The Guardian's Colin Wiles comments on HACT's current work within community investment models.
The article was published on the Guardian website on Friday 28 September 2012.
Octavia Hill, the Victorian founder of housing management, believed that "money spent on bricks and mortar alone was money wasted". She made sure that any surplus above the 5% she returned to her investors was given to tenants to spend as they wished. She used it to help her tenants to find work, set up gardening and singing classes and to establish the Army Cadet Force for their children.
This was community investment in its earliest form and Hill's legacy lives on. Last year, housing associations in England spent almost £750m on community investment projects, £227m of it on employment, training and health projects alone. Housing providers are even moving into running schools and buying up local newspapers.
But there is still widespread scepticism about this approach. Is it really the job of landlords to engage in the wider community? Shouldn't they just stick to property management?
This comment on the Inside Housing forum is typical. Responding to a story about gardening classes for tenants, a tenant wrote: "What is this? Since when have housing providers become educators? This is patrician, patronising. I would rather my landlord spent any available cash on upgrading its older properties – in my case installing sound insulation … if people want to grow their own vegetables there are many ways they can find out themselves without being, yet again, spoonfed."
Some argue that community investment is like sticking a plaster on years of failed housing policies, a futile attempt to avert the inevitable decline of UK social housing into a residual US model of welfare housing for the very poor. But the doubters are finally in a minority.
Many housing associations take the view that they should operate as social enterprises that happen to specialise in housing, drawing up business plans that represent their wider duty to communities. What's more, social landlords are in an ideal position to deliver this work. They know – or should know – their tenants' needs, are generally trusted by their tenants, and are therefore in a stronger position to target and deliver programmes than many third sector organisations.
But how effective has this spending been? Having worked in housing for more than three decades, I've seen dozens of reports describing the projects that have been set up to help tenants. There is always plenty of information about inputs and outputs but often very little information on outcomes.
The truth is that few landlords can prove that their investment has created healthier, wealthier and happier communities – or that it would have better spent elsewhere.
Several landlords have sought to develop more credible ways of measuring wider impacts. Cross Keys Homes in Peterborough has developed a model that aims to analyse the true costs and benefits of community spending taking an holistic of view of all public spending, so reductions in unemployment benefits as a result of tenants entering the workforce would be factored in. Cross Keys has a clear profile of 98% of its tenants and can target programmes at the right people to have the right impact.
But a recent study by the Housing Associations Charitable Trust (HACT) confirmed that the measurement of community investment impacts across the housing sector is very patchy. Landlords were found to use a variety of tools and models to measure their work, but there was no consistency and little analysis of community investment that took account of the landlord's core housing role and the impact of its local spending power.
This may be set to change. HACT has now received funding to work with the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham to develop a comprehensive reporting model that would allow housing providers to measure the return on their community investment, and provide a wider social and economic measurement of their overall role.
The aim is that this new model will allow housing providers to target their resources much more effectively and show exactly what the wider benefit of their investment has been. This is more important now than ever, as the housing regulator requires landlords to demonstrate a clearer understanding of how they provide value for public money.
Colin Wiles is a housing consultant and vice-chair of Howard Cottage Housing Association. Housing professionals interested in taking part in the HACT research to develop local economic impact assessments email firstname.lastname@example.org.