The big picture
The past few years have been tough for the housing sector, particularly social housing. Shifts in the direction of housing policy and a national crisis in the availability of affordable homes for rent and sale have meant that the environment we’re working in is unpredictable.
Since the publication of our last business strategy, we’ve seen huge political upheaval in terms of national government, changes in the country’s leadership, a vote to exit the European Union, numerous redirections in housing policy and an intensification of austerity measures and welfare reform.
Rapid change and the volatile environment present a number of challenges and risks to us as a business, but it has also moved the importance of a good, stable home in improving life chances to the top of the political agenda. On that basis, we see fresh and exciting opportunities for the future, in which we will aim to become the housing provider of first choice in Gateshead.
Recent policy announcements have included a new responsibility for Councils to prevent and relieve homelessness, which will see a joining up in housing and support services to improve the life chances of some of our most vulnerable people.
Fixing our Broken Housing Market has given the green light to social housing providers to work with key partners to rethink the local housing market and increase the supply of new homes for sale and for rent. The Government’s position on planning is being re-visited to support and stimulate more supply, and a series of financial packages aimed squarely at boosting the development of new homes is also set to be launched.
Other opportunities include the possibility of a lifting of restrictions on borrowing to build new Council homes in areas of high demand, and the availability of funding to support estate based regeneration programmes to extend the range of available homes and stabilise communities. In addition, the Government has also committed to work with the sector to prepare a Green Paper to change perceptions of social housing and maximise its benefit to the local economy.
Welfare reform will continue to be a major challenge for housing providers, but it has focused the sector’s energies on safeguarding income collection and has increased the importance of making sure we’re housing people in the right home, in the right place and helping them to stay there. Universal Credit was rolled out across Gateshead in October 2017. Since then, more than 1000 of our customers have been affected by changes to their benefits, impacting on quality of life and putting the financial health of the business at risk. We’ve seen an increase in real hardship across the borough, which is pushing up demand for support to access and successfully sustain a tenancy.
As part of its last budget, the Government announced a reduction in the length of time claimants wait to receive their first full payment, additional payments of housing benefits to ease the transition to Universal Credit, and advance payments of benefits. All of these things will go some way towards helping customers to manage a little better.
From a business perspective, changes to the way Universal Credit is rolled out, coupled with the reversal of restrictions on Local Housing Allowances and the introduction of a new rent deal from 2020, has alleviated the pressure on our financial plans for the short term. However, we still need to think carefully about the long-term sustainability of the HRA.
This is especially important as demand for our homes changes and a growing number of tenants become more dependent on us than ever before. In the future, we’ll need to work with the Council and other key partners to maximise income to the HRA and focus our time and resources on strengthening frontline services, providing more face-to-face contact with customers who need it, and supporting our communities.
Social housing, its management and investment in its improvement was thrust into the spotlight in the summer of 2017, when a devastating fire in London brought the safety of customers living in multi-storey blocks into sharp focus.
On both a national and a local level this has led to a much needed rethink about the importance of investing intelligently in the improvement and maintenance of social housing. It has also stimulated a review of safety procedures and sector-wide discussion on the role customers should play in informing decision-making on investment programmes.
All of these issues will continue to dominate the social housing sector’s agenda for the foreseeable future. Over the coming years, the sector as a whole should take the opportunity to pause and think about the social housing proposition as a whole and consider how real value can be generated by empowering customers and putting them at the very heart of the business. Shifts in need and demand for different property types are also likely to stimulate a reconsideration of the type and range of homes and services on offer, with a clear focus on shaping neighbourhoods and communities for the future.