Even before Chancellor Jeremy Hunt stood up in the House of Commons to deliver his financial statement, we knew things could be worse. His predecessor had amply demonstrated that with the short-lived Truss government’s disastrous ‘go for growth’ mini budget in September.
So, against that background and the grim forecasts of economic storms ahead, many of the statement’s headline features came as a relief:
In some ways though, the Autumn Statement was most notable for the things it didn’t announce or tackle. With the next general election barely two years away, it’s no surprise that the Cabinet was keen to defer details of heavy-duty spending cuts to public services. And once again, it could be suggested that the future funding and sustainability of adult social care has been left on the ‘too difficult’ pile.
A harsh reality
At the margins, the measures announced on 17 November will offer some level of protection for residents of councils and housing associations against the very worst effects of inflation and falling living standards. But the sector and those who rely upon it are facing an extremely tough next few years – probably longer.
The reality is starting to bite of a low-tax, low-welfare Britain outside of the European Union, with big bills to pay for the emergency support distributed at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. For all the painful austerity measures taken since the Coalition government came to power in 2010, the UK’s national debt has more than doubled, from around £1 trillion then to almost £2.4 trillion today (equivalent to nearly 100% of the nation’s gross domestic product).
This means that whatever government is in power, there’s going to be very little in the way of new public investment, and organisations will have to make really difficult choices about their priorities. Over the past decade and a half, some could argue that the notion of central government providing leadership and making positive things happen in the national interest, has steadily eroded. So, housing providers will also increasingly need to look within, among themselves and to their partners for both resources and the best answers to challenging questions.
Time for social purpose
As part of its New Year resolutions for 2023, every organisation would do well to revisit its fundamentals: why it exists, what it stands for and what it stands against. Now is the time when social purpose needs to make itself seen, heard and felt – loud and proud. Some registered providers may opt to keep their April rent increases below the 7 per cent maximum, but in doing so will immediately trade off the number of new homes and scale of modernisation programmes they’re able to deliver.
Others will no doubt dig deep to find more capacity to help people in practical ways, through hardship funds, discounted deals and support for community-led schemes like furniture recycling and foodbanks. All should look hard at ways to accelerate their decarbonisation and net zero plans to bring forward the benefits of better insulation and lower running costs. Complete, accurate and up-to-date information and insight about the needs of people and communities will also be at a premium.
Michael Gove’s unequivocal message to housing providers following the inquest into the death of Awaab Ishak in Rochdale is another sign of change that mustn’t be ignored. It seems that the fatal failings there were not principally technical or property related, but linked to culture, empowerment and accountability. There can be no excuses any longer for neglecting the basics or treating customers with anything other than total respect and understanding.
The vital ingredients for each and every response to these testing times are the quality and effectiveness of listening, communication and engagement that’s deployed. As the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams once said (on a different topic), organisations “will have a lot of explaining to do.” And explaining is only the start – it’s how well boards and executive teams then take their customers and staff teams with them that will make all the difference.
Unleash the Cs
Our work as a creative agency often involves helping clients to define and embed a distinctive brand voice in everything they do. Words like caring, confident and clear are typical of what many housing providers aspire to, plus several other words beginning with C like complete, correct, concise, courteous, considerate, compassionate and collaborative.
It’s times like now when these things and the value of good communication truly come to the fore. Done properly, there’s every chance that the social housing sector can once again fulfil its traditional role of working counter to the prevailing economic climate, and be seen as a potent, positive force. But the obstacles and stakes are much higher now than ever before, and the temptation may arise to skimp on meaningful listening and engagement.
Let’s not let that happen.