All posts from: June 2011
I’ve been reading Sarah Webb’s speech at Harrogate in which she makes a passionate defence of our sector and challenges some of the attacks being made upon social housing.
If, like me, you have been reading some of the reports from Policy Exchange and other think tanks which link our sector to “Broken Britain” then you may be wondering if your career in housing has been a waste of time.
Sarah describes her reasons for entering the profession – a geography study trip to a slum area of Glasgow “where kids with no shoes ran about the streets showered in broken glass and disused needles”. At the end of the trip the kids started pelting her coach with stones.
In my case it was a university study trip to Brixton where we visited some terrible private rented properties being renovated by Lambeth Council. We spoke to some of the residents who described how the new homes had transformed their lives.
Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of people in the sector about their reasons for working in housing and the vast majority “fell into” it after trying other things. Is this because we don’t sell ourselves properly, or because the sector has such a poor image?
The CIH charter talks about the “art and science of housing” and this elegant phrase sums up its appeal for me. Housing has something for everyone, from nerdy technical stuff at one end of the spectrum to creativity, design and psychology at the other. All human life is here and we often deal with people at crisis points in their lives. Housing staff can face anger, tears and heartbreak, but they also see the improvements that good housing can make to people’s lives.
In other words, housing is a profession suffused with drama. Which set me thinking about the portrayal of housing professionals on TV and in the cinema.
I remember when “Cracker” first appeared and the number of students wanting to study forensic science soared. I’ve always felt the CIH should invest in a good script for a TV drama that would show housing in a positive light with all the light and shade that the profession can offer. It could be a better recruiting tool than a mountain of glossy leaflets.
I can think of few positive portrayals of our sector on TV. Michelle Fowler in Eastenders springs to mind, and there was an awful housing officer in a Mike Leigh film. Perhaps Inside Housing readers can come up with some others? Has the recent documentary “Neighbourhood Watched” had any impact upon recruitment to the sector?
I don’t know, but perhaps we should commission a survey to find out why and how people entered the profession in the first place. At Harrogate last week it was suggested that we need a Jamie Oliver for the housing profession. But cooking is theatre; housing is drama.
Wanted: a Cracker for the housing profession.
So Harrogate is no more and next year the great and the not so good of the housing world will assemble at Manchester.
The CIH has been holding its annual conference at Harrogate since 1982 (although it veered off to Brighton in 1983 and 1984). For many in the sector it has been a must-attend event - a place where friendships have been made and renewed; a place of passionate debates, important policy announcements and lots of learning. It’s seen speeches from Tony Blair, Prince Phillip, Princess Anne, and countless here-today, gone-tomorrow housing ministers. But I know some senior figures in the sector who refuse to go, because Harrogate has always been afflicted by some negative images and stereotypes - the boozing and schmoozing, the beer-bellied northern councilors sinking pints of ale into the early hours, the larger tenants on mobility scooters hovering up freebies in the exhibition halls, the extravagant displays and free merchandise that ends up in landfill. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the hospitality on offer, because ultimately tenants are paying for the whole show. The lack of hotels also damaged Harrogate’s reputation. Who wants to commute in from Leeds or Ripon and, more importantly, get back there after a few drinks?
But above all, Harrogate is a posh Spa town that has a dearth of social housing on its doorstep. It’s been like holding a mountaineering convention in The Fens. It just hasn’t portrayed the right image for our sector. By contrast, Manchester will be gritty and serious, and it sits at the heart of a cornucopia of interesting housing schemes that delegates will be able to visit during their trip. Manchester is also easier to get to and has a better range of hotels, bars, restaurants and cultural attractions.
Harrogate itself seems remarkably complacent about losing the CIH conference - which makes a £3 million annual contribution to town’s economy. The leader of the Council Don Mackenzie (who also chairs the International Conference Centre Board), said: “I am sorry this prestigious event has chosen to relocate and we will work hard to win it back again for future years…organisers of events will switch, from time to time, from one location to another.” Apparently, conferences contribute £180 million to the town each year - a figure I find hard to believe given that the the CIH conference is one of its largest.
I’ve been going to the conference on and off since Brighton in 1984. I’m probably the only person ever to stay in a tent in Harrogate for conference week (in 2001 - much better than being stuck in a hotel in Leeds!). By all accounts the final conference this year was one of the best ever, with passionate speeches from Paddy Gray and Sarah Webb (and a rather complacent response from Grant Shapps it has to be said). I’m still not sure the sector has fully grasped the level of antipathy towards social housing from many within this government. The CIH AGM agreed a whole range of membership and governance reforms that should help to streamline its business and improve the way it is run. Most AGMs are dull affairs, but I found this one moving and momentous. Like most people I left Harrogate with a slight sense of sadness but I’m looking forward to a new and different experience in Manchester.