Our chairman Sebert Cox is a member of the National Housing Federation’s board and is chairing the Federation’s national Board Members’ Conference this weekend.
When I first became involved with the governance of a housing association in 1983, the social housing sector was a very different place to what it is today. I joined because I understood how important a good home is to a person’s life and the key role that housing plays in that and in creating strong communities.
Thirty-six years on, while my motivations have not changed, the role of a board member, which has always been important, has become increasingly so, and the demands placed on us have grown exponentially.
A changing political landscape, more complex and varied funding streams, and the diversification into commercial developments to cross-subsidise our core offer have all had an impact. The Grenfell tragedy has rightly led to housing providers putting an even greater focus on health and safety and listening to customers’ concerns.
The result? Board members need a broader range of knowledge and skills, and must take a stronger role in scrutinising housing associations’ operations.
Understanding and managing risk is central to the board’s role. There are many areas of increasing risk for housing associations, as identified by the Regulator of Social Housing last year, that as board members, we have to manage. Health and safety is key. As a board member, you must insist on receiving the right information and make key decisions so that you can be sure that not only is your organisation keeping its customers and employees safe but so too are your contractors. In the wake of Grenfell, this has never been more important.
Over the last ten years, Government policy has changed with moves away from social rent to a greater emphasis on home ownership and decreased grant funding and, more recently, in the Social Housing Green Paper, a greater focus on empowering customers and regulating the sector.
We as board members must keep an ever closer eye on the external environment and changing policy developments to understand how they affect our organisation.
We must also ensure that we listen to what our customers say and that there are varied and meaningful ways in which they can influence and have a voice in decision-making.
Rising demand for affordable housing means housing associations are increasingly looking for new ways to fund development. Where previously we relied on grant funding and bank loans, the sector has now gone out more widely. At Karbon Homes, we recently raised £150 million of new bonds with a further £100 million retained for later sale. This was a new avenue for us and required additional knowledge and understanding among our board members – including around reporting and our credit rating.
As Chairman of the board, it’s crucial I ensure there is a good mix of skills among board members and never has this been more true. Board members have to take responsibility for ensuring they constantly develop their professional skills.
And it’s not just a wider range of skills that we need, we also have to ensure there is diversity among board members themselves – that we come from different backgrounds and walks of life. This is a big passion of mine but it is up to all board members to encourage people from diverse backgrounds to take up the role.
As board members, we must not be complacent. Going forward, we will continue to need to develop our skills and knowledge to meet the ever changing challenges our roles and the sector bring.