It is six months since Group Board agreed our new Corporate Plan which will take us to 2020 and beyond – ‘We R Riverside’. We are delighted that it seems to have struck a chord, and many of you have told us that it reflects the discussions we had throughout last year, not least at the 2016 strategy day in Manchester. These events are unmissable!
I sense that people have connected with the plan, because it feels vital and relevant – a plan ‘for our times’. It is deliberately based on a shared understanding of the world in which we work and our place within it, directly addressing knotty issues such as the national housing crisis, ongoing challenges for our customers living through austerity and welfare reform, the visible rise of homelessness, relentless demographic change and rising customer expectations. But it is also realistic, and recognises the major challenges we face in solving these problems – rent reductions, Brexit uncertainty, threats to the funding of supported housing – and the need for us to take the future into our own hands, so that we create our own financial capacity to do more, through modernising the organisation.
Far from being cowed by the issues we face, what has emerged is arguably our most ambitious plan in years, an outward looking plan for growth and investment: 20,000 new homes in ten years, the roll out of digital repairs services, three major neighbourhood renewal programmes, new investment models for supported housing to namecheck a few of our aims.
But as we demonstrate to you how we have picked up momentum and are ‘moving through the gears’, perhaps we also need to pause, albeit briefly. This is not normally a time to start questioning the foundations on which a new plan sits, but the last six months have been unusually long ones, as our world seems to have changed profoundly at so many levels.
Globally, levels of anxiety are building, with an unpredictable president in the White House, unending and potentially escalating conflicts in the Middle East and belligerence in the Far East. Sometimes it all feels so far away, and yet globalisation means that the ripples of tension and conflict find their way into our economy and society, sometimes in pretty unpredictable ways.
Since the ink dried on the plan, uncertainty has also intensified on the domestic front, with the calling of a snap election which spectacularly backfired, leaving a wounded minority Government which is practically paralysed as it is consumed with delivering Brexit. We have lost yet another Housing Minister – this time very well regarded – and there is a sense that any momentum in dealing with the housing crisis is beginning to dissipate.
And then we have had a summer of bloody incident and man-made disaster – first with a spate of largely internationally inspired but home-grown terror attacks, and then the shocking fire at Grenfell Tower. On the one hand these have placed the cohesion of our communities under enormous stress, but they have also brought out the very best in people, triggering some of the most moving collective responses I can ever recall.
Indeed Grenfell has put social housing centre stage. There is a real sense that government (national and local) and landlords have failed in their duty to look after tenants, often the most vulnerable. This has been seen through systemic failures in major refurbishment programmes, fire safety procedures and a failure to listen – presiding over a second class social housing offer. But there is also a dawning recognition that social housing tenants, far from being the scroungers and losers of the tabloid press and reality TV shows, are amongst the best of us, reflecting the vibrancy and diversity of our communities, surely a message we need to reinforce.
Are these a series of isolated incidents which will fade over time, or do they add up in a way which begins to ask profound questions: about the nature of community and civil society; the visible inequality we have allowed to develop in our inner city neighbourhoods; the responsibility of effective regulation and well delivered public services; and the real value of social housing?
It genuinely feels as if we are ‘in a moment’, and so it is right to take some time together at our strategy day to consider these issues, as we also review the progress we are making. Do we need to rip up our plan just as we were getting started? I very much doubt it – surely so much of what we are trying to do has become all the more relevant, even if conditions in which we are delivering have become trickier.
But do we need to pause, reflect, and check whether we need to adjust any of our plans and services to reflect new realities and uncertainties? Certainly. That is the sign of a mature and flexible organisation.
The stakeholder strategy day is a great place to start and we very much looking forward to continuing the conversation with you.
Hugh is Director of Strategy and Public Affairs