The social contract: Interview with Gavin Smart, CIH’s chief executive

We speak with Gavin Smart about the CIH’s current challenges, the state of the sector, and what social housing’s purpose should be.
Gavin Smart, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH)
Gavin Smart, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH). Credit: CIH

It’s been a hectic year for the Chartered Institute for Housing (CIH), and a hectic day for its chief executive Gavin Smart.

On a cold, dark afternoon in January, we connect with Smart at his Northamptonshire home towards the end of a day of back-to-back meetings: “The relentless tyranny of Teams and Zoom,” he smiles.

Smart has led the CIH for just over a year now, and he still has the attention to detail you’d expect of a former academic. A thoughtful interviewee, Smart is a self-described “policy wonk” who responds to questions by posing thought experiments and uses engaging analogies to support his arguments. “I do have a tendency towards flippancy which is never a good thing in an interview!” he says.

The CIH has needed Smart’s good humour during a year in which it has faced huge obstacles in fulfilling its stated mission of “supporting housing professionals to create a future in which everybody has a place to call home”.

In his first major interview with Inside Housing last September, Smart outlined how, after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CIH moved quickly to put all its staff, conferences, and training events online, as it faced losing the £500,000 annual surplus it expected.

By December, Smart reveals now, the CIH was “doing OK” as it ended up finishing ahead of budget. However, he remains cautiously optimistic as to the organisation’s end-of-year financial picture.

“We found about £900,000 of savings very, very quickly which we hoped would steer us through this current year with a modest loss actually,” Smart says. “We thought that the hit would be bigger than the savings we could find.

“We’re currently performing ahead of that but if this year has taught me anything, it’s about not counting chickens. I won’t claim that we’ve sailed through it and managed to contain it until we get to 31 March and I can see what the books look like.”

One of the CIH’s biggest income streams pre-pandemic were its conferences which play a huge role in sharing learning across the profession. While the CIH’s online events have been a “huge success”, Smart admits, the organisation thrives on face-to-face events. So are the online events likely to continue when we’re allowed back out again?

“We think that the future is likely to be a hybrid future,” Smart replies. “I don’t think there will be no physical events but people will probably pick and choose more carefully. And we’ve learnt quite a lot about what makes online events work as well.”

Smart speaking at an event during his time as CIH’s deputy chief executive. Credit: CIH

Last year the CIH was part of a national housing coalition behind the Homes at the Heart campaign, which is pushing for more social housing to be delivered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Smart maintains that more social housing remains crucial as we are “relearning the lessons that the Victorians taught us about infectious disease and poor-quality, overcrowded, damp housing.”

At a time when health and employment are particularly insecure, social housing would provide people with safer homes and would also have an economic benefit, Smart says. One area with which it would help is the net zero agenda; the government has said it expects all new homes to be zero-carbon ready by 2025, while it is also consulting on how to raise energy standards in existing homes.

“Having landlords that own very large numbers of homes, often with reasonable amounts of geographical concentration, is a really, really powerful way of making early strides with things like carbon reduction and retrofit,” Smart says.

“You either work with the social housing sector, or you try to work with the 21% of properties that are in the private rented sector where landlords on average own seven properties or less. So the social and affordable housing sector has got a huge amount to offer, and it’s got huge expertise as well.

“The government recognises that, and I think that across the May and Johnson administrations there have been varying degrees of acceptance that part of the purpose of government intervention in the housing market is about secure, low-cost, sub-market rented housing.”

Smart says he is “not ungrateful” for the additional funding that the government has put into social housing, while admitting that it is still “someway short” of helping housing providers deliver 90,000 new social homes a year, as MPs on the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee have called for. The government’s proposed planning reforms are another stumbling block.

While Smart expresses reservations about the expansion of permitted development rights (PDR) – some of what has been built under PDR “doesn’t look very clever”, he says – he is also concerned about planned changes to section 106 arrangements, which would see them replaced with a new Infrastructure Levy.

The Levy may mean that new homes aren’t built where they are needed the most, he says, and he questions whether the middle of a pandemic is the best time to be “throwing [the planning system] all up in the air”.

“I don’t think it’s intended, but an unintended consequence of a move to a levy [is] that at best it [makes] it more difficult to deliver mixed communities,” Smart explains. “Or at worst, we end up delivering unmixed, monotenural communities, particularly of rented housing. It feels like a lot of risks building up there.”

Another need the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed is a better join-up between welfare policy and housing policy, with a recent topic of discussion being whether to retain the £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit introduced earlier in the pandemic.

Smart thinks there’s “a very good case” for retaining the uplift, saying that Universal Credit is not the only thing wrong with welfare policy at the moment: “We’ve got the benefit caps. We’ve got the bedroom tax…” Instead of government policies cutting across each other, he wants greater coherence between rent settlements signed off by the Ministry for Housing, Communities, and Local Government and the expectations set by the Department for Work and Pensions.

“Those rent settlements will deliver a certain amount of investment to build more new homes,” Smart says. “If that model is undermined by the welfare system not supporting that rent settlement, we’re shovelling dislocation on top of dislocation. None of this is easy. Getting big picture policy join-up is very easy to say and it’s very hard to do, but I think we need to have another go.”

Building safety is another area where policy join-up is needed. The government has made several moves over the past year aimed at improving building safety following the Grenfell Tower disaster including publishing its draft Building Safety Bill, providing leaseholders with funding for fire alarms, and creating a new construction products regulator. However, housing professionals continue to face challenges in making their buildings safe.

Smart says it is “quite right” that the government is facing pressure to protect leaseholders: being safe at home should be a given, he stresses. However, he argues, as we change our view of what a well-built building looks like, the demands are placing enormous financial pressure on housing providers, forcing some of them into what he describes as “quite invidious choices”.

“Where’s the right balance between [building] safety, carbon reduction retrofit, new supply, service improvement?” Smart asks. “There are more demands than ever on a pot of money that has not expanded as fast as the demands have expanded.

“I know [providers] will think their way through it and they will do a good job but that’s more additional pressure, so there’s quite a lot building up there that will require some pretty careful managing through.”

Smart at CIH’s office. Credit: CIH

Leaseholders’ voices getting louder looks to be one key legacy of the Social Housing White Paper, which will place a greater emphasis on tenant engagement in social housing. The pandemic has already shown social landlords fulfilling their social purpose, with tenant satisfaction going up as a result. Smart believes the challenge for housing now is to “catch that legacy and hold onto it”.

While there is an ethical reason for landlords to interact with tenants, Smart believes there is an additional incentive: the “gold dust” of customer feedback which enables providers to improve their services. While some providers are already engaging with tenants to a “really high level”, he stresses that communicating with residents is a skill that the sector needs to continually nurture.

“It’s not [as easy as saying] ‘Oh, it’s OK because we did tenant engagement,’”, Smart says. “It has to happen all the time. One can never imagine a point at which… BMW or Apple are not interested in what their customers think of the things that they produce. Why would we be any different?”

One way housing providers can be more likely to hear the voice of tenants is for them to be representative of the communities they serve. A recent National Housing Federation study described social housing’s work on equality, diversity, and inclusion as “piecemeal”, finding that women, BME people, LGBTQ+ people and disabled people are all sorely underrepresented in housing leadership roles.

Smart is surprisingly contrite on this topic, saying that COVID-19 has limited the CIH’s ability to do as much on equality and diversity as it would like. “This has been one of the areas that has suffered,” he admits, although many organisations have surely had the same problem this year.

While the CIH has become “much more diverse” in recent years, Smart says, achieving virtual parity on gender and doing “much better” in terms of ethnic diversity, there is still some way for it to go. The CIH has a role to play in supporting and challenging the sector on equality issues; Smart is keen for the organisation to practice what it preaches.

“If you think the medicine’s good for others, it’s probably good for you, and you should probably be seen to take it and maybe take it first,” Smart admits. “That’s how we’re doing our work. We’re starting with our own house. We do know that people will look to us and we want to support our members and support the organisations we work with. But we need to do it in a way that recognises that some people are ahead of us and that our own performance has not been perfect.”

Smart imagines this year’s Budget will not be the “last and only chance” for housing to get more funding during this uncertain economic period. However, he hopes the government will revisit the messages of the Homes At The Heart campaign, which would see people “more decently, more safely, more securely housed”. He is also keeping an eye on Wales as it considers whether to enshrine a right to adequate housing in law, an idea that CIH Cymru has campaigned for.

The government and the housing sector need to better define what social and affordable housing is for, Smart argues, viewing it as a tenure in itself rather than “some kind of waiting room for [home] ownership”. Building his final argument, he stresses the role he thinks the CIH should play in helping housing rebuild its social contract with people for whom home ownership doesn’t work, and giving those people a “permanent, safe, stable platform from which to build the rest of their life”.

“At the moment, what we have is a housing system that works for some of the people some of the time,” Smart says. “So the exam question is: how do we get closer to a housing system that works for most of the people most of the time?

“What does that look like, and how do we put in place a policy framework and how do we deploy the resources at our disposal to do that? I think we and the government could do better on our answer to that exam question.”

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