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Altair – Making a success of partnership

Graham Hishmurgh makes the case for greater collaboration between local authorities and registered social landlords.

In 2017 Altair co-authored a major piece of research published by the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) on joint working between local authorities and social housing providers. Many of the findings resonate closely with the Welsh social housing landscape today.

Local authorities and registered social landlords (RSLs) clearly share the same objectives: to ensure that the communities they serve continue to have access to good quality, affordable housing. It is self-evident that by working together they can achieve far more than by working independently.

Following the financial crash in 2008, austerity policies and cuts in welfare benefits have reduced funding and investment in housing. Nevertheless, the ambition of RSLs to build has helped to sustain overall housing supply. However, the problem remains that for many local authorities the quantity of new homes is below what they need to meet their statutory housing responsibilities, forcing many to use the private sector in homelessness prevention cases or for temporary accommodation.

As a result, relationships between local authorities and RSLs, in some areas, have become strained.

Added to this have been deep cuts in day-to-day services including planning and enabling functions on which all developers, including RSLs, depend to deliver new supply, causing frustration among those committed to boosting delivery.

Further, local authority budget reductions are likely to breed a more commercial outlook. Certainly, in England, authorities are increasingly investigating how to sweat their asset portfolio and create commercial companies to generate revenue surpluses. Councils are increasingly interested in long-term joint ventures where they share risk and reward, lease land rather than sell it, share the benefit of rising land and property values, and generate a revenue stream to balance budgets. We have seen here in Wales, like England, some authorities setting up local housing companies (LHCs) to add to local housing supply.

Some of these initiatives may in fact create further tension as RSLs fear that authorities will in future direct their (limited) development land and planning gain arising from commercial development to LHCs, rather than to their traditional RSL partners. This may result in close working relationships being undermined, creating tension and in some cases a loss of trust between authorities and associations.

Nonetheless, we believe that authorities and RSLs can and must manage and mitigate any current difficulties and enthusiastically enter a new era of partnership working if there is to be any chance of tackling the ongoing housing crisis.

Effective collaboration – rebooted

Trust is the key ingredient. Whether day-to-day joint management initiatives or large-scale joint ventures – all of them are built and maintained via trust. Only continued and sustained engagement can succeed and this must be at both senior officer/executive and also political/board level. Altair’s experience is very clearly that, for relationships to be effective, this engagement needs to be led from the top. Council leaders and RSL CEOs need to visibly demonstrate the importance of their partnerships.

In addition, local authority and RSL partners should strive to achieve:

  • A shared sense of purpose. This needs to involve councillors, council staff, tenant representatives, RSL board members and staff –and where possible, relevant external agencies such as Health Trusts, public and private land owners and Public Services Boards.
  • Visibility, clarity, and accountability – this requires visible commitment to joint working, at the highest level. Regular, planned and well-structured meetings between leaders are essential.
  • Empathy and joint problem solving. Councils often know little of the pressures on RSLs and vice versa. Where parties do not understand each other’s challenges in depth, actions may appear inexplicable or hostile. Ongoing bilateral work at senior and middle management levels can remedy this.
  • Compromise and flexibility. Joint problem-solving will involve negotiation in which each party will need to protect its interests. Frank and honest (and sometimes difficult) conversations, leading to mutual compromise and trade-offs underpin all successful partnerships.
  • Pooling and sharing resources. Both councils and associations have limited resources relative to the demands upon them. Sharing resources can, for example, involve joint-funding of data collection, market analysis, regional land availability studies etc.

Published strategic partnership agreements can also be helpful.Strategic agreements can assist by defining shared views on the aims of the partnership, otherwise each organisation might develop its own expectations, leading to misunderstandings that can undermine success.

To be successful such agreements should define and clarify, as a minimum:

  • Delivery targets: the required tenure/product mix and agreed delivery targets both numbers of homes and range of charges
  • Resources: what is available? (for example, grant, cross-subsidy from sales, cross-subsidy from rental surplus, discounted land, recycled capital borrowing capacity etc.)
  • An agreed, common definition of affordability: one that all partners strive to work to, ideally based on local household incomes rather than a percentage of market prices/rents.
  • Housing need: numbers of households with unmet need

In summary, successful partnerships between local authorities are a pre-requisite to any meaningful strategic response to the housing crisis. We urge those with power to make them happen to take the necessary steps to reboot a new period of effective collaboration.

Contact Graham Hishmurgh, Director [email protected]

A joint seminar between Altair and Devonshires on 29 January in Cardiff will be looking at collaboration in more detail. Contact [email protected] if you haven’t yet booked your place.

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