Management: Homes, not frontiers

Dave Cowans has escaped the constraints of local government to run the biggest housing association in the land. He tells Paul Gosling of his mission to build communities

Moving from being housing director at Britain's largest local authority to become chief executive of the biggest housing association, taking a large pay rise in the process, can be seen as a metaphor for the future of social housing. Whatever the outcome of the general election, housing associations are likely to remain the most important element in providing new homes for rent.

Dave Cowans has been director of housing at Birmingham for two and a half years, responsible for 98,000 homes, the country's largest housing stock. From June he will run the North British Housing Association, a fast-growing association that owns 41,000 homes across much of the country.

Although North British is a partner in publicly funded regeneration schemes, such as that in Hulme in Manchester, it is still seen by some as more conservative than many smaller associations. Part of Mr Cowans's role will be to bring greater innovation to North British, increasing its involvement with community regeneration.

"There are more opportunities with an organisation like North British to do what I want to do than there are with a local authority," he says. "Local authorities have a lot of strengths, because they are more accountable, but they have geographical boundaries, which an organisation like North British does not, and I will be able to deal with a wider canvas." The greater legal and financial freedom housing associations have, compared with local authorities, also attracts Mr Cowans.

"North British has gone through a process in the last couple of years of re-evaluating its role," he says. "It is very keen to be innovatory, and it is keen for its rents to remain affordable.

"The biggest housing issue is actually not a housing issue - it is about people's peace of mind. We need to give people reassurance that, whether people rent or buy, whatever happens to them, there will be somewhere for them to live." To achieve that, Mr Cowans believes, we need more flexible housing provision, allowing people to switch easily from rental to home ownership, or back again.

"If you have a housing policy that is just based on building homes it is like having an education policy that is just about building schools. Houses have to be attractive not just in terms of design and location, but in terms of their community and the sustainability of that community. If housing organisations ignore the context they risk the properties becoming valueless. There have been instances where new properties have been boarded up straight away, because people don't want to live in that area.

"Frankly if people can't pay their rents, if they get a sense of hopelessness, and if they no longer believe they have a contribution to society, all of those things have negative impacts on neighbourhoods. Housing associations have a very strong role in trying to counteract those forces, to the point where we must provide mixed communities, not just social housing areas."

Mr Cowans would like to see housing associations doing more work with private sector partners, building for sale and rent on the same estates. Housing associations must, in any case, take a more commercially driven outlook if they are to overcome the loss over the past five years of 75 per cent of their grant from government.

Associations face a further financial challenge as the next government, whichever party wins the election, is likely to try to cut the housing benefit bill. Housing associations increasingly rely on housing benefit for the payment of rent, and cuts could lead to unpaid rent.

"We are going into a much more pluralistic process which will value the views of the consumer much more than has hitherto been the case," Mr Cowans predicts. "I believe fiercely that housing is one of the last bits of the economy which is dominated by producers. It is very difficult for a consumer of housing to express a real choice. It is very rare for people to commission and build their own homes.

"In the next 10 or 15 years there will be an evolutionary process where the role of the consumer will become more important, and the role of the provider will be to respond to that, rather than what we have got now where producers believe that because there is a vast shortage then people should be grateful for what they can get. There is still a strong paternalistic approach to the provision of housing in all sectors, including towards owner-occupiers. I can't believe that most people who want to buy their own homes believe the market is efficient, or gives them control in that process."

Mr Cowans believes that the challenge he faces in running North British will be very similar to that in Birmingham, although he will have greater responsibilities and will be involved for the first time in wider community development. Yet his salary rises from pounds 65,000 to pounds 95,000, which has led to controversy among his peers. Many believe that it points to the need for local authorities to pay much more if they want to keep their best officers.

"There isn't the flow of senior staff between local authorities, housing associations and the private sector, and I think that is a bad thing," Mr Cowans says. "In many European states and in America it is very common for people to have worked across the sectors. That provides more development opportunities, much more rounded managers, and creates people who understand the relationship between policy and practice in more than one sector." But he adds: "I don't think salary levels are much of an issue in that".

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