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29 July 2020

Housing Associations as anchor institutions

Housing Associations as anchor institutions
Dr Jamie Smith is Director of Research and Innovation at Hafod. As we embark on the next phase of our Influencing for a better future work to show how the social housing sector can play a major role in rebuilding and creating a better Wales, Jamie discusses the role of housing associations as anchor institution:

“Throughout the pandemic, we have heard stories of communities the world over coming together, self-organising and drawing on their knowledge, skills, and resources to look after their own.

I agree with those who say let’s dispense with disempowering terms like ‘vulnerable’, ‘deprived’ and ‘in need’ and put our minds to how we can be catalysts for unlocking the strengths that so obviously exist in our communities. At times it’s seemed to me that communities have been supporting and propping up the infrastructure of public services when for so long the prevailing wisdom was the reverse. I’m not talking about a new idea here, just one that’s been brought into sharper focus in a crisis.

I was asked, as I’m sure many others have been, to give some early thought to what the recovery from the crisis would entail and what role a housing association would have to play in it. What occurred to me is that it’s hard to talk about communities without encompassing their underlying infrastructure – particularly the place-based institutions which are very much part of their ecosystems and will be instrumental in helping them emerge from what promises to be a massive economic shock.

The formative work on anchor institutions in the US characterised them as organisations with strong ties to the communities they operate in; significant size as employers and buyers of goods and services; and generally not for profit. This work also highlighted the economic and social benefits of anchor institutions working in partnership to achieve more than the sum of the parts, in terms of welfare, education and training, health and productivity.

Most housing associations, consciously or not, fit these criteria perfectly and act as anchor institutions in some way. But as a relative newcomer, it surprised me that the sector didn’t necessarily view itself or talk about itself in this way and the notion is not yet woven into the policy and regulatory fabric. But with such a dramatic (and perhaps permanent) shift in the balance of the economy, in favour of the fundamentals of life at the expense of discretionary spending, now has to be the time to accelerate activity in this area, where we can really add value.

So how can we use our investment and spending to strengthen the foundations of local economies? How can we influence a green recovery that creates new and sustainable employment opportunities? How can we direct local partners and other community anchors to work in tandem to improve the well-being of their places? And closest to my own interests, how do we use the trust and relationships we have with communities and our skills in engagement to protect health and improve well-being?

All of these spaces are ripe for innovation. While we know broadly what works, I think it’s important a) not to impose top-down solutions on communities (which the evidence tells us is a bad idea) b) not to jump to solutions that could be plausible without really understanding the problems they are designed to solve, and c) implement solutions in ways that allow us to properly understand their impact.

On the latter point, I revert unashamedly to type, but this is, for the most part, new territory. Although there is an urgency to act (and we will) we should approach our actions as experiments and learning opportunities, finding out what works best, for whom, and in what circumstances. After all, as one of my heroes Richard Feynman uttered ‘everything’s an educated guess until we have the evidence’.”

More information on the programme can be found here.