What is the most important issue in #ukhousing this year? Easy, right? Brexit.

Over the next few months, yes. However, the most important issue for 2019 is not what happens between bureaucrats in Brussels and London – it is something much closer to home. Trust.

Trust between residents and housing providers was shaken to the core by the Grenfell Tower tragedy and as a result was at the heart of last year’s Social Housing Green Paper . Trust – or the lack of it – was also a pivotal factor in the vote to leave the EU.

The mission statements of housing providers are all about creating much-needed homes in places people are proud to call home – or words to that effect. Trust is central to a thriving community, so where are housing providers on the issue of trust and what are they doing to strengthen it?

In the past decade trust has not been at the forefront of thinking in the UK housing sector.

We have been concentrating on survival. Survival of our development programmes; survival of our income streams in the face of continued austerity cuts to our budgets and to the income of our tenants; survival of our organisations as community anchors.

While these factors all undoubtedly have their individual merits, it is debatable the extent to which the increasingly corporate approach they have engendered has built resident trust.

For instance, what have the survival instincts of housing providers looked like to many tenants and residents?

The survival of many development programmes meant a sharp decline in the number of new social rented homes and the rise instead of Affordable Rent at 80% of market rents.

Many thousands of existing social rent homes were also converted to this much more expensive new tenure when relet. Also, regeneration programmes have too often been easily dubbed ‘gentrification’ with too little regard paid to existing residents at the expense of those new residents housed in new Shared Ownership, market rent or market sale properties.

In addition, the survival of our profit margins – essential to attract investors and continue investing in existing and new homes – has in many cases meant fewer face-to-face interactions with customers, as estate offices are closed and neighbourhood patches enlarged.

Although these actions have ensured housing providers have continued to operate in and support their communities, trust has been undermined, not reinforced.

But perhaps the tide is beginning to turn.

Housing providers are beginning to focus on building trust with tenants and residents

Our client, settle, is one of a growing cohort of housing providers to have begun using resident trust as a key measure against which to judge its performance.

In the past fortnight two housing associations have prominently apologised to residents for avoidable failings. In both cases the apologies for unacceptably poor service from L&Q and Rooftop made people sit up and take notice – housing professionals, residents and journalists alike.

In his article for Inside Housing, Rooftop’s John Rockley was bang on when he linked his organisation’s apology to the elusive issue of resident trust. So, what other avenues can housing providers pursue to rebuild trust?

The recent report by Shelter’s Social Housing Commission highlighted the key issue of resident engagement. Its research demonstrated just how low the starting point on engagement is for many housing providers.

Only 19% of tenants felt able to influence their landlord’s decisions about their homes. In addition, just 11% reported feeling capable of influencing national and local government decisions about their homes and communities.

Fortunately, Wheatley Housing has also recently published some research on community engagement. The comprehensive report, commissioned by Wheatley from The Democratic Society, is aimed at UK housing providers and sets out international examples of effective community engagement. It includes examples from Brazil to Belgium and is a mine of useful information.

Three key messages I take from it are:

  1. There are loads of communication channels out there – use what works, not just digital, as it can exclude
  2. You said, we did: remains incredibly powerful, but need to act quickly to demonstrate impact
  3. Engagement must be meaningful: offer genuine opportunity to influence and shape outcomes; examples of participatory budgeting (Antwerp), community consensus-building as opposed to voting (Paris)

Trust is an important and powerful commodity. Housing providers have the opportunity and the tools to embrace it – this can only be of benefit to communities and the country as a whole.

See Media will be exhibiting at the National Housing Federation’s Comms Event in Manchester on 5-6 March. We will be launching our new campaign #whatsyourstory? This is aimed at helping housing providers uncover the hidden gems in their organisation that grab people’s attention and let them know what you are all about. As part of this we will also be hosting free 30-minute consultations to help kick-start your thinking – please visit our website to book a chat. We look forward to seeing you there!

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