EXPERTS in the field have been pooling information to ask: just who is social housing for anyway, writes Tony McLaughlin.
The notion that “we are all risk managers now” was one of the key findings from a new research study into reform, risk and resilience within the Scottish housing sector.
The research came about through a shared desire by Wheatley Group, Scotland’s leading housing, care and regeneration organisation, and Policy Scotland at the University of Glasgow to stimulate debate about the future of the sector.
The research – entitled Reform, Risk and Resilience: Diversity and Consensus in Scottish Social Housing – built on a groundswell of analysis that concluded that the environment confronting Scottish social housing providers has changed.
This was evident in the New Times, New Business project, led by the Centre for Housing Research at St Andrews University, Audit Scotland’s Sector Review from 2013 and, more recently, in the Chartered Institute of Housing’s Frontline Futures work and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors Scotland Commission.
This particular project was guided by a sector-wide steering group. While the group examined academic approaches to the concepts of risk and resilience, the project was primarily “people-focused” and sought to engage social housing organisations across Scotland.
This focus on empirical research was evident in four diverse case studies. These included a Highlands-based Registered Social Landlord (RSL) with a commercial subsidiary; a community-based RSL operating from a peripheral estate in Glasgow; a local authority landlord; and a large group structure housing organisation.
A dominant aspect of the research was the diversity that is fundamental to the Scottish social housing sector.
This relates both to the scale and type of provider, their perceptions of the concepts of risk and resilience, and strategic approaches they pursue in order to manage risk and be resilient in their operations.
The project found risk management to be at the forefront of sector thinking. Risk was commonly perceived in terms of the poverty faced by tenants. Respondents in some cases also argued that a key risk for the sector is being excessively risk averse.
The most commonly discussed area of risk was the ongoing climate of austerity and reduced housing subsidy. Related to this, and despite the Smith Commission proposals, welfare reform represents a key risk to the sector.
Other risks found by the research were political uncertainty, long-term private finance changes, demographic change and related changing demand, the growth of the private rented sector, funding pensions and succession planning (relating specifically to RSLs) and in-work poverty.
Discussions on resilience mirrored the risks facing the sector. Key aspects of resilient housing organisations were a focus on (and frequent review of) strategic goals and purpose, displaying organisational flexibility and responsiveness, a focus on customer and market intelligence, having appropriate good governance and seeking to embed the culture of a learning, reflective organisation.
The interesting factor was the diversity of approaches which different organisations took to achieving resilience. Different types of providers, variable risks and the demands of specific stakeholders made it a difficult task to arrive at concrete conclusions about what a risk-aware, resilient housing organisation looks like.
The report instead focused on a number of key reflections that stressed the critical role of context and path dependency.
The research subjects expressed different visions of the role of the modern Scottish social housing provider. In some cases they emphasised the importance of taking a holistic approach to their customers. Others, however, argued that “we blur the role at our peril” and social providers should largely focus on core landlord functions.
This led the report authors to pose a question begged throughout the study in the 21st century in Scotland: who is social housing for and what is the strategic purpose?
• Tony McLaughlin works as a Research and Development Officer at Wheatley Group and specialises in housing policy, strategy and business. A full report, Reform, Resilience and Risk: Social Housing in Scotland, by Kenneth Gibb, Des McNulty and Tony McLaughlin, along with an executive summary, are available from Policy Scotland at the University of Glasgow, see www.policyscotland.gla.ac.uk, www.wheatley-group.com