Despite incurring financial losses, decisions made by One Housing over the past two years were guided by the group’s belief in social purpose, writes chief financial officer Paul Gray
One Housing will shortly publish its accounts for the year to 31 March 2021. The year has been been like no other; the housing sector as a whole is counting the costs of protecting our customers from COVID-19, as well as absorbing ‘once-in-a-generation’ expenses, such as fire safety remediation work, and looking ahead to meet changing customer expectations ranging from homes designed for hybrid working to zero carbon.
The decisions One Housing made in 2020 and 2021 were guided by our values and belief in the social purpose of housing and above all we prioritised keeping safe those we house and support.
We would make the same choices again.
One Housing has been upfront about the costs we have incurred. Our focus on homelessness, care services and providing supported housing to older people meant we knew this financial year would be a difficult one for us.
As we knew it would be challenging, we planned accordingly. Although we’ve made losses, we’ve kept to our budget, and remain financially robust, with strong liquidity and assets of more than £2bn.
Approximately one-third of One Housing’s stock is in blocks over 18 metres tall, which has meant the costs associated with fire safety works are high. We recognise the value of the support to the sector and to leaseholders from national and regional government and look forward to the full details being published.
This support does not make good on all costs to the sector, which means we must carefully choose where to prioritise future investment.
When housing associations reflect on 2020/21, there’s the risk that we only focus on what was lost, as grave and harrowing as the human costs were.
Yet there are also some powerful lessons. It has shown the potential to eliminate homelessness in the capital if initiatives are backed with sufficient resource and political will; risk management and contingency planning around the delivery of services were tested, and service delivery continued with processes strengthened. It has also helped us think about the future.
As the UK looks towards recovery, questions remain about how the sector can pay for the strategic changes we still need to complete.
COVID-19, and the associated lockdown, asked fundamental questions of what we need from our housing, accelerating existing trends. Already, when we look to the years ahead and our development plans, it’s with an eye on the changes in customer priorities and how we can best anticipate these demands. It’s clear we need to listen more closely than ever to customers to understand their needs.
One key difference between social housing providers and other property businesses, such as developers, is that we make decisions with long-term consequences.
While we have proved nimble in face of challenges, we cannot always pivot quickly away from our existing business models as people’s homes and well-being depend on us. Instead, housing associations need to work with government and other decision-makers to ensure the UK housing sector can help underpin a rapid national recovery and build back better.
Guiding this process should be an honest conversation with our customers about our future plans and the potentially difficult trade-offs the sector must make during the next few years.
High-quality, genuinely affordable housing has an important role for our customers, for society, for the economy, for health and well-being and for the environment, and a role that extends far beyond the life of any government. Therefore, only by building consensus, nationally and locally, about what comes next, can a route towards a better future be secured.
Paul Gray, chief financial officer, One Housing