COVID-19: A litmus test for social housing governance

COVID-19 will change how housing associations are governed for good – and for the better, suggests Dawn Fowler-Stevens, Group growth and assurance director at Aster Group.

Whether it’s discovering a natural aptitude for home schooling, a previously untapped well of pub quiz trivia or the revelation by some organisations that a business can function well with employees working from home, there are countless examples of how adapting to lockdown life has meant developing new strengths and better ways of doing things.

This is certainly true for the housing associations now providing services to some of those most acutely affected by the economic impact of COVID-19.

Responding to a crisis invariably means having to operate differently. Often lengthy internal processes are forgone in order to turn talk into action quickly and decision-makers are forced to think on their feet and come up with solutions to problems they may never have faced before with no points of reference for how to manage them.

This crisis has highlighted to me three key areas where I believe the way housing associations lead and govern has changed, probably forever.


Governance of a housing association can be complex at the best of times. Managing a portfolio of homes, colleagues across a diverse range of job roles and potentially thousands of customers with varying needs is challenging.

Decisions need to be made at speed and at Aster we have rethought how our executive board and overlap boards and committees engage with each other so they have the flexibility to respond to the crisis.

Though for a long time we’ve given our teams the autonomy to make many decisions quickly and efficiently, we’ve stopped thinking in terms of ‘quarterly’ and ‘annually’. Now, discussions, meetings and decisions happen daily, meaning everyone in our leadership structure must be more flexible.

We’re lucky that we were already set up for remote working even before COVID-19 hit and have had a fully flexible working culture for some time. The current crisis has emphasised how important it is that our decision-making processes line up with this way of working and use the technology we have invested in to be more responsive.

This more dynamic approach allows us to leverage resources far more effectively, tapping into the expertise of our non-executive board members, for example, easily and regularly. These external perspectives have been invaluable and help us to challenge ‘groupthink’ at a time when reverting to ‘the way it’s always been done’ is simply not an option.

While such frequent board-level meetings won’t be necessary forever, having a framework in place that allows an association to ramp up the level of activity at very short notice will, I’m sure, have vital implications in the future.


Making decisions quickly is only a good thing if we make informed ones. For me, one of the most important lessons from the COVID-19 crisis is the value of good use of data.

The pandemic has shown how important having an accurate, granular picture of our portfolio really is, for example what impact reducing maintenance work would have and which tenants are in the most vulnerable positions both medically and financially. This isn’t easy when you own and manage more over 31,000 homes, but it is essential.

COVID-19 should spell the end of point-in-time approaches to risk assessment where records only offer a snapshot picture of one’s portfolio. Instead, it’s vital that we collate and record information in a way that gives us a constant picture of our stock and the customers living in it in real time.

Right now, this is the critical information needed to understand how COVID-19 is affecting our tenants, how it will impact our business in the long-term and what we can do to manage that. When the pandemic is behind us, it will enable us to better understand the needs of our customers and channel investment – whether to improve existing homes or build new ones – more intelligently.


Investment will only go so far in isolation. This crisis has shown that we cannot work alone if we are to meet the housing challenges ahead of us. Reacting to COVID-19 has meant engaging with a multitude of different partners, among others the local authorities and MPs who count our customers as their constituents and the builders we’re working with to get our housebuilding back underway as quickly and as safely as possible.

I’m a firm believer that greater collaboration in the housing sector is essential. That was true pre-COVID-19 and is only more so now.

The situation we find ourselves in – as inconceivable as it felt at the start of the year – has forced us all to significantly alter the way we do things. Just as many people will decide to stick with some of the changes they’ve made to their lives during lockdown, housing associations must recognise that COVID-19 has provided a jolt that has tested the quality of governance in our sector – and provides an opportunity to govern and lead with our head and our hearts.

Back to latest news listings