Emma Bimpson is a research associate at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence (CaCHE). This blog is based on an event held with CaCHE Research Associate Jenny Preece, at the University of Sheffield.
On 12 June, Jenny and I welcomed around 40 delegates from academia, practice, policy and other housing sector organisations to Sheffield to discuss the ways that social responsibility is interpreted by social and private landlords. The event was sponsored by the Housing Studies Association’s bursary scheme, which aims to support early career researchers and to bring academic researchers and practitioners together. The response to the call for papers showed that the topic clearly resonated with both.
Kim McKee (University of Stirling) and Tom Simcock (Edge Hill University) opened with contrasting plenaries that highlighted the social responsibility that is both lacking and emergent in the private rented sector (PRS). Kim’s current research shows how the struggle to make home in the PRS isn’t limited to young people alone. Older renters and families are also impacted, and parents and pregnant women have faced discrimination from landlords. However, socially responsible private lettings agencies are also in operation. Tom explored the concept of corporate social responsibility and its potential to increase ‘fair’ and ‘responsible’ practice, as we see a shift from small-scale landlords to large portfolio investors within the PRS.
This was followed by the first workshop session on the theme of Care, Support and Mental Health in housing. Lisa Garnham (University of Glasgow) presented her research with Steve Rolfe (University of Stirling), which considers the impact of property versus person-centred approaches on tenant experiences within social and private rented housing. In the latter, holistic perspectives of tenancy sustainment go beyond income management by including wider social factors, and a longer-term view of life quality. Organisational culture driven by person-centred approaches was also attributed to flexibility, and avoiding the rigid pathways, targets and timescales that often underpin public and third sector services.
Emma Leggot’s independent research on ‘low-level self-neglect’, undertaken with a range of practitioners, also highlighted the value of individual empowerment. The responsibility for housing officers, repairs officers and other housing staff to not only identify but act upon instances of self-neglect, which may be considered within the remit of social services, is not clearly acknowledged or supported. An enthusiastic Q&A session after Emma’s talk noted the subjectivity of individual judgement, blurred boundaries of responsibility between housing and social services, and expanding digital services as some of the ‘disempowering’ factors faced by housing staff.
Opaque or blurred responsibilities between housing, support and public services were also evident in research around mental health and the PRS in Wales, as we heard from Catherine May (Tyfu Tai Cymru, CIH) and Matt Kennedy (CIH). Whilst some landlords discriminated against tenants on the basis of mental-ill health, others recognised the potential for their practices to exacerbate existing conditions. Their recommendations – like better information and training for landlords – also chimed with our CaCHE project with Mind Cymru on housing insecurity and mental health in Wales.
Ahead of the next session on interpreting Social Mission and Meeting Needs among housing associations, Tony Manzi’s (Sheffield Hallam University) plenary provided a lively provocation around ‘the weight of moral responsibility’ within the sector. The ‘F-word’ featured heavily, as Tony illustrated the grip of financialisation on housing association development and landlord practices. Hannah Arendt’s conceptualisation of responsibility as the act of ‘challenge’ inspired questions from the audience around the implications of housing association ownership, by lenders, boards, tenants and other representative bodies.
Faye Greaves (CIH) discussed the importance of people, process and competing objectives as drivers of social landlord behaviour, based on interim findings from the CIH ‘rethinking allocations’ project. Surveys with housing associations and local authorities across England reveal important challenges. People who may have qualified for social housing due to social support needs under the Housing Act, could now be prevented from accessing social housing under more stringent lettings practices.
South Yorkshire Housing Association’s Chair of the board, Ian Cole (Sheffield Hallam University), and tenant board member, Terry Proudfoot, looked at business imperatives, social mission and tenant impact – the ‘trilemma’ facing the sector. Terry described the value of tenant engagement mechanisms such as board membership, which are as important as the provision of care and support as a means to deliver socially responsible services.
Sarah Rowe from Crisis then demonstrated how the Homes for Cathy Campaign has galvanised support among the 81 housing associations who have taken part to date, by recapturing social responsibility around homelessness strategies. Homes for Cathy members have signed up to a series of commitments, such as ‘person-centred’ allocations and no evictions into homelessness. The campaign sends a strong signal to housing association board members who hold decision-making power in relation to allocations policies.
Michael Lui (L&Q) explained how L&Q and other housing associations have asserted their social responsibility by rejecting Fixed-Term Tenancies (FTTs). As other research has demonstrated, L&Q have observed anxiety and uncertainty among tenants on FTT’s, rather than the behaviour changes that provided the rationale for the implementation of this policy.
Professionalism and Practice provided the lens for the final session, as Emma Lindley (Ashfield District Council) brought the room back to the question of autonomy within social housing practice. In a survey of CIH members about the meaning of professionalism, continual learning and ‘ethical’ practice ranked high among responses. However, whilst using discretion and expertise to make judgements also featured strongly, autonomy did not. Again, this finding hints at the tendency for housing services to be process- rather than people-driven, and the need for trust and empowerment within a professional ethical framework, as much as training and consistency within the sector.
Jessica Duncan (University of Birmingham) then presented her undergraduate dissertation research around how self-perceptions of exempt accommodation providers affect the delivery of supported accommodation. Jessica’s research responds to a lack of understanding around the role and diversity of exempt accommodation providers in England. Street-level governance demonstrated a high level of autonomy, as providers self-organised within their locality to improve systems and raise standards. Fingers crossed for more on this research from Jessica!
Lastly, we heard from Hannah Taylor Dales (Acis Group) and Simon Williams (Service Insights) on their mammoth survey of housing association tenants about customer expectations. Just under 5,817 telephone interviews with tenants of housing associations in England highlighted the importance of services such as repairs for quality of life, with communication and keeping promises among other markers.
It was clear from the 13 presentations and lively audience participation throughout the day that social responsibility derives not only from individual ethics and autonomy but from institutional or organisational cultures which empower staff and define responsible practice. Whilst policy and process-driven requirements provide a necessary level of consistency and help to prevent exclusion or discrimination from services, it was evident that person-centred services that go beyond process or statutory indicators of need were equally important features of responsible practice.