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Untapped opportunities - how Housing Associations and private sectors can work together to innovate and succeed

One of the workshops run at The BITC Hub@Responsible Business Week, this session brought businesses and Housing Associations together to explore innovative partnerships and collaboration.

Businesses have long recognised that acting responsibly as an employer, neighbour, customer and supplier is vital to their success. Housing Associations (HAs) house some of the most vulnerable people in our communities; and their mission includes improving those people’s lives. This session drew on the expertise of both parties to address themes including:

  • How business can access new pools of talent through working closely with HAs

  • How the finance sector can ensure their products and services are accessible

  • How technology companies can access digitally excluded groups

  • How collaborative innovation can provide affordable energy solutions.

The panel:

  • Debbie Akehurst, Head of Economy and Communities, Land Securities

  • Ian Caveney, Senior CR Manager, EE

  • Tim Dumbleton, Digital Inclusion Project Manager, Orbit Group

  • Wayne Hainsworth, Executive Director, Customer Services, Wandle

  • Phil Miles, Director of Regeneration and Communities, Affinity Sutton

  • Michelle Reynolds, Group Commercial Director, Affinity Sutton

  • Tina Tietjen, Consultant, Business in the Community, and Chair, East Thames Group

Panellist introduction

Wayne Hainsworth explained that partnerships can offer a lot of value to both sides. For commercial organisations this could potentially be new customers. HAs have loyal customers in their residents, and can offer guidance to the private sector about these customers.

HAs in turn can benefit from work with other sectors to better understand their shared customers. For example, working with a bank could allow them to discover that many of their residents weren’t utilising the bank services available to them.

Michell and Phil of Affinity Sutton described HAs as seeing themselves as businesses with a social ethos. It was pointed out that, in collaborations, each party needs to be clear about what they have to offer and what they want, with shared objectives.

Debbie Akehurst explained some of Land Securities motivations and practices, describing a drive to engage with the people where Land Securities projects are based. This is one way Land Securities is trying to overcome the ‘them and us’ issue.  She noted that her company is keen to talk more to housing associations about the opportunities which are already available.

Ian gave another business perspective, describing how, historically, the EE corporate sales team has approached housing associations looking at sales opportunities, which can have a negative impact.  However, EE often finds disadvantaged people can benefit from their products and services. 

Tim, who has been working at Orbit Group on the Connected Housing Initiative (CHI) with EE said that keeping an open mind was important when discussing partnership opportunities, and it was also crucial not to forget the needs of the customers. The CHI is a group of thirteen HAs with a focus on broadband access and access to low cost products.  Share your views on the initiative.

Through the CHI, EE and Orbit are working on a mobile WiFi offer – working together enables them to create a product to enable customers to access broadband without signing up to contracts  Tim stressed that it was important to work together to engage the market/residents.

Roundtables

A roundtable discussion followed, looking at the opportunities, and challenges of collaboration between housing associations and corporates

Opportunities identified included:

  • Talent/recruitment pipelines: Where there are skills shortages in certain industries HAs can help with a recruitment pipeline

  • HAs could help advise sectors which haven’t traditionally offered apprenticeships on how to set them up and feed through their own residents – particularly the food and beverage sector

  • Opportunity to engage a younger audience in different styles of work

  • Can capitalise on the Apprenticeship Levy, making it attractive to both companies and tenants, and embed apprenticeships into contracts

  • Working with so many different sectors, HAs can tap into a wide range of available opportunities.

  • Developing innovative products and services to reach residents and help lower the costs for the HA

  • Opportunity to develop a framework to evaluate shared objectives

  • Piloting initiatives can be great at trialling what works and what doesn’t

  • Using existing corporate relationships

  • Working with suppliers and contractors over a certain size

Challenges were broken down into those faced by HAs and by corporates when building successful collaborations.

Housing associations

  • Relationship building is critical and it's important to be transparent and communicate if the partnership isn’t working

  • Finding the right skills and experience among residents for the opportunities which are on offer

  • Apprenticeships need to be meaningful, aspirational and creative

  • Measuring the impact of partnerships can be challenging.

  • Short term partnerships can be challenging. Partnerships really need to last longer than a year to be truly successful

  • It can be hard for smaller HAs to compete against the larger ones.

  • The return on investment is often long term, it’s not necessarily going to be seen quickly

  • Geographical location can be a barrier particularly when working with corporates with a national presence

  • It can be difficult to renegotiate existing partnerships.

Corporates

  • It can be hard to find the right person to speak to, and to understand how a housing associations work and how to work with them.

  • It would be useful if HAs worked together to pitch offers to corporates. HAs will often be limited to certain areas and building scale is important.

  • Suppliers can also work together to improve the apprenticeships on offer.

  • Collaboration needs to be about more than just access to residents.

  • Can be difficult for HAs to access funding to get projects started and develop proof of concept models to help corporates sell internally.

  • Engaging with residents can be tricky.

  • Internally – getting buy in can be challenging

  • Companies should support with consumer-facing marketing to be put out by the HA, using their skills to market their products or services to residents.

  • The HA sector is changing, HAs are merging, and are no longer homes for life