In March 2019, GRANTfinder attended the National Housing Federation’s (NHF) annual social housing finance conference and exhibition at the ACC in Liverpool.
The GRANTfinder team exhibited our grants portal and funding support services to over 1,300 attendees who were all eager to connect, learn, and share with each other, as well and nabbing themselves some of the prizes on offer and of course the coveted branded pens!
Away from the networking hub of the exhibition centre, Kate Henderson, Chief Executive of the NHF, opened the first day by touching on the overall theme of the event of ‘thriving through disruption’. Henderson stated that in the face of current economic uncertainty there is a consensus for the need to invest in social housing, not only to meet housing demand, but to also help re-build trust with communities and contribute to stability in the country.
Across the two-days, and over 50 sessions, many different topics were discussed from all corners of housing finance, but there were four clear themes that dominated the event:
There was a call to arms in many sessions for housing associations to collaborate not just with one another but also outside of the sector – with local authorities, government agencies, and housebuilders. Kate Henderson emphasised that the more the sector collaborates, the more affordable homes can be delivered. In a session with Essex County Council, Gywn Owen, Head of Essex Housing, presented a case study which showed they secured £2.5m of external funding through the Local Government Association (LGA) funded land release programme One Public Estate, after collaborating on a bid with four other organisations in Essex.
Many speakers centred on thinking outside of the box. Since 2010, there has been a huge amount of innovation within the sector but more is needed. There was a general feeling that if housing associations are to meet government targets and work to solve the affordable housing problem then they need to deliver differently to provide new solutions. Mark Henderson, Chief Executive of the Homes Group, said that the sector can drive markets with dynamic services if they innovate. Essex Homes agreed that local authorities are not innovative enough as they are run by committees but said that they are an example of the opportunities for collaboration between housing associations and local authorities looking to re-enter the housing market as they share so many objectives and both want to see better outcomes for residents.
A question from the audience at the big sector challenges panel called for more learning from different models of delivery from other countries such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands where they are at the forefront of social housing innovation programmes such as intergenerational living.
In the same breath that innovation was mentioned, a note of caution would follow to ensure that it is balanced against the risk that comes with trying something new. There is also the balance of social and commercial values within housing associations to consider. In her opening address, Henderson stated that now is the time for the social housing providers to differentiate themselves within the market. The social housing business model is different, it is long-term and patient, and there is a clear balance of the need to generate funding but also provide quality services for social benefit. Henderson said: “When making the case to Treasury, we have to make sure we say we are more than just building houses. It is so much more than that with social and affordable housing.”
The current economic state and uncertainty of the future of the country was an unavoidable topic. Housing and the economy are so intrinsically linked and is a litmus test for the public consensus on how well we are doing. With a decade of wage stagnation, an increase in poverty statistics (1 in 3 children and 50% of working households are classed as living in poverty), public service funding cuts, and a constant rise in the cost of living, the economy is not working for the majority of people.
Miatta Fahnbulleh, Chief Executive of the New Economics Foundation noted that this feeling of economic unrest has been prevalent in the country for a while, and how the EU referendum vote was a clear message of people wanting change. Fahnbulleh stated that while housing associations have the potential to be leaders in social housing, they cannot go it alone without the support to keep building and benefit the community. Fahnbulleh predicted that central government will need to borrow to invest in the sector and that they cannot rely on private builders to solve the housing crisis. She concluded to say the only time the country has met demand is when the social housing sector and the public sector were building together. What is clear is that the onus is on housing associations to do some of the thinking to respond to the problems as Government is distracted by Brexit.
Despite the shadow of Brexit looming over the many of the talks, the mood of the event was extremely positive with many talks and panels focusing on solutions rather than exacerbating the problems.
Food for thought was provided by speakers outside of the housing sector. Both Stevyn Colgan, Writer and Researcher at QI, and David Thomas, Guinness memory record breaker and author gave entertaining and thought-provoking speeches which provided practical examples of how small changes can lead to big impact. For Colgan this centred around his years as a police officer and his drive to prevent crime through innovative problem-based action. For Thomas this involved how his interest in testing his memory led him to become a no.1 bestselling author, travel the world and meet Oprah! Both also focused on the importance of kindness and humanity – something echoed by many housing associations when talking about their approach to working with their tenants and communities.
Across both days there was great energy, not only from the exhibitors and speakers, but also the attendees who took full advantage to network, which continued long into the evening with everyone enjoying the friendly atmosphere and celebrating the winners of the Housing Finance Awards, which were being hosted by the conference for the first time.
The GRANTfinder team enjoyed meeting everyone at the event and listening to all the knowledgeable and engaging speakers. We hope to see you all there again next year!
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