Sometimes we columnists for major national publications need a stroke of luck. It’s not easy receiving emails from the boss saying they want something by yesterday. My stroke of luck was that three days before this copy was due, I went on a study tour of Shepherds Bush Housing Group, arranged by the National Housing Federation.
The visit was to look at the non-housing work that Shepherds Bush does - how it adds value to the lives of its tenants and the local community by providing fantastic services that meet other needs beyond its housing services.
We were set to look at three projects, and right from the start, the day held promise. Paul Doe, the west London association’s chief executive, told us that in addition to watching professional presentations from staff and consultants, we would also meet people whose lives had been affected by the programmes.
Real life projects
That just felt right. Too many associations measure their effect in development, bricks and mortar and financial terms. All very good, but we don’t exist to build a strong balance sheet. We exist to build strong communities lived in by strong people.
The first project we looked at, dealing with overcrowding, has little resonance for our circumstances back home up north where it is less of a problem. However, it is clearly vital in London, the south east and some other more limited areas of high demand. The programme, called the Income project, is designed to deal with the one in eight social homes in London that are overcrowded because kids are staying at home until they too get a social housing tenancy. For whatever reason, that is the limit of the aspiration of some young people and it was this lack of aspiration the project set out to deal with.
Most of the 18-year-olds involved are jobless, but have few or no qualifications either. Even if they had, finding decent accommodation in London which someone on the minimum wage could afford is very difficult.
While the programme started in Shepherds Bush Housing Group, the association now works with other social landlords in several west London boroughs. The programme looks at the education, training and employment needs of each tenant, renting them a one-bedroom flat at a comparatively affordable rent, provided that the recipient commits to a relevant programme designed to lead to work. The tenancy is deliberately not a permanent one, but is available for up to three years because that is the time it can take to make a difference in the educational attainment of people starting from scratch.
It has not been going long enough to have been fully evaluated yet, but we spoke to three youngsters who were already being helped by that programme. They are studying, looking for jobs or volunteering to improve their CVs. They said it had helped give them independence and also freed up space in the family home. The sad thing was that there was nothing ‘wrong’ with these kids. Like so many others, they simply hadn’t had the right start in life. However, they are not the type of kids who would be rioting on the streets because they are doing something positive.
On a voluntary basis
The next programme we looked at was the employment and volunteering project run, very efficiently, by Jennette Skinner, the volunteer service manager and Housing Hero ‘inspirational colleague of the year’. We all use volunteers in some way. Our tenant committees, for example, depend on them. But my association has not thought through the concept and practices of volunteering in the way I saw Shepherds Bush doing it.
The project, to date, has helped 386 volunteers, just 7 per cent of whom are Shepherds Bush tenants. Out of those, 97 have moved into employment, 17 have become employed by Shepherds Bush and 56 have become active volunteers.
Again, we met people whose lives were being turned around by this project: a middle-aged woman who, after being made redundant, now has a reason for getting out of bed as she recovers from the loss of her job and loss of self-esteem; a man in his mid-20s suffering from a range of personal and family problems who is putting his life together again. Both were doing volunteer work, asking tenants to fill in follow-up questionnaires on tenant satisfaction for Shepherds Bush - a service that was needed but could not otherwise be afforded.
Breathing new life
The last project was one that I thought could do with some pepping up. It is a furniture recycling project which the landlord helped a charity rescue and has subsequently expanded. It collects and sells reusable furniture from a warehouse and has just opened its first retail outlet opposite the dreadful Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherds Bush itself. However, the shop looks pretty unwelcoming, and needs to refurbish more furniture to create more jobs.
Fortunately, Shepherds Bush and the charity’s board also recognise the project’s limitations and are looking for new premises so it can renovate furniture and move into expanded markets. Again, lives are being helped both by the employment and training opportunities of the organisation and the furniture going to those with limited cash.
Some people reading this will say, ‘we do all this already’. Perhaps you do, but this set of activities impressed me because they are a fundamental part of the organisation’s ethos and business plan. Not an add on, not a wrap around, but an approach to way it operates.
I did have one sadness on the day. The NHF had invited around 50 organisations on the study tour, but just three housing associations’ representatives turned up.
I know we are all busy, but none of us should be too busy to go and look and learn. I have worked in this field for more than 30 years and I learned plenty from my visit. All I need to do now is to find my chief executive and use the words he dreads most: ‘Ken, let me tell you about what I’ve seen…’
Richard Kemp is chair of Plus Dane, vice-chair of the Local Government Association, leader of the Liberal Democrats in local government and a councillor at Liverpool Council