15/11/2013 06:25 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Towards a Vision: Housing Associations and England's Housing Crisis

Where will you be in 20 years? It's such a long time away in the future that there's no way of truly knowing. In our personal lives, for instance, much can change profoundly - some for better, some for worse. But in terms of the lifespan of an industry that provides homes for millions of people and families, 20 years is not long at all, and it's important to prepare for what the future may bring.

The consequences of the recent economic crisis for housing associations and their residents today are dramatic. The coalition Government's 63% cut to affordable housing funding in 2010 and the subsequent welfare reforms have altered the landscape for housing associations and the lives of some of the people they house beyond what was thought possible.

We can't afford to be caught unaware like this again. There is too much at stake: the country is in a housing crisis and needs housing associations to build homes, while millions of people around the country depend on them for shelter. These businesses need to be strong and must be able to weather even the harshest of storms.

That's why our Towards a Vision project is critical to the health and survival of the sector. We need to start thinking now about what we want our world to look like in 2033, the role housing associations can play and the steps they'll need to take to get there. And to get these answers we need to ask difficult questions.

We already know that we're not building even half the amount of homes each year to meet demand, and that this is leading to high house prices, soaring rents and a shortage of good quality homes for private rent.

An ageing population, a new group of baby boomers, growing numbers of single person households and migration within and between countries will put severe pressure on our already depleted supply. These are all challenges that require a response.

A strong focus on planning and the availability of land will be crucial to overall and affordable housing supply and the number of homes. But what changes can be made to planning and to how land is made available and used to make sure more homes can be built at the scale this country needs?

In the past many challenges and changes have been imposed on the sector. While housing associations have been swift to react, is there more we can do to plot our own course? The Government has cut the sector's funding to build more affordable homes and wants housing associations to raise their own money. If they're gradually washing their hands of us, perhaps it's time to go our own way.

Although they are private individual organisations, housing associations exist for public benefit. Their missions are all about improving lives and providing for those in need across all parts of the housing market. But they have little control over who lives in the homes they own and manage and what rents they charge.

Shouldn't they be able to decide who they house and be given greater freedom over setting their rents? This could mean higher rents for those who can afford them, and lower for those who can't.

Then there are housing associations that provide specialist housing, for example, for victims of domestic abuse, young single homeless mothers, older people or those with disabilities. Many also deliver other services including care and support, employment training, apprenticeships and financial services. Others run community centres, and work with neighbours to tackle anti-social behaviour.

Will housing associations continue providing all of these services and housing for local communities in 20 years, or do they need to concentrate on one central objective?

These are just a few of the topics debated by housing associations in our roadshows around the country over the last few months, and that are being discussed right now on our HotHouse website.

The ideas and opinions gathered during these events and from the online discussions will form the basis of the vision for housing associations. And from there, our work will begin to make the vision a reality.

Housing associations will have to make some particularly difficult decisions over their core function by 2033. These will be shaped and determined by their individual view of social purpose, charitable objectives and business priorities, but will inevitably be influenced by wider Government policy and the housing market.

This sector has strength in numbers, diversity, and the expertise and experience of its organisations to come up with solutions to our broken housing market. But the journey to create this vision will be tough, pose awkward questions and, undoubtedly, provide uncomfortable answers.

This path is necessary. The nation can no longer afford for housing associations to be shaped and moulded by forces beyond their control. Instead of reacting to things that happen, the sector should be making them happen.

We want to be partners of government but not its clients. To provide stable and decent homes for millions of people and families in England, housing associations, individually and collectively, must own their future and make the decisions that ensure that future is made real.