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Over to you

Chris O’Meara ended her long career in housing at Christmas but not before writing these reflections and questions for the future for WHQ.

All good things come to an end and, after a 42-year career in the housing association world, I’m ready to find out what else life has to offer. I’d be lying to say I loved every minute, but I have loved most of them and doubt whether many other sectors offer that combination of common purpose, social justice and commerciality that a career in social housing does.

So, in that time the world has changed a bit. All a housing geek needed in the late 70s was a rolodex (for contacts) a posh pen and the ability to work a kalamazoo (to check the rent statements) There was no techie rivalry for the latest phones or gadgets, no fax machine (remember those?)  and one office computer. In terms of services, housing management was about rents, repairs and lettings, compared with the complexity and expectations of today.

Of course there has been huge change in our funding framework with the introduction of private finance. The rigour that this introduced to our business planning has meant that we are now more professional and robust in our approach to treasury management and clearer about risk.

The political environment shifted with devolution and this has led to a different set of housing priorities to England. With the retention of a social housing programme, the abolition of the Right to Buy and protection for Supporting People services we have been able to respond much better to inequality.

Regulation frameworks have come and gone and I’m not sure really if any of them have been more successful than others preventing the occasional sector equivalent to a car crash. We now have a huge emphasis on improving governance. I’m not totally convinced that the right balance has been reached between the government asking us to be more innovative and to increase housing supply, with more governance process. Both take resources, but only one will increase supply.

I believe that the relationship with government (Welsh) is much stronger, with both sides demonstrating a real commitment to collaboration. It’s never perfect (on both sides of the fence) and needs a lot of nurture, but is very different from the days before the Essex review that bought a much bigger emphasis on partnership working.

On reflection, the sector has been remarkably resilient and adaptable, weaving our way through growth, mixed funding, political and technological change, not to forget the current challenges of welfare reform and Brexit.

What hasn’t changed of course are the people, either housing professionals with a passion for making a difference, those who live in our homes and need services, or those who give their time freely to serve on our boards

Despite our efforts, we clearly haven’t solved the housing crisis, with more people living on the streets or in insecure, overpriced or unsuitable accommodation. Housing condition has improved (big shout to WHQS) but there is more inequality, more mental ill-health and fewer services and resources to meet needs.

What of the future? On the people side, the recognition of the implication of early psychological trauma and the raft of good practice spreading rapidly will equip us all in making better decisions for people we come into contact with.

On the policy side, the review into the Supply of Affordable Housing has many challenges. How do we supply more homes that are energy efficient and in places where people want to live, for less resource and at rent levels that are affordable for those on a low income?

Almost as big for me is the question about how do we enable all social housing providers (local authorities and housing associations) to up their game and use their resources more effectively. I’m a fan of diversity, not centralism, but that puts a responsibility on all of us to bite the bullet and increase supply.  I believe that a more enabling approach would get us there but that requires a bit of imagination and willingness to work outside current comfort zones. Are you ready?

So, the future is exciting, opportunity is endless and there are lots of fantastic people in the sector. There are always challenges that often initially seem impossible (remember the bedroom tax?) but we work together and history has proved that we can overcome them.

Personally, I’ve had a great time and been given some fantastic chances. Of course there are loads of things (especially people) that I’ll miss but I’ll be looking from the outside to see what a difference you continue to make. Good luck.

Chris O’Meara is former chief executive of Cadwyn Housing Association

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