‘A Place Where I Can Continue to be Me’: Exploring the potential of co-operative and mutual models of housing and care for older people

By Jon Stevens

Recently I saw an extract from a television interview given by the late Terry Pratchett in which he was asked how he was  coping with living with his dementia. He replied that it was a great help that he was able to live in ‘a place where I can continue to be me’ and he added ‘I wish everyone else could be in the same wonderful situation’1.

As someone who is involved in thinking about and investigating housing options and choices for older people, it struck me that this simple phrase expressed the aspiration of all older people. And he continued by highlighting the fact that many older people eventually find themselves living  in circumstances that are unsatisfactory in one way or another.
The particular and growing housing needs of older people are widely acknowledged; a much-quoted report stated that the UK ‘urgently need(s) to plan how to ensure that the housing needs of our ageing population are better addressed’2. It is further recognised that this is not just a question of increased supply; it is also about providing new housing options and choices for a generation of older people (the so-called ‘baby boomers’) with changing priorities and higher expectations. Six years ago, when I left my full-time job, I had a hunch that this wider range of options and choices should include various forms of housing (and care) that are commissioned, designed, developed, owned and managed by older people themselves. These approaches can be described as cooperative and mutual models.

Co-operative living for older people

I first began to think about housing for older people and the potential of co-operative and mutual models, when I was director of Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services. BCHS provided support to a number of tenant ownership or par value housing cooperatives3 established in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and, during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, we developed a number of new forms of co-operative housing. In undertaking these developments, my colleagues and I sought to identify the factors that seemed to make for successful co-operatives and groups in our society who ‘co-operative living’might appeal to. Over a period of 15 years we examined the experiences of people living in housing cooperatives in England and also in Scotland and Ireland, which had slightly different co-operative traditions. And we looked to Northern Europe, to Denmark and later to Norway and Sweden, to learn from their more extensive and varied forms of cooperative housing.

One immediate and clear observation was that living in a housing co-operatives seemed to work particularly well for many older people and, in talking to older members of co-ops, we identified several reasons for this.

Sociability and conviviality

We observed that the most successful housing co-operatives created lively and inclusive communities, in which their members enjoyed the experience of living together whilst leading independent lives. It was apparent that older people were often at the forefront in building and sustaining these communities and that older people seemed to gain from the social interaction and shared activity that is a feature of many co-ops. We also found that a number of co-ops had recognised that their older members could become lonely and socially isolated, where they lacked support from their families and friends outside of the co-op, and several of them had taken steps to counter this by organising specific programmes and events.

Active living

In order to function well, all co-operatives need a core of active members who take on the business of running the co-op, of managing the housing and of looking after the finances. It was notable that in many co-ops, it was often older members that tended take this on. Sometimes this was because older members had particular skills and experience to draw on, sometimes it was because they found it a worthwhile and rewarding way of spending their time (of which they tended to have more than younger members) and sometimes it was because this way of staying active helped them to cope with the ageing process. Often it was all of these and it was apparent that being active in this way could have a significant impact on older people’s

Mutual care and support

It was a feature of many housing co-ops that their members provided each other with a level of mutual help and support than they would be unlikely to receive if they lived in more ‘anonymous’ streets or neighbourhoods. We saw that some older people – as they became more frail and dependent – could receive levels of practical and social care from other co-op members that in other circumstances would only be provided by close family members. In one or two cases this extended into what might be called ‘community nursing’ (or ‘care by the community’ as one co-op member described it) in which older co-op members were able to say living in their own homes often until they died.

Exploring the potential of co-operative and mutual models of housing and care for older people

In the last five years, drawing in this experience, I have been exploring the potential of co-operative and mutual models of housing and care for older people. When I started, I had very little knowledge of older people’s housing as such and I knew even less about the fields of social and health care. I had no clear programme of work; I simply spent time talking to colleagues and acquaintances, I attended various conferences and workshops and I tried to read the endless stream of reports about ‘housing for an ageing society’. I picked up support and sponsorship along the way; particularly from the Confederation of Co-operative Housing, CDS Cooperatives, The UK Cohousing Network and most recently the Housing Learning and Improvement Network. I encountered people who were thinking along similar lines and I discovered some interesting and varied examples of co-operative and mutual housing for older people; some of which had existed unheralded for many years, some of which was in  the development stage and  some of which were struggling to get off the ground. In time, I produced a number of short reports or accounts (see below) and I was invited to speak at events and workshops.

I gradually gained the sense that I was on the right track – that there is undoubtedly ‘latent demand’ for housing this kind – but I also gained the impression that housing commissioners, developers and producers were extremely cautious about and even resistant to new thinking along these lines. The challenge would be to find ways to empower older people who wanted alternative housing solutions and to overcome this institutional caution and resistance.

One of the organisations that has a growing interest and involvement in researching and promoting community-led housing is the Housing and Communities Research Group. The HCRG has asked me to run a workshop on October 5th (see Seminar Programme below ) at which I will report in more detail on the findings from my investigations and at which I am hoping there will be a lively and constructive discussion: firstly, about the substance, validity and implications of my work and secondly, about how we can stimulate and encourage much greater experimentation and innovation in the provision of housing and care for older people.

Some further reading

A selection of the reports on co-operative and mutual housing for older people that have been produced in the last six years

Glyn Thomas, Keeping Control of Our Lives – Mutual Retirement Housing for Older People (2009), CDS Co-operatives.
Available from www.cds.coop

Maria Brenton, Senior Cohousing Communities – An Alternative Approach for the UK? (2013), Joseph Rowntree
Foundation Programme Paper. Available from www.jrf.org.uk/publications

Jon Stevens, Community-Led Housing for Older People and the Community Right to Build (2013). Housing LIN Viewpoint 40.
Available from www.housinglin.org.uk

Growing Older Together: The Development of Co-operative and Mutual Housing for Older People. Findings from a Round
Table Discussion (2013), CDS Cooperatives, Co-operatives UK and UK Cohousing Network. Available from www.cds.coop

Growing Older Together: The Case for Housing That is Shaped and Controlled by Older People (2013), Housing LIN
Case Study Report. Available from www.housinglin.org.uk

1 From an interview with Sir Terry Pratchett on BBC Breakfast, broadcast on December 11th 2013.

2 From the report of the House of Lords Select Committee on Public Service and Demographic Change called ‘Ready for Ageing?’ published in March 2013. The report asserted that Britain had hardly begun to respond to the policy issues raised by an ageing population; in their words we are ‘woefully underprepared.’

3 Tenant ownership co-operatives operate under the same regulatory and funding regime as housing associations. The co-operative owns the properties and the tenants/members pay affordable rents to the co-operative, which they collectively own and manage.

Empty Homes: Learning Lessons Across Continents

By David Mullins and Kenichi Matsutomi

Between September 9th and 11th we welcomed Kenichi Matsutomi, an architect from the Karahori project in Osaka, who travelled with David Mullins to meet community-led empty homes projects in Middlesbrough, Hull and Stockton on Tees and attended a one day Get Together with 9 such organisations. This continued the cross-continental learning on empty homes solutions that had begun with our links with Ass. Prof Kikuchi Yoshinobu at Fukui University in 2013.

Old wooden row housing in Osaka

Kenichi is a volunteer director of the Karahori project based in Ghou ward a district with a large number of surviving ‘row houses’ among newer high rise blocks in popular central area of Osaka.  The Karahori project is a non-profit social enterprise that has brought over 50 old wooden row houses back into use. The Ghou ward has been subject to intensive speculative high rise property development threatening the unique urban heritage of the row houses. Many of the row houses are empty with absent owners. Remaining residents are often older people living alone. The properties are visually attractive, but do not match the aspirations of many Japanese families for modern convenient living; they are difficult to keep cool in summer and to warm in winter. Further issues arise from the structural connections between buildings within the row which may mean empties causing issues for the adjacent owners and the presence of illegal alleys (60%).
The Karahori project was set up 15 years ago by a group of architects committed to preserving the row houses and restoring the empty buildings to use, either as commercial properties or as residential. 10 years ago they succeeded in securing local government funding for the HOPE project, providing grant assistance towards owners’ renovation costs and for general environmental works to public realm. Over 50 row houses have been restored and works completed to provide ramps and handrails for older residents to negotiate the uneven and hilly streets, partly the result of historic quarrying for a local roof tile industry. The four project workers include two architects and two real estate mangers. The project generates fee income by providing services to property owners taking advantage of the grants to renovate their properties. They can help with grant applications, design and project manage the improvement works and assist with rental and facilities management. All surpluses from this work are reinvested in the project.  Some owners work with Karahori without grants.

Kenichi’s visit to England followed from a meeting at the Karahori Project in July 2014 where David Mullins presented research on community-led activities supported by grant funding to renovate empty homes in places such as Middlesbrough, Stockton and Hull. On this visit Kenichi was able to see many of the empties brought into use by Giroscope in the unique ‘courts’ of terraced houses found in West Hull; meet the staff and volunteers involved in the organisation’s distinctive community-based refurbishment model and learn of the key role played by Hull City Council in supported five community-led organisations to deliver an empty homes programme.

Further north in Middlesbrough he met the committee of the Community Land Trust that has begun to turnaround the devastating problem of empty homes in Gresham, and  the frustrations they had faced as local residents in the face of long term blight of their community.  Finally in Stockton he learned how the long term success of Community Campus 87 in using work on refurbishing empty homes to provide employment and training opportunities for local young people had been consolidated by the recent grant funding programme.

The Get Together itself was a magical experience for both of us. Rather than being focused on the disappointment of there being no new national replacement programme for EHCGP, the mood was buoyant focusing on the exciting follow-on plans of each project and some imaginative ideas to build new opportunities for the sector. Organisations were already harnessing their improved asset strength and capacity gained under EHCGP to develop new activities such as a green insulation project and a community share issue in Leeds, a trading subsidiary in Hull, a hotel acquisition in East Cleveland and a landmark church redevelopment in Hartlepool. Plans by one project to become a registered housing provider (RP) led into an exciting discussion about how a community orientated RP might provide a vehicle for more socially responsible asset disposals by other RPs into the community-led sector. Increased interest by charitable foundations in the sector matched with renewed social entrepreneurship suggest a solid future, although the scope for more new entrants would undoubtedly be strengthened by a new public funding programme.

The visit provided the opportunity for us to reflect together on what has been learned from community engagement in empty homes in these very different contexts. First we considered the role and impact of public funding programmes such as EHCGP and HOPE. We had different perceptions here with Kenichi insisting on the importance of community aspirations and changing peoples’ minds and motivations rather than simply following the funding. David was more positive about what can be achieved with funding streams as flexible and responsive as EHCGP provided that funding reaches the grass roots.  A point on which we were more able to reach agreement was on the major importance of neighbourhood experience to people’s well-being – turning around neighbourhoods such as Karahori and Gresham can have major impacts on residents and neighbours. Strange local features such as the ‘alleys’ of Karahori and the ‘courts’ of West Hull can make a real difference and need to be understood. The role of design and the contribution of architects such as Kenichi was another major topic of debate picked up with Caroline at Giroscope who is herself an architect and at the Get Together event. Finally, the importance of empowering the people living with the problems of empty homes to be able to play a part in their resolution was agreed as a key principle for further work in both countries. This would include the property owners who often lack the power to change when faced with repair costs they cannot meet, negative equity and weakness in negotiating with authorities.

Why we need hybridity analysis more than ever

By David Mullins

mullins-david2I have spent the last few years encountering glassy eyed responses when attempting to share my enthusiasm for hybridity analysis with housing experts and practitioners. The case for the evident (to me at least) truism that English housing associations are torn between market, state and community drivers and must make their own decisions about where they stand has been further strengthened by recent events. This has included the bouncing through of a ‘voluntary’ right to buy offer by housing associations to avoid imposition from government which would have threatened their ‘independence’, imposed rent reductions of 1% a year for four years and continued momentum in welfare reform and welfare conditionality which is changing the relationship between housing associations and their tenants.

The reaction of a large London based association to decreasingly favourable terms of trade by effectively declaring UDI from Government programmes for ‘affordable housing’ stimulated widespread reaction in the sector. One commentator strikes a balance arguing that ‘the Government has no interest in providing genuinely affordable rented accommodation. It is only interested in market solutions, throwing money around in a vain attempt to revive home ownership and support private landlordism’ but ‘it would be wrong to shift all the blame away from the big associations themselves…(who) have moved from providing social rented homes for homeless and badly housed people towards shared ownership and the intermediate market, then towards general market homes for sale or rent.’ https://redbrickblog.wordpress.com/2015/08/02/mr-sad-and-mr-angry/

In this context I would argue that housing associations must make strategic choices and these choices are likely to take them into different zones of hybridity. Since 1997 we have undertaken periodic panel studies with sector leaders to explore how the environment is changing and how associations are positioning and engaging with policy. The most recent analysis of a panel undertaken before the election is now published in Voluntary Sector Review. www.ingentaconnect.com/content/tpp/vsr/pre-prints;content-pp_VSR-D-15-00020R2

This analysis of 31 panel members’ responses to recent policy change suggests that there are now three possible positions that associations can adopt in their relationship with Government. First, they can attempt to act as ‘independent social entrepreneurs’ like the organisation discussed above who seek a wholesale transfer from social to market purposes. Second, they can continue to act as ‘contractors of the state’ bending to adapt to changing Government policies no matter how unpalatable to the sector. Third, they can take a stance as ‘protectors of public value’, defending the purpose of social housing to provide secure, decent and affordable homes for those who need them.

After many years of quietly following the funding it seems that more associations are now willing to challenge policy, not in a self-interested move to the market, but as a way of defending their tenants and future tenants and following their mission. One critic of the ‘contractors of the state’ position has argued that associations had “become commercial in character and lost their civil society heart beat” (Purkis 2010 p.14). Now it seems some are shaking off this passivity to challenge policies and have found their voice in campaigns such as SHOUT, the campaign for social housing. One of our panel members argues that “we need to keep values that are wider than housing about need and poverty. We’re going back to Cathy Come Home.” This rather unexpected turn indicates an alternative public orientation for housing providers: instead of simply being ‘contractors of the State’ they may position themselves as ‘protectors of public value’.

Now seems an excellent time to undertake a further panel study to see how things are changing with new post-election policies on the Right to Buy, rent reductions and the sharp end implementation of welfare reform. We are therefore hoping to secure support for a further panel study to feed into our Conference on the Future of Social Housing in May 2016. Please contact David Mullins (d.w.mullins@bham.ac.uk) if you would be interested in supporting this study.

Learning from the 1970s and 1980s Small Heath Co-operatives: Lessons for Community-led housing today

By Maddy Bunker

As a second year undergraduate on the Housing and Communities Pathway, I am undertaking a placement in Redditch Co-operative Homes. I am particularly looking at the aim of the co-op to develop some Mutual Home Ownership housing in Wednesfield. I started this placement with limited understanding of co-operative housing in the UK and was very pleased to take the opportunity to attend a lunchtime Housing and Communities Group seminar on the history of co-operative housing in the Midlands.

The speakers both had a very longstanding involvement in the sector. Jon Stevens was a former director of Birmingham Co-operative Housing Services and Alan Clawley was one of the first residents of Small Heath Park Housing Co-operative, where he still lives. They gave presentations on the history of co-operative housing. Jon started from the first building society that was set up in 1775. This was a mutual organisation and was created as a means to fund the building of houses for the members of the society. He made an interesting distinction about social housing during the inter-war years, dividing it into: Philanthropic housing associations; Self-help co-operative housing and Municipal, Local Authority housing.

The sixties was a time of public disquiet and protest with a critique of post-war planning that was concerned with the destruction of communities. It was also a time of changing Government priorities regarding the country becoming a property owning democracy. There were several co-operative housing experiments in the sixties such as co-ownership and intermediate housing, and it was also a time of squatting and self-help co-ops. It was in the 1970s that the first co-operative housing strategy was implemented, with housing minister Reg Freeson, who was very supportive of co-operative housing and a specialist national agency, the Co-operative Housing Agency, was established to promote co-ops. The aim was to support funding and development of co-op housing. Birmingham’s six Small Heath Co-operatives are an important legacy of that era.

In Birmingham during the 1970s, urban renewal was promoted by the city council as an alternative to clearance and co-operative housing was seen as a way to acquire and rehabilitate poor quality private rented housing and as an alternative to large-scale council housing. Alan spoke about how the Small Heath co-ops came to be set up in a part of Birmingham just beyond the large-scale clearance areas where residents were concerned about possible demolition of their homes. The emergence of urban renewal policies in the city provided an opportunity for something different. He felt that the key strength of co-op housing was community cohesion and gave the example that you ‘only have to walk 20 yards to get things done’ such as sorting out repairs.

It was interesting to hear from Alan about how co-operative housing was communicated to the public in those days. Instead of attempting to explain how the co-operative housing model works, they talked to residents of Small Heath about the need to improve their homes and how this could be done, resulting in people wanting to get involved. There was money to buy properties from private owners, improve them and then rent out to the same tenants on a co-operative basis. I consider that at the present time, it can seem complicated to explain co-op housing and even more so to explain Mutual Home Ownership to prospective tenants. It seems a useful step in the communication of co-operative housing to inform the public about how it might meet their housing need rather than becoming bogged down in detailed explanations of mutuality.

By 1985 there was growing resistance from the Housing Corporation to co-ops. They were seen as too resource intensive and the Housing Corporation did not want to fund specialist organisations but generic housing associations. This stopped opportunities for development of co-op housing which wanted to focus on certain areas whilst the Housing Corporation did not want this. The co-ops were also built on a model where the tenants as members ran their own housing. It was viewed by the Housing Corporation that ordinary people did not have the skills to run their housing and by the 1980s, the Housing Corporation would not register new co-operatives. The co-ops also faced the difficulty of fitting in with standardised regulatory requirements and council allocations policy as well as the move from stakeholder to executive models of governance. The 1988 Housing Act limited the role of co-operative housing even more as priority was given to large housing associations that could secure private funding.

Jon spoke about the present day and his belief that co-operative housing is being reinvented, using examples of mutual housing associations, community land trusts and self-help housing. He felt that as we live in ‘generation rent’ when many will not be able to own their own home, co-operative housing may be an option worth serious consideration. Just as in the 1970s, it could present an attractive alternative for people forced to rent and a way of improving housing conditions.

I believe that social housing has much to learn from the co-operative housing sector. Some housing association boards have moved towards a larger scale professional and commercial approach. This has caused the role of tenants to be diminished. In contrast, tenant governance is intrinsic to co-ops. The importance of community for co-operative housing is something that we can learn from today.

I found the presentation very informative and it greatly increased my understanding of co-operative housing in the UK. I am thankful to the Housing and Communities Group for arranging it and particularly grateful to Jon and Alan for the seminar.

Bridging the Gap between Academia and Policy: Reflections on Housing and Communities Seminar 2 – 17 November 2014

Our most recent Housing and Communities Research Network seminar was presented by Dr Darinka Czischke, and was entitled Social Housing Organisations in England and The Netherlands: Between the State, Market and Community, which also happens to be the name of book Darinka has just published. This book is the result of a 6-year PhD study (co-supervised by Prof Vincent Gruis at Delft University and Prof David Mullins at the University of Birmingham) into the ways in which contextual developments impact on the mission, values and activities of social housing organisations in the aforementioned countries.

Darinka Czischke, Honorary Research Fellow, Housing and Communities Research Group

Darinka Czischke, Honorary Research Fellow, Housing and Communities Research Group

Darinka is an honorary research fellow at the Housing and Communities Research Group and an urban and housing specialist with over 15 years’ international experience. She is also the joint coordinator of the working group “Policy and Research” at the European Network for Housing Research (ENHR).  ‘Policy and Research’ was in fact a recurring theme at the seminar, which focused on  the policy and practice implications of the work featured in Darinka’s book, specifically those emerging from findings on the impacts of key regulatory developments on the strategy formulation, role and scope of activities of social housing providers in England and the Netherlands. In England, for example, the impact of the current Coalition government’s welfare reform and the changes to social housing policy and funding since 2010 were explored, while in the Netherlands it was the impact of the Dutch government’s ruling on social housing affecting income limits and the financing of the sector, following the EU decision on state aid to Dutch social housing providers. Both developments have proven to have wide-ranging consequences of on-going importance for the redefinition of the role and scope of social housing providers in two countries with significant social housing sectors in Europe.

From an academic research point of view Darinka’s presentation introduced the practical applicability of the concept of hybridity in a longitudinal study of two large housing associations in the Netherlands and England. Typologies and systems of social housing across Europe are proposed and debated, in the context of state, market and community drivers. Relevant theories are adopted to explore strategic decision-making such as Social Enterprise (Defourny, 2009), Hybridity (Brandsen, 2005; BIllis, 2010), Agency (Giddens, 1979, 1984) and Institutional Entrepreneurship (Di Maggio, 1998; Garuda et al, 2007).

Darinka considers too the relationship between the case study organisations and their policy environment and proposes that rather than passive recipients or recipients of policy, they take on a greater agency role in setting and responding strategically to policy. From a policy point of view evidence on how social housing providers are facing challenges and making decisions on their responses can bear important lessons for other European countries. In particular they can shed light on the impact and use of EC regulations on the redefinition of the role and scope of social housing in member states, as well as how social housing providers in North Western European countries operate in the post-recession environment of widening gaps in provision, the shifting roles and activities of established providers and the emergence of new players.

A week prior to the Housing and Communities Network Seminar, Darinka focused on the same themes at her book launch at the University of Birmingham’s Brussels office, to an audience made up of policy makers and advisers. These common threads were picked up at our November seminar, again to a mixed audience of academics, students and housing professionals. That the underlying messages of the presentation appealed to this dichotomous audience is a testimony to the dual relevance of this research or indeed its ability as a piece of work to bridge the policy/ academia gap.

The need to face in several ways is an underlying aspiration of all the work undertaken by our Housing and Communities Research Group, in which we seek academic rigiour at he same time as relevance and impact to policy and practice.  There is undoubtedly a key role to be played by academic work in informing policy, and organisational responses to policy, thereby positively influencing the debate or policy process through studies and research. Throughout the PhD Darinka and her supervisors interacted with the housing sector in the two countries enabling research to inform strategy and vice versa. This relationship influenced the design of case studies, the choice of strategic decisions for the research to follow and mode of inquiry. During the research it was found that case study actors began to adopt the language of hybridity and critical incidents to make sense of their own experience. Darinka’s forthright presentation and writing highlights the fact that such close engagement need not compromise the independence and critical stance of research but it certainly increases its relevance and potential impact. Let’s have more research that bridges the gap yet remains critical.

Changing Political, Socio-economic and Institutional Landscapes: What are the consequences for housing??

Vanessa Wilkes PhD candidate in Housing and Communities Research Group reflects on this years Housing Studies Association confernece and the implications of the rapidly changing political and econmic context for housing for own her research on why and how Housing Associations measure the impact of their community investment activities.


The timing of this annual Housing Studies Association (HSA) conference could not have been better to encourage reflection and analysis on the social housing sector, the current and future challenges it is facing and the role of governments (past and present) in shaping those changes. The conference took place a few days following the introduction of significant and far reaching changes which present new and lasting challenges for housing organisations and their tenants.  It was also during the week in which Baroness Thatcher died, bringing her legacy which continues to shape the social housing sector, closer to consciousness.

In this paper, I discuss the main themes running throughout the HSA 2013 conference which are of significance to my research. These include the reforms which impact on social housing tenants and the impact which those reforms are having on the sector as a whole.  The paper is structured as follows. After providing a national perspective on these reforms I reflect on the experience of a local housing provider in dealing with these reforms alongside their approach to community investment. Community investment activities within my research are defined broadly as those activities undertaken by housing organisations which are over and above the provision of a home. In the following sections, I introduce the notion of the changing position of the nation state and also reflect on other learning gleaned from the conference as a whole.   Throughout the paper, I reflect on how the discussions provide important insights and additions to my research.

Welfare Reform and the Bedroom Tax

David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation, had one overriding message for the conference which he has consistently articulated to ministers. This is that the bedroom tax is unfair, unjust and should be revoked.  In outlining the consequences of the bedroom tax, which he had previously described as “one of these once in a generation decisions that is wrong in every respect” (NHF, 2013), he stressed the need to decouple this cut from Welfare Credit changes which he described as a reform.  This is an interesting divide for me to reflect on.  Interviews for my fieldwork were untaken whilst these changes were in development and they have been spoken about at some length with my interviewees, as a package of reforms.  Together they alter both the financial position of tenants and the housing choices they are able to make, and at the same time impact on the financial situation of organisations and the decisions they make regarding their stock.

Many of the presentations throughout the conference included reference to the legacy of Thatcher’s policies and how they continue to shape the social housing sector reinforced by the ethos of the Coalition Government. Her idea that home ownership was central to a moral and stable family life is echoed in the current Coalition policies which focus on the importance of personal responsibilities (King) and the obsolescence of social housing as both a choice and an entity (Flint). In reflecting on his experience, as Chief Executive of a housing organisation, Dodd spoke of the moral demise in the way in which people in poverty are treated and the underlying message of failure which it inherently contains.

Discussion ensued on whether the social housing sector was able to speak with a coherent voice.  Orr stated that the voice is consistent, but not loud enough.  In defending his view, he argued that although the strategies and activities of housing organisations have diversified, the fundamental mission remains the same. But, I am left contemplating how consistent that voice is in reality and at what level? That fundamental mission is not often explicitly articulated, suggesting  rather an assumption of understanding and agreement.  The breadth of diversification was subsequently expanded upon by Marsh and Gibb who spoke of diversification within the sector in a range of ways which is surely not exhaustive, these include:

  • Organisations which are actively developing housing and seeking to expand their stock;
  • The type of community investment activities which are undertaken, how much is committed to these and how mainstream they are within organisations;
  • The move by some organisations into ‘partly for profit’ housing; and
  • The availability and use of more ‘exotic’ financial products.

During my research over the past two years I have spoken with over 40 housing organisations about their community investment and impact measurement activities and been party to a number of discussions concerning the development of joint measures and outcomes between parties or across the sector. No-one has yet agreed on a joint approach to either of these and, in my view, the debate within the sector as a whole has not progressed to any great extent.  Perhaps that suggests that the provision of housing (in various tenures) maybe the only shared fundamental mission within the sector. Evidence of the variety of activities over and above that fundamental mission makes it very difficult to speak of these hybrid organisations (Sacranie, 2011) as a coherent sector with their very different structures, approaches and underlying ethos.

The transfer of regulatory and legislative responsibility from a national to a local context (Orr) was developed within the presentation by Professor John Flint.  In addressing the retreating state, he spoke about the basis for the nation state shifting, the secession from responsibility by government and the management  of perceptions rather than the macro economy.  I am planning to examine the relevance of this field of literature in relation to my own research as I believe it may provide a more nuanced view in which to analyse the context within which housing organisations are delivery community investment activities.

The impact on localities

In his presentation Kevin Dodd, Chief Executive of Wakefield and District Housing reaffirmed the message which has been consistently vocalised throughout my fieldwork, that government is ‘passporting’ housing and welfare issues down to housing providers at the local level.  Not only is this causing resentment amongst housing tenants who, in many cases, believe their housing providers are introducing these changes and cuts, but it is within a context of a lack of detail and constantly shifting goalposts.

The longer term ramifications of the cuts on both local economies and the work of housing organisations were explored. The £18 million which will be extracted from the welfare state will inevitably decrease spending in the more fragile local economies with Orr stating that “poor people spend, rich people save”, linking this with the negative impact on local businesses.  Alongside this, Dodd stated that his housing organisation will lose £100,000 per week in revenue, an amount equivalent to building a house a week.

As part of the demonstration project into the impact of the recent changes to housing benefit payment, Dodd spoke of the increased pressure which his services had been put under,  requiring  a greater level and depth of support to tenants than previously. His organisation took part in the direct payment pilot and his view was that the advent of direct payments transformed his previous tenants into customers, a move he did not appear to welcome.

Many tenants are beneficiaries of the community investment activities and my research focusses on why and how housing organisations approach the measurement of their social impact.  The combined effects of Welfare Reform and the Bedroom Tax on the income stream and activities of housing organisations leads me to question the on-going commitment which some housing organisations will be able to make to some of these initiatives when their core housing provision may demand more resources against a diminished income stream.

The type of community investment which Dodd outlined in his presentation showed a very different approach to that within my research.  Within my case studies, strategies primarily focus on labour market interventions, be it providing skills or ensuring that commissioned work provides local opportunities. Within these approaches, a direct economic intervention in the local economy does not seem to be as mainstream as aiming to deliver social impact through interventions with individuals. However, in the model described by Dodd, the emphasis is more focused on the consumer and the desire to ‘keep the pound local’ and support the local economy.  Measurement of impact will differ between these two approaches with the latter one, with its focus on supporting the local economy, arguably being more measurable in a more widely recognised financial sense.

Within her seminar presentation, Patricia Jones explored the reframing of community investment activities against the backdrops of workability, affordability, sustainability, measurability and governance. Although the timing of my research does not enable me to draw conclusions relating to this reframing, my data provides me with an indication of the ethos of a housing organisation and a probable trajectory of their community investment activities which I may be able to explore within this framework.   The question Jones raised of whether community investment activities may become increasingly focused on individuals, as opposed to the wider community, is one of the issues which emerged during my fieldwork. I plan to return to that issue within the follow-up interviews which will take place after the introduction of some of the welfare and housing changes.

Challenges for housing organisations

In addition to the main presentation, the seminar programme was wide and varied in its subject areas and a few key areas of learning were gleaned from the sessions which I attended. The uncertainty of the environment both now and post 2015 was seen as one of the issues around the financing of housing by Marsh and Gibb. They also expressed concern at the skillset within housing organisations to deal with the risk and diversity of current and emerging financial products.  The availability of relevant skills is often referred to when the governance of housing organisations is discussed, but it is also highlighted as a problematic issue within my research as an area which is not being fully appreciated and rectified by housing organisations or the wider sector.  The adoption of social impact measurement tools or methodologies in some housing organisations is often ad hoc and reactive  with little attention being given to where such systems or processes are placed within the organisation. In many cases, this has resulted in personnel employed to undertake frontline people focussed work, being given the methodologically challenging task of undertaking impact measurement.  Reference has been made to this within academic literature (Mullins et al, 2011) although it would merit further investigation.


This conference was held at the start of a time of great uncertainty with many references to what the situation may be post 2015. It appears to be the start of a journey which will disrupt the norms of many housing organisations and lead to many challenges.  These challenges will almost inevitably impact on the community investment activities of housing organisations, which is of central interest to my research.

This conference provided me with an invaluable opportunity to reflect on the understanding within which I am analysing my research, including the changing context for community investment activities.  It has also provided numerous insights into how some of that understanding can be refined and deepened.

Vanessa Wilkes

Housing Associations: Challenges and opportunities

Housing associations are beset by paradoxical drivers of challenge and opportunity. There has never been a more testing time for the social housing sector as it is exposed to fast-moving changes on account of the global downturn and subsequent wider socio-economic crisis affecting peoples’ lives at the grassroots. For housing associations as landlords, housing shortages, welfare reform, the bedroom tax and sweeping changes to the benefit system are just some of the challenges they face; together with burgeoning opportunities to work closer with their neighbourhoods encouraged by the community rights and localism agenda. There is mounting demand for housing associations to configure their community investment strategy to maintain a balance between business investment in development as well as social investment in localities.

The Housing Associations’ Charitable Trust (HACT) is committed to bringing cutting edge knowledge and targeted support to meet the sector’s need for a community investment strategy that can respond to both challenges and opportunities. This Report explores the role that HACT can play through the lens of four work streams: social impact; social enterprise; local economies and place making.  Although these four work streams might compete for priority, Report findings suggest that cohesive organisational culture; local collaborations, social asset building, co-production and community leadership remain the staple components of effective community investment strategy.

An action-learning approach has long been the hallmark of HACT’s initiatives as a think and do tank promoting participative learning opportunities and creative spaces to embed good practice and share innovation across the social housing sector. Following its re-launch in 2012, HACT’s new business is taking shape and HACT’s involvement with the knowledge transfer partnership process and how the learning from the Third Sector Research Centre across a broad spectrum of research work is being better understood. The relationship has gathered pace and a series of TSRC/HACT Round Tables together with housing practitioners has been organised for 2013 as part of the Housing and Communities Network at the University of Birmingham. The Report demonstrates how the KTP process ensures that academic research finds meaningful practical application through HACT’s programme and activities to the benefit of the social housing sector as a whole.

Dr Tricia Jones