By Tim Pinder, Chief Executive of Peaks & Plains Housing Trust

Last week I joined a number of my housing association peers in anxious anticipation at the Sunday Times Top 100 Not For Profit Workplace Awards ceremony. We were delighted to be listed 38th whilst our colleagues at One Vision grabbed the top spot and no less than 57 housing associations made the list. A disproportionate number, given the scale of the voluntary sector.

This got me thinking about leadership in our sector more broadly. Many of us in the social housing world are, despite our necessary increasingly commercial outlook, still driven by a sense of social justice, fairness and equity which starts with our staff teams. We value them, engage with them and nurture them because that’s the right thing to do but also because it will help deliver our goals.

For us, like many other housing associations (I cannot stand the technocratic term Registered Providers or RPs), these goals fit into two very broad categories: delivering great service to our existing customers i.e. high quality homes and repairs and ‘growing the business’ which can mean anything from building a few extra homes to ‘buying’ a lettings agency or care provider. I guess this is where many colleagues in the wider voluntary sector begin to get nervous – are we partners or piranhas? In all honesty, there’ll be some in each camp, though I’m sure the former camp will be more populous.

Why, you may ask, are we straying outside our historic territory? Well if you marry together this sense of social justice, together with an increasingly confident leadership cadre and a relatively benign financial climate for housing associations (our income has continued to grow above inflation) then we have looked at how we can use our influence, organisation capacity and ambition to impact on the life chances of our tenants and communities. Having recently successfully completed our first 5 year strategy that concentrated largely on improving our housing stock, we’ve just put in place our new 5 year strategy which is focussed on ‘Helping To Improve Lives’ – no mention of housing!

So how will we do it? It will be by forging partnerships with those organisations, many from the voluntary and community sector, who can help us improve the life chances of our tenants through increased education attainment, improved healthcare outcomes and better employment and training outcomes. We’ve already forged some highly effective partnerships that have started to deliver on these outcomes. For example, we worked with a small charity and funded guided walks for sufferers of depression that reduced tranquiliser prescription rates. Also, alongside the police and Macclesfield Town Football Club, we’ve funded Street Soccer coaching that has reduced incidents of anti social behaviour on those long summer nights. We’ve given grounds maintenance contracts to small community-based social enterprises to maximise the take up of training opportunities to many young people previously excluded in our communities.

There are numerous other examples, none of which we could have achieved on our own. We see ourselves as a facilitator or hub around which we try and pull together those folks with the specialisms and expertise to make these life chance enhancements a reality. Whilst that’s our approach, it’s not to say that some of our colleagues might not think differently. They may have the capacity, skills and desire to become more active players themselves in floating support, domiciliary care or a whole range of services that many had not previously associated with housing associations. In doing so, they will often think that they are ideally placed to maximise the direct impact on the quality of life of their residents. I can see how this may unnerve many in the voluntary sector when up against housing associations in competitive tendering situations. Many housing associations though might struggle to compete effectively, given our overheads.

I know that an additional fear for some is the ‘acquisitive’ nature of some associations which is undoubtedly there in some, but by no means all, of us. I do hope and I’m reasonably confident that we as a sector aren’t on some kind of trawling expedition looking to bring in as many voluntary sector organisations into our fold as we can muster. There are a number of examples out there where it’s been mutually beneficial for voluntary organisations finding a degree of shelter in the group structure of housing associations. Invariably this allows them to retain their identity, operational independence and character, whilst benefiting from shared central services, reputation, contacts and access afforded by their new found parent.

So my advice is avoid the piranhas (which I don’t think will be too difficult) and embrace the partners. After all, aren’t we all wanting the same thing – to improve lives?