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Associations can’t be all things to all people

There is no correct answer to the difficult choices housing associations need to make around funding community services and new housing, says Bjorn Howard

Bjorn   Howard

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Bjorn   Howard
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Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty

Associations can’t be all things to all people, writes Bjorn Howard #ukhousing

Working in housing can be extraordinarily rewarding, but it has never been easy.

We have always struggled in an environment where demand massively outstrips supply. We have rarely, if ever, had the resources to do everything we know needs to be done.

Too often we have had to ration that which we know people need.

Nearly every day we have faced moral hazards.

That necessarily engenders debate. We all know that good, safe, secure housing positively influences physical health, mental well-being and even the educational attainment of children, so it is absolutely right that we get passionate about it.

However, how do we set our strategies in this complex, emotionally charged environment? Should we build as many homes as possible of any tenure? Or is it better to build a much lower number of homes solely for social rent?

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Many will argue that there are clear answers to these questions. Unfortunately, in my experience, you will hear many different answers, all of which are sensibly, rationally and often powerfully made. Here, I do not attempt to offer a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, but instead argue for strategic clarity.

It is easy for housing associations to try to be all things to all women and men. But they can’t. Resources are limited and moral hazards raise their heads straight away. There has been less and less money in the public system for years now and valuable services have been cut or withdrawn. Is it the place of housing associations to step into the void left by the state? Well, maybe.

“There has been less and less money in the public system for years now and valuable services have been cut or withdrawn.”

But every time we spend money on services that go beyond housing, we have less to spend on new homes. Oh, and where do most of our profits come from? Is it right that we use profits largely derived from our tenants – many of whom are among the poorest in society – to prop up services previously funded by income or local taxation? Isn’t that the story of Robin Hood in reverse?

I cannot offer answers with which all would agree.

Nonetheless, I do think it is essential that housing association boards grapple with these issues and determine what strategy they are to follow.

Being a housing association board director is not meant to be easy and these are the types of questions we must answer.

“Boards must give their businesses clear strategic direction even if that exposes them to criticism from those who disagree.”

Obviously, strategies can be plain wrong. But there are many shades of ‘right’.

Aster’s strategy balances investment in services, our housing stock and new development. We have moved away from some discretionary services and avoided being drawn into funding services previously offered by the public sector. That has meant more development and greater clarity of purpose. We are now a top 10 housing association developer that plans to build more than 11,000 new homes over the next seven years. But we are not all things to all people.

The housing sector is wonderful, but it is tough.

Boards must work their way through the ethical dilemmas they face and give their businesses clear strategic direction, even if that exposes them to criticism from those who disagree.

Bjorn Howard, group chief executive, Aster

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