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Meet the new director of Housing and Homelessness Programme

Housing and Homelessness Programme / Article

Brian Robson joined us as the new director of our Housing and Homelessness Programme in January 2024. We sat down together to find out a bit more about him, what he views as the most pressing issues in housing and homelessness, and solutions for a future in which everyone has a decent, affordable, and secure home. Please join us in welcoming Brian to Oak Foundation!  

Q. Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background? How did you begin working in housing and homelessness, and why are you passionate about this subject? 

I grew up in social housing in Northeast England in the 80s. My parents had low rent with a lifetime tenancy. A lot was changing around me while I was growing up. The town I am from was based on mining and shipbuilding, and both industries fell apart in the space of ten years. This affected a lot of jobs, including my dad’s. But despite all this happening, I had a really good childhood, and part of that was the fact that we had a nice home life. My parents had a secure tenancy and we had somewhere decent, affordable, and secure to live. And that made a massive difference to me, personally, and my life chances. So, when it came to me and choosing a career, I decided I wanted to work in housing and ensure that more people had the chance to live in a decent and affordable home. 

I started my career in housing 20 years ago as a graduate trainee with a not-for-profit housing provider in London. In my early days, I was serving residents on the front counter of a housing office. Over my career, I’ve switched to specialise in policy. I have worked for the National Housing Federation in England and Homes England, which is the housing agency for England. More recently, I was at the Northern Housing Consortium, which is a network of 140 councils and not-for-profit housing providers across the north of England. Here, I was the director responsible for policy, communications, and membership. I also have some experience in philanthropy that I bring to Oak, as I spent four years leading the housing programme of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in the UK. 

Q. What most excites you about beginning this journey with Oak? 

Lots of things excite me about joining Oak, but one of the main things is the people. We have a fantastic core team in London, seven people working on the programme who all bring a distinct mix of experience to the foundation. It’s been really exciting to meet the wider Oak team, working in a whole range of different areas, but who are all about making a safer, fairer, and more sustainable world. The Trustees are also so dedicated and supportive.  And of course, our programme works with an incredible range of partners across the UK and the US. 

And then personally, the other thing that is exciting about this programme is that we work not just in the UK, but in the US as well. After having worked 20 years on these issues in the UK, it’s quite unusual and exciting to get to take that knowledge and experience and apply it to a whole new context. I don’t think many people get to experience that, so I’m very fortunate. 

Q. What do you hope to do while leading the HHP programme at Oak? Where do you see the programme heading in the next years? 

The programme exists to end homelessness and create housing opportunity. I would like to be able to look back and see that we supported our partners to take meaningful steps towards that goal over the time I am with Oak. In practical terms, we have a relatively new strategy, that runs until 2027. I am not expecting any major changes to this strategy, so my priority is to work with the team and the Trustees to execute the strategy and evolve it as necessary. But as it runs through 2027, partners should not expect any significant shifts in direction in the immediate future. 

I am particularly keen to use my expertise in affordable housing to help support partners in boosting supply and access to affordable homes, which is one of the programme’s three priorities. The housing crisis is multi-faceted and there’s lots of things we need to do, but there isn’t a solution to it that doesn’t involve more supply. We need more homes, particularly affordable rented homes – like the one I grew up in. 

Q. What are the biggest challenges when it comes to homelessness in the UK and how do Oak partners contribute to overcoming these? Are there any approaches that partners have taken that you would like others to know about? 

The root of the issue that we have in the UK right now is that we haven’t built enough homes of all types, in a long time. And that means that homelessness has been on the rise. The most visible manifestation of that is rough sleeping, but there are also more people in hidden forms of homelessness such as sofa surfing, or kids growing up in temporary accommodation. We have a whole generation of renters who might prefer to buy but are stuck in expensive rentals with little security of tenure, meaning they can be kicked out fairly quickly. That’s a weak foundation to build a life on. And of course, in all of that, it’s the people who are most discriminated against in all walks of life who are most affected by the housing crisis. Therefore, tackling racism and other forms of housing discrimination is critical. These are some of the major challenges we are dealing with. 

Our partners play a crucial role in tackling all of these issues in the UK and the US. I am inspired by their work every day. They’re working towards big systemic changes, increasing affordable housing, boosting the rights of renters, as well as making an immediate difference by providing practical responses when people do find themselves homeless. 

One practical example I would like to highlight is a win from February 2024. Justlife Foundation, one of our partners in the UK, secured a change to guidance in the temporary accommodation policy for England. This change means that when people who are homeless are provided with temporary accommodation, if they have children under two, that accommodation must be big enough to have space for a cot, or crib. If they do not have a cot, the council must help them obtain one for their child. Tragically, 55 kids have died in England over the last five years related to families being in cramped rooms in temporary accommodation. So those kinds of wins are really meaningful for the people they affect.  

We have been encouraged by that and inspired by the work that Justlife has done to make that the case. This issue was put on their agenda by the lived experience leaders they work with. This led to a petition with 5,000 signatures, the support of a cross-party group of members of parliament , and through that Justlife were able to reach the minister, who was the one who ordered the change in guidance. It’s a big win for people who are at the sharp end of the housing crisis in England. 

Q. What gives you hope for a future in which everyone can access an affordable and decent home? 

What makes me hopeful is that ending homelessness is not rocket science. There are people out there who work on issues to which there isn’t a solution currently, whereas we know what the solution to homelessness is. It’s housing. What we need is the political and public will to make that happen. The housing system we have at present is just the result of choices we’ve made, so we can make different choices. That encourages me and makes me think that we can get there. We have the solutions. 

To learn more about our Housing and Homelessness Programme, watch our latest video with Brian Robson: