Our town and city centres are about to undergo a revolution – are you ready for it?

Our town and city centres are about to undergo a revolution – are you ready for it?

From 20-minute neighbourhoods, greener mixed-use living offers and vacant office and retail space, Nick Atkin explores how the housing sector should be responding to major societal changes accelerated by the pandemic

In my last piece for Inside Housing, I advocated the use of the Martini Principle (work anytime, anyplace, anywhere) and the opportunities for transforming both the customer service and employer offer.

It’s clear that all of us are now thinking and working very differently to how things were in the BC (Before COVID-19) housing world.

The pandemic has been a catalyst to fast-forward changes that many of us had already been contemplating. There has been a shift in mindset of how we could better use technology in our homes to improve the customer experience, reduce costs and free up resource for where it’s really needed. This represents the foundation to building the future and overhauling our customer service offer.

Aided by technology, these changes cut across all aspects of the housing service; from accessing services 24/7, 365 days a year, right through to the when, where and how these are delivered in customers’ homes. Let me be clear, the changes aren’t about using technology for its own sake or as part of a vanity project.

As well as the positive impact on customer experience and cost, it also links to reducing our carbon footprint. When you consider that 31% of all UK CO2 emissions come from domestic properties and that one in every six homes is rented from a housing association or council, then we clearly have a significant role to play.

Along with the way we build, heat and maintain our homes, there is also an opportunity to rethink the whole design and living space concept. The unstoppable momentum for remote working means we have to rethink what homes of the future should be like.

We also know that our town and city centres are about to undergo a revolution.

For many retailers the high street will no longer be their main shop window or indeed for some their doors will never reopen. There is then the potential double whammy as a glut of vacant office space appears and businesses either downsize or shift to a more local hub-type approach.

This presents a real opportunity to provide a housing solution to make better use of these spaces. But this shouldn’t be through a race to the bottom by taking advantage of relaxed planning rules through permitted development rights. We’re much better than that.

We can offer a vision of the buildings we want to see in Britain’s cities and towns. There is a real opportunity to completely change how we live and use town and city spaces, through a greener mixed-use home/work living offer that also places an emphasis on more outside space.

This could be linked to a change in how we all live and work, through the creation of 20-minute neighbourhoods where most things you need are within a walkable radius.

For our customers this offers a real shift in what we can offer. For those who will be working from home there’s a clear need for more space. For lower-income households the existing policy framework actively works against this. The deductions made from benefits as a result of ‘excess space’ puts people at an instant disadvantage if their job requires them to be home-based for some or all of the time. This needs to change.

Our response to the pandemic is something we should be proud of. We’ve taken the first steps on the journey to a more agile business that can keep services running throughout a pandemic. But we can’t rest on our laurels – this is our moment. We need to create an environment which helps people adapt to the changes ahead and succeed.

As a sector we are needed more than ever before to support those who have been hit the hardest by this pandemic. We need to brace for the economic fallout we know will hit once the temporary measures in place have been removed.

If ever there was a time to be bold, to be brave, to build, to put our heart on our sleeve and aim to grow and do more with what we’ve got, this is it. The need for social housing is greater now than at any time since the last major challenge our country faced – the end of World War II.

As a sector what’s our vision for the future? We know that housing has a huge role to play in driving the economic recovery of the UK. We need to lead the way on this and support the government, devolved regions and policymakers by bringing our solutions to the top of their to-do lists.

Nick Atkin, chief executive, Yorkshire Housing