“It’s going to be a completely different world, isn’t it, at the other side of this?” Tracy Harrison asks, referring to how the COVID-19 pandemic has suddenly thrown everything up in the air.
It’s hard to disagree with her, as we speak from our homes during the government-enforced lockdown.
Since May last year, Harrison has acted as chief executive of the Northern Housing Consortium (NHC), the North East-based membership organisation which represents the views of housing organisations across the North of England.
The NHC is handling the rigours of remote working well, successfully managing to conduct a planned conference as an online webinar in recent weeks. Harrison is impressed by how her team has responded in moving all their services online. She also thinks that the reduced travel that COVID-19 is causing will be of benefit, both for staff wellbeing and from an environmental perspective.
“I’ve spoken to several chief execs who’ve said we’ve probably advanced several years in the space of two or three weeks, from a technology point of view!” Harrison says. “I think being forced to do things remotely has huge benefits in terms of staff wellbeing, not spending so much time travelling and then reducing your carbon footprint… We’re all getting to grips with it, aren’t we?”
The housing sector will long be getting to grips with all the impacts of COVID-19, especially here in the North of England. The region will face particular challenges – the government are thankfully still making ‘encouraging noises’ about their ‘levelling up’ agenda, Harrison says – and Harrison admits that housing organisations will likely be perceived differently in the wake of the crisis.
“I feel that actually our members – housing associations and ALMOs and local authorities – will be viewed very differently at the end of this,” Harrison says. ‘I think there will be the recognition that they are anchor institutions within their communities; that they are playing a vital role; that they are providing those frontline services. At the end of the day, when the chips are down, they have been amongst the organisations that have sprung into action and supported people.”
Harrison thinks that once the lockdown ends, building homes for outright sale will be difficult as people will hesitate to make big capital investments, wary that the virus could rear its head again. There will also be renewed attention on the poor-quality homes in the North’s private rented sector, as people return home from hospital and are forced to work remotely.
There will inevitably be ‘horror stories’, she warns, and the country has already seen a huge swell in support for public sector workers – here, she references news from the homelessness charity Shelter that it had been in touch with an NHS hospital worker facing eviction by their landlord.
“I think it’s going to bring a lot of these issues into sharp focus,” she says, “particularly when you think that the people who we are lauding and praising and thanking on a weekly basis, quite rightly, are people who have been actually excluded from a decent housing offer in many instances… Are we going to tolerate that as a society after this?”
Harrison believes that housing can make a big contribution to the UK’s economic recovery, especially through retrofitting existing housing stock – one of the NHC’s main wishes. A retrofitting programme for the North would, Harrison says, create employment, boost health outcomes, reduce fuel poverty and tackle climate change all in one go.
Overall, Harrison thinks that COVID-19 will underline the need to build more social housing and address the UK’s poor-quality insecure tenure stock – in short, to fix a housing sector that she says has ‘been completely dysfunctional for a long time’.
“What I hope is one of the positive legacies of COVID-19 is that things that have been in the ‘too difficult’ pile, we’ll suddenly manage to deal with,” Harrison says. “It’s that thing about ‘needs must when the devil drives’.
“Everybody suddenly has managed to get their organisations to work remotely within a two- or three-week period. We have managed to get rough sleepers off the streets and house them. All of these things that were just too difficult to do are happening – they’ve happened! – so I hope that we have renewed confidence to deal with the big problems.”
It’s a note of hope to end on – the idea that the COVID-19 crisis could well spur us to do better as a society. On this point, Harrison is clear that the North’s housing sector has a massive contribution to make. “Never let a crisis go to waste,” she concludes.