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In our latest Impact Chat, Social Invest Director Luke Cross speaks to Piers Williamson, former CEO of The Housing Finance Corporation (THFC). THFC is the UK’s leading affordable housing bond aggregator and has provided more than £8bn in funding to housing associations since the late 1980s.

In their conversation, Piers reflects on his 20+ years in the sector and considers how the sector will look in years to come. Below are some highlights from Luke and Piers’ conversation.

Housing associations have come a long way – they need to stick to their core purpose

Piers looks back over his time in the affordable housing sector and discusses the changes he’s witnessed during that time. He notes the greater professionalism in the sector with housing associations taking on more complicated risks.

He says that well-run organisations keep the “golden thread” of their purpose at the heart of what they do. But he adds: “I think there is a danger that too commercially minded organisations lose touch with that, and we are seeing part of the rebound of that with consumer regulation, so it is important to get the balance right.”

Social housing is leading on ESG

Luke and Piers discuss the rise of environmental, social and governance (ESG) finance and the impact this has had on the sector.

“I think it is for associations themselves to set an example and the Sustainability Reporting Standard for Social Housing (SRS) has led the way – it is one of the best initiatives across any sector,” Piers says.

He gives the example of water companies, who have issued many sustainability bonds, but have come into trouble in recent times.

For-profit Registered Providers must ensure they offer good consumer experience

In his time in the sector, Piers has witnessed the rise of For-Profit Registered Providers (FPRPs) and the debate surrounding their role in affordable housing.

He notes that they can add capacity to the sector but adds: “The finesse is getting the balance between surrendering ownership but maintaining management and reputational authority.”

Piers says there is a place for FPRPs in the sector but suggests the “trick is that consumer experience should be identical – maybe it can even be better with FPRPs”.

The impact of a new government

Piers is asked about the potential for a change of government at the upcoming general election and what that could mean for the sector.

He says that whichever party is in power, there will be a “bun fight for limited resources”.

It is important, he says, that the housing association sector provides both an offer and an ask to the new government.

“The ask is a rent settlement, the offer is that we can deliver more” he explains.

The sector must be wary of future economic turmoil

Piers says the fact that there have been no payment defaults in the sector for 30 years is a reason to celebrate and stresses that the sector maintains this track record.

But, the sector also needs to be aware of knock on impacts of financial turmoil elsewhere, highlighting his own rule of thumb that “every 17 years a bank goes bust”.

“Bad things happen that might appear to have nothing to do with the sector, but they still have an impact because they roll through,” he warns.