Mark Henderson is the chief executive of the Home Group, one of the UK’s largest providers of homes for sale and affordable rent, and a leader in long-term integrated health and housing.
The Grenfell tragedy has shone fresh light on the degree to which those in social housing feel heard. It’s absolutely right that we look again at what those in social housing actually want. Hard questions need to be asked.
I can’t claim we are perfect. Over a 12 month period we handle around 1.3 million transactions with customers, from people picking up the phone to those who use Twitter to tell us what’s bothering them. But our track record when compared to, say, the Department for Work and Pensions is a strong one. Last year we carried out 170,034 repairs but only received complaints relating to 2,827 of these, or 1.67 per cent. My role as CEO is to drive that number down to be as a low as possible but we have to be mature enough to recognise that it will never be zero. Even with some of the very best in the commercial sector the odd Amazon package goes astray or is damaged upon delivery.
But it is vital that we actively listen to customers, ask them what they want, think and believe, and ultimately act upon it. At Home Group that means ensuring that our customers are co-creators of solutions to any issues they tell us about.
One area which we feel is absolutely vital to act on is home ownership. We asked our customers if they wanted to own their own home, and 87 per cent said yes. Theresa May rightly, in my view, had made it the defining cause of her domestic agenda. The dramatic drop in home ownership explains so much about the present turmoil in our politics.
We also looked beyond our current customer base and asked YouGov to find out what the drivers were behind home ownership aspirations. We found that 29 per cent wanted to have more choice over issues like fitting a new kitchen or bathroom, while 15 per cent wanted to provide a legacy for their family.
So what do we say to the 1,500 people currently on our waiting lists who have expressed an interest in the voluntary right to buy? We understand that Government want to get it right and is concerned about the cost. But more than two years on from what was the headline manifesto commitment we can give little by way of reassurance to those waiting to get on the housing ladder.
We feel it’s a missed opportunity. Helping our customers in this way would be a concrete step in demonstrating that the Government is doing something for those who are just about managing.
But despite our frustration, it hasn’t stopped us from seeking out new solutions. We therefore created our own product to support our customers onto the housing ladder. The product, namely ‘Deposit Builder’ supports customers who might struggle to raise a deposit. The product will allow customers to save up to £7,000 in just five years through a combination of rent reduction, access to the Government’s Help to Buy ISA and match funding from Home Group.
We know saving for a deposit is still the biggest barrier – 51 per cent of individuals who responded to our YouGov survey agreed. But with a little innovation we can do this without reliance on government. Saying that, Government support will ensure that our impact is particularly far-reaching.
Shared ownership is another pathway, and one that we promote widely, but with particular focus and success in London and the South. We know that this type of product has a different level of benefit depending on the region, and this is why we believe that there should be myriad pathways to home ownership to account for people’s varying circumstances. It’s not a one size fits all.
Ultimately, the dream of home ownership is only possible if we build many more new homes. Even though we have made a step change in our own build numbers (we will deliver 10,000 new homes by 2021), we know we need a lot more. If the market is broken as is now widely accepted you can’t expect the market to be able to fix things without intervention.
To amplify impact in terms of supply, there are certain asks of government that, if granted, would enable us to build at an even greater rate, such as strategic land assembly. Putting land together one piece at a time can be very expensive for developers, but a fund to kick-start the process should deliver a good return in the long-run. Crucially it enable us to do so at scale. We know that government wants to see land being built on, and housing associations play a key role here. Last year 1,490 homes were started by local authorities – compared to 47,709 homes by housing associations. If we secure the land, we will use it efficiently and quickly.
That is what the Prime Minister asked of us when closing the party conference this year. And we are absolutely committed to building on land and creating homes for people with a sense of urgency. But a strategic approach to land assembly would really drive things forward.
I hope to hear more on this subject during the forthcoming budget.