With the public sector and social landlords facing increasing financial pressures the need to deliver more for less is inescapable. In this context integration and alignment are very easy to say and yet incredibly difficult to realise in practice. We all see the need for joined-up services which are centred around our customers. Yet any movement towards this seems to happen despite the prevailing structures and systems, not because of them.

The next iteration of the Work Programme provides us with an opportunity to start to make progress on this issue. We’d like to see greater flexibility and openness to bring all who have an interest in helping someone move into work round the table to provide a genuinely multi-agency holistic service.

This must include a stronger role for housing associations. We know that residents of social housing face considerable disadvantages in the labour market. They are less likely to be in work than those living in other tenures, more likely to be living in poverty, and more likely to be disadvantaged through a low qualifications, a health condition, caring responsibilities or other barriers.

In recent years, supporting residents to prepare for and find work has been an increasing priority for government, local services and landlords themselves. However, there is relatively little current analysis of the characteristics of residents, the barriers that they face and ‘what works’ in supporting them. Our recently published report, ‘Worklessness, Welfare and Social Housing’, produced by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion, seeks to address these gaps. The report proposes a new partnership between government and housing associations to support disadvantaged residents to prepare for and find work.

It highlights how housing associations are uniquely placed to provide employment support to those living within their homes and communities. They have a long term interest in the wellbeing of their residents and have strong social and business drivers which support moving tenants into the security and dignity of work. Housing associations are also major employers in their own right, with established supply chains which can provide further employment opportunities.

As organisations with a strong focus on community and place, housing associations can play a major role supporting economic regeneration and public sector reform at a local level. For example, the devolution deal in Greater Manchester, including co-commissioning of the future Work Programme, is an exciting development with opportunities to revolutionise the alignment of employment support, skills, health and housing at a local level.

As locally trusted partners working closely with their tenants and other agencies housing associations have a strong contribution to make. With the right framework they could play a key role in all aspects of their customers’ journey to employment: from referral into the programme; providing complementary non-contracted services; as formal contractors and sub-contractors; and as employers providing work placements, apprenticeships and permanent quality jobs.

A strengthened role for housing associations within employment services would save costs, improve service users’ experience, and better target those facing complex barriers. However, at present, despite almost 40% of associations providing some degree of employment and skills support, only a handful are sub-contracted to deliver the Work Programme, Work Choice or other DWP programmes. 

If future employment support programmes are to support the Government’s twin goals of reducing the benefits bill and halving the disability employment gap then they must genuinely put integration and alignment at the heart of the programme and ensure that it better facilitates the active involvement of housing associations.

Housing and employment support are a natural partnership but like most things they need a bit of nurturing and the right environment to ensure they can flourish.

By Jenny Allen, Policy Leader, National Housing Federation