Opinion: What are social landlords becoming?
Published by Jon Land for 24dash.com in Housing
Opinion: What are social landlords becoming?
John Morris, chief executive of the Trident Social Investment Group, explores the changing role of social landlords ahead of the National Housing Federation's West Midlands conference on 7th March.
There is much discussion currently about the nature and role of social landlords. Some commentators are stressing a growing commercialism backed by changes in value for money and governance. Others are appealing to their historic social purpose as the guiding light for future direction and activity.
Yet in reality, social landlords have always been suspended between state, market and community with a foot in all three sectors. Housing associations of longstanding in particular, such as Trident, have in reality been hybrid organisations for most of their history; having to juggle the demands of state housing policies and regulation, raise money from private markets and meet financial covenants, and continue to support often disadvantaged tenants and communities - the main reason they were founded in the first place.
Looking back on Trident’s history as we celebrate our 50th anniversary year, it is clear that these tensions have always existed. Yet being businesslike and cost-effective about achieving our social mission have not been contradictory objectives. As car magnate Henry Ford once said: "A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business".
Stifling regulation has sometimes been a drag on social entrepreneurship in the sector although the state has been entitled to check that its money has been well spent. And of course, tenants’ demands on our services are growing as austerity bites and welfare reforms are bringing the sustainability of social tenancies and estates into question.
Research on the wider history of the housing association sector confirms that many associations have navigated this historic threefold lock on their activities by adapting their methods to continue meeting the requirements of their values. Nevertheless, most housing associations are finding today’s operating environment particularly challenging with the push for greater value for money creating new tensions between commercialism and social purpose.
At Trident, our Group Board has been considering how we should respond to this rapidly changing operating environment while staying true to our mission which stretches back to 1962. The outcome of our deliberations has been for Trident to adopt a ‘social investment’ ethos that enables us to rise to the challenges of the Government’s Housing Strategy, the new regulatory regime, localism, the Social Value Act and pressures on our costs while continuing to meet the needs of tenants and their communities. All of this is codified in our new Social Investment Strategy.
For us, adopting a ‘social investment’ stance is about much more than the delivery of traditional community investment projects. It requires that all policies, practices and activities are aligned towards achieving Trident’s social purpose - ‘to be a beacon of hope’ - tackling poverty and disadvantage, the effects of austerity and welfare reform, and helping to improve tenants’ lives and life chances.
‘Social investment’ is also about maximising impact on local communities and economies while offering better value for money and a greater stake to tenants in ownership and management. We have introduced the concept of ‘£-Stretch’ which requires the deployment of our assets to maximise social return on investment.
A ‘social investment’ approach equally calls for the development of a range of fit-for-purpose delivery vehicles, including subsidiaries and social and community enterprises. To date, we have created three subsidiaries - Trident Reach, Trident Inclusion and Trident Star - which all have specific roles related, respectively, to care, support and homelessness, financial exclusion and asset transfer.
And behaving as a ‘social investment group’ requires that community impacts should be measurable and replicable so we’ve set in motion one of the most far-reaching evaluations of all of our work, overseen by a panel of tenants and stakeholders, with the aim of publishing the first comprehensive set of social accounts for any UK social landlord in June.
Trident is only at the beginning of its ‘social investment’ journey. But being able to draw upon five decades of experience, the collective wisdom of what used to be called the housing associations ‘movement’, and modern social entrepreneurial techniques, we are confident of meeting the ongoing requirements of state, market and community whatever they may be.