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Coronavirus and the ‘new normal’ in housing

The current crisis shows the importance of data, says Laurice Ponting

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Picture: Getty
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The #coronavirus crisis shows the importance of data, says @LauricePonting, chief executive of @HouseMarkLtd #ukhousing

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than six weeks of social distancing. The current indicators of normality already feel embedded in our routines: getting out of the house for permitted exercise and to buy a few essentials, clapping for key workers on Thursdays at 8pm, and waiting anxiously for the daily statistics of deaths and infections.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of the pandemic is how it has highlighted the importance of data. We analyse benchmarking charts showing the UK compared to other countries, review historical sources comparing strategies used during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 with approaches today, and marvel at predictive analytics techniques that determine the likelihood of patients needing a ventilator, propose existing drugs to tackle COVID-19 symptoms or analyse the mental health of people in lockdown using Twitter.


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As lockdown fatigue sets in, the most important prediction of all is the one that tells us what our lives will look like when the pandemic is over. Early indications of this new world point at extreme levels of surveillance to achieve contact tracing or massive testing regimes where the entire population of a country is tested approximately every 14 days.

The most likely scenario is something in between, where lockdown measures are relaxed and reinstated as required. Clearly the world is reshaping quickly, and things will not go back to how they were, but instead we will see the emergence of a new normal with a dramatic restructuring of the established social and economic order.

At HouseMark, we harness the power of data to understand and describe the performance of the UK housing sector. The past few weeks have strengthened our resolve to use this data and expertise to help the sector define what ‘good’ looks like in the new normal that will emerge following the pandemic.

“Getting assurance that a specific dip in performance can be attributed to the crisis rather than to other underlying issues will be troubling many senior leaders over the next few months”

In the past 20 years we have seen the impact of previous large changes in the sector, such as the 2008 recession and the introduction of Universal Credit, or localised natural disasters such as flooding across counties in the UK.

We have learned to adapt and work with our members to amend the indicators we collect, so they can be used to measure performance and track a route out of the crisis. Understanding the nuances of different organisations in the sector (such as their staffing structure, stock distribution and resident profile) and learning from best performers underpins putting the right strategy in place.

Boards and executive teams will see their performance discussions dominated by the pandemic for a long time to come, getting assurance that a specific dip in performance can be attributed to the crisis rather than to other underlying issues will be troubling many senior leaders over the next few months.

For example, it is well understood that during lockdown the number of empty properties will increase and consequently, void loss is likely to rise significantly. Executives will need to effectively monitor the performance of their voids and lettings teams.

These are very complex issues, but we have been encouraged by our conversations with members, who are keen to understand what ‘good’ looks like in the new normal. To respond to the challenge, we have launched new data-driven solutions to support the sector’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We will be updating the sector as these initiatives progress and as the true impact of the coronavirus crisis is understood across different organisations. We will also be working with others in the sector to anticipate how these deep economic and social changes brought by the pandemic will transform the operating model of housing in the UK.

These are unsettling times, but we are determined to work with our members and partners to learn the lessons from this human tragedy, and ensure the UK continues to have a high-performing housing sector for all.

Laurice Ponting, chief executive, HouseMark

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