18 October 2018

‘Big is beautiful’ the saying goes, and for a long time, it appeared that this was the belief of the powers that be when it came to social housing, and housing associations in particular.

For many years, the mantra was ‘efficiency, efficiency and more efficiency’, and the supposedly obvious way of achieving that was for housing associations to merge and gain efficiencies of scale.

However, in 2016, something rather remarkable occurred. After crunching a lot of numbers the then Homes and Communities Agency was forced to admit that, actually, large housing associations were demonstrably no more financially efficient – at least as could be measured by their favoured KPIs – and that there was no correlation at all between size and cost per unit of housing services.

The pressure on smaller housing associations to justify not merging simply to drive financial efficiency ceased overnight. There was an almost audible collective sigh of relief around many board tables. Finally, our boards could focus their attention on running the business instead of justifying why, as proverbial turkeys, they should not vote for Christmas.

And there are plenty of pressing business issues we face as smaller housing associations. Access to land for development, ongoing contract management, staff recruitment, anti-social behaviour, and a million and one other issues you may never have dealt with before.

Running a smaller housing association can be one of the most exciting jobs in the world. Larger organisations can afford to create specialised departments to deal with everything from communications to research. In a smaller organisation, these esoteric matters fall to the management team, who are often general practitioners rather than specialists. So when something new falls into your lap – usually at 4.30pm on a Friday afternoon – there’s no one you can delegate to. Instead, off you have to go to seek advice from colleagues and friends – or whoever you can find to help.

And I would have it no other way!

Yes, the issues never cease. As soon as one is solved, another comes along. The regulatory attention moves from value for money to fire safety, from mergers to the competence of the board, and wider society wakes up to the existence of housing associations and what they can do well and what they may do less well.

But as smaller associations, we have the inherent advantage that we are much closer to our residents and tenants than larger organisations might be. We don’t have to concoct fancy focus groups and employ expensive consultants. Often, we can just pop down the street and speak to as many tenants as we want to. And our boards are so often very familiar with the detail of what goes on because our businesses are not overly complex and can be understood by the layman with an interest.

And interest is what we do best. Our hearts beat to the same rhythms as our residents’. We are cut from the same cloth. We grew up in the same neighbourhoods, and so often there is no barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – because they are us.

The challenge now, in the face of a housing world at last thrust forcefully into the full limelight of Government, is to stay authentic. Keep believing in what we do, because we do it for all the right reasons.

Paul Mullis

Paul Mullis is Chief Executive at Durham Aged Miners Homes

Paul has served as Chief Executive of DAMHA since 2012, Paul has worked for over 20 years in the social housing sector, having worked previously for several years with the National Audit Office and also Ernst and Young. Paul is a Trustee of the National Association of Almshouses and cares passionately about the need for better housing for older people in the UK.

Small is beautiful