All of us are wondering what the future will look like. To my mind, one thing is clear – when we begin to emerge from this crisis, a huge effort will be needed to rebuild our economy, and building – in the true bricks-and-mortar sense of the word – must play a central role in that effort.
We were facing a housing crisis before the pandemic, but it will have worsened as more people face financial difficulties and job insecurity. Yet, as much as building new homes is about addressing the demand that already existed, it is also about the stimulus that housebuilding promises the economy.
We know that housing associations (HAs) and the construction industry are key drivers of growth. The housebuilding industry is now worth £38bn a year to the economy and supports nearly 700,000 jobs. We are well placed to be part of the rebuilding that will be needed in the months to come.
Before the pandemic, the government demonstrated a commitment to investing in infrastructure. We have also seen that the government can be bold and innovative, introducing support that would have felt impossible in ‘normal’ times. This encourages me to think that we can influence change, because in the post-coronavirus world, old solutions will not cut it.
It is time for a fresh approach. At Metropolitan Thames Valley, we want to be at the heart of a coming-together of government, HAs, developers and builders, working together to deliver new solutions.
Yes, new government funding will need to play a part, but we also need to challenge ourselves to find different levers that can be pulled — and which don’t come with big price tags. It need not be drastic, but, for example, nuanced changes to funding programmes and recognising different products in planning will unleash real opportunities.
One thing that has already changed is the definition in most people’s minds of what a key worker is, rightly expanding to incorporate people who have done so much during this crisis, but who were overlooked before. Many of these key workers live in the homes we provide – homes that enable them to contribute to the response to this crisis.
However, across the country many key workers are shut out not just from home ownership, but also decent and low-cost rented housing, meaning building these ‘homes for heroes’ will require a fresh approach to sustainable blends of sub-market homes. Helpfully, as the Letwin Review found, diversifying the tenures in a scheme by including more low-cost and affordable homes will help get homes built faster.
HAs are ideally placed to partner with government, developers and housebuilders. As institutions, we have strong financial covenants and substantial untapped assets. Our sector has a proud record of building new homes and improving people’s lives. We also have a deep connection with communities that helps secure support for new development.
The need for a joint effort has never been greater. If we get it right, we can put new homebuilding at the heart of the great rebuild.
Geeta Nanda is chief executive of Metropolitan Thames Valley