Support offered by social landlords has never been more vital

Scotland recently commemorated National Housing Day. Wheatley Group Chief Executive, Martin Armstrong, reflects on this year’s theme, “The value of social housing”.

Martin Armstrong

Scotland’s largest housing, care and property management group is called Wheatley for good reason.

It’s named after the late Glasgow MP John Wheatley, a colourful, controversial, passionate politician, who championed the true value of social housing and everything it offers families and communities throughout the UK.

A critical supporter of Ramsay Macdonald, Wheatley was appointed Minister of Health in the first (short-lived) Labour Government of 1924. His greatest achievement was the passing of The Housing  (Financial Provisions) Act of 1924, commonly known as The Wheatley Housing Act, which resulted in a huge expansion of affordable municipal housing for the working class.

An article in Scottish Housing News (SHN) recently highlighted how Wheatley – the “father of social housing” – forged a successful partnership between political parties, local authorities and specially-appointed committees of building employees and employers. “In solidifying these relationships, he successfully orchestrated the movement towards building new council houses at affordable rates,” reported SHN.

“It was Lloyd George who promised ‘homes fit for heroes’, but it was Wheatley who delivered them and he was determined that they should be quality dwellings, calling them ‘homes not hutches’.”

The pandemic has led us all, one way or another, to re-evaluate not only the purpose, value and importance of our homes (if we’re lucky enough to have one), but their capacity to be a workspace and / or somewhere in which we spend – in this Covid world – a much greater amount of time living, socialising, being. Covid has reinforced and reminded us home is (or should be) a safe, secure place, which has a huge bearing on our physical and mental wellbeing.

Increasing the supply and maintenance of homes that are affordable, fuel efficient and of high quality has never been more essential. It’s central to what Wheatley stands for and does; a massive part of our DNA. Being named by Inside Housing – for the fourth consecutive year – as the UK’s largest builder of social-rented homes is regarded by everyone at Wheatley as a true badge of honour. But, as we all know, it’s not simply a matter of bricks and mortar and, in these difficult times, the additional value housing providers offer tenants, particularly those most severely impacted by coronavirus, has never been more vital.

Take, for example, William, who moved after years of homelessness into a GHA flat in the Knightswood area of Glasgow. Receiving support to overcome his drug addiction, William secured a place on Wheatley Foundation’s Changing Lives environmental training programme. For the first time in many years, he felt hope for the future. “I’ve come on leaps and bounds,” he told his housing officer. “Having my own home and my own front door is a good feeling. I feel safe.”

Another Wheatley tenant, who moved into a new house in West Lothian, told us recently how her family life had been transformed. Margaret, her partner and children had lived until recently in overcrowded conditions for a year and a half in her mother’s house. “That was eight people in total, all living together in one house,” she explained. “You simply can’t believe the difference having our own bedrooms, our own space, has made to my family - and my mum.”

Neither should the economic value of what our sector provides be underestimated. Wheatley’s ambitious new-build programme, which resumed in June, creates and safeguards hundreds of jobs, apprenticeships and training opportunities, a proportion of which – through Community Benefit clauses in our contracts with contractors – are held for the people and communities we work for across Scotland.

Research by the respected Fraser of Allander Institute has put the contribution of our largest RSL, Glasgow Housing Association, alone to the Scottish economy at more than £2 billion since 2003. In doing our bit to address social need and support the economy, our sector continues to demonstrate the everlasting value of social housing.

There are so many ways in which we are contributing to national, regional and local wellbeing during this awful pandemic. At Wheatley, a whole range of wraparound services is available to the people we work for in housing and care.

Our in-house Modern Apprenticeship programme has led to more than 500 young people – most from Wheatley homes – starting careers in housing, care and business support, and another 120 over the past couple of years receiving £3000 bursaries over two years, enabling them to access further education.

Within a few weeks of the start of lockdown In March, our EatWell emergency food service went from delivering around 120 packages weekly in Glasgow to thousands across central and southern Scotland. Our army of 400 housing officers has made hundreds of thousands of welfare calls to vulnerable tenants, accessing a new Emergency Response Fund, that supplies to those most in need everything from essential white goods and fuel top-ups to children’s educational packs. Our money, welfare and fuel advisors ensure those in need access all of the benefits and support to which they are entitled.

This devastating pandemic still has some way to run and social housing providers everywhere will continue to step up to meet the extreme challenges it presents. In doing so, however, we need to do more than learn the lessons and share the experiences gained from our collective response to the pandemic. At Wheatley, we’ve seized the moment – because we had to – to fast track many of the service and customer engagement initiatives contained in our 2020-2025 strategy, which had been due for launch in April.

That five-year strategy, which now will take us through to 2026 and be unveiled next spring, is being updated and modified. It will incorporate an exciting new operational model that features different ways of working for Team Wheatley and draws heavily on and accelerates our original digital transformation plans. These are aimed at harnessing technology to enable us to provide even more personalised services that involve and engage customers in their creation and deployment.

One thing that will never change, however, is our commitment to provide not just Lloyd George’s “homes for heroes”, but housing, care and wraparound services that, I know, John Wheatley would welcome and approve.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020