Here’s how we get pension providers to help fix the housing crisis

Some foundations. Image: Getty.

At this year’s Conservative party conference, the new housing secretary did not disguise his priorities. “We are on the side of hard-working people who want the sense of security that comes with home ownership,” said Robert Jenrick as he set out plans to give housing association tenants the right to purchase a share in the equity of their property. 

But what about those of us who expect to rent for the foreseeable future? As both a renter and CEO of a housing association I recognise both the benefits and the risks associated with this type of tenure.  

For many people, renting is a positive lifestyle choice offering greater flexibility, lower costs and less stress than home ownership. For many others, renting is the only option currently available to them and the outlook can be bleak. Too many people get a poor level of service from their landlord. Renters are too often stuck with precarious tenancies and face the prospect of having to pay considerable costs when they are forced to move out.

And yet, more and more people of all ages are renting in towns and cities across the UK. With renting increasingly becoming the new normal, more has to be done to make it an attractive offer with positive benefits, rather than a last ditch resort that people have to put up with while hoping not to get ripped off or exploited. 

To get real change and better housing options for renters, policy-makers need to think outside of the box and explore all avenues to deliver the quality affordable homes we need. In many sectors of the UK economy, politicians have been long been keen to encourage innovation and new ways of thinking. Housing should not be an exception, and yet radical policy solutions in the sector have often failed to get traction or have been put on the backburner.

Housing associations could play a far greater role in delivering affordable housing, but to make it happen we also need to be pro-active and embrace new ways of thinking. That’s why for some time I have been looking into setting up a new government-backed fund, through which pension schemes would be able to invest directly in affordable housing construction. 

Of course, such a fund would require government cash at the outset. Research done for us by a former government economist has found a £2bn seed loan would kick-start affordable development on a mass scale. The fund could be operational within two years and capable of financing the delivery of 30,000 affordable homes each year.

It would be run by the housing association sector and it would encourage the use of modern methods of construction in order to quickly mass produce new homes – imagine affordable homes being built at scale and speed, churned out by factories in the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine. 

Pension providers have told me they can see potential in the model. They recognise that affordable housing could provide pension schemes with a reliable, socially responsible, long-term investment option. 

Having considered this concept for some time, my sense is that policymakers are also becoming increasingly interested. Earlier this year, the Labour party green paper Housing for the Many made it clear that the policy is under consideration and I have had constructive discussions with politicians from other parties too. 

With a general election around the corner, I hope to hear more in the weeks and months to come. As things stand, we are nowhere near tackling the UK-wide shortfall and we clearly cannot we rely on the big developers who currently dominate the market. Perhaps the biggest scandal in housing today is the prominent position being taken up by volume builders who lack both the capacity and motivation to increase the number of affordable homes they deliver.

As a housing association boss, it might not come as a huge surprise to learn that I firmly believe housing associations are best placed to deliver the affordable that many renters are crying out for. We build quality, affordable rental and purchase homes and we help to shape the communities around them. Tenants are at the absolute heart of our vision.  

However it is not enough to cross our fingers and hope that politicians put their faith in us. Instead we have to be bold and seize the initiative. With detailed proposals for a radical new pensions-backed affordable housing fund, I have done exactly that. Politicians should do the same.

Brian Cronin is the chief executive of Your Housing Group, a housing association with more than 28,000 homes in the midlands and the north.


This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.

As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.