Europe’s biggest housing conference is perfectly timed to capitalise on the outcome of the general election.
The sector will gather for the Chartered Institute of Housing’s annual conference in Manchester to assess their response to the new administration; how they will tackle critical issues including financial pressures, benefits changes, homelessness and increasing the supply of new homes.
It promises to be just as intriguing as last year’s event that took place just after the game-changing Brexit vote. It made national news after Lord Heseltine took the opportunity to deliver a scathing attack on Boris Johnson.
Brandon Lewis, who by then was into his final moments as housing minister, literally phoned in his speech by video link from what looked like a broom cupboard in Westminster.
At the centre of it all will be chief executive Terrie Alafat, who will be sending out a clear message that the sector can’t and won’t wait for Westminster. “What we always try to do is to make certain [the conference] caters for anyone working in housing. People want to think about their day to day job. It helps build resilience if you can understand the wider context,” she says.
“One thing we know for sure is that housing supply is still a critical issue. It’s about growing capacity. Big time. We’re picking up signals that the welfare reforms are going to have a huge impact. Then there’s supported housing, homelessness, digitalisation, leadership and capacity. We know the issue – it’s the angles at which we come into it.”
The past year has seen big changes for CIH too. Alafat was brought in three years ago to take the organisation forward. Her vision is of a nimble organisation that responds to new challenges. Core business is education and support because of its status as a chartered institute.
Member satisfaction is high, but she wants them to know more clearly what CIH does. “We’re having to change quite a lot. When I came into the organisation, I said it needs to ask some questions. What are we here to do? What value do we add? What is our purpose? There’s more to be done but there’s been a lot of progress,” she says.
It has a major role as an assessor and provider of apprenticeships to develop skills. The other part of its role is lobbying government and regulators to set or change the agenda with limited resources.
Alafat explains her approach: “The way that we influence is different. We always have to work with others. We have to influence for the public good; say what needs to be done and build the argument on evidence. We’ve got it about right in picking two or three issues and been out there talking about them.”
One of them is welfare reform. Alafat says: “There’s always conversations about the regulations. What we can do is where those problems are is, as an institute, to point them out.
“Someone [the next government] needs to look at welfare reform and take a step back. It’s at odds with housing policy. We can all see where it could land us and it’s not a good place.” Alafat also makes clear that the CIH works across the entire housing sector and that includes the private rented sector.
She has concerns, particularly over its capacity and also on discrimination.
On the latter she says: “It hasn’t completely slipped off the agenda but it isn’t at the top. We’ve been worrying about the right to refuse housing. The document checking requirement has created the opportunity for discrimination. Private landlords are not best equipped to deal with that sort of thing. It’s not a criticism but there’s an issue there.”
One bright spark of light has been the Homelessness Reduction Act, which Alafat supported in her other role as board member of Crisis. Before joining CIH she was director of housing at DCLG, with overall policy responsibility for the supply and management of housing across all tenures and homelessness prevention.
If she was still in her old job, where would she start? Alafat is on home ground: “There were targets – that focuses the mind. Local authorities had to have a strategy. The third thing was there was a cross-government strategy. There was a whole range of things that were joined-up: prisons, Ministry of Defence, DWP; all looking at policies in the round.
“The fourth element was a programme promoting innovation on housing options. We increased training for hostel workers. We also had a supporting people programme. [Then-prime minister] Gordon Brown took a personal interest in the prevention strategy. I believe it can be done. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she says.
Last year’s conference was dominated by the fall-out from the Brexit vote. A leadership race was underway and this has been followed by a general election. Dealing with uncertainty is a key issue for members.
She says: “It’s very easy to get completely absorbed by Brexit. I don’t want to be a pessimist. Housing is inextricably linked to the economy. If you look over the last 30 years, I think the market has ‘adjusted’ every 12 or 13 years. But with Brexit, who knows? “In most areas, people have to get on with it. We’ve got to help people who really need it.”
Alafat is clear a more nimble CIH must be alert to new issues and the cyber-attack on the NHS has put IT security on the urgent list for her members.
She says the sector needs to know more and learn fast: “It’s moving up the agenda. All of us have been alert to data protection, but I’m picking up that some housing organisations are beginning to think about this more seriously. We’re talking about it a bit more. It’s on the horizon and we have to be too.”
THE CIH TOP THREE
Welfare reform: “We’re making clear what’s happening in different parts of the country”
Supply: “We need to get on with delivery. Local authorities need
to be freed up to do more. This isn’t just about right now”
Affordability: “Local authorities and housing associations need to work together.”