Down The Rabbit Hole

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. 

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit:

VMAX137  (2012): View of South Lake Union and Queen Anne Hill

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/vmax137/

Are We Nearly There Yet?

Whilst significant inroads have been made at Government level, popular support for state provision of housing, and the welfare state more generally, is still an issue that needs addressing. And as the regulator is busy ruffling feathers by making history repeat, as a sector we need to avoid the same old mistakes and convince the public of our worth, and the cost of decades of policy failure.

Different Year, Same Story, Pretty Much the Same Blog

A few months down the line since the madness of the post Post Brexit vote the Government of the day may be listening more, but public support is scattergun at best. And with backing for welfare spending in continuing decline, particularly when looking at out of work benefits such as unemployment benefit, we need to look at how we sell ourselves. Because, like it or not, we as a sector are inexorably tied to welfare spending and the welfare state more generally. Probably doesn’t help that for the taxpayer our core business model always has been, and most likely always will be, give us loads of your money and we will build houses for people other than you to live in. At a price cheaper than you pay for yours. That’s about as tough a job as an ice cube seller in the Arctic i.e. damned difficult, and we need to get better at it.

Pay Your Money, We’ll Have to Take Your Choice

Given what has been mentioned above, numerous Governments have sought to withdraw state intervention in the housing market. But as David Bentley over at Civitas has noted, just as Governments have sought to reduce their role. More and more they’ve actually had to prop up the private market. Largely due to policies that have focused on demand side fixes.  Thus perpetuating a cycle where the very measures sought to increase the ability of consumers to purchase housing ends up pushing houses further out of their reach.

A number have sought to highlight the utter absurdities of demand side policies and house prices. Seriously, the more you dip into George Osborne’s housing policies, the more idiotic they appear. Others have noted the positive financial impact genuinely social housing can provide. But it’s tying it altogether that has been the difficult part. Namely because it involves pointing the finger at those who’ve been making batshit mental policy decisions in recent years and going – these fuckers don’t have a bloody clue what they are doing – and then trying to work with them.

Is there a Point to All this?

Kind of. As a sector we may have a more benign Government in power, but we have failed to convince the general public that we are providing value for money. In the long-term that will be a killer. For all the KPIs we produce about performance, for all the smoke and mirrors about being upfront about our costs and what we deliver. We need to drive home the value of what we do. For whilst there is a groundswell politically for investment and support in what we do. In the mind of the General Public the battle is far from won.

As the incumbents in power realise they need to do more than simply cut corporation tax to help JAMs, Marmalades and other food groups. We need to take advantage and reach out beyond our usual audience. Because unless we state in plain and simple terms, very clearly and very loudly what we do, why we do it and how well we do it. And repeat Ad Nauseum (I call this the Farage method of mass communication). We’ll be left in vacuum of rumour, misinformation and gossip. That helps no-one, least of all us.

As ever, you can find more of my stuff here and follow me on Twitter here.

Photo Credit:

VMAX137  (2012): View of South Lake Union and Queen Anne Hill

 https://www.flickr.com/photos/vmax137/