One of the highlights of this calendar year will of course be 'The Very Big Conversation' to take place on the 5th and final day of the 2nd International Social Housing Festival. It made sense therefore that the first visit of the year of the Housing Europe team brought them to the city where the idea originated, the home of the first Big Conversation, London where Shephard's Bush Housing Association held the first 'Big conversation', a conversation where tenants voices come first. A conversation which has now been brought across the channel to Lyon to become 'Le grand conversation' and this year upgraded to include 5,000 tenants in 'Le Trés Grande Conversation'.
We met with the Directors of some of the founding members of Housing Europe, the Scottish, Welsh and English Federations of Housing Associations. While the housing situation differs significantly between them, due to that fact that housing competence lies at the level of the individual countries, some issues such as welfare policy including the now infamous universal credit are decided in Westminster. The Federations have joined in a common campaign to highlight the impact of these changes to the welfare system on their work.
The role of housing association in addressing homelessness, fuel poverty and child poverty has been a recurrent theme in discussions over the two days. Another feature prevalent for all, to varying degrees, is of course the political leadership vacuum and paralysis at the level of national governments resulting from the Brexit referendum. While this is making thinks difficult, the resounding spirit within the sector is to press on and do what is possible.
All Federations are firmly committed to leading an Innovation process within the sector, a priority shared by Housing Europe. This innovation should include technical and process innovation, but more importantly should address culture within the housing and construction sector, and in particular the need to ensure that generational and cultural diversity are reflected at leadership levels, also internally in housing providers.
At the NHF, the recently appointed Director Kate Henderson is convinced of the need for the sector to remain open and not let the Brexit dynamic result in a more inward-looking approach. Currently Kate’s focus is on getting to know the members of NHF and she told of her continuing amazement of the range of activities of member and how they are pressing on in a political vacuum. She told of on a study visit the previous day in a homeless shelter where she said the dynamic nature of management meant there was no on-size-fits-all approach to how cases were handled and activities ranged from co-ownership schemes, housing first, long-term shelter where it suited individuals, to yoga classes where staff, residents in the hostel and members of local community practiced together.
Kate is member of an England-wide Housing Affordability Commission which is trying to address the housing conundrum facing England (and many other countries and cities in Europe and globally) whereby private renters are spending increasing amounts of disposable income on housing, where home owners are reliant on the value of their homes for care in their old age and where the public have lost faith in the government after so many empty statements and promises to properly address the housing crisis, growing housing exclusion and fuel poverty.
We also had an opportunity to meet for the first time with Sally Thompson, Director of the SFHA, the Scottish federation who told of the changes within the sector, the growth in membership of the Federation with 132 housing associations throughout Scotland in all its diversity. Sally spoke of the political consensus around social justice which shapes housing policy in Scotland and the ground-breaking work being done to tackle child poverty and homelessness. For the Welsh Federation, the stress is on resilience and circular economy and the need to maximise potential of local resources for a more resilient local economy.
Community Housing Cymru is also very open to the potential of their members to tap into what is going on across Europe in the field of innovation. Sébastien Garnier, Housing Europe’s innovation & project officer highlighted the increasing backing by the EC research funding for innovation for the green energy transition within the sector and help us tackle the next frontiers of the energy transition and resource efficiency. He spoke about the plan for a housing evolution hub which will showcase increasing importance of circular economy consideration in the operations of housing providers.
Across all Federations, the need to illustrate more clearly the impact of the sector of small and large organisations and to improve the capacity of those organisations to tell their stories is priority. The issue of genuine tenant satisfaction, which goes beyond the glossy brochures and is based on basic good service and trust . The over-arching impression of the visit is that these organisations working for resilient, inclusive societies face common challenges to their peers around Europe. There is also a strong underlying recognition of the need to remain outward looking in the face of political instability and uncertainty.
And so the big conversation or le grand conversation goes on, and we hope to meet many of our British colleagues in Lyon for the next edition...