One of the issues surrounding both academic and practitioner perspectives on the housing crisis has been two separations. Firstly the separation between the planning and housing professions. Both wish to see more housing delivery but look at the issue from very different standpoints. And secondly the separation between private house builders and registered providers. Both build houses but are obviously driven by different motives.
This post gives a perspective from one of the most influential players in the social housing sector. Alison Thain OBE is the Group Chief Executive of the Fabrick Group a registered social landlord with over 15000 properties under management. She also holds a number of prominent non executive board positions including, inter alia, the Tees Valley LEP and the Darlington Building Society.
Alison’s views are below.
“Perhaps the key effect of the housing crisis on Fabrick has been the increase in demand for our product. With increasing market exclusion for lower paid working households the demand for our social rented product has shot up. Difficulties in securing mortgages plus increasing prices in the private rented sector has redirected people to our sector.
Another factor, often overlooked, in driving the increased demand has been the slowdown in new house building. Population growth but without the attendant house building has caused a lack a choice in the market, both qualitatively and quantitatively. As such the aspiration for good quality well managed homes, such as we provide, has mushroomed.
A key focus for us is therefore to build more houses to meet the increased need. Last year we built just short of 300, a figure comparable with our very best years. It probably makes us one of the largest providers of new housing in the North East irrespective of sector. We remain confident for next year but there is no doubt that the changing funding regimes are challenging. Our response to those challenges has been simple. Be more efficient, more cost effective, drive down costs and develop better relationships with those who can help us.
In respect of the latter HCA has been important. Whilst funding has reduced a more flexible and fleet footed attitude from HCA has helped us maintain output on difficult projects.
Our relationships with Local Authorities have, and always will, be crucial. A particularly successful recent scheme for us recently has been the Woodland View scheme in Darlington. A great relationship with the LA, starting with the land deal, through planning and then to implementation has been crucial. Another key success factor was the size of the site – 106 units enabling us to deliver economies of scale in procurement and construction.
Another key relationship for us is with private sector housebuilders. We often share sites and build homes pursuant to their Section 106 agreements. Here the relationships are more variable. Perhaps, candidly, due to the lack of real off line effort in developing and nurturing those relationships by both parties. Why is that? – Probably due to the differences in culture between the two sectors. Market drivers are after all very different from social drivers. I suspect more effort from each side to understand the potential value of better joint working could be fruitful in the future.
Aside from funding and market issues a key concern is the move away from a strategic spatial focus. The regional economic, housing and spatial strategies were useful in making some of the tough decisions on priorities and resources. After all not everywhere can be a housing growth or housing regeneration area. Making such tough decisions and then driving their implementation will be a tough challenge for local authorities in the years ahead. We at Fabrick are keen to play a key role in helping them where we can”
Many thanks to Alison for giving up her time to provide her thoughts. I must say I am struck more by the similarities between the private and social sectors rather than the differences. Perhaps more effort into getting the two sectors to work together better and more often could unlock housing delivery. If their marketing and housing management skills could be combined it would be a very powerful combination!!
As always, any comments welcome.