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.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.