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At the same time that housing needs innovation in engineering and construction, leaders are innovating in ways to build strong communities with design that promotes social success. New initiatives are starting to redefine what housing offers its occupants.

Housing associations are now rediscovering their radical and ambitious roots to make a big difference, says Belinda Bell, Director of the Cambridge Social Ventures programme at Cambridge Judge.

Dr Belinda Bell, Director of the Cambridge Social Ventures programme of the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge, spoke recently on a panel at the National Housing Summit in London. As with many conferences, the issues included Brexit and other topical subjects such as gender equality and understanding big data.

But what really caught Belinda’s ears was the discussion about social housing, a topic of vital import to many people throughout the UK and beyond. It was at this conference that Prime Minister Theresa May announced £2 billion in new funding to allow housing associations to build low-cost homes. In this article, Belinda shares her thoughts about social innovation in the housing sector – and how it was inspired by a Victorian pioneer.

One of the early housing radicals was Octavia Hill in 1860s London. Seeing the appalling conditions that many poor Londoners were living in, she acquired a number of properties near the Marylebone Road in London. Rather than taking an approach based on charitable alms-giving, Hill raised money from investors (perhaps we’d call them social investors nowadays) who received a five per cent return – and tenants of her properties paid rent. Hill was a social innovator who created long-lasting change, showing that reform based on social enterprise can be fundamentally more scalable than charitable giving.

The very nature of housing – the interconnected physical and social nature of it – produces lots of opportunities for impactful social intervention. Housing associations work often with older people, those on low and fixed incomes, and those excluded from the labour market. They have scale, capacity, resources, financial and governance acumen all underpinned by a strong sense of social purpose.

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