Keeping the ‘social’ in the housing sector; the new responses
Posted on 10/11/15
In this blog, our Chief Executive, Alison shares her experience of the National Housing Federation conference for smaller housing associations and their focus on working with communities to overcome the challenges faced.
Over the year, we’ve enjoyed a growing understanding and relationship with a number of housing associations up and down the country. But just as we were getting to know a bit more about each other July ‘happened’. The government’s announcement of the Right to Buy, cuts to government funds, layered on changes arising from the ‘bedroom tax’ and universal credits, has sent the sector into a bit of a spin.
I recently attended the National Housing Federation’s conference for smaller housing associations and there was talk of little else. In her opening plenary, however, Gill Payne, Director of Policy and External Affairs at the ‘Fed’, reminded the audience that whatever changes they needed to make, they must never forget the social and charitable purpose at their core.
And it was clearly this element that switched delegates from spin to spark. The mood changed when talking about how they have helped transform the lives of tenants, by re-organising their services so that they are resident led.
Jane Turner-Bragg, Head of Improvement at Bromford Housing Trust gave some wonderful examples of working with their (growing) elderly tenant population, based on the principle of ‘Don’t decide about me, without me’. She observed that the Western world has focused so much on extending lives, it has overlooked improving them. So she has put this at the heart of Bromford’s work. She and her team have realised the hard way though, that they can’t make successful decisions on how to do this without learning what those improvements might be, from the residents themselves. Neatly put, this is about Bromford ‘building the train tracks and carriages and helping to make sure people get on and off the train safely, but not planning the journey or deciding when people get on or off’.
She described some of the activities which ‘put a twinkle in your wrinkle’ including keeping chickens on reclaimed land, installing a hot tub and allowing them to keep pets. All of this is worked out with the residents agreeing the responsibility they will take for managing these rather unorthodox activities. It takes a lot of engagement over a sustained period, but the signs of improved health, wellbeing and happiness are tangible over time.
This work was about being out and about and visible to help build trust and, whilst Jane had been building strategy for the future, Peter Marland, Director of Housing at Ashton Pioneer Homes drew from his past experience, working as a Neighbourhood Officer 25 years ago. The message was the same as he advocated a return to a face-to-face, feet-to-street approach to support those who may be struggling. Dare I say it, a community development approach. A shift over the last decade to a 80/20 split in favour of technology-based engagement hadn’t helped them to address rising rent arrears and debt. Peter identified that housing officers needed a range of skills and tools to help them in their expanded community roles and to build their confidence in community engagement.
I have been hugely impressed with the scale and commitment housing associations have to their tenants and communities. CDF has had the pleasure of supporting a number of them to continue this great work. This has ranged from reviewing and evaluating their community strategies, training tenants and staff, administering community investment schemes and recognising their great community engagement activities. I hope we, at CDF, can continue to help them focus on the spark, whilst they pull together through these challenging times.