There is no doubt that the housing sector in Northern Ireland has experienced substantial change in recent years. The housing association movement in particular is unrecognisable in terms of both the number and ambition of our ‘profit for a purpose’ organisations. Meanwhile the policy transformation of welfare and squeeze on public services continue to have a profound effect on our tenants, their communities and society as a whole.
The challenges are immense, but there are undoubtedly opportunities for social housing providers to become more innovative in how we deliver for society as a whole. We remain passionate about bringing together the best possible housing, care and support to improve lives. There is no question about our commitment to building successful communities. But as the world around us continues to change, so too housing associations must take a step back and consider why we are here and what difference do we really hope to make.
The sector is far from complacent and the ‘Rethinking social housing Northern Ireland’project is a welcome call to re-assess our collective mission, purpose and values to ensure effective leadership and a meaningful contribution towards a better future. No one doubts the need for action. There are acute housing supply constraints across all tenures in Northern Ireland and the level of housing stress is unacceptable. But while we urgently need to deliver new homes, more has not always meant better and reinvigorating our housing stock cannot be achieved at any cost in a time of resource constraints.
Social housing providers are not merely property companies or landlords, and nor do we wish to be. Effective care and support provision is in the ‘DNA’ of all housing associations, as is the commitment to assist residents and communities to improve their prospects and life outcomes. Providing and managing homes remains at the core of the voluntary housing ethos, but a more holistic view of our responsibilities as social enterprises is needed to better assist residents and communities to prosper. Social landlords are far from being newcomers to community investment, but our scope must be broader if we are to capitalise fully on our ability to accelerate social mobility.
Equally, while our purpose, scale and standing within hard-pressed communities underpins a unique latitude for action, we cannot realise our full potential on our own. The housing sector is at its most effective when it leverages the expertise and experience of partners that share a common goal.
Strong and productive relationships between public sector, charitable, voluntary and private partners have delivered real benefits in the past, and must continue to do so into the future if we are to enable positive societal and economic development.
There has never been a more exciting or challenging time for housing. The time is right to ask some fundamental questions about the difference that we all seek to make to our shared future.
Michael McDonnell is group chief executive of Choice Housing.
Find out more about Rethinking social housing NI.