Opinion: The challenge for housing providers - who picks up the pieces?
Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing
By Sue Sutton, interim chief executive, Salix Homes
The challenges facing social housing providers and their tenants have the potential to change the face of the sector forever.
There has been a great deal written and reported about how the government’s welfare reforms are fundamentally changing housing providers’ relationship with their tenants and how they achieve a balance between their social objectives and sustainability.
However, a potentially greater challenge for social housing providers is the scale and pace of local authority cuts to services, as councils reposition themselves as a consequence of austerity. This is impacting on some of the most vulnerable in society- often our tenants- and ultimately, the landlords themselves as they look to plug the gap.
The challenge laid down to housing providers: who picks up the pieces?
This has certainly been the case in Salford. So far, we have been relatively successful in being able to manage the impact welfare reform has had on our tenants and our level of arrears.
Despite the challenges, over the past two years we have reduced arrears as a percentage of rent roll from 5.5% at the end of March 2012 to 2.8% at the end of March 2014.
The next big test for us (and no doubt other providers across the country) will arise as local authorities begin to play a less central role in the delivery of services designed to support individual well-being and neighbourhood management. More and more housing providers, as key players, will be expected to increase the contributions they make to the outcomes which local authorities have traditionally worked to achieve.
The effect of local authority cuts has proved a hammer blow for many local community groups and charities who work tirelessly to improve our neighbourhoods, and we have seen a sharp increase in requests for help and assistance. We run a successful participatory budgeting scheme, which has proved a lifeline for many of these groups and we have so far ploughed more than £160,000 into 75 local groups, but as the austerity measures continue the situation is worsening and we expect to see these pleas for help increase further.
Whilst this offers undeniable opportunities for us as housing providers to provide these services in a way we know will match our tenants’ needs, there are obvious resource implications on individual organisations. That said, the collaborative approach being adopted by Salford housing providers, the city council and other partner agencies will see the pooling of resources to deliver services such as supported tenancies, welfare rights, debt advice and housing advice and support.
An added complexity in Salford is the introduction of the HRA self-financing model; one that simply does not work in Salford. Consequently, a proposed stock transfer is the only solution that enables sufficient investment in our stock and the services we provide. Working with Salford City Council, as its preferred partner, Salix Homes is poised to take ownership of 8,500 local authority owned properties if the majority of tenants vote yes in the tenant ballot, scheduled to take place in autumn this year.
Again, whilst posing a significant challenge, it also opens many doors, not least enabling us to become a social housing mutual, owned by our tenants and employees and strengthening our ability to pick up some of those services affected by the austerity measures.
Supported by a growing body of research, I believe that the mutual model would consistently deliver more positive tangible outcomes for tenants and neighbourhoods such as:
• Economic outcomes which deliver benefits to an individual (such as increased earnings) and a local economy
• Fiscal outcomes which deliver savings to the public purse, such as fewer voids or reduced benefits as tenants gain employment
• Environmental outcomes, such as more and improved greener space and cleaner energy
The mutual model provides a genuine solution to some of the challenges us as housing providers are facing; perhaps not for everyone, and certainly not every challenge we face, but when locally-rooted, giving tenants a greater influence over the way we provide our services can only be a good thing in making sure the specific needs of the most vulnerable are met. In my view, this is a change for the better.