The social housing sector is moving into two camps as housing associations grapple with the challenges of the future, a panel of housing experts have warned.
Leading names in neighbourhood investment, business, politics and development came together in Ellesmere Port in Cheshire to debate how associations should respond to housing shortages and changes to the way the sector is funded and regulated.
The conference, entitled Product or Place? The Future of Social Housing Providers, was organised by Merseyside and Cheshire-based provider Plus Dane Group.
Delegates, including senior representatives from Chartered Institute of Housing, the National Housing Federation, the Northern Housing Consortium and the Homes and Communities Agency heard that the government is poised to accelerate further business and housing development.
However, the panel agreed that housing associations face a choice over whether to concentrate on growth, organisational efficiency and housing supply or focus around the needs of the neighbourhoods they serve.
Robin Lawler, president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, said that many in the sector were entering a make or break phase.
“This is a time of great challenge, risk is everywhere, in fact I would say that this is the riskiest environment ever,” he said. “Some housing associations will withdraw from where we have traditionally operated and some will fail because of the volatility – the financial crisis has shown us that even the seemingly strong organisations can fail in the blink of an eye.
“We need to decide what we are about as a sector and focus on key challenges such as health and wellbeing. Housing as a product is important but place and neighbourhood is even more crucial.”
Deborah McLaughlin, North West executive director at the Homes and Communities Agency, added: “Times are hard but despite this, there are many opportunities available that promote house building and the government is increasing its support of successful schemes like FirstBuy to help get Britain building.
“In the future we need a greater mix of affordable housing for local people, private rented investment and institutional investment to encourage private sector housing to meet the same high standards or design and quality as the social housing sector.”
David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said: “Associations start with housing but they must not finish there. They need to be clear about what their mission is then smart and creative enough to know that mechanisms change all the time and the real challenge they face is to understand what is going to happen over the next five years and deliver that mission by building partnerships.”
Plus Dane Group, who have recently become the housing management provider for 5,800 homes owned by Cheshire West and Chester Council in Ellesmere Port and Neston, called the conference as part of its wider mission to fight for fairness and against inequality.
Plus Dane’s chief executive Ken Perry said: “The government are introducing a raft of reforms to social housing which raise key questions about the core business of housing associations and how those providers who choose to do so can actively help people live safe, happy, healthy and prosperous lives.
“Those who choose to be neighbourhood investors will focus on the needs of the places they serve and build formal and informal alliances with local people and a range of public, private and third sector organisations, driving efficiencies from integrated ways of working.
“It is time to embrace Localism, be highly transparent and have highly developed social as well as economic aims. We must continue to build new homes and at the same time develop new services alongside a range of people and organisations beyond anything that exists at the moment.”