Is it time to accept that as a sector we need to go big or go home? Well that largely depends on your viewpoint. Long term I believe the sector will reduce in terms of the number of organisations out there, some through choice but for others it will be due to external factors. There are many things to consider when merging, not of all them good. And as has been previously noted many tie into how we as a sector see our future selves as to how we go about evolving our businesses.
Big isn’t automatically beautiful, but small isn’t always pretty either.
A golden opportunity, or a golden goodbye?
For some mergers, partnerships and strategic alliances are needed for growth. These are a bit like your mates who veer from relationship to relationship, never fully stopping to assess whether they are happy in and of themselves/are financially viable. For others it’s about ensuring that they can get a decent goodbye package and sod off to the South of France to sip Pinot Noir in their twilight years. These are your mates who disappear when it is their round, but are happy to soak up the booze from other people’s turns i.e. they are penises (always get your round in folks, to not do so just isn’t cricket). Increasingly getting safety in numbers is the more common reason. Given the recent policy developments it is hard to disagree with such a move. But as Tony Stacey and Tom Murtha quite rightly point out, big doesn’t automatically mean beautiful. Though small isn’t always pretty either, context is everything.
Freedom, within a framework
An Ivory Tower? Or a good vantage point?
One of the arguments against large organisations is that they are too removed from the communities they are expected to serve. I agree with this, but only to a point. Just because you are big doesn’t mean you haven’t got local roots, but it requires faith in your regionally based offices and staff. Many large organisations operate in hubs, drawing together towns, cities and even Local Authorities that have little connection outside of the needs of the business. The key here is to avoid confusing grouped areas for housing management/operational reasons with local connections. Regionally Worcestershire & Herefordshire are next door neighbours with a fair amount of history. However, people in Worcester don’t really care about what is going on in Hereford (and vice versa). Choosing to merge the two together for the customer magazine wouldn’t be wise. Elsewhere you need to ensure that you give your organisation enough flexibility and independence to be adaptable, but without hiving off into different sub-orgs. with distinct cultures of their own. Not so much one nation under god, but one organisation singing from the same darn hymn sheet. Or to quote a colleague on how they manage their staff – freedom, within a framework – is needed.
Stagnation is regression
Size isn’t everything
You can be extremely resourceful and adaptable with a relatively small portfolio. Anyone with even a passing interest in Housing and Technology will no doubt have come across Halton Housing Trust. Whilst not always right and/or perfect, the step-change in their approach to operating must be applauded. As must their openness in sharing their learning/experience. They typify what you need as an organisation. A board and executive team that are open to change, are flexible, adaptable and proactive. Of course there are downsides to being on the small(er) side of things. Policy changes can have a more significant impact (proportion wise) if risk can’t be spread through a (secure) diverse portfolio. Accessing private finance to build can also be tricky, as for getting access to Government grants good luck! For some this has been seen as giving such organisations a free hand. And whilst the sector might not view small HAs as needing to evolve, develop or even build I would challenge that assertion. If you do not grow and/or develop your organisation how can you expect it to survive and thrive? Stagnation is regression. But as long as you are agile, open to new modes of working and developing your business you can thrive.
Substantial rationalisation of organisations is likely
It takes all sorts
Ultimately substantial rationalisation of organisations is likely within the sector particularly at the smaller end of the scale. Whilst niche co-operatives and BME Housing Associations might remain, in the long term a move to a sector below 1,000 organisations is likely. Whilst I try to remind myself that it takes all sorts; for the type of efficient, professional and effective sector that is needed to survive in the long term. For that I can only see smaller number of organisations existing. Time to buckle up.