Don’t worry our values will save us.

Profit for purpose, social business, business head social heart, value driven, social enterprise. I am sure you will recognise these terms. They are all used to describe housing associations in the new era. They are intended to show that even though housing associations are diversifying, entering new markets and becoming more commercial they are doing it to continue to deliver social values.

When I speak or write about the risks of diversification I am often told that there is nothing to worry about as the sector is still committed to strong social values and that its leaders will ensure that this continues to be the case. I have argued elsewhere that history shows that organisations who have gone down this route, even though they begin by making this claim, often end up by being driven by their financial imperatives and not their values. The reply to this is that I have no need to be concerned as the sector is in good hands.My question to those who say this is quite simple. How do you know that you are maintaining and protecting your values as well as you are protecting your financial and commercial activities?

Identifying and maintaining values is one of a board’s main responsibilities. I have sat on many boards and I have rarely seen them monitoring performance against values in the same way as they monitor the delivery of other business objectives. How many boards regularly measure that they are maintaining their values at all? If we continue to claim that we are social businesses who is ensuring that the social is monitored as much as the business?

Recent reports have highlighted that housing associations appear to be moving away from what used to be regarded as core values. Most have always had a value of helping poor people in need. In fact this is the reason many housing associations were established and have charitable status. Yet the move to so-called affordable housing means that our ability to do this is at risk. Social housing has traditionally provided a home for those in need  but the number of social homes is reducing because of government  policies and those pursued by housing associations. In addition research has shown that as rents have increased and with the prospect of further cuts in benefits housing associations are now using financial criteria to exclude poor people from their homes. If we are no longer building social homes and if we are beginning to exclude people because of their financial circumstances, are we still maintaining one of the main values of those who established housing associations? How many boards are actually measuring the cumulative effect of welfare reforms and the impact of building new homes at rents that many can’t afford on their letting policies?  Are they aware that they might be in the process of abandoning poor people in the pursuit of growth and financial viability? Of course If the purpose is no longer to house poor people then many could state correctly that they are creating profits to deliver that purpose.

Another area where housing associations have a proud track record is around values relating to diversity. Recent research shows that this is no longer true. Apart from the continuing absence of women and black and asian people in leadership roles there is evidence that the number of BAME people being housed by housing associations is dropping. Is this another effect of welfare reform and the issues mentioned above or is it because diversity is no longer a high priority for senior teams and boards? If diversity is still a priority, what measures are being used to show that this important value is being delivered?

Housing associations have always valued their work in neighbourhoods and communities. In fact some of us remember the strap line “in business for neighbourhoods”. We talk a lot about the amount of money we invest in our local communities but do we know its real social value and do we measure it? Research has shown that until recently we knew very little about the value of this work and we were not measuring it. There is also evidence that some associations are moving away from this area of work as they pursue more commercial activities. Are boards measuring and protecting what was once a core value and activity for many housing associations?

I am not questioning the integrity of current leaders or the importance of measuring business performance. I am suggesting that unless we monitor and remain vigilant values will be slowly eroded as HAs strive to become more profitable in the current difficult climate. I would be less concerned about the future direction of housing associations if I believed that we were giving the same importance to measuring our performance on values as we do to measuring performance on our other business objectives. Of course we can continue to claim that there is nothing to worry about and that our values are in safe hands. But I am sure that is what those involved in Northern Rock and The Cooperative Bank said. And look what happened to them. As someone tweeted to me recently. Are some housing associations being dazzled by “being commercial” to the detriment of their social ethos. If this is the case who will save us?






11 thoughts on “Don’t worry our values will save us.

  1. I always baulk when I hear the term ‘Social’ housing and always have done.

    Social means dealing with or of people and while ‘social’ landlords do far more of that than private landlords my starting point is supported housing – that tiny complex niche area of genuinely social housing which most general needs housing professionals know little about.

    In supported housing (and sheltered housing is not supported housing) we can see a ratio of staff to tenant of 1:1 up to 1:30; whereas in general needs housing we typically see 1 housing officer with a ‘patch’ of 500 properties containing 1200 tenants or a ration of 1:1200 by comparison.

    While that is a stark and extreme comparison, in supported housing staff deal with people because they can and have to, we see a truly social environment. Yet in general needs ‘social’ housing they cant due to these numbers. I reduce this down to supported housing being about people and general needs or mainstream HA activity dealing with mere bricks and mortar. Another way to view this is the mainstream HO has 2 minutes per tenant per week of time whereas the supported housing officer can have 2,220 minutes per tenant per week (37 hours x 60 minutes).

    The biggest problem facing mainstream general needs housing are the welfare reform policies which all deal with people issues or if you will social issues of what reaction a person will have to the bedroom tax etc – the exact same issues that general needs and allegedly ‘social’ housing have never before had to deal with. ‘Social’ landlords do not KNOW their tenant as they have never had to yet with welfare reforms they NEED to know.

    Instead of looking to supported housing for ideas of how to do this by getting closer to and working WITH the tenant, ‘social’ landlords are taking the direct opposite route and talking AT the tenant with red inked letter bombardment and moving further away from the social in order to protect their bottom lines. The superficiality of this and the inept short-termism of this will soon be exposed when direct payment of HB comes in and tenants vote and pay with their feet. The payment of rent goes way down the pecking order because the alleged social landlord on whom the tenants have relied upon in the past has become more ANTI social by this bottom line first second and third approach…at the exact same time the tenant needs them to be more social and when housing policy with the welfare reforms dictates they need to be more social.

    In summary, this is not only HAs becoming less social at the article fears, it is bloody stupid business practice as working WITH tenants not talking (or indeed SHOUTING) at them is what is in the truly social landlords best interests. These allegedly social landlords in mainstream alleged social housing needed to speak with supported housing colleagues to respond correctly to welfare reform and did not do so. No they are beginning to see the negative effects of that and when direct payment comes in those effects will be disastrous ones for the finances and reputation as the ‘social landlord’ merely becomes a housing provider

  2. Appreciate that Tom and didnt mean to hijack the post, yet general needs ‘social’ housing starts with the assumption it was social as in person centred and the point I make it that always has been an assumption. In full agreement it has become less social and the above discusses why that is bad news for ‘social’ housing even for the FDs who have taken over its running from CEOs since welfare reforms began

  3. I realise that Joe and I read your comments in more detail in your recent blog on it. I guess I struggle for a word or term that describes the values I want to protect and see grow again when we need them most.

  4. Interesting – we are running a business game that simulates risk for RP boards – I have been pleasantly surprised by how much their values influence the decisions they make under pressure

    All is not lost

    • Thanks Alistair. That is good to hear and I know that some stil adhere to their values. But clearly there are a number who do not. Maybe you would expect it of those who untertake board development sessions with HQN.

      • That is true – we are seeing boards that are not in the least complacent – and they are striking a good balance between values and all the risks and er opportunities that are out there

  5. Tom
    Apt blog as usual. This reminds me of the cautionary note by the management guru Peter Drucker. He said “never subordinate the mission in order to get money. If there are opportunities that threaten the integrity of the organisation they must say no. Otherwise you sell your soul”
    I suppose some folks may say we have decided that housing poor people is no longer our mission for good-reason or we no longer can not commit to the values of diversity. What I don’t get is the absence of honesty and transparency.
    It is legitimate for some HAs to decide to give up the fight, just spare us the hypocrisy.

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