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The Challenges of 2021: Lock down #3, Brexit and Beyond

Wednesday 13th January at 12 noon. 

Always ready to confront the big topics, the first Lunch and Learn session of the year saw PlaceShapers discussing challenges no-one could have predicted and responses that no-one might previously have considered necessary.

Brexit

The ‘just snuck in under the wire’ deal is widely regarded as an agreement to keep on negotiating as circumstances change. The long shadow of the pandemic falls over either side’s vision of the short- to mid-future.

Difficulties in the supply chain are already evident in the cost and availability of components.  Materials suppliers to one housing association have forewarned a 5% price increase; some organisations which provide food to another’s food bank for residents have begun to note short supply. Compound this with reduced manufacturing during the lockdowns and an inability to keep up with demand (for outdoor paint, for example, in one HA’s experience), and premium prices are inevitable.

Double whammy for residents

This is not just bad news for HAs, facing both rental and home sales income downturns, but traumatic for our residents, struggling to maintain the basics for their families in a more expensive Britain, alongside coping with the double whammy of Coronavirus. PlaceShapers can play a large part in making life easier for residents: in the immediate term we can exert some pressure on MPs that the Government should retain the emergency Universal Credit uplift - after all, we know and understand large swathes of their constituencies better than many.

In the longer term we can invest to combat the inequalities and community dysfunction which the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief.

And in the meantime …?  HAs are already preparing their responses to the possibly protracted support needs of residents. The great thing about an alliance such as PlaceShapers is that there are always brains to pick!

Looking after staff

Hands up anyone whose workforce still has boundless energy and high morale! Even with good employers allowing any number of flexible working arrangements, staff still face a new wave of despair caused by the pincer attack of frightening statistics and home schooling/caring – and, in the darkness of winter, at that.

PlaceShaper members have pivoted internal communications to include more briefings – formal and informal, pre-recorded, written and live – and, significantly, pastoral and mental health support has been accelerated. One HA invites 12 members of staff at a time weekly to a Zoom, non-work-based chat with the Chief Executive: “How are you feeling?” can lead to a cathartic and supportive conversation about loss, whether of the human interaction of the workplace or, not infrequently, of loved ones. In addition, partnerships with voluntary organisations such as Cruse Bereavement Care have been forged, social events have been organised, staff benefits have been increased and Wellbeing Champions appointed. There’s a PlaceShapers HA network if you’d like to find out more from your peers.

One HA asks staff to review their job descriptions every three months. Asking “what’s my job at the moment?” allows them to add value to the current situation with the offer of previously unrecognised strengths, new skills learnt on the go, or personal interests.

Buddying of new starters is popular – though whether many of those will be very young staff since some business apprenticeships rely so heavily on being able to offer on-site experience – as is resilience training for staff in roles which bear the brunt of a customer’s short fuse. Let’s be fair, a colleague who’s heard it all before is likely to give you a lot more perspective than your cat.

The role of the Board in supporting the Chief Executive has probably never been more important, and it comes just as HAs are having to decide for or against implementing the recommendation of a six-year term for Board members and generally make Boards more accountable to residents. A more rapid turnover of Board members means for some HAs recruiting a younger, more diverse, Board.

Development

An online future, and the home environment having to double up as a workplace for many workers, means our development teams have to reimagine new build layout and current stock refurbishments now. Are our models for sheltered accommodation fit for purpose post-pandemic?

To return or not to return?

Everyone agrees that this terrible pandemic has made us all think twice about remote working. “Enjoying being autonomous” takes on a different complexion when isolation is enforced.

While a multitude of businesses are reconsidering what to do with buildings space, returning isn’t just about the collegiate, collaborative possibilities of having a workplace where people can congregate (even with social distancing) in the kitchen or chat in the corridor. Some serious conversations need to be had with staff about how genuinely sustainable is their working from home – whether it’s about the space they can/want to give over to their work, or how it fits in with the household. There’s a Lunch and Learn on all the different aspects of back to the office on 27 January at 12noon.

There must be some good news …

There’s a great deal, actually.

In terms of how we work, HAs have learnt how to turn on a sixpence, to be creative and innovative. There is much good arising from these adverse conditions which must be preserved.

As for our place in the sector, the HACT/PlaceShapers Places after the Pandemic report published in September 2020 showed how crucial community-based housing associations will be to reinforcing a sense of place. That’s especially post-pandemic when “local” will no longer have the negative inference of “restricted horizons”. The report also shows that partnerships forged in the extreme conditions of the pandemic have stuck and brought added value to HAs’ offerings.

At a national level, PlaceShapers is actively seeking to be part of the levelling-up policy journey currently exercising influential think-tanks. There’s also a prevailing sense that the public mood has swung in favour of social housing. The argument is ours to lose, but lose it we will if we evict residents into homelessness and/or let empty stock hang around.  People notice that kind of thing. In the meantime, we need to keep on telling our story to our local MPs. Local stories for national influence.

Brexit and the pandemic have given housing associations the opportunity to become engines of social recovery.

Let’s get at it.

For latest Government guidance on both topics, please see

https://www.gov.uk/transition

https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus

Liz Roberts, Communications Officer, Soha Housing

 

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