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25th Anniversary series: 2007 – Meeting Change at Sovereign Housing Association

April 29, 2015

There are around 1,500 independent not-for-profit housing associations in England, providing around 2.5million homes for about 5million people. Most housing associations are charitable, and the homes they provide are overwhelmingly long term homes at sub-market rents.

Sovereign Housing Association is the largest housing association in the south and south west of England, providing over 36,000 homes. Working in over 60 local authority areas and employing over 1,000 people, they offer a wide range of homes from affordable rent to outright sale.

In 2007, Housing Associations had been going through a period of considerable change, with challenges on every front, from pressures on the quality, volume and cost of development, to the need to broaden their service offering while becoming more efficient. Not very different from today in fact.

Sovereign’s origins were from the West Berks Stock Transfer in 1989, when Sovereign Housing Association was formed. Since then it grew from an initial 7,000 homes to around 22,000 homes in 2007. Sovereign Housing Group was set up with a separate parent company in April 2005, when Twynham Housing Association joined, and grew further when The Vale Housing Association joined earlier in 2007. In about two years, a single senior management team had become four separate teams, working to deliver homes and services in some very different areas.

The Group faced a number of challenges – “We are a more complex organisation now. If we really want to get the most out of our group structure, we need to make sure senior teams across the Group can talk to each other easily and openly. In any large organisation, there will be tensions, and we have to make sure we deal with them, and don’t let them get in the way of what we want to achieve.”

Clare Powell, then Head of Corporate Strategy at Sovereign Housing Group, had had some experience with scenario planning and was aware that scenarios provided a safe environment for thinking outside the box. She contacted SAMI Consulting for help in preparing and conducting an away day for the Group’s Combined Strategy Team

Gill Ringland and Nick Jackson from SAMI and Clare from Sovereign, together developed two scenarios for the future of the social housing market in around 2020, based on the Foresight Futures scenarios and the output of The National Housing Federation 2020 Project.

The scenarios were used in four workshops, in which the Combined Strategy Team members could discuss the scenarios and the worlds they described and consider how Sovereign might operate in each new world. The contrasting settings represented by the scenarios stimulated thinking and brought out a wide range of ideas. Some of the questions asked of the participants were, “What will be the key issues and challenges facing SHG under this scenario? What will be the level and type of demand for our homes and services? What will our stakeholders expect of us?” The workshop groups were carefully selected to provide a mixture of different organisations, disciplines, and demographics, with a facilitator observing and recording the session.

The two scenarios chosen, (World Markets and Global Responsibility) represented two opposites in a global society. In World Markets, a strongly capitalist world, with minimum government intervention, social housing was not high on government agendas, although need and demand for affordable accommodation were high. In Global Responsibility, a world in which climate change and social responsibility were being addressed on a global agenda, social housing was a significant part of government policy. Demand for social housing was high, not so much from need as from choice.

Surprisingly, the demands on a successful Sovereign Housing Group, (and by implication, most other housing associations), had some substantial similarities in each scenario, and there were a number of actions necessary to be successful in either. The most significant common themes were:

  • Funding
  • Market demands
  • Specialist expertise
  • Local delivery
  • New skills and training
  • The need for SHG to take control of its future

In summarising the day’s activities Ann Santry, Sovereign’s Group Chief Executive, pointed out that “the results of the exercise … give us some very real issues to consider.…in a more competitive and more demanding world we need to be seen as ‘the partner of choice’ and, having been chosen, we must fulfil our obligations.”

Feedback from the event was very positive, with participants welcoming both the content, and the opportunity for networking with colleagues from other parts of the Group. Every delegate felt that they had learned something, and almost all said they would be interested in more exercises and activities built around strategic management. Perhaps the most encouraging outcome though, was the volume of discussion over lunch, and particularly, the mixing, mingling, argument and agreement about a shared future for the Group.

By 2013, Sovereign had grown further, to 36,000 homes owned or managed across the south and south west, making them one of the largest housing associations in England. The business environment for social housing had changed, and there were major changes to the benefits system, integral to the operation of housing associations. Sovereign was about to undertake a strategic review and Clare Powell – now Strategy Director – came back to SAMI to ask us to work with her team to develop scenarios as part of the preparation for that.

We worked with the strategy team to design and run the scenario creation and testing process from September to December 2013 as input to the strategic review. This involved a series of internal and external interviews, desk research and creation of a natural agenda, and workshops with the Senior Management Team, the Executive and the Board.

We developed a set of four scenarios, specifically focused on Sovereign’s future, rather than the industry as a whole, and wider ranging than the 2007 scenarios… but that is another story.

Written by Nick Jackson.

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