Change that leads to better lives

Home is where the person is.

NDTi Chief Executive, Paul Marshall, reflects on the similarities between his social housing experience and the challenges currently facing the housing and support market.

Housing Choices discussion

It’s been a cold start to the week and in the midst of working out how to keep warm – apparently, it’s all about layering – I reflected on my previous work about driving warmer and more energy efficient homes and changing how people approached keeping safe and warm in the winter. And yes, living in just one room over the winter months, wrapping up in blankets and skimping on essentials such as food to afford to have some heating really does happen.

It can be difficult to change behaviours around heating a home (how many of us actually check our tariffs monthly to find the best deal), many see the improvements that could be made as unsettling and intrusive. The truth however is that in some cases insulating better or switching to a cheaper deal isn’t enough - the problem actually lies in the fabric of the building. So, the simple solution would seem that people need better homes which are more energy efficient and cheaper to keep warm.

We may think of a change of bricks and mortar as a solution, but from the conversations I’ve had, it’s often what surrounds the bricks and mortar that matters most. Having your local networks, relationships, friends, shop and services close by are vital. So too is the familiarity of knowing the area in which you live; where the bus stop is, what the times are, what’s on at the local community centre, what leisure opportunities are close by. Within this context moving is an unattractive choice? People often prefer to settle with what they have – it might be draughty, a bit shabby around the edges or simply feel like the only thing that meets your needs. Add in the emotional attachment that people have with where they live – it might be the place where they grew up, got married or had children – and suddenly the carrot of a nice warm home isn’t quite as appealing. Yes, you may be warmer, yes it might be cheaper to manage and look after, but you’d more than likely be sacrificing those, often intangible, things that make where you live your home.

For an increasing number of us, the trigger point for moving is very rarely a choice-led decision. It is usually at a crisis point, often after a series of ugly and utilitarian adaptations to allow us to stay independent in our own homes for as long as possible. It’s at that point of moving that choices become narrower. If you’ve got to move, but not into residential care, then you’re possibly moving in with family, releasing equity from the home you own, or renting in the private or social housing sector. All come with their own pros and cons, but it is the latter, social housing, that’s worth a further look.

Having worked in the social housing sector, I’ve seen some truly excellent homes that are situated in the heart of the community, close to the services and opportunities people need and want. However, these have been few and far between. For every great home, there are many more that wouldn’t look out of place in a documentary of life in 1950’s eastern Europe - designed for 1950’s society, healthcare and technology. Society has moved on, but in many cases the homes and approach to housing people has not.

Beyond the general sense that this doesn’t feel socially right, the incentive for investment simply isn’t there. Those that live in supported or sheltered homes are often seen as the ideal tenants – loyal (due to little or no choice of alternatives), best at keeping their rent accounts in order, place a low demand on repairs and improvements, require very little housing management intervention and complain about things the least. Ironically, despite being the star customer, they’re the ones that seem to get the very worst offer.

I’ve also seen some of the amazing and architecturally brilliant new accommodation being developed across the country and they show a very real desire to get it right – it’s fair to say that they’re really well thought out, the HAPPi principles evident and a touch of boutique hotel chic added in. Unfortunately, as good as they are, there is a missing ingredient. They are often located in places that are separated from those all-important, less tangible things, such as access to services, friendships outside the four walls and the opportunity to do more than simply inhabit a home. The same applies even if, in the case of older people’s housing, you’re one of the lucky few who has retired and managed to free up a considerable amount of equity to invest in a home in an all singing, all dancing gated retirement village. It might be lovely, but you could argue that community integration has been reduced and isolation increased.

It’s not simple, but the connection between where and what people live in and their ongoing quality of life, wellbeing and health is obvious. Therefore, the growing dialogue between health and housing is encouraging. As sectors they are beginning to understand the mutual benefits of working together to create homes, communities and support that enable people to live the lives they want in places that allow them to thrive.

However, it does feel like it is a dialogue that is yet to be turned into coproduced and collaborative action. We know that commissioners want to change things and we also know that some housing associations are ready too. Following on from our Housing Discussion Papers, we are taking the next step by bringing these two sectors together with experts by experience to talk about what needs to happen to behaviour at an organisational level, rather than amongst tenants, to create homes - not just a bricks and mortar solution.

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