How housing providers have adapted to the new policy landscape - research
Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing
How housing providers have adapted to the new policy landscape - research
Research commissioned by the Housing Diversity Network (HDN) reveals how the sector is adapting to an increasingly challenging economic and policy environment. And while the picture is very mixed, evidence of resilience and pragmatism is everywhere. Clifton Robinson, HDN chief executive (pictured), provides an overview of the report's findings.
In the two and a half years since the emergence of a Conservative-Liberal Coalition Government, the UK has gone through a frenzied period of policy making. The housing sector, in common with every other sector, has of course been impacted by the Government’s drive on deficit reduction as well as its drive towards decentralising powers from the state to local communities through Big Society and the Localism Act. On top of these crucial policy shifts, housing organisations have been/will be particularly affected by the welfare reforms detailed in the Welfare Reform Act.
Over recent months we have become increasingly aware of the following dilemma…on the one hand, through feedback via our E&D conferences, briefing events and regional practitioner group networks, we are regularly picking up widespread concern and pessimism around equality and diversity dropping down the agenda, the lack of meaningful regulation resulting from the “serious detriment” benchmark and a real fear that corporate and personal investment in equality and diversity over the years was being seriously eroded. Somewhat bizarrely, at these same events, we would pick up very different messages all painting a very different picture describing individuals and organisations still committed to delivering excellent practice notwithstanding the current economic climate!
HDN’s first response…DNA!
At HDN, we felt that this apparent dilemma was worth exploring in more detail and in particular seeing how traditional E&D approaches needed to be re-shaped in order to effectively take account of specific new strategic organisational priorities such as welfare reform, tenant engagement, localism etc. We responded in two ways, firstly by developing a new accreditation framework – Diversity Network Accreditation or DNA. Our priority with DNA was to work alongside member organisations/regional practitioner group networks (some of whom were already very familiar with other frameworks such as Investors in Diversity and SHEF) to shape this new framework. The main message from their input was that DNA had to be focused on outcomes not processes and that it had to help them address wider strategic challenges such as welfare reform. Feedback from the early DNA pilots certainly indicates that this focus on outcomes and support for wider “housing plus” projects has been achieved!
HDN’s second response…CLES research
Our second response to the above policy dilemma was to team up with one of our long standing partners to complete some important research for us which would involve direct contact with the 4 regional E&D practitioner networks that we support. We commissioned the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) to examine in detail just how housing organisations are responding to the changing policy themes and agendas (including welfare reform, “Big Society and localism) and how all of this is impacting in terms of service delivery and also the ability for organisations to embrace wider “housing plus” activities.
Emerging research findings
Full details of the research project, including policy context, numbers of participating housing organisations and the regions they cover is to be found on the websites of both HDN and CLES. For the purposes of this article however, we need to jump straight to some of the emerging findings and track how individual organisations are reacting to this changing environment.
Our survey of housing organisations has detailed that housing organisations are actively changing the way in which they deliver services and respond to government policy; 78.6% of housing organisations have changed services over the last two years as a result of emerging government policy. The key elements of change fit into the following categories:
Bulking up advice support
A number of housing organisations have responded to the increase in demand created by welfare reform by bulking up their promotional activities around what the reforms are and what they mean for their tenants, and their advice and support offer. A particular emphasis has been placed upon financial inclusion, with housing organisations creating particular posts and upskilling staff to seek to minimise the impacts of reform, particularly arrears.
Case Study: Two Castles Housing Association
Two Castles Housing Association owns and manages over 3,400 properties across Cumbria, Lancashire and the North East region. They have a commitment to utilising housing to support the regeneration and sustainability of villages, towns, and cities. Welfare reform has been identified as a key risk for Two Castles Housing Association and they have responded through further developing their support activities. They are developing two part-time financial inclusion officer posts (one in each region) to ensure that residents access sound advice around debt and brief staff to help residents claim all the benefits they are entitled to. They are also upskilling wider frontline staff to ensure they are aware of the welfare reforms, that they can respond to residents’ needs, and importantly that rent arrears can be minimised. Their first task will be identify residents in receipt of housing benefit who are at risk of under-occupying their homes and targeting these residents to inform them of the risk and signpost them to appropriate advice.
Realising value of procurement spend
Housing organisations are increasingly beginning to demonstrate their impact and the influence their procurement spend has upon place and their wider resources; this is in response to the need to demonstrate impact and the realisation of the need to convey the added value spend and wider role activities bring to communities. Some housing organisations, particularly those with Direct Labour Organisations (DLOs) and staff, are measuring the spend of these to prove their value and enhance their sustainability. Housing organisations are also increasingly working in consortia for procurement to enhance value for money as well as effectiveness.
Case Study: Severnside Housing
Severnside Housing is one of Shropshire’s largest social landlords, with a stock of around 5,300 homes in Shrewsbury and surrounding areas. They provide a range of tenant management and wider role services and also have their own in-house DLO. Severnside Housing has responded to pressures placed upon their in-house service provision by undertaking research to demonstrate its value. They have explored the local economic benefit procurement spend brings in employment and supply chain terms; compared wages levels of staff against similar trades in the private sector; and mapped the contribution of direct employees to the local economy.
Strategic review processes
Housing organisations have gone through strategic reviews in response to government policy and the priorities of the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA). The primary focus of this has been around creating efficiencies and delivering more effective services for tenants. Therefore activities have included stock swaps and transfers, streamlining local authority relationships, and adopting a community budget approach to delivery, where housing organisations work with tenants and other providers to deliver services in a combined and integrated way.
Enhanced employment support
Housing organisations have responded to the correlation of living in social housing and being out of work; around 60% of all social tenants are unemployed. They have responded not necessarily through becoming work programme sub-contractors but through embedding worklessness as a strategic and delivery priority, signposting tenants to support, engagement with Jobcentre Plus, and providing direct support as part of wider welfare reform advisory services.
54.5% of housing organisations which have changed services clearly believe that their responses to emerging policy are best practice. There are three emerging themes of best practice:
1) Evidencing need and impact – the reforms to the welfare system are complex and wide ranging, with support particularly required for communities around the outcomes of Work Capability Assessment (WCA), the shift from Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to Personal Independence Payment (PIP), and housing benefit. It is therefore imperative that housing organisations understand their tenant base and the likely impact of welfare reform on particular types of claimant; that way support can be tailored accordingly. Best practice responses to emerging areas of government policy are therefore those which utilise data analysis to deliver targeted information and support:
Case Study: Wirral Partnership Homes
Wirral Partnership Homes is the largest registered provider of affordable housing in Wirral. The organisations principles are based around social responsibility and a commitment to both housing management and enabling sustainable communities. Wirral Partnership Homes recognised that welfare reform was the key policy challenge facing them organisationally and their tenants. There were particular identified challenges around: the introduction of direct payments; under-occupation; demonstrating the changes to tenants; and not being able to build single bedroom properties. Wirral Partnership Homes have adopted an evidence based and targeted response to welfare reform. They have undertaken data analysis of their tenant profile to identify those most at risk and have then provided targeted campaigns and information for those tenants. It has presented the organisation with the opportunity to be proactive with affected tenants.
2) Enhancing welfare support – housing organisations have recognised that welfare reform is probably the key challenge facing them as organisations and their tenants. Best practice responses to government policy change are therefore those which have utilised existing activities to frame on-going support around welfare reform.
3) Tenant involvement – housing organisations have a number of means of engaging tenants, whether that be through formal tenants and residents groups, newsletters and briefings, community development activity, or consultation. The current economic climate, the challenging reforms around welfare and public services and the concept of “co-regulation” mean tenant involvement should become more, not less, important. Best practice activities are therefore those where housing organisations are actively utilising the notion of co-regulation to actively involve tenants in the design, development and delivery of services.
The research highlights the increasingly important role of housing organisations within places and communities. Clearly with local authority budgets being cut, there is a vital role for housing organisations whether as stewards of place; as service providers; as advisors and community engagers; as fosterers of cohesion and, of course, as providers of tenancy services.
The housing sector when faced with significant challenges in previous decades has time and time again delivered both pragmatic and innovative solutions to such challenges. Our research demonstrates that this spirit of pragmatism and innovation within the sector is still as impressive as ever! Over the next few months, we will not only attempt to further expand this research but will also see how we can communicate the results to relevant Government and Opposition parties. We hope that 24housing will support us with this!