/professionals/CEOs around. He clearly understands the issues better than most others and he is clear in what action needs to be taken. He also likes to ask awkward questions and wants to be bold and do what’s right, rather than what’s popular. After a couple of weeks of being bogged down with some difficult issues at work, hearing him speak at the NHF Midlands conference was just what I needed, in particular to hear that others are battling with taking the right decisions over popular, safe ones. (I also had the pleasure of meeting David in person after tweeting him earlier in the week about a DMU project I was involved in to propose 20 housing policy ideas to the Government).
The focus of the conference was the countdown to the election and there was a lot of talk about how we get the message across to all political parties that they need to sort the housing crisis out pronto.
The last time housing featured high on an election agenda was thanks to Right to Buy, since then it has barely featured and in fact, in 2010, housing was less important to voters than the Iraq war which had happened 7 years earlier! But this year it feels different, housing is polling as a top ten issue, the London Chambers of Commerce have voiced concerns about housing affordability for workers and middle class families are wondering where their children will live.
This concern from the middle classes gives the housing sector an opportunity; in an ideal world we might like to general population to have more concern for the state of social housing but we need to take what we can get. This is where the NHF Ambition to Deliver, the Yes to Homes campaign and the Homes for Britain coalition comes in; the latter is campaigning for the next Government to commit to ending the housing crisis in a generation and the first is about housing associations more than doubling the number of families we house across a variety of tenures and thereby improving our reach and reputation.
These three initiatives share a focus on housing, not social housing, not market rent, not owner occupation, just housing. If we are to make any in roads with politicians and voters we have to take a broader approach.
There was a lively debate in the afternoon between Tom Murtha (see his speech here) of the SHOUT campaign and Boris Worrall of Orbit (speech here), they were deliberately provocative and at the end assured us they usually get on well as co-board members of HACT, so bear that in mind when you read what was said. The debate turned on whether our election messages should take a broad, tenure-neutral approach like Yes to Homes or a narrower (one-dimensional was the actual term used) approach like SHOUT. It was also discussed whether having ‘splinter groups’ like SHOUT dilutes the message of the broader campaigns because what we need in the run up to the election is consensus (not just about the problem but about the solutions we need), not division, which is what social housing campaigns create.
In the end it felt like everyone was arguing for the same thing but were accusing each other of disagreeing; no one was saying scrap social housing, we are all committed to continuing to provide social housing, but for the purpose of the election, we might have to talk in broader, tenure-neutral housing terms if we are to influence parties to acknowledge and commit to solving the housing crisis. Tom was quite concerned that any move to a broader approach by the sector will mean the end of social housing without the right leadership and influence; I don’t think he has anything to worry about because I think the values of social housing are deeply embedded in the sector and colleagues won’t give them up without a fight.
The final session of the day featured Conservative MP for Stratford on Avon who spent 30 minutes telling us how the Coalition have done better than last Labour Government at housebuilding and gave the impression that they’ve provided us with all the policies we need and now it’s our turn. This is the third housing conference session with a Conservative MP I’ve attended in about 3 weeks, and third time definitely wasn’t the charm. Sadly, this just shows how much we desperately need to influence all political parties of the problems and solutions.
So, in the next couple of weeks I’m going to think about what I can do to promote the Yes to Homes and Homes for Britain initiatives. Initial thoughts include ensuring all our team members, tenants, customers, stakeholders, suppliers, etc have signed the Yes to Homes petition and that we all take every opportunity we can to get the messages out there to the political parties and the general public, maybe through more positive stories in our local media. I’ve also put the Homes for Britain rally on the 17th March 2015 in my diary and I hope to see some of you there :)
Please share any thoughts, ideas and comments you have on any of this below.