New Year, New Government, New Opportunities

As a new year dawns, the sector must act quickly to make its voice heard to the new MPs on the debate around housing, writes Riverside’s Chief Executive Carol Matthews

2019 has been a year of change and upheaval, culminating in one of the most remarkable general elections in a generation. As we anticipate the New Year, perhaps we can look forward a focus on the domestic agenda (as well as the dreaded “B” word!)

The results of the election have caused a major shift in the political landscape across the country and we have seen this reflected in many of the constituencies Riverside operates in. Leigh, in Greater Manchester, has been a Labour seat since the 1920s and is now held by the Conservatives. Other Northern constituencies such as Heywood and Middleton and Wakefield tell a similar story.

But as housing associations we have learned to adapt and work alongside Governments in whatever shape they come. With the Conservative Party Manifesto promising to renew the Affordable Homes Programme, deliver 300,000 homes per year, empower tenants in social housing and end rough sleeping, there is plenty to work with. We now need to show how we can step up as credible partners who can deliver positive change and at the same time play our part in responding to the housing and homelessness crises.

We must start by building strong relationships with new MPs, many of whom are navigating new territory, and keep sharing with those we already know. Local MPs are the servants of their communities and deal with the issues of their constituents’ lives, a critical one being housing. Let’s become their ‘go to’ organisations, responsive to their queries and trusted for our support and advice as they develop their views on housing.

So what are the main areas where we need to exert influence?

Firstly we must alert them to the hardship tenants are facing due to the disconnect between rents and benefits. Our recent Universal Credit research shows that many of our customers are finding it difficult to cope with the five week wait, with as many as 40% of new claimants falling into debt and relying on the help of food banks or loans from family and friends. We cannot sit back and watch the impact this is having on people’s lives, and at Riverside we will continue to call for Government to end the five week wait.

Secondly we must continue to fight for those in our communities who are the most vulnerable and in need of additional support, whether this is because are elderly and no longer able to live independently, or because they are homeless and sleeping rough. Tackling homelessness remains a key priority at Riverside, and whilst greater funding for programmes such Housing First is a start, it is not enough. There must be a long-term strategy to ending homelessness with a focus on prevention, which will also help save money for health, social care and prison services.

Finally we must continue to make the case for more and better affordable housing to help end the housing crisis. It is great that Government recognises the need for at least 300,000 new homes per year, but in order to help those most in need we know that 140,000 of these must be affordable. And for all those new Northern MPs, we must tell them that many of these are needed in their part of the world to help level-up the economy. This will take significant and well-targeted investment, and in order to achieve this housing must be treated as a key part of our national infrastructure.

So as we welcome in a New Year, we have a fantastic opportunity to influence a Government keen to develop a new narrative for a fairer Britain. We must act quickly whilst MPs are eager to make a difference and before Government becomes fixated again by Brexit. Let’s make sure our voices are heard and our actions demonstrate our keenness to tackle the housing crisis.

Published in Inside Housing on 2 January 2020.