Home working, green spaces and energy efficiency – uncovering housing priorities for the next decade; Civica’s Mark Holdsworth looks ahead to the future of social housing in 2035.
Today’s housing providers are facing tightening finances while balancing affordable rents. They’re trying to be more responsive to the resident voice. They’re having to meet new and sometimes inconsistent policies. And, recently, they’re having problems finding and hiring new staff. There’s no shortage of challenges in this sector.
The issues the housing sector has had to overcome will have a big impact on communities well into the future. In a recent roundtable discussion hosted by Civica, we set out to ask: what will social housing look like in 2035?
To uncover some common trends in the housing sector, the session began by looking at what challenges organisations are facing today. Responses to these challenges will have a strong bearing on the nature of social housing moving forwards.
Today’s main challenges
Many specific issues come back to finances. Some organisations need to pay for extensive retrofitting, such as insulating older homes, while others are preparing for potential future upgrades such as moving away from gas heating. At the same time, the need for expenditure has to be balanced with affordability for tenants.
Other challenges include finding innovative ways to give residents a voice, especially since many in-person meetings have been put on hold because of the pandemic. The pandemic has also caused an increasing number of residents to fall behind on payments, although this on its own hasn’t been a major financial burden for most housing providers.
As well as the operational challenges, inconsistent policy changes are also becoming an issue. Some organisations are wary of acting too quickly in fear of making mistakes or spending money on something that is simply the current flavour of the month.
A transitional time
The range of challenges discussed in the session highlighted a general sense of uncertainty. Changes in the sector, such as new policies coming into force, a broad shift towards greater tenant rights and sustainability initiatives, are welcome but still far from clear. Organisations are already facing a backlog of tasks, with the pandemic only compounding the problem.
The situation is complicated enough in England despite the release of the government’s green and white papers. But in the other nations of the UK, there is even more uncertainty. For example, Northern Ireland is in a politically unstable period and there’s no legislative background to support changes in housing infrastructure.
Looking ahead to 2035, it’s clear that the pandemic has accelerated many changes that were already happening. As organisations adapt to life after lockdown, there’s a need to rethink what home and office spaces will look like in the future.
Home vs. office
Many organisations have adopted a hybrid approach to working; for example, asking employees to be in the office for a minimum of three days per week. Some have found that staff are coming in more than the minimum due to a difficult home working environment and as they realise how much they miss when working remotely.
The water cooler moments aren’t just idle chit-chat. Innovation seems to have suffered throughout the pandemic, despite productivity remaining high. There was a strong sense from attendees at the Civica session that remote tools are no substitute for face-to-face meetings, especially when important decisions are involved.
Home offices have become valuable and desirable spaces. Housing organisations developing new stock will need to think about what they can offer and the effect this will have on space and density. With the Scottish government offering additional grants for new builds with office space, there are signs that the home office is here to stay.
More people working from home has put the high street in more trouble than ever. This presents new opportunities for housing organisations, but many are also aware of their responsibility to wider society. The sector needs to be involved in ‘placemaking’ discussions, following the example of areas such as Exeter that are working to revitalise their communities.
Insights from the session
- With so much happening, it can be tempting to focus on big strategic changes. But it’s important to remember the day-to-day aspects too, such as making sure current housing stock is in great condition and looking after residents.
- There are increasing numbers of opportunities to expand as town centres evolve and new premises become available. However, a community isn’t just a home and developments need to be carefully planned to maintain the local community eco-system.
- With organisations offering more flexible working arrangements, it’s more important than ever to get staff on board with the wider social mission. Without the right staff engagement, new team members will leave, and customer service will suffer.
- Fire safety and sustainability are still key issues, but since the pandemic, new trends have emerged. These include financial constraints in the face of affordable rents, customer-service issues resulting from staff wanting to work from home, and a new appreciation of the value of green spaces.
These challenges and the sector’s responses to them will shape what social housing will look like in 2035.
Mark Holdsworth is the sales director at Civica.