Our Chief Executive, Tom Chance, responds to a new report from Placeshapers about housing associations and levelling up.
Whenever there’s an upset in a by-election, sure as eggs is eggs you’ll get MPs saying (to paraphrase) ‘this just shows I’ve been right all along, we need to do the things I care about to win back voters’.
So it can seem when a new buzzword comes along, like levelling up.
As the term gained currency, we’ve all been looking for ways to say that the thing we’ve been doing already is the golden key to unlock prosperity in left behind areas.
That’s not to say that we’re wrong, but sometimes it’s more interesting to ask ourselves: how can we change the way we work to better tackle this issue?
That thought ran through my head reading the excellent Placeshapers report on the role of housing associations in levelling up.
Without a doubt, many housing associations do a good job of improving the quality and affordability of local housing and the playgrounds, parks and streetscape around their homes. They create local jobs, invest in training and apprenticeships, and help vulnerable residents with benefits and debts. Some provide community halls and fund community projects like food banks and playgroups.
Much less common, but equally important, is the way that some housing associations give real democratic power to tenants and residents. From genuine input into shaping regeneration plans to devolving budgets and property management, there are some great examples of housing associations building the democratic muscle in local communities.
Housing associations can be anchor organisations achieving all of these things. But the sector can also be unresponsive, paternalistic, disempowering.
(And now for my ‘eggs is eggs’ moment…)
One way housing associations can change to really build these ambitions into their DNA is to embrace formal partnerships with communities through Community Land Trusts, co-operatives and cohousing communities.
Give communities ownership of the land and control over the decisions that matter to them, and bring the housing association’s expertise to build, refurbish and manage the homes with them, as many have done with CLTs.
Let social housing residents control and shape the way they live together – the shared facilities they need, the layout of streets and gardens, the configuration of services – and support them to develop mutually supportive relationships, as Housing 21 is trialling with the UK Cohousing Network.
Read the case study
Read more about the partnership between SCATA and Isos Housing (now part of Karbon Homes).
Read the guide
With ten more good examples to learn from and copy.
They also build up a local muscle that the community can apply to other problems. Many CLTs that start out with a housing association partnership go on to create local workspace, save shops and pubs, retrofit other local homes, and take on town centre regeneration. They can focus on the whole picture of their local place in a way that medium sized regional housing providers can’t.
Karbon, one of the Placeshapers members featured in the report, did this with a CLT in Stocksfield, Northumberland. The housing association covers the whole of the North East and Yorkshire, and through this partnership the CLT is able to anchor the benefits in an entrepreneurial local community trust.
It’s partnership in the truest sense – achieving something transformative together that neither could achieve alone.
But there are very few of these partnerships in left behind areas, besides a notable pocket of examples around the Tees Valley. Most have been in prosperous villages where the need for low rent homes is pressing.
So perhaps our message to the government should be: there is real potential for housing associations and communities to contribute to levelling up, a lot more than we are managing at the moment.
A small coda. Placeshapers point out the need for Homes England funding for renovation as well as new build homes. But in the last Spending Review, the Treasury set out the priority outcomes and performance metrics for the department in charge of housing. For housing, the only thing that really matters to Rishi Sunak is how much the housing stock grows by, and how many affordable homes the government’s money builds.
This creates a perverse incentive, pushing against everything I’ve just written about. Buying up dilapidated homes from absentee landlords and doing them up doesn’t add to the housing stock, but it’s what many left behind areas need. Providing homes at low rents that match local incomes rather than higher unaffordable rents would result in fewer grant-funded homes, but it’s what people most desperately need. Building homes in a way that measurably reduces loneliness and increases social cohesion isn’t counted by the Treasury.
When it comes to the department meeting its outcome to ‘build more empowered and integrated communities’, the Treasury seeks only some narrative reporting.
So the community led and housing association sectors share one rather nerdy priority: to change the metrics the government uses.
In Scotland, the government’s National Performance Framework tracks indicators including loneliness, places to interact, social capital and the number of assets in community ownership. Just imagine what we could achieve with a similar breadth of focus in England.