Recently, you may have heard various commentators talk about a sustained attack on social housing, as though we are a singular business model. And without the whole picture, you would be hard pressed to see the positives. If you didn't know about housing, you might also be inclined to believe it all and see the reports as justified and reasonable.
The coverage would have you believe that we are tasked with building homes on behalf of the government, as if we have a statutory duty. There are not enough houses in the country for the people who need them, therefore housing associations must be doing something wrong.
This incredibly one-sided view has been made with the assumption that all housing associations are the same. Every organisation with any sort of responsibility to provide homes does exactly the same thing. But it couldn't be further from the truth.
Let's be crystal clear - housing associations are not local authorities. They are not the same. They have no statutory obligation to build. They are not the government's housebuilding arm. They are not governed by the same laws. Housing associations range from tiny organisations born from Victorian benefactors that own as little as ten homes, through to large organisations that have much more significant resources and own more than 50,000 homes. How then can you compare every one of them in the same way? Why would you lump them together to generate some hugely sweeping and damaging statement that paints them as part of an homogeneous group that operates as one entity, with the same goals?
To use a football analogy, the leagues in the UK are made up of hundreds of local teams, all representing their community, but there are only a small number in the Premier League that are able to - and that should - build 60,000-seat stadiums and who are able to charge £50 a ticket to go and watch them play. But would you then destroy all of the local community and lower league clubs because they were not able to build those stadiums?
The assumption then, that housing associations have failed to deliver anywhere near 'what they should have' in terms of housebuilding, is grossly misconceived.
Every housing association is different. Each one provides a unique and hugely diverse range of community services. They support people and add social value. Their customers are those people who are most in need and as such, should be the focus of their activities.
Red Kite Community Housing was set up three years ago to do exactly that – to become a community-based, social business that did something very different for its people and focussed wholly on improving their lives. Our starting point is to provide homes, but that is just a small part of what we provide as community leaders.
Our organisation was established through membership, by our customers who live in our homes, to deliver what local authorities couldn't, which was to give people the best opportunity to better their life chances. Our customers led the buy-out of local authority homes, after which time we quickly worked out that we had a much wider role to fill in terms of giving people access to services that would add value for them. We set out to be tenant-led, which means that we help our people to reach their potential, to lead and influence our organisation, from which we are already seeing the huge promise that it offers. 12% of our staff are also our customers who drive the business forward with their contribution, influencing everything we do. Through employment and opportunity, they learn the skills and expertise they need to further develop themselves and their families. Customers in our organisation are responsible for spending millions of pounds on the contractors that work in their homes, choosing them after vigorous procurement exercises to make sure they get great value for money and high quality. They shape every decision we make and hold us to account over their homes.
We are not, and will never aim to be, one of the Premier League clubs – our community do not need the figurative 60,000-seat stadium and not everyone can afford to live in an area that charges high ticket (rent) prices.
The government calls for more people to get back into work, become independent, learn new life skills and educate themselves. We wholeheartedly agree, but if there is an expectation for this to happen without the right support and organisations in place, how can it? If we don't recognise the diverse and significant role that community organisations like Red Kite play as a social business, then how will our customers break the link with lack of opportunity, education and work skills? There is a synergy here with what the government wants in society, but there is also a huge gap in helping make the transition.
What has been missed here is any sort of holistic view. Those people who are most in need, require support and encouragement to guide them on the right path. To reach their potential and break through the glass ceiling that we so often hear about, that allows the poorest in society to dare to dream about a better life. Where then, do they get their opportunity to realise their potential?
We need to look much more closely at the reason and ethos behind why housing associations exist and what they do, which is much more than provide homes. Through community networks and opportunities available to us, we can identify problems and resolve them. Just this week we started a community food project to address food poverty by providing healthy food to families during the school holidays. Children who benefit from free school meals during term time have access to healthy food outside of school. If we didn't do things like this, how reasonable is it to see families reliant on support, go without food and children go hungry over the school holidays? The project also gives residents the opportunity to try hands-on digital activities that will help them learn how to increase their digital literacy and enjoy the range of benefits available online, including access to job opportunities. We trained our own residents, Community Champions, to provide the training to people each week, focussing on health, budgeting, cooking skills and community leadership. We've also funded and supported a local social enterprise which provides a centre for young people to benefit from construction traineeships, which focus on attitudinal training to equip them with the life skills they need to go further in the industry. The key benefits here are that we train other people in the local community to provide support and encouragement to their peers, so that we multiply skills and volunteers. Secondly, we make sure that funding is targeted to help benefit the local economy, increasing the impact.
Smaller associations like Red Kite would never set themselves up to build tens of thousands of homes, or charge extortionate and disproportionate rents. We are a local, community-based organisation that cares for people and creates opportunities that give them the best shot in life. We refuse to be tarnished with the fallacy that failure to build homes or spend different amounts of money on the way we manage our business is wrong. What our industry needs is new leadership and an approach that doesn't agree to what we fundamentally disagree with but feel we cannot change.
So, when riding that political hobby horse and pointing the finger at housing associations that are not building, think carefully about what you're suggesting.
If your remit was never to build, why would you when it would make no sense financially? We may need to build more homes as a result of the government now telling us that we have to sell homes that previously couldn't be sold, but more than this we need to develop people and build communities that are self-sustaining.
That is why it would be really great to see Jon Snow and his production team come to Red Kite and see what we do and why we should be focusing on doing more of it.