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Opinion: Combining a social heart with a commercial mind

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Opinion: Combining a social heart with a commercial mind

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Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing

Tim Doyle Tim Doyle

By Tim Doyle, chief executive, City West Housing Trust

When I was asked my thoughts on the single biggest challenge for housing associations, it was a difficult question to answer. Housing is facing unprecedented change and while it’s part of what makes the sector so interesting, these are testing times for housing associations.

Despite encouraging headlines that the British economy is on the way up, we need to remember we are still in a fragile position after the longest recession in more than 50 years. Government spending has been severely cut to reduce the national deficit and housing has been a major casualty, seeing subsidy slashed drastically. Added to this we have emerging financial issues, such as increasing interest rates and inflation of building costs.

Forward planning is therefore a major challenge and unfortunately we don’t have a crystal ball when it comes to the future. A year away from the general election, we have no idea what the next government will look like or the implications of this, particularly when it comes to policy and delivering on promises. It’s increasingly likely that housing associations will need to negotiate new funding pathways and changing legislation but whatever happens, we need to adapt to cope with these changes.

Our priority will always be our customers and the neighbourhoods in which we operate. However, the challenging economic landscape means we have to evolve and become more commercial in our operations, not only to continue to do what we do best, but to grow and be sustainable. To coin a phrase, “combining a social heart with a commercial mind” will become increasingly common, and important, for the sector.

To help us do this, diversification is key. Business innovation isn’t something widely associated with housing, but we have already come a long way. Perhaps not as far as we need to, but we are catching up.

We certainly need to be looking at creating greater economies of scale in terms of working with our industry partners, sharing both resources and services with other organisations. We also need to capitalise on the skills we have that go beyond “core housing”, from marketing to finance to ASB services – what’s to stop us from selling this expertise to other organisations outside of the housing sphere?

The rate of change in the sector is likely to lead to a variety of different skills needs which leads me to another area I think is particularly important – the image of housing and the skills gap.

Worryingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Asset Skills’ State of the Housing Sector research shows that only 4% of the housing workforce is aged under 24.

I don’t want to underestimate the value of the important skills we already have; however, we know that we face a ticking time bomb when it comes to losing these.

Sadly, despite the range of jobs available, housing still isn’t seen as appealing to our dynamic university graduates. Effectively raising the profile of the sector and showcasing the range of careers on offer – from IT officers to graphic designers; enterprise development officers to finance managers – is absolutely key to future sustainability. Effective development of career paths also has an important role to play in attracting, and retaining, employees and their skills, enabling us to deliver well into the future.

As with other industries, there is a real need to attract talented, dynamic people, particularly as we become more business-focussed and need those transferrable skills from other sectors. However we mustn’t forget that we have a great deal of commercial expertise within our organisations already. We must capitalise on that and build on what we have.

In the complex world of housing our challenge is to think about what we need to be and do in the next decade. As we’re reviewing our strategies and business plans, let’s harness the commitment and passion that exists in the sector and ensure we have a workable balance between our social and commercial aspirations.

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