18 April 2023

Troubling tailwinds have become hazardous headwinds, but housing associations remain resilient and ambitious throughout challenging times.

Our flagship Housing Finance Conference and Exhibition returned in emphatic style for another year in Liverpool. With impressive delegate and exhibitor numbers, high profile speakers and a packed and varied agenda, the bar has been set for future years.

Highlights from day one included the always anticipated plenary sessions, which cast a broad reflective and prophetic eye over the economy, political environment and the sector, helping to set the tone for the days’ discussions. CBI’s Anna Leach and Public First’s Rachel Wolf discussed the country’s current and future macroeconomic and political reality. Considering the parallels between the 1970s and now, they highlighted that while recent industrial action has not been as widespread or entrenched as 50 or so years prior, 2022 saw a very significant drop in real household incomes (the fastest since the 1950s). In this context, we heard that as Labour moves to position itself as more fiscally responsible, the Conservative government will try to crowd out potential policy openings that the opposition might use to gain electoral ground, possibly leading to a slight policy overlap between the two largest parties.

The breakout sessions across both days were as insightful as usual. Between chairing commitments and general events duties, highlights included hearing about joint sector and government ambition to drive forward the sustainability agenda. and the strategic and practical importance of having access to good quality data. The NHF roundtable on the future of social housing rents was very well attended and saw delegates actively engaged on the NHF’s proposed position to take to the government.

No conference would be complete without a recent major government policy announcement for delegates and exhibitors to mull over. They don’t come much bigger or more aptly timed than the government’s Spring Budget, which the chancellor announced midway through proceedings on our opening day. While it was a fairly quiet one for housing, with energy support and childcare costs grabbing the headlines, the introduction of the creatively coined ‘trailblazing devolution deals’ for the West Midlands and Greater Manchester (placing affordable housing under the authorities’ remits) was a notable development. Also of note in here was the commitment to consult on expanding the types of energy savings materials and technologies that benefit from zero-rated VAT, something the NHF has been working on and made the case for in our submission to the Spring Budget.

We were treated late on the first day to an inspirational keynote speech from the maverick David Fishwick, famed for his ‘Bank of Dave’ TV series and a strong advocate for community-led banking and a move away from ‘bonus culture’.

Day two followed in a similar vein, with a sector update from the Regulator of Social Housing providing a valuable backdrop for the day’s content. Subsequent speakers considered the current and future funding arrangements for social housing, with NHF Chief Executive Kate Henderson highlighting serious need for greater flexibility within Homes England funding (particularly to support regeneration), and policy consultant Toby Lloyd questioning the future role of shared ownership as a prioritised tenure.

My personal highlight was MP Clive Betts’s frank and comprehensive review of the sector in its current form and the patchwork of legacy policy and funding decisions that has left it in a precarious position. Waiting until the end of his rousing speech, Clive Betts announced that the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee would launch an inquiry into the financing and sustainability of the social housing sector. This would offer a chance for the sector and the government to objectively assess what resources housing associations will need to address the chronic undersupply of new homes, and the quality and sustainability of existing ones.

The session was a fitting denouement to a whirlwind couple of days, and on reflection neatly captured my lasting thoughts from the conference. We were left under no illusions about the scale of the challenges facing housing associations, but were offered avenues for reflection, for honest assessment and ultimately for positive change.

Ed Barber

Policy Officer, National Housing Federation

Ed is a policy officer at the National Housing Federation, collaborating with members to understand how government policy and proposals can support housing associations and their residents. Ed works primarily on supply and finance policy areas, as well as on the future of housing association rent policy.

A timely exploration of the financial challenges (and opportunities) for housing associations