David Mawson 09 November 2018

Redefining public-private partnerships

You might be forgiven for thinking the UK’s housing sector is facing an impossible dichotomy. On the one hand, a need for locally-led regeneration that empowers tenants and unites previously fragmented communities. On the other, reducing budgets and growing commercial pressures that see an ever-blurring line between housing associations and private sector developers – according to Savills, housing association delivery of homes for market sale is up 8% on the previous year.

Can we ever find a happy medium?

Some hoped the solution might come in the form of the Government’s Social Housing Green Paper, published back in the summer. But movement in some areas - possible revision of the Decent Homes Standard for example - was arguably tempered by a lack of clarity on challenges such as stigma and community fragmentation. Many were left frustrated.

The Autumn Budget last week was better received and has, at least, provided some much-needed impetus and momentum.

For me, the solution to most, if not all, of the sector’s issues, lies firmly at the door of greater partnership and collaboration. And while this is far from a new concept, there is, in my opinion, some serious work to do.

Partnership working has become something of a talking shop – a glossy veneer for many that conceals the continued silo-working beneath. If we’re to stand any chance of breaking down the divides in society, we must start with the divides in our own sector. It’s time to redefine what public-private partnership really means and start using it as a vehicle for change.

The private sector collaborating with both local councils and social enterprises can be powerful and effective in tackling many of the industry’s issues. We have seen this first-hand as part of our ‘Working Roots’ initiative, a five-year project in North Tyneside.

Here, together with North Tyneside Council and social enterprise Justice Prince CIC, we are using bespoke training and qualification programmes to target and engage disadvantaged young people living on the margins of society. Around 100 have benefited to date.

Most are referred from the council’s youth offending or looked after team and are from a range of complex backgrounds. In their young lives they have experienced - and are now seeking to overcome - many challenging circumstances such as moving from care, homelessness, additional learning needs and lack of academic success at school, as well as brushes with the law.

On the programme, they require intensive crisis management support and nurturing that can only be achieved by all partners working together. Many suffer from low self-esteem and their behaviour can sometimes be erratic and unpredictable due to their life experiences.

All partners play their part. At Kier, we provide work-based training and mentoring in areas such as painting and decorating and environmental services, while Justice Prince supports vocational qualifications in English and Maths, engages trainees in personal and social development activities, and maintains links with parents, carers and employment bodies.

The role of the council is also key, taking responsibility for the overall development and funding of the programme and the scope of work involved. And we all proactively engage our own organisations, suppliers and partners to maximise the progression opportunities to young people completing the programme.

Without this level of partnership, what has been achieved here would simply not be possible. 60% of last year's cohort have found employment or apprenticeships or are in further education. There has also been a marked drop in anti-social behaviour with 98% of those involved remaining offence-free.

These aren’t faceless statistics, these are real people whose lives are changing. They’re exactly the sorts of individuals and communities that the Government refers to in its Social Housing Green Paper and that public and private sectors alike must seek to engage. Many have highlighted the difference it has made to them personally. One young person remarked that their bad record made them think they ‘couldn’t do anything’. Working Roots showed them they ‘can and will achieve’.

In the rush to debate the finer points of Government policy, it can be easy to forget the individuals affected. We shouldn’t.

All of us within this sector have a social and moral responsibility to stop talking partnership and start delivering it. This is the only way that the measurable and accountable social value that Chris White MP called for in his review of the Social Value Act will be delivered. And it’s key to supporting the reform to community fragmentation, stigma and empowerment that the Green Paper requires.

To that end, I ask why seek out so many new solutions when an old and somewhat underused one – partnership – is staring us in the face?

David Mawson is managing director at Kier Housing Maintenance

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