A match made in heaven

Paddy Gray, Professor Emeritus of Housing at Ulster University explores the basis for greater co-operation between the housing sector and social enterprises and outlines the benefits being reaped from increased partnerships.

I attended an event in England not so long ago that examined how social housing providers and social enterprises can come together to address some of the challenges tenants are facing today. I was intrigued by the strapline that was used: ‘social housing and social enterprise: a match made in heaven’. I asked myself the question as to when that match was actually made? We certainly know that new challenges for governments, businesses and communities were created by the global financial crisis in 2008. Local authorities across England had to make savings resulting in cuts to many services including care and support. In what would be deemed social housing areas, there was, and still is, a concentration of low income, or unemployed tenants as a result of successive governments changing the nature of social housing and who it should be for, from one of choice to one of last resort, catering for the most vulnerable.

The response has led governments to look at value not in purely financial terms, but to think in terms of social and environmental value as a means of engaging and involving customers and communities; and to do this to ensure the best possible use of available resources.

I grew up on a social housing estate in Armagh in the 1960s. Daire’s Willows had only 20 prefab houses (Tin Town as it was fondly known) where there was a mixture of high and low-income households living in the estate and that was the same right across Northern Ireland. A combination of policies however, such as the right to buy, the introduction of housing benefit, the drive towards home ownership including the right to buy, the relaxation of borrowing rules and the increase in social rents, saw a mass exodus of higher income groups leaving the most vulnerable clustered in areas with high levels of deprivation. In housing terms, we call it the residualisation of social housing.

Today the terminology in housing is dominated by community investment and social enterprises with a consensus that social housing should aim to deal with disadvantage and not create it. But this is not new to organisations like the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and housing associations. To them, the concept of social value predates these recent shifts in thinking. In Northern Ireland it is not a new concept for housing organisations to work with communities; but more and more we see these organisations using their purchasing power to help shape local markets and support charities and social enterprises. Since its inception the NIHE has worked with a network of community groups to improve its services and work in a more effective way with its tenants. As housing associations have grown, and taken on the new build programme for social, they too have invested in their communities by encouraging social enterprises.

Housing Plus, is a term now widely used, although it arose as far back as the 1990s when there was a view that housing organisations could not discharge their responsibilities as landlords through traditional housing management alone. Whilst there is no generally accepted definition, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in 1997 described it as having three components: development and physical considerations, critically including estate design; management policies and practices covering lettings and nominations, tenant participation, and staff development and management programmes; and projects to improve estate facilities and address economic and social problems faced by tenants.

Roll on nearly 20 years and the NIHE developed a Social Housing Enterprise Strategy in 2015 which was designed to ‘develop economically vibrant and self-sustaining Social Housing Communities through community-led social housing enterprises’, creating social capital and social value. What could be better than developing the already extensive community network it had across its estates into community led social enterprises? The NIHE anticipated that these social businesses would return their profits to the communities within which they operate, resulting in increased social capital and social value for the residents of its estates.

Thousands of pounds have since been awarded to a range of projects including community allotments, dealing with dead trees by creating public art; the establishment of a local bakery; producing local training facilities; tackling mental health issues; and a small bottled water project. It is estimated that by year five of the strategy the return for every £1 invested will be £4.76 to the public purse.

Housing associations are also a main driving force for social enterprises and the Guardian referred to them as the sleeping giant of social enterprise growth. But the movement in Northern Ireland hasn’t been sleeping and many have stepped up to the mark. Many refer to themselves as social enterprises and rightly so. They have levered in millions of pounds of private finance with the support of public grants to build thousands of houses making them a powerful economic force. As there are no dividends for shareholders any surpluses are reinvested enabling them to grow further.

Like the Housing Executive, they are working to creating employment for their tenants, delivering wider community benefits and improving their own service delivery to their residents. As they become increasingly reliant on private finance they are seeing social enterprises as a more sustainable way of delivering social benefit. many housing associations now classify themselves as social enterprises and are also looking to develop their own social enterprises.

According to the National Housing Federation (NHF) they are running social enterprises as trading arms to deliver services; buying from social enterprises in their supply chain; incubating social enterprises being run by their tenants and investing in social enterprises through community investment funds. Of course, the NHF represents only English housing associations but the exact same can be applied to our own.

A match made in heaven then it certainly is and there is so much potential for housing organisations and social enterprises to continue their romance. As one commentator put it, ‘both sides win and the overall winners are the disadvantaged communities we are all aiming to help’, Maybe the next Social Housing Enterprise Strategy will be one that includes all of our social housing organisations collectively, working together rather than separately as surely this would be even more powerful in building on what we have already achieved.

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