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Time for hard-headed commercial decisions



The role and scope of housing associations has moved further, and faster, than many could have foreseen.

In the last 20 years, housing has gone from being a concern about the homeless and poorest to a national crisis, affecting virtually all parts of society, including some of the most well paid. The crisis is deepening and we are at its frontline. With no apparent national long-term strategy, it’s vital to ask: are we fit enough, and do we have the right mind-set, to handle what’s to come over the next 20 years?

From modest beginnings meeting local housing need, many housing associations have grown into regional and national players. Some have sourced inspiration from overseas whilst others have invested there too. We’ve seen diversification into a wider range of tenures and consolidation in the market. All of this, while we’ve been navigating different operating, funding, regulatory and consumer environments. I think we’ve done well so far.

No longer locked in a parent-child relationship with central government and the regulator, we’re standing on our own two feet, making our own decisions and relishing being masters of our own destiny. We are big businesses – but is it realistic to think we can become a sector of choice?

In my view it certainly is, but we need to learn and become as good as Virgin, Apple and John Lewis; businesses with defining principles, and with the interests of customers and colleagues at their heart. Far from abandoning our core values in order to compete, the rest of the commercial world is moving in our direction. Greed, sharp practices and lack of transparency are poor strategies in today’s operating environment. People want to deal with organisations they can trust, that are open, accountable and have scruples about how and why they make money.

Outstanding customer service, right-minded business practices and engaged colleagues are essential components of a modern business. Setting these as our central tenets is not woolly; it’s a hardheaded commercial decision that will serve us well. Our USP is, and has always been, making long-term decisions for neighbourhoods, rather than decisions for a quick return. As ever, we can continue to make profits to pour back into our social purpose, but we don’t need to profiteer. In the last few years, the whole country has seen the folly of such short-term thinking and I believe we now have a chance, and an obligation, to develop a better 21st century business model: we have the skills, the market place, and the ethical values to set the standard and thrive.

As we do this, I don’t believe we can simply serve government policy. Grant funding is an example. For many housing associations, it’s no longer a straight forward question. There are stark longer term affordability consequences. If that’s the case, then we need to think about other options, don’t we? Multiply that out by the other policies, existing and those yet to come, and you’ll see what I mean.

Governments come and go, and regrettably are not incentivised to think about a far-reaching housing strategy. We, as stewards of our sector, must look at the long term; we are steering our organisations into the future with a clear objective of providing new housing while maintaining homes and services that are truly accessible to a wide range of people.

I know that others are also looking at how they can give the best customer experience brands a run for their money. For me, it is this focus on the customer, our independent spirit, genuine interest in the longer term, our ethics and our values that could make us the defining 21st century business model and as a result, the sector of choice.

This article was first published in 24 Housing magazine and is reprinted with kind permission.

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