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 payment 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.