When Academia meets Social Housing – the power of independent evidence

Wednesday 21st of August 2019

Pete Davies our Community Development Associate talks about how we can protect and enhance community investment work.

Last month I attended HACT’s Community Investment Centre of Excellence’s Research Symposium alongside a great mix of housing professionals and academics at the University of Salford. A brilliantly facilitated and well-designed day focused in on the potential of University based research to evidence the impact of community investment activities and how the C.I.C.E. can support this type of work in the future. Evidencing the social and increasingly the business impact of community investment is becoming big business and essential work in order to sustain our offers across the sector. University research teams are perfectly placed to deliver independent professional assessments and the C.I.C.E. was keen to introduce us to that potential. Here are some of the highlights:

The University of Salford’s Sustainable Housing & Urban Studies Unit have evaluated the work of G.U.A.C. (Give Us a Chance) on the impact of their work around employment support for tenants. The summary offered lots of positive outcomes yet didn’t evidence how getting tenants into work increases their ability to pay their rent, often cited as the key argument for prioritising investment in such activity over other types of services to communities.

Professor Anne Power, Head of Housing & Communities at the London School of Economics was interviewed before the event as she couldn’t attend and emphasised that we should see tenants as real assets, that we must protect the social infrastructure and societal cohesion that we currently have and advised that not only does community investment make the job of a housing association easier but it’s integral to what we do and that the role of academics is to prove it.

Professor Halima Sacranie, from the Housing & Communities Research Group at the University of Birmingham stressed through a live interview with the event facilitator Drew from HACT that community investment is an increasingly important core aspect of our sector yet evidencing impact is still difficult. Describing housing associations as hybrid third sector organisations, progressing social and commercial orientated community investment offers Halima strongly questioned the sectors accountability around engaging tenants in the strategic direction of community investment.

As highlighted in our post-Grenfell context Halima questioned the ownership of strategy and decision making in what could be considered a top down corporate environment where tenants don’t have a say in community investment decisions. Our research with our members indicated that this is indeed the case, so it was encouraging if not worrying to hear that message from an independent academic’s perspective.

The events sponsor, Catalyst, was represented by Sahil Khan, Head of Gateway and Community Services who described how their community investment offer is underpinned by a thunderous £3.5m annual investment (10% of turnover) which allows them to ‘do everything’ and deliver a thematic strategy focused on priorities as aligned with business objectives of: Poverty, Health, Belonging (‘creating the right tone of a place’) and Mixed Neighbourhoods. Sahil explained the importance of ‘monetising the outcomes housing associations are interested in’ and referred to HACT’s Social Value Bank as a great source of such information.

The afternoon focused on the Research Excellence Framework and how the C.I.C.E. should plan for the future around this emerging area of work in our sector. Colleagues are encouraged to approach Universities to secure funding to undertake research that makes the case to senior management teams and Boards that community investment activities are worth the investment.

For me Halima’s words chimed the most. Where are tenants in the development of community investment strategy and therefore how accountable are we to our communities? I welcomed the evaluation of G.U.A.C. and wish them well in their ongoing delivery and wondered whether there was a place in the market for a similar type of enterprise with a focus on community development in social housing? Harder to evidence the impact of perhaps, but an investment that would mirror Anne’s sentiments on the essential role housing associations should be continuing to play in community building.

The event assured me that at Tpas we have the opportunity to influence our members to protect and enhance their community investment work, to build the capacity of tenants to shape strategy and activities that affect their neighbourhoods, communities and families and really stress the importance of asset based thinking and community driven and led solutions. Yet is also reminded me that whatever we do next, evidencing the social and business impact of our work with tenants and members will be an essential aspect of ensuring success.