Sunday, 27 October 2013

At Home With David Orr


Banging the drum for more homes

The chief executive of the National Housing Federation (NHF) surely needs no introductions. Since assuming office in July 2005, he’s become the calm, measured, but assertive voice of a sector determined to make a difference. He tells Mark Cantrell why that is in this interview from the February 2012 edition of Housing magazine

“Honestly, I know the railways of England probably better than anyone else in the country,” said David Orr, laughing. Underneath the humour there’s a serious point. He’s no ‘desk jockey’ chief executive, sitting aloof in his office – Orr prefers to get out and see the housing world in action.

By his estimate – hardly a “scientific analysis” he concedes – he spends around 40 per cent of his time not in meetings with the power-brokers of Whitehall and Westminster but out among the people who deliver on the ground. By continuing to immerse himself in the day-to-day experiences of the sector he represents, it keeps him very much grounded in the real, but also – on another level – revitalises the man himself.

“One of the reasons I like my job so much is because it involves having a lead role in telling the world how good housing associations are,” Orr said. “I find that an easy thing to do because I travel around the country a lot and what I see is a lot of really good organisations doing their best to make sense of particularly difficult times. Not everyone gets everything right all of the time, but every time I go out I am inspired again by the commitment and the enthusiasm and the dynamism that there is out there to make people’s lives better.”

Another aspect, of course, is that it ‘tools him up’ with an on-the-ground perspective for those occasions when he is dealing with the power-brokers. As he said: “If you are going to be involved in very detailed negotiations with ministers, senior civil servants or others, it is easier to do that if I am able to call on my own experience. You can read reports, you can talk to people on the phone or in meetings, but getting out, seeing what people are doing, looking round the estates, just talking to people who do the job on a day-to-day basis – that’s how you really find out what’s happening out there.”

And there is a lot happening, of course; these are unprecedented times for the nation and the sector as it strives to deal with the fallout of economic crisis, austerity and the changing policy and funding landscape. The times are tough – and set to get tougher still – but Orr has a consistently simple message: Build more houses. Is it really that simple, though?

“Absolutely,” Orr said. “We don’t have an alternative: we have to build more homes. We can’t house the nation properly. The problem is bad now and it’s getting worse because we’re not building enough homes. This is a very clear, easy message.”

Clear it may be, but going by the way it has almost become the NHF chief’s mantra in recent years, it’s one that many are having difficulty in processing. If he doesn’t become tired of constantly having to bang this drum, he certainly confesses to the occasional sense of frustration.

“The most frustrating sentence in the world for me – and I hear this a lot – goes something like this: ‘yes we need more affordable homes, but’,” he said. “The challenge is to remove the ‘but’ from that sentence and change it into ‘and’ – ‘yes we need more affordable homes and this is how we’re going to do it’.”

So how can ‘but’ be turned into ‘and’ in people’s minds? “By keeping the message simple and straightforward,” he said. “And helping them to understand that an absence of good quality housing may not affect them individually now, but it is almost certainly going to affect other members of their family quite soon.”

For Orr and the NHF, the case for more homes is as much a critical economic and political issue as it is the right thing to do for families and communities across the country. He has called the housing market “broken” and “dysfunctional” and calls for more homes to be built across the board – social rent, intermediate rent, shared ownership and private sale. The whole kit and caboodle, and he very much asserts that housing associations are well placed to deliver across the board, if granted the flexibility to play their part in fixing the market.

With just £1 billion from Government, for instance, together with extra investment raised by housing associations, combined with the economic multiplier effect, this initial investment could create around £11 billion for the economy and deliver 66,000 shared ownership homes, as well as create hundreds of thousands of jobs, reduce benefit claims, and otherwise provide a return on the Treasury’s initial investment via tax revenues. The trick is surely getting the Government to perceive the sector’s ability to deliver this all-round win.

“The bottom line here is that social housing is part of the solution,” Orr said. “It has proved a springboard for many people, but we need to get it right. There is a fundamental problem that if we don’t build more homes then the discussion is always about how you ration a scarce resource. And that is where we are at the moment.”

Building more new homes may not be a panacea for the nation’s ills, but it’s an issue that goes to the root of many problems, like investing in and growing the economy, like creating jobs and tackling worklessness, like tackling high private rents and house prices, like challenging so-called benefit dependency and reducing the Government’s welfare expenditure – the latter being a particularly vexing issue for the sector at present.

“Like many other people, I’m very anxious about the impact of some of the proposed welfare reform changes,” Orr said. “I understand the Government is anxious about the housing benefit bill. We really have to understand what the problem is here: it’s not that more and more people are in receipt of housing benefit; it’s that rents have gone through the roof. Why have rents gone through the roof? Because we don’t have enough housing supply. W hat’s the answer to that?”

That’s right: “Build more homes – you keep coming back to that.”

This interview was first published in the February 2012 edition of Northern, Midlands and Southern Housing magazine. It was subsequently republished on the Housing Excellence website, 15 February 2012.

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