CIH chief executive’s Virtual Housing Festival speech in full

Gavin Smart, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing, today opened the first day of Housing 2020: the Virtual Housing Festival with a keynote speech touching on the COVID-19 pandemic, welfare reforms and the need for increased levels of social rent housing. Here is Mr Smart’s speech in full

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Gavin Smart at last year’s Housing 2019 conference (picture: Guzelian)
Gavin Smart at last year’s Housing 2019 conference (picture: Guzelian)
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.@GavinSmartCIH today opened the first day of the #VirtualHousingFestival with a keynote speech touching on the COVID-19 pandemic, welfare reforms and the need for increased levels of social rent homes #UKhousing

“Welcome to this year’s Housing 2020.

Working together with Ocean Media Group, we’ve created the Virtual Housing Festival to provide an opportunity for us all to come together to reflect on recent events.

This isn’t how we usually host this, and I’m sure we’re all going to miss our annual opportunity to get together in Manchester. However, I really hope you all enjoy what we’ve put together for this week, take part and join the debate.

This is my first speech to our annual Housing conference as chief executive of CIH.

I know that some of you will know me personally but many don’t, and I think it’s fair that you might want to know something about the person who has been asked to lead CIH, what motivates and drive them.

First and most importantly I’m a proud housing professional.

I’ve worked in housing for pretty much the whole of my career.

I started my career as researcher at Bristol University – an opportunity to serve an extraordinary apprenticeship learning from some of the most thoughtful and influential thinkers and researchers in housing.

My first boss was Glen Bramley, I worked with Peter Malpass and Alan Murie (only later understanding that they had literally written the book on housing), Steve Wilcox, Christine Whitehead, Peter Williams… the list goes on and on. I never stood a chance really. I was hooked.

“The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the failings in our housing system. Too many people are poorly housed in unaffordable, poor-quality, insecure homes”

I moved on to roles at the National Housing Federation, worked in government for at what is now MHCLG and then in 2012 joined CIH. I joined a great organisation, loved it and stayed.

There have been moments when I had the opportunity to move on to work in other sectors, but I wasn’t done with housing and it wasn’t done with me.

Housing matters to me personally, the work we do, the work you do, the impact it has, the way it changes lives and builds a better society.

That social purpose is critical to me. It’s the reason I work in housing.

As our president Aileen Evans often says, home is where we start from. Home is the foundation stone on which we build the rest of our life. What could be more important than that?

It’s a privilege and an inspiration to work in housing and to lead CIH. If you told me at the start of my career that I would be here I wouldn’t have believed you. But now I’m here I am determined to give it my all.

CIH has to be the professional body you deserve. To support you, our members, to train, educate and qualify the housing profession and to be the public voice of housing, making the case for everyone to have access to a decent, secure, affordable home.

“It’s important that government investment in homeownership isn’t at the expense of its investment in genuinely affordable rented housing. And it’s not just a numbers game – the homes we build must be of the highest possible quality, of the right type and in the right places”

I grew up in South Wales.

My parents were professionals – medical laboratory scientists working in the NHS. Like housing, a profession rooted in social purpose.

Looking back now I realise I saw how, as members of their professional body, my parents, the daughter of a car mechanic and the son of a miner, were offered the opportunity to build their careers and to transform their life chances as a result. I saw how their network of fellow professionals encouraged and supported them. They made lifelong friendships and their lives opened up in way that would not have been possible without it.

Their profession and their professional body played a central role in their careers and their lives. And I know that that is the role that CIH plays in the lives of so many people in housing.

I want us to get better at that role and to offer the same kind of support, development and community to you, our members. I want to talk a bit about the world we find ourselves in at the moment, the challenges for housing and housing policy and some of the things we at CIH think should happen to improve things.

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the failings in our housing system. Too many people are poorly housed in unaffordable, poor-quality, insecure homes. These same people often have very low incomes and insecure employment. And they were often those most exposed to the health, social and economic consequences of the pandemic. As a nation we have a duty to ensure that our population is better housed and that an affordable, safe, secure, good-quality home is available to everyone. Lockdown, self-isolation and quarantining highlighted its importance.


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The belief that we need to address our national housing failure is behind the Homes at the Heart campaign that we are running jointly with the National Housing Federation (NHF), the National Federation of ALMOs, the Association of Retained Council Housing and Crisis, and with the support of over 60 other supporter organisations. Putting Homes at the Heart will:

  • Drive forward our economic recovery
  • Improve access to properly affordable housing, helping households to make ends meet
  • Maximise the role that housing can play in living a healthy and independent life
  • Support a green recovery and make a big contribution to our national carbon reduction targets
  • Reduce homelessness and the use of temporary accommodation
  • Create thriving, prosperous communities across the country – truly ‘levelling up’

Critical to this is building affordable new homes at scale. In England we need to build at least 90,000 new social rented homes a year. That means more government support.

It’s important that government investment in homeownership isn’t at the expense of its investment in genuinely affordable rented housing. And it’s not just a numbers game – the homes we build must be of the highest possible quality, of the right type and in the right places.

Elsewhere there is still a huge amount of work to do on building and fire safety and on improving the sustainability of housing overall. Both challenging, long-term and expensive agendas. There will be difficult decisions and difficult trade-offs, but there really is no other choice.

The creation of the Green Homes Grant is encouraging. It shows how energy efficiency can be at the heart of economic recovery.

But much more is needed, without further delay, if the government’s carbon reduction targets are to be met. Nineteen million homes fall below required standards and some £5bn must be invested annually, part of it from public funds.

“We have presented government with a package of policy measures from removing mandatory grounds for eviction to reforming our welfare system so that households are less likely to run up arrears in the first place”

Government should also give a clear role to social landlords to take the lead and provide resources that enable them to get started.

Tomorrow we will publish a joint report with Orbit Group setting out the challenge of greening our housing stock and calling on government to play a leading role.

It’s important to recognise that the pandemic has also seen some positive developments.

‘Everybody In’ achieved an enormous amount in a very short period of time – government had committed to end rough sleeping via a five-year plan but, in a matter of days, around 15,000 people were safely accommodated across the UK.

We know the programme is temporary, will not have caught everyone and that some people ended up back on the streets, but it shows what can be achieved when political will and resources are matched by local commitment, expertise and action.

In the same way the evictions moratorium was successful in protecting households from the risk of losing their homes.

But although it has been extended and government has introduced longer notice periods, which are welcome, there is more to do.

We have presented government with a package of policy measures from removing mandatory grounds for eviction to reforming our welfare system so that households are less likely to run up arrears in the first place.

In partnership with the NHF we have asked that government suspends its practice of denying many migrants access to benefits, meaning they aren’t able to pay their rent or get permanent accommodation.

This kind of comprehensive approach will be needed to manage the evictions risk in the medium term.

“The potential impact of a new national infrastructure levy is concerning – choosing the level for a single, fixed levy will be difficult. It may not work for every market and could choke off the delivery of new affordable homes, especially on smaller sites”

There are some recent policy developments which are a cause for concern.

Amongst these are the recent proposals for planning reform in England. In a system so complex there is always room for improvement, but I do have concerns about the proposals set out.

Managing the impact of potentially radical changes in the middle of a pandemic and potentially the biggest economic downturn for a century will be challenging and the risk of unintended delays and other problems is high.

The potential impact of a new national infrastructure levy is concerning – choosing the level for a single, fixed levy will be difficult. It may not work for every market and could choke off the delivery of new affordable homes, especially on smaller sites.

Section 106, while not perfect, guarantees the delivery of on-site, in-kind planning gain and delivers mixed communities. Government has talked about a replacement mechanism but we need to see much more detail on this.

Extending permitted development rights risks being a significant backwards step. Too much of the housing delivered under [permitted development] has been very poor in quality and design: not the kind of homes we should be building for our future.

On the other hand the aim to include local communities earlier in the development of local plans feels like the right direction of travel.

The commitments to greater speed, to improving the supply of land and to building more beautiful homes are also hard to disagree with.

Planning is complicated and the devil is in the detail – we will be engaging with government to make sure the voice of the housing profession is heard in these discussions and the need for truly affordable housing is not lost.

Agendas that still continue

I look forward to the publication of the Social Housing White Paper later in the year. I expect it to address important changes that are still relevant and require action.

We are working with the government as to explore how the policy framework can support the continuing professionalisation of housing.

Tenant/resident voice and engagement: a major debate of the last few years and an area where we know things will be changing and will need to change.

Consumer regulation changes: we expect changes to the role of consumer regulation and the customer standard.

We must address the stigma so often associated with social housing. The causes of stigma are multi-layered with a media and housing policy which privileges home ownership over renting both playing a part.

But we also need to consider the part that housing providers and professionals play, often unwittingly, in creating or reinforcing stigma.

We are working with the See the Person campaign to produce a guide for housing professionals, which we will be launching at this conference on Thursday.

Welfare reform and welfare cuts: we’ve been making this argument for a long time now and progress has been slow. There has been promising movement in response to the pandemic but there is still further to go, especially on the benefits cap and the bedroom tax.

We must ensure housing and welfare policy are better aligned and better support our aim that everyone should have access to a home that meets their needs.

And of course CIH’s policy work takes place across the UK.

In Wales CIH Cymru sits on the implementation board of the Independent Affordable Housing Supply Review, placing CIH and our profession front and centre in ensuring the Welsh government delivers on its ambition to ramp up supply of social housing.

And we are at the heart of campaigning to see full incorporation of the right to adequate housing into Welsh law.

In Scotland we are working with our colleagues in the [Scottish Federation of Housing Associations] and Shelter Scotland to press the Scottish government to invest to deliver 53,000 social rented homes a year in the next five-year programme.

And we are chairing a Scottish government taskforce working to improve housing outcomes for women and children experiencing domestic abuse.

In Northern Ireland we are urging the reconvened assembly to ensure that affordable housing is high on its agenda. Current investment is at the highest level for nine years and closing in on the 2,000 social rented homes a year we think are needed.

Our ‘Rethinking social housing’ researched a wider role for intermediate rented homes and we now working with the Department for Communities as they work to act on our recommendation.

The Spending Review is coming and as part of the Homes at the Heart campaign, we will be making the case for UK government and governments across the UK to do more to support housing across the board and truly affordable social housing in particular – including by seeing housing as a critical part of our national infrastructure.

What we’ve achieved through the pandemic and how we might build on it

In recent months we’ve all lived through a very strange and challenging time, but no matter the challenges we face the job continues.

The need for homes and for the services we provide hasn’t gone away It’s at the heart of our social purpose. And that’s why I was heartened to see so much of what happened in response to the pandemic.

There a few things I want to pick out specifically that I think we can build on.

We have moved fast. Be that in introducing the IT changes to support home working, changing policies and procedures to keep critical services going whilst protecting customers and colleagues, or simply being willing to try new things and to innovate. We should celebrate that achievement and work hard not to lose it.

Everywhere I look, I see stories of how organisations have worked to ramp up their contact with and support to tenants, residents and customers, including colleagues from teams that aren’t traditionally customer facing stepping into that space and doing great work.

I think the impact has been noticeable and has built new trust and new engagement. That’s a fantastic result – let’s not lose it.

I’ve seen a sector and a profession truly delivering against its social purpose – through support to food banks, arranging delivery of food parcels or care packages, arranging to make sure people continued to receive their vital medicines. A thousand different stories, but all aimed at the same thing. Delivering against social purpose. Something I think we can really build on.

“Everywhere I look I see stories of how organisations have worked to ramp up their contact with and support to tenants, residents and customers, including colleagues from teams that aren’t traditionally customer facing stepping into that space and doing great work”

It’s fair to say 2020 wasn’t the year we expected. It certainly wasn’t what I imagined my first year of chief exec of CIH would look like.

If your social purpose hasn’t gone away, nor has ours. And that’s why our commitment to housing professionals across the globe hasn’t changed.

Supporting our members is a top priority – growing our networks and creating opportunities for you to grow and develop. Right now there’s a real vibrancy in our membership and more now than ever want to be part of CIH.

CIH is for everyone. We’re here to grow the professionalism of the sector, everyone in the sector, no matter your gender, race, ethnicity or experience. Equality, diversity and inclusion have always been on our agenda.

Black Lives Matter has heightened the public debate about equality, diversity and inclusion across the board. And without a doubt there is a role here for CIH.

We must do more. And we will.

Our code of ethics requires CIH members to demonstrate their commitment to equality and diversity, treating people fairly and challenging negative stereotypes.

Professionalism is at the heart of what we do. We have a fantastic suite of qualifications and training. We’ve updated and restructured them to fit in with our increasingly agile ways of working, ensuing they reflect the skills and knowledge you need now and into the future.

We continue to develop the professional standards framework for housing, built around competencies and behaviours you have told us are important to you.

“Black Lives Matter has heightened the public debate about equality, diversity and inclusion across the board. And without a doubt there is a role here for CIH”

Our role as the public voice of housing is as important as ever. We will continue to speak up and tell the government and policymakers what we think needs to happen to ensure everyone in this country has a decent, affordable home in a thriving, safe community.

We need you to add your voices to ours, to work to bring about change.

We are stronger when we work together.

So please join us. Join us as a member. Join us as a partner organisation making the case for the changes we need to see. Join us as fellow travellers on a journey to creating a future where everyone has a place to call home and we can properly say that we have addressed the glaring failings in our housing system.

Thank you.

Thank you for the work you do. Thank you for the difference it makes. Thank you for the support that you show us. And thank you for being here today.”

Gavin Smart, chief executive, Chartered Institute of Housing

Find out more about the Virtual Housing Festival

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