One of the things you notice about the social housing sector is that familiar themes tend to rear their heads. Mergers, the digital question and innovation are probably the three most circular and lamented examples one can find. And on all three it is time the sector moved away from its Group Think.
The last couple of weeks have a seen a number of announcements on significant mergers within the sector. L&Q and East Thames, Affinity Sutton and Circle have come to the end of working out who is going to metaphorically sod off to retirement in France, and who is going to be sticking around to move the organisation forward. Cue the predictable mutterings of discontent.
Variety might be the spice of life but Rationalisation Needs to Take Place
One of the most telling points on the sector is that no-one is quite sure how many organisations there are. With figures usually around the 1,200 mark – but it varies depending on how/who you count. Size is also just as varied, orgs having a handful of properties to the likes of Places for People or Sanctuary, who quite frankly are Goliaths.
For Housing Associations, culture even more so than size, is the most crucial element in a merger being successful.
Let’s be clear, a merger is not necessarily a bad thing. But neither will it automatically be the land of milk and honey. For Housing Associations, culture even more so than size, is the most crucial element in a merger being successful. Well, that and someone doing some proper due diligence on the finances.
The much vaunted efficiencies & VFM typically too readily associated with mergers actually come from smarter ways of working. These stem from a desire to improve, innovate and change up internal processes. Simply adding on a gazebo to your organisation via a merger won’t obtain that on its own. Nor will it occur by just handing a bigger paycheck to the Chief Exec. for getting more stock. It needs to be driven by the vision of the new organisation. And through hard bloody work.
Are you comfortable helping a finite number of people, or do you want to help as many as physically and practically possible?
On the other hand, whilst it is possible to grow without mergers, too often I get the feeling that resistance to mergers is about keeping fiefdoms, negating change, staying the course. It is an eerily similar pattern that is seen with digital change and innovation in UK Housing. People tend to talk shop but deliver very little. The problem with this approach is that such stagnation is regression. If you are not going to grow you still need to develop and evolve. If not in your core business, you will need to do so in your processes and infrastructure. If you’re not doing either then you have a problem and need to rethink your life choices.
Don’t worry, the big boys & gals can be just as culpable here. Big does not mean innovative, it just means big. Indeed, if the sheer number of ‘thought disrupting’ consultants out there hawking for work is anything to go by it could well be the opposite. But is there really a need for as many providers as we currently have? Probably not. Does this means going down the route of train franchises for example? I.e. localised monopolies delivering a shit service. Again, probably not. But there are too many cooks in this particular kitchen, and some are a bit shit. Time to clear the decks a bit.
Keep Your Knickers On
I’ve worked for an organisation on the smaller side of the scale (2,500) units. And I currently work for one with a stock size around the 40,000 mark. I get the merits of both. The best bit about working for the smaller organisation was the freedom you had to try and fail. Because money wasn’t any issue (there wasn’t any) you had to be very inventive on new ideas. That’s great to a point, but it means you’re always having to punch above your weight, are heavily reliant on a couple of staff driving forward ideas and eventually you run out of steam. Largely due to other competing pressures or staff leaving.
In a larger organisations there are a different set of challenges. Dealing with the local politics and bureaucracy can be a pain. But the payback is that you have the resources and support you need to make meaningful change on a bigger scale. You also get more clout in the broader policy environment.
I guess for me it comes down to what you see the role of the housing sector as. Additionally, where it fits within the broader policy environment and what part of that do you want to be. Thus, to a large extent, it has always been a numbers game. To borrow John Stuart Mill’s philosophical musings, it is about Utility Maximisation, i.e ensuring the greatest good for the largest number of people. For a lot of people this doesn’t seem to a problem if the body doing the work is a Local Authority. But have a housing organisation akin to the size of a District Council and people seem to lose their shit.
Stop Pissing in from the Sidelines
But all the above means nothing if you aren’t willing to engange and influence, to drive home what you do. Too often organisations have been content with being non-political beasts. Not wanting to rock the boat. As a result they have been passed by in the process. Stop pissing from the sidelines and connect with your local politician. If you don’t engage in the process someone else will. Often with an agenda at odds with yours.
I don’t care what your politcal views are, you are going to have to work with what is in front of you. The recent policy wins (negated by continuing losses elsewhere) at the Autumn Statement came from direct lobbying. With a Government now at least appearing to be listening it is important to make your case. Whether you have 100 or 100,000 units, it doesn’t matter. Get off your ass, develop, progress and influence.
VMAX137 (2012): View of South Lake Union and Queen Anne Hill