“Rigid, inflexible, dogma doesn’t get houses built”: what does the Tory manifesto tell us about housing policy?

Well, I'm convinced. Image: Getty.

As the lobby journalists left Halifax to return to their desks, on a very rickety northern rail train, we were left wondering: what did the launch of the Conservative manifesto tell us about where housing is on Theresa May’s agenda?

Well, quite a lot really. The first thing that you notice is the tone. In the lead up to the publication of the manifesto there had been a range of pieces trying to pin down what “May-ism” is. None of them successfully did this – indeed, today Theresa May denied there even was such a thing – but there are certain themes that since May took over as PM have been a touchstone for her Premiership.

They are all here in the manifesto. You can tick them off one by one: references to governing for everybody, a belief in the role of government to intervene and, critically, lots of references to the interests of “ordinary working families”. There is also a rejection of “rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous”.

From a housing perspective this is welcome. Rigid, inflexible, dogma definitely does not get houses built. Trusting responsible people and organisations to work flexibly does.

For too long housing policy has had a strong whiff of dogma about it – particularly around tenure. The view that all paths led to home ownership didn’t reflect the different circumstances in which people live, or the economics of modern society. It was something that we have consistently challenged and the outgoing government, to their credit, started to listen – with a significant shift in the last Autumn Statement.

In addition to this increased pragmatism, there is much else about the tone of the Conservative manifesto that gives us cause for optimism. Firstly, and most importantly, there is a real show of faith in the housing association sector, which is framed not as a problem to be solved, but as a key part of the solution to the housing crisis that the country faces.

We have worked hard as a sector to strengthen our relationships with all parties, and all parts of government. But, more importantly, our solid relationships have been built on a strong, growing and demonstrable track record in driving supply.

Our own figures show this. In 2015-16 housing associations made over 40,000 starts, and we are expecting to see an increase when the figures for 2016-17 are shortly available. This could put us on track to deliver our aspiration of building 250,000 homes over the next five years.


Parties have woken up to the fact that housing associations are a growing player in supply terms – providing a range of homes for different groups, for rent and sale, as well as supported housing for thousands older and vulnerable people.

The other welcome signal is an acknowledgement that a sensible housing policy needs to take a broad view which recognises that there is life outside of London and the South East. The manifesto talks about rebalancing housing development across the country, and rightly sees housing in the context of a modern industrial strategy.

The drivers behind this may be political – with a desire to have an offer that reaches far into areas that are not traditional Conservative strongholds. But the impact is welcome – and would be felt in places like Greater Manchester, West Midlands and the North East.

There are of course areas where more detail is needed. For instance, whilst we are really pleased to see a commitment to work with housing associations to build more specialist housing, we know this cannot happen without sustainable long-term funding for supported housing. We will be working with whoever forms the next government to make sure this is understood and addressed.

However, on the whole there is much in here that housing associations will welcome. We share the supply ambitions that the manifesto sets out, we welcome the tone of collaboration and partnership, and we echo the view that a national housing policy needs to reflect the challenges that are faced in very different markets.

As a sector, housing associations deliver a lot - but we are ambitious to do even more.  Whoever enters Number 10 on 9 June, we are ready to work in partnership to do just that.

Rob Warm is head of member engagement at the National Housing Federation.

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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.”