Despite the annus horribilis of 2020, in many ways we saw great examples of society at its best with communities coming together showing resilience, compassion and support.
This was best typified during May’s 75th anniversary of VE Day that was not only heart-warming but also provided great perspective especially as we prepare for the challenges ahead this year.
It is hard to imagine the relief felt in 1945 especially given Churchill’s grim assessment only a few years earlier that “the storm will not pass. It will rage and it will roar, ever more loudly, ever more widely. There is no chance of a speedy end except through united action”. While in so many ways incomparable given the human sacrifice, loss and mass devastation, there is some synergy with the predicament the world now faces.
The four-step roadmap to ease the country’s lockdown tells us a quick end to the pandemic is unlikely. But pulling together as Churchill suggested gives us the best chance of succeeding when we do finally emerge, hopefully in late June as Boris Johnson predicts.
If we don’t take the opportunity forced upon us by COVID-19 to unite with a wider range of partners to create and deliver a connected masterplan, the housing crisis, scale of inequalities, poor health and unemployment will get drastically worse.
The pandemic has underlined the importance of people’s health, wellbeing and quality of home. Sadly and unsurprisingly it is the most vulnerable who are being hit hardest. So the launch of Build Back Fairer: The COVID-19 Marmot Review late last year was timely and its principles can guide how the sector addresses the root causes of inequalities.
In essence the report builds on the 2010 Marmot Review in light of coronavirus implications and reaffirms the point that good housing and employment is central to better health.
Overcrowded living conditions and poor-quality housing are cited as being intrinsically linked with higher risks of COVID-19 related mortality. Homebuilding organisations in particular can make a significant difference here.
At JV North – a consortium of 11 housing association and local authority members who come together to build more homes by pooling grant bids, running a framework and sharing best practice – we are shaping our future around the premise that everything starts with providing high quality affordable homes through partnership working.
While there is great uncertainty, there are some things we do know such as the government’s financial support will eventually end leading to more unemployment and poverty.
Add to this the Local Government Association reports that two million people will be on housing waiting lists surpassing the 2008 peak and the sector has an important role to play. Affordability has to be central to all homebuilding plans.
COVID-19 has impacted most on the homeless and lower income households; therefore the need to build more genuinely affordable homes that people can afford to heat and power along with appropriate tenures being offered is greater than ever.
Like other conscientious homebuilders, JV North members want to build more properties quicker, better and greener. This is not solely to help meet demand but to be the catalyst for broader benefits such as improving wellbeing, boosting the economy, easing pressure on health and social care services and reducing the welfare bill. Quality has to be at the forefront. Building back better has to mean high standards especially around space – internally and externally.
Crucially, contractors and consultants are central to our homebuilding plans yet they are facing even greater pressure as a consequence of COVID-19. But housing can help here too. It is imperative we adopt a new approach to contracting going forward.
Focusing purely on narrow, economic goals are not going to create the rounded communities we so often talk about. This approach should be adopted for contractors and consultants of all sizes.
JV North predominantly operates in the North West where six regional construction companies entered administration in the past two years. Sadly, it seems inevitable the added financial pressure caused by coronavirus will result in more in the coming months and years. And as we saw with Carillion, bigger national companies are not immune either so we need to find a better way of supporting SMEs and PLCs.
It starts with a change of culture by treating them more as valued, key partners or “part of the team” instead of the traditional client-supplier relationship where cost is invariably key. Driving prices too hard will only serve to consign them to inevitable financial breaking point – there’s no value in this.
We also need the courage to commit to collective, calculated risk taking at different stages of the construction process. This approach marks the latest chapter in JV North’s 14-year history and we are adapting in numerous ways to boost local economies and realise broader “build back fairer” benefits.
Two new members have recently joined in Plus Dane Housing and Stockport Homes in partnership with Stockport Council; Homes England’s 2021-26 Affordable Homes Programme begins; and, we have kick-started work to establish a new contractors’ and consultants’ framework that we hope to have in place late summer.
Members are building over 4,550 homes in the current programme and have a big appetite to build more in the next. Establishing the right relationships and frameworks with stakeholders and partners will be key to future delivery.
There has to be some give and take on all sides but expectations will be high for those involved, as will the need to be innovative and provide added value. Investing in buildings is not enough, we need to invest in people too.
One of our members, One Manchester, is taking the lead ensuring all those applying to our new framework will provide measurable social value around employment, training and apprenticeship opportunities.
This will help reduce inequalities that lead to long-term health and wellbeing damage by creating fair employment and higher standards of living in combination with much more needed affordable homes.
While the perfect storm has circled us the past year, if we work together better and become more united we can navigate our way to a brighter future so we not only build back better, but also fairer.
Wayne Gales is chair of JV North and chief executive of Weaver Vale Housing Trust.
Image: Wayne Gales, chair of JV North. Credit: JV North