The challenges ahead: housing and worklessness

By John Coburn - on 11/07/2012

HACT's Network Coordinator John Coburn writes about the current issues faced by housing associations in relation to tenant worklessness.

The housing sector is facing a period of unprecedented change, and HACT is developing new approaches to address the challenges facing the housing association sector today.  In March, we held our final  Housing and Empowerment Network event, bringing to an end a stream of work which over three years has engaged with over 100 housing providers in a national peer-learning network, sharing approaches and knowledge around community empowerment and neighbourhood investment.

Topics such as social enterprise, measuring impact and tackling worklessness have all been explored, and as network coordinator, I have been massively privileged to participate in some fantastic events across the country.  The biggest lessons for me has been the growing potential of housing providers to be more than just landlords, and act as catalysts for change within some of our poorest communities, and the real life case studies of great things happening on the ground.  

But as the sector develops in a new world, no longer dominated by national regulation, and with approaches to development increasingly dependent on associations’ own relationships and resources, rather than conditional grant from the state, HACT has been looking hard at how it delivers its mission, and what that means for our business.  A key conclusion is that networking and knowledge sharing is great, but it isn’t enough.   Where projects are taken forward, they need to be based around tangible products and measurable outcomes.  They need to focus on building links between what has sometimes been an inward looking housing sector and a new civic economy focused on localism, social enterprise, neighbourhood, community and place.  And they need to tackle core issues facing providers now.

So at the same time as celebrating the conclusion of the work of the Housing Empowerment Network, I’ve been starting to map out what looks like an exciting autumn of projects for HACT. First up is an action-learning project with Inclusion looking at how housing providers can improve their impact in tackling worklessness.  As next week’s publication of the NHF Neighbourhood Audit is likely to spotlight, training, skills and employment services are one of the key areas in which housing providers are demonstrating their broader role with some 88% of housing providers offering help, advice, services or work opportunities to residents to increase their chances of finding or staying in work. 

Despite this a recent HACT and Inclusion’s  report found that only 42% of housing provider know the employment status of the workless tenants; and without this evidence base we would argue that housing providers cannot target their interventions effectively and achieve the greatest possible impact.

Its not that there aren’t some great initiatives on the ground - for example, Aspire Housing in Staffordshire and South Cheshire have acquired their own training provider, PM Training, and converted it into a social enterprise delivering services to tenants across their wider group.  It has proved a huge success delivering employment and skills provision to residents and those in the wider community.

But with Universal Credit, the so called ‘bedroom tax’ and the benefit cap being set at £26,000; all potentially having an adverse impact on housing providers’ rental income streams there are real pressures on providers to ensure their employment initiatives are effectively targeted and delivering results.

Too often, housing providers’ work can be isolated from mainstream provision.   Although imperfect, The Work Programme is expected to engage over a quarter of working-age social housing residents; however our research revealed only 28% of housing providers are engaging with it.   Although some associations, like Black Country Housing Group are successfully working with Work Programme contractors and are both referring people onto the programme, and sharing the task of getting them into sustainable employment.  Whatever happens the payment by results approach is not going away, and housing providers should look to engage and take advantage of such opportunities.

With this in mind this autumn, HACT and Inclusion are looking to bring together 15 housing providers to help them more effectively target employment and skills initiatives for their residents and measure the value and effectiveness of their work in tackling worklessness across the neighbourhoods they live in.  Importantly as part of the project providers will get exclusive access to the Inclusion/HACT developed benchmarking tool and contribute to its further development.  The tool will enable participants to access live DWP data on employment within the communities and clearly identify which groups of residents are most affected by employability and skills issues.  With eight providers already signed up, we are aiming to get the project rolling in time for the forthcoming NHF Tenants into Work Conference in October, at which both HACT and inclusion will have key speaking slots.

What’s most  exciting for me is that it signals a new approach from HACT, bringing new, expert expertise into the sector, providing practical tools to deliver more effective results and sharing knowledge across housing providers looking to set the agenda in one of the most important areas of focus for housing providers community investment effort.  If you would like to get involved, please contact me on / tel: 020 7247 7800



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