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The social housing white paper is welcome news, but it should go further

The Government’s long-awaited social housing white paper was released this week, alongside the introduction of a charter for social housing residents.

These documents set out the steps required to ensure that social housing residents are safe, listened to, live in good quality homes, and have access to redress when things go wrong.

While much of the focus is on safety, particularly in relation to inner-city housing, there are clear implications for Shropshire’s market towns, new towns and rural areas.

I certainly welcome the thrust of the proposals. However, if we are to make housing safe, sustainable, and affordable for all then it will require more than greater regulation of the landlord-resident relationship. It demands deep collaboration across the social housing sector and beyond.

Amplifying the voice of the customer is paramount to the new charter. It is something that many in the sector have been proactive in, introducing initiatives such as the National Housing Federation’s Together with Tenants, which was embraced by Wrekin as early adopters.

That the white paper provides some consistency and clarity on what residents should expect in this regard to their voice and their future is positive. But it could, and should, go further, because embracing the customer voice should be about much more than addressing complaints and handling crises. It needs to be woven into the fabric of every part of social housing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the importance of regular dialogue to the fore. The housing providers who have listened and reacted to the needs of their residents throughout a testing 2020 will have been able to maintain a level of trust and, in some cases, build an even stronger community.

At Wrekin, this meant going the extra mile to support our people with information on accessing finance, employment, and mental health support should they need it. We also doubled-down on our work in the community, with our staff volunteering support for the delivery of essential food and medicine to those who were shielding.

We do this because of our fundamental belief that the role of a social housing provider is more than just a safe bundle of bricks and mortar. It is a commitment to supporting the communities you build.

Which brings me to the myriad positives to be found for providers who make the extra effort to listen.

Based where we are, our own social housing developments are in villages and market towns. These smaller places tend to have an incredibly strong sense of community and, with that, a veritable gold mine of ideas on how to make good plans even better.

The input of our direct customers, our neighbours, and local partners not only helps to prevent future problems, but can be leant on to create thriving communities. It is a holistic way of working that can only be achieved through great collaboration beyond the social housing sector.

Yes, providers of social housing like us have a responsibility to be leaders on this, and we can demand more of our partners to keep our residents at the heart of our decision making. But the white paper should have outlined a framework for how local partners, from councils, to schools and the emergency services, can best come together to do that. We are lucky to have the relationships we do, and we will be looking to them even more in the future.

Nowhere is this collaborative way of working more important than in helping to gather input from those less inclined to come forward. There is a pressing need to actively seek out voices from underrepresented groups and marginalised voices within our social housing community because, if we are to make the customer voice central to the future of social housing, it needs to be all voices that are heard.

I also hope the government listens to voices from across the social housing sector on the issue of aspiring to own a property. We are fully supportive of customers looking to take ownership of property, and have a proud record of doing so, but we would question whether the Right to Shared Ownership is the best way of doing this.

A more rounded approach is required. As reported by the Shropshire Star last month, the average sale price of property in Shropshire ​​rose by £8,500 in the last year, a trend that hurts first-time buyers more than any other group.

Furthermore, at a time when we are being asked to Build Back Better and tackle the housing crisis as a sector, it could present an obstacle in the delivery of more properties for affordable rent and other ownership tenures. If fewer new developments are undertaken as a result, it is the residents awaiting housing that will suffer most. So, one hopes that the Government are equally open to listening to the voices of people across the sector.

Wayne Gethings

Group Chief Executive

The Wrekin Housing Group

27th November 2020