Why the young want a seat on the board: the new faces driving social housing change

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images

Public boards have undergone considerable change in recent years; the result of heightened scrutiny, accountability and governance requirements. But the makeup of boards, in their non-executive capacity, is also being transformed, increasingly by the presence of younger people hailing from a diverse range of backgrounds that help to make boards more representative of the communities they serve. Traditionally dominated by people in their 50s and 60s, boards are increasingly welcoming those in their 30s and 40s.

This shift is particularly noticeable in the housing sector, in part because social housing sits in the subconsciousness of all of us, says Simon Wing, practice lead for local government and housing at the executive recruitment consultancy GatenbySanderson. “We all have young people in our families looking to get on the housing ladder, and older people looking for a new-life-stage home.

“While demand is huge, availability is low, and for younger people in particular it is a real challenge. One of the core tenets of a good society is that people have a place in which to live. Social housing has a very strong mission and purpose; what these organisations do is hugely important to society, and people can connect with that.”

While boards do not form part of the operational team, they do lead on strategy and governance, holding the executive to account. Ultimately, the board is accountable for organisational performance, and members need to commit between three to four days per month to the role.

Seetle Patel, 44, who lives in Cambridge, joined PA Housing as a board member in 2019 through a board trainee scheme launched by the organisation. Its aim was to identify and develop people who would bring greater diversity to the board, as well as skills that would complement those of existing members.

She says: “As an Indian female with a young family, diversity is very important to me. My professional background is in HR, working with SMEs, and I came across this opportunity by chance. It is good to be part of an organisation that’s so committed to diversity and inclusivity. We have recruited a few new board members, all from diverse backgrounds, and while this diversity of thought can bring challenges when it comes to decision making, those differences of opinion ensure that we look at things from all perspectives.”

The experience has also opened her eyes to the pressure that housing is under, whether governmental (regulations) or societal (the huge demand for affordable housing), and the effort the sector puts in to getting things done. “The focus is on being the best they can be in delivering services to their customers.”

One of the reasons the housing sector appeals to a younger age group is the element of immediacy in terms of actions and outcomes. “In a policy organisation it could be many years before there is any visible impact of what has been deliberated over by the board,” says Wing. “But if you’re putting a £100m investment into the regeneration of a community, you can actually see that happen within the tenure of your board time.”

When appointing new members, what boards in the housing sector are increasingly looking for is lived experience from people who understand and know what it’s like to be living in social housing. This is vital if boards are to truly connect with their communities.

Two young women working together on laptop with male colleague in background.
Younger people often bring digital skills that facilitate access to services that customers demand. Photograph: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

This revolution, or evolution, of public boards is broadly seen as a good thing, with younger people often bringing the digital skills that facilitate the 24/7 access to and consumption of services that customers demand. But there is also a balance to be struck, as Robin Staveley, GatenbySanderson’s practice lead for health, points out.

Related: ‘I’ve worked in comms, policy and HR’: how unusual career paths create strong leaders

He says: “If you decide to appoint a large number of 30-year-olds to the board, the risk is that there will be nobody there who’s able to say, for example: ‘From my experience, the approach you are taking to this capital expansion plan is going to blow up in our faces because I saw it happen 15 years ago.’ It’s important to have someone who’s been in a leadership role, who knows how to run very large complex, high turnover organisations, as well as those who can genuinely relate to the lives of social housing tenants.”

The impact of the pandemic on organisations has been a factor in accelerating the move towards greater diversity and inclusivity within all public boards, making them that much more representative, not just of the communities they serve, but also of an organisation’s staff.

However, Wing believes that in housing, the biggest driver of change is more fundamental than that. He says: “Long before the Covid-19 crisis there was a housing crisis. There is still a housing crisis. People know that. Social housing organisations are forces for good in that their goal is to help solve the housing crisis and provide solutions for vulnerable people who need homes the most.”

For more information about our board practice and inclusive cultures, contact Simon Wing at GatenbySanderson