'If social housing were a start up we'd do things rather differently.'
Consultant Ian Hembrow says it's time for housing organisations to take a serious look at how they do things to solve the UK's chronic housing shortage.
Imagine for a moment that you were creating social housing right now, entirely from scratch.
With all the knowledge, resources and technology we now possess, do you think this exciting start-up opportunity would lead you to create an approach that looks and works anything like our current arrangements? No, me neither…
This little thought experiment highlights the need for some seriously big and revolutionary thinking in the ways we go about stepping up production to tackle the nation’s hard-boiled housing crisis. The last 30 years have yielded ample evidence that what we’re doing now just doesn’t work well enough. So we need radical change on a dramatic scale.
L&Q’s recent acquisition of strategic land company Gallagher Estates, Your Housing Group’s deal for factory-built homes with China National Building Material Company and Legal & General Homes’ modular homes factory are all encouraging and welcome signs that far-sighted innovation is starting to happen. But how else should this new venture look?
Firstly, let’s dump talk about ‘the housing sector’ and position our start-up as what it is and needs to be – a profit-for-purpose industry, charged with learning from and applying the best of what works elsewhere. Technology has to be at the top of the list. While many housing providers are now just edging into the 21st century with basic online services, commercial players are way ahead, with integrated artificial intelligence, chat bots and more.
Homes need solid foundations, so another fundamental would be to carve out a firm and distinctive place in public opinion and political structures. One that actively promotes housebuilding as a public good, rather than letting it be kicked around and frustrated. Housing needs to become an overtly populist cause.
Money is all-important too; so instead of the imperfect ragbag of funding sources currently in use, let’s start with a broad and open financial gateway that will invite the as-yet-largely-untapped attention of global institutional investors.
And while we’re thinking globally, let’s make this a properly international business – one that works with and competes in worldwide markets.
Our product range needs a serious re-think, to leave behind the inflexible range of tenures and property types we’ve traditionally built, to offer a responsive mix of long and short-term homes that match different stages of life and our rapidly ageing population. Co-housing and multi-generation living both deserve a place in the line up.
Few new enterprises would choose to burden themselves with the sort of costly, top-heavy governance and detailed regulation we have now. So, it’s in with ultra-streamlined executive leadership backed by largely digital accountability and co-production, and out with worthy-but-expensive governing bodies and external assessment. Sorry.
Research and development barely exists as a professional discipline in most housing organisations, ditto data analysis and quality control. Again, no aspiring company would expect to succeed without these essentials.
None of this should suggest that housing loses sight of its social purpose – quite the opposite. Form must follow function, so ‘housing 2.0’ needs to restate and anchor its vision ever-more-firmly in equality, wellbeing, placemaking and opportunity – then deliver it in all these new ways.
Let’s get started.
Ian Hembrow FCIH is a senior consultant with Creative Bridge