The difference a year makes…

Ahead of its annual conference, National Housing Federation chair, Baroness Warwick, talks about the challenges facing housing associations, and what she would like to hear from Sajid Javid.

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It has been a year since 24housing last interviewed Baroness Warwick. In that time, the country has had a general election, another new housing minister and the horrors from Grenfell Tower to deal with.

But Baroness Warwick feels the sector has responded well to those changes, and would like to see communities secretary Sajid Javid reflect on that in his keynote speech.

She says: “I hope the secretary of state will be able to acknowledge the changing landscape and just how much associations have done to work with those changes.

“I hope he recognises the tragic fire at Grenfell Tower has changed the landscape.”

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But she says there is more important issues that have arisen from the Grenfell Tower fire that should be addressed: “I hope he reaffirms the prime minister’s conclusion that the nation hasn’t paid enough attention to social housing.

“That seems like a fundamental point that ought to be informing government and departmental policy. I hope he will also say he is going to turn those words into actions by supporting housing associations.”

But she said there was also more housing associations can do in the wake of the tragedy, including ensuring there are more ways for tenants to be heard.

“The essence of a housing association is putting residents at the heart of their business, it is the reason they exist.

“They must do it and it is a core part of the business. Some housing associations have slots on their boards for tenant representatives. Others have more formal channels for tenants to contribute but what clearly came out of the Grenfell Tower tragedy was community involvement.

“I think it underlined the importance of giving residents a voice.”

Since the fire, there has been countless samples sent in for testing, many from housing associations. Baroness Warwick says this shows how much associations have done in the aftermath.

“I think housing associations have responded incredibly well. They know they need to move forward to tackle the challenges and changes, but I think the important thing is that from their perspective, they followed all the necessary building and safety controls.

“What we have now got to see from government is to take a national and strategic response to ensure the safety of buildings in the future.

“They have got to restore trust in building and safety regulations.”

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It adds to what she would like to hear from Javid’s speech, that he should “support members facing remedial works”, something all parts of the sector have called for.

The annual conference is being held on the 19th and 20th September, with a strong line up of speakers and sessions.

One of the main attractions of the conference is the 24housing Young Leaders competition, the final of which is held at the annual conference.

This year is a bit different than the usual set-up of each of the five finalists giving a short presentation. This year they will be up against chief executives from across the sector, including Terrie Alafat and former CIH president Geraldine Howley, in a ‘battle royale’ format.

And it is something that both David Orr and Baroness Warwick are huge supporters of.

“There is a real buzz around the competition. The Young Leaders programme is a key part of the sectors work and something we are very passionate about.

“I think it is essential to attract fresh talent into the sector and bottom line is that the Young Leaders safeguard the future of the sector.

“It is ensuring we have those ambassadors and role models for more and more bright young people to come into the sector and feel they can make a commitment to it and get a lot out of it in terms of their career.

“The sheer quality of the young people who are coming through the sector is great and everybody is really impressed with the thoughtfulness of how they give their presentations. I think it all is very good for the sector that we are attracting these people into it.”

Another key pillar is the focus on digitalisation, something which last year’s Young Leader, Steve Ellard, spoke about in his winning speech.

“It was clear in the reaction to Steve’s speech this is something people agree with and want to take forward,” Baroness Warwick says.

“I guess like every other set of organisations the reaction is varied. It is clearly a long standing challenge, and for many associations they are on the bottom rung of this ladder, but we are making headway, in particular in communicating with tenants.”

One criticism that hangs over the sector is that associations have lost their purpose as they pursue commercial activities.

But this is something Baroness Warwick rejects, citing campaigns such as Homes for Cathy as an example.

“When I go back round the sector, I don’t feel associations have lost their purpose at all.

“Housing associations in the face of reduced grant funding have had to work creatively to find new ways to complete their mission.

“Last year housing associations delivered subsidies that delivered more than 40,000 new homes over all tenures.

“It is a way of raising that surplus and it is enabling us to build even more social homes. I hope people will begin to realise what a good deal it is to invest in housing associations, as every pound that the taxpayer puts into, housing associations are stumping up £6 to build new affordable homes.

“I am convinced that despite housing associations having to balance, they are committed firmly in their minds and hearts that this is their purpose.

“I don’t think they have forgotten their roots.”

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