Only a radical reinvention can save social housing

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If you stand still long enough, someone will arrive to displace you.

This year the social housing sector in the UK has been fighting on all fronts. There’s been the extension of Right to Buy, the ‘surprise’ election result and a cut to local authority and housing association rents.

What’s interesting is that, for a sector so fond of producing 20/20 vision-type reports, no one saw it coming. At least it’s now clearly spelled out — no one likes us. But boy do we care. The self-obsession with our unpopularity, and the belief that so few people truly understand us, predates the recent negative press and growth of so-called ‘poverty porn’.

Contrary to opinion, the poor reputation of social housing is a not a modern phenomenon. Indeed, attempts to improve the image began in the halcyon days of New Labour. The ill-fated ‘iN business for neighbourhoods’ rebrand was launched in the early 2000s and struggled to engage the sector, never mind those outside it.

In the social media era we’ve had Yes to Homes (answer: a pretty decisive “no”), Homes for Britain, Housing Day and many others.

I’ve not highlighted those campaigns to ridicule them — some have had impact. The level of concern about housing is the highest it has been in 40 years.

However, the need for these campaigns also points to an important trend. The poor image of the sector is not a new issue. It’s been in long-term decline for at least 15 years.

There’s no point playing the blame game here. Businesses should own up to and overcome their failures to implement new ideas, rather than blaming regulators or government.

So how can a sector that is loved by those in it, ignored by most, and loathed by a few, redeem itself? I think there are three things we should look at.

The sector has lots to be proud of, but that doesn’t mean we have to respond to every bit of criticism aimed at us. We drew far too much attention to the Channel 4 News report with the outraged tweets, counter-arguments and blogs.

Let’s be honest, was there anything truly shocking in that report that we didn’t already know? A lot of people told me privately they agreed with much of what was said. This wasn’t reflected on Twitter and the blogosphere — but then true representations of public opinion rarely are.

Why waste time responding when you can put your efforts into creating a new way forward? Keep responding and you’ll always be contributing to someone else’s narrative rather than creating your own.

The only way to get people thinking about you differently is to act differently.

The sector has failed to develop a transparent and open relationship with politicians and regulators where it presents alternative options, prototypes and proposals. Herein lies the problem. We have no virtuous circle promoting innovation.

Indeed, the language of innovation is bandied around the sector freely, but a lot of this is lip service rather than a true commitment. Amazon invested $15bn into research and development in 12 months , more than half of its revenue — an extreme but evocative example of an organisation dedicated to owning the future. It would be interesting to ponder how much of the sector’s revenue goes into serious research and development. Less that 1% surely?

The sector has largely adopted an invest to save model, when it should be investing to survive.

We should challenge the accusations of wastefulness by organising ourselves very differently. This doesn’t necessarily mean a protracted round of mergers, which often stifle innovation rather than promote it.

Housing associations should stop trying to do everything and become much more specialist, removing the tension between maximising development and helping the poorest.

I personally doubt that social housing — in its current form — can save itself. It’s difficult to effect radical change with something so fragmented.

However, there’s a huge opportunity here for a revitalised sector to emerge. One that embodies and upholds the values of social housing but with leadership and behaviours fit for a different age.

Waiting around for future government announcements helps no one — least of all our customers.

Written by

Innovation Coach and Co-Founder of @BromfordLab. Follow for social innovation and customer experience.

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