Why we must build resilient communities, not just new homes

There are some critical ingredients missing from most conversations over the UK’s housing supply.

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“How will local authorities and housing associations increase their output?” was the question posed in a recent debate chaired by the BBC’s home editor Mark Easton at Savills annual housing seminar in London.

All the panellists, including me, agreed that the answer will be different for every organisation. But I am unsure whether this was really even the right question.

That’s why I have been uneasy with challenges from the government and media about housing associations not fulfilling their core purpose of providing the maximum number of homes.

That may be the core purpose for some, but many were set up primarily to provide better quality homes and services to existing tenants. For them new development was a ‘nice to have’ rather than a core purpose.

It was six years ago that Bromford had our major standback on what we’re here for. We concluded that what matters most to us is what happens to people as a result of living in a great home rather than simply how many homes we deliver.

We all know not having a good quality home impacts negatively on the physical, psychological and economic wellbeing of individuals and whole families.

At induction sessions for new colleagues, I show the famous Cathy Come Home clip of her kids being forcibly removed from her and taken into care. This gut-wrenching scene powerfully demonstrates how fundamental a home is to everyone’s life chances.

So building more new homes does remain a key priority and we’ve increased our five year plan from 3,380 to 5,300 new homes. But we want to maximise the positive potential for our customers of having those homes rather than simply avoiding the negative impacts of homelessness.

We encourage our customers to consider how they can use a great home as a springboard to help them achieve their goals and aspirations.

By better connecting people with their neighbours and local communities, resilient, mutually supportive networks are created which depend less on the services of agencies parachuted in periodically at great expense to fix problems.

New neighbourhood coaches working on far smaller patches are using coaching skills to build a different kind of relationship, one built on mutual trust, with our customers.

And while we know it will take time, in the long run our evidence shows it will deliver better outcomes for customers, local communities and wider society.

Building more homes is of course crucial, but it’s not the only factor in solving the housing crisis. The quality and use of the existing housing stock, whatever its tenure, is the other key element. We mustn’t lose our focus on ensuring that every home is safe and warm.

And we could make much better use of the homes we already have. Professor Danny Dorling points out in his book “All that is Solid” that in England and Wales there are 55 million people and 66 million bedrooms.

Even in London there are more bedrooms than people: a greater supply of housing per head than there has ever been.

Enabling older people to move to smaller accommodation with the right support and care options not only helps them avoid isolation and care home admissions but also makes better use of the nation’s housing stock.

So asking “how can we increase our output?” may not always be the right question to get to the bottom of how we fix our broken housing market.

We need a wider approach that drives the maximum social and economic benefit from every home we already have and every one we build.

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