I recently attended the UK's biggest conference on housing. Government, local governments, housing associations, developers, construction companies, outsourcing consultancies, mortgagers, homeless charities - they were all there. The Grenfell Tower disaster provided a tragic backdrop to the conference and one which focused everyone's attention on the state of all aspects of housing.
I was speaking about balancing commercial and social purpose, and shared a platform with the formidably impressive Baroness Sue Campbell who spoke compellingly about moral and business purpose.
All organisations must balance social and commercial purpose. But in order to balance those two, they must focus on a third: what matters most to the most important people - their customers, or in the case of housing, the residents.
Housing is a major challenge for the UK. Not enough housing is being built or developed. The cost of housing is high (not just ownership but rents). Much accommodation is overcrowded. There are other serious challenges. Is the housing that already exists fit for purpose? Is new housing being built according to what suits developers, rather than what is best for communities? This is not just a UK problem; in the US and across Europe, similar challenges face developed societies.
The problem is that there is not a single-minded purpose that is aspirational and clear enough to rally and unite all stakeholders. Instead there are sets of conflicting objectives. Developer-led housing schemes will not necessarily meet a local government's regeneration agenda. Then again, local authorities have an agenda to reduce costs which may not help developers provide decent mixed housing. Good housing costs money.
Purpose is important because purpose drives priorities. And the words in which that purpose is expressed are important because words shape expectations.
After World War I, the British Prime Minister Lloyd George promised a house building programme to create 'homes fit for heroes'. Where has the aspirational purpose in the language gone? Over the years, we have whittled the aspiration down to 'affordable housing.' But to whom is the language of that purpose addressed. To people seeking a home? Or to the taxpayer? And should not 'affordable', like 'safe', be something we assume as mandatory? Every home that is bought or rented in this country, private or public, is by definition affordable by someone. Why are we highlighting affordability as the distinguishing feature?
In one of the talks I gave I asked people to tell me the three words that they would like to define housing. Words like 'community', 'opportunity' and 'safety', came up. I was asked for my three. I said 'decent', 'sustainable' and 'desirable'. Desirable housing will mean different things to different people. Someone who is buying a £5m gated home in London will have different criteria from someone who is renting their first one bedroom flat from a housing association. But that does not mean that both homes can't be desirable according to the relative wants and means of those who live there. And one thing all desirable housing will be is safe.
The benefits of good houses are not restricted to those who live in them.
Decent homes encourage decent citizens. Building them creates jobs and brings profits for the contractors involved, thus raising, through both income and corporate taxation, more money for the economy. It really is that simple.
I am not sure central government will ever be able quickly to agree and implement a plan for desirable, let alone decent and sustainable, housing.
What is needed is a more devolved approach involving a coordinated group of interested parties - a Star Chamber, if you will - of the most influential voices in the housing sector. They should set the aspiration, define the standard and then bring the necessary pressure to bear on all parties to accept or even to enhance such measures. They should do so in the mutual interest of each other and the primary interest of the people they ultimately serve - every one of us who seeks a decent home in a caring community.
I do not doubt the difficulty of such a task nor underestimate the resources required to shape government policy for generations to come. But it has to be done. Our economy will benefit from it. But more importantly our society will be the stronger for it. Shelter is a primal need. But a home is more than shelter. A home is the primary building block of society. It's a place where people's lives, expectations and outlook on the world is fundamentally shaped. Decent, desirable sustainable homes and communities will help build a happier, more prosperous society.
Fine words do not build homes. But they can set out the blueprint. Commercial and social purposes can be reconciled by focusing on an aspiration that every one of us has: to live in a home that makes us happy.