As Chief Executive of a housing association, I frequently ask myself how my organisation contributes to creating great places for people to live. How do we build strong, resilient communities and what do these look like? The places we grow up in influence every aspect of our lives; they inform our views of the world around us, influence the relationships we have, and ultimately impact on our career choices and wider life choices too.
Place matters. We know this from ‘Growing up North,’ the recent report from the Children’s Commissioner for England. It found that a child from a disadvantaged background in Hackney is three times more likely to go to university than a child from a comparable background in Blackpool. Given that the UK has the largest regional inequalities in Europe, it’s time that we acknowledged the massive impact place-making can have on our lives.
There are some great initiatives across the country on how ‘anchor’ organisations, in partnership with communities, are making a real difference to place-making. These organisations are being bolstered through devolution, where they have the opportunity to really influence and tailor approaches to meet the specific needs of the region, areas and neighbourhoods. As anchor organisations, housing associations can make a considerable positive difference to a place. Whilst they are not-for-profit, they remain an important part of the national economy, with their day to day activity directly contributing £6.7bn to the UK GVA and supporting 145,000 full time jobs. UK housing associations manage 2.6m homes for 6m people; still, they offer so much more than landlord services, delivering £60m worth of employment and skills training annually and employing 12,000 apprentices between 2014 and 2017.
Along with the 11 other Commissioners on the National Housing Federation’s Great Places programme, I’m visiting the Midlands and the North of England to better understand what makes a place great. Early findings are that access to good quality, genuinely affordable housing is at the heart of any great place. People want to feel safe, be healthy, have access to opportunities and feel they can influence their local area. At the same time, communities do not want this to be a passive process: they want to co-create their futures. For local people, a sense of belonging is important, and partnerships are essential in creating thriving and resilient communities.
Devolution creates the right conditions for communities to shape their area. Stronger regional government could allow housing associations to collaborate on a great scale with other anchor organisations, such as universities, local business and councils. As more power is passed from Whitehall to local areas, there will be more place-based policy-making rather than the current one-size-fits-all approach. My housing association, like many others around the country, is committed to its place; we are in it for the long term and play a key role in contributing to more cohesive and stronger communities. We also have a hunger to do more and to tackle increasing inequality. With the right powers and partnerships, I think we stand a very good chance of making a difference.
To quote the wonderful anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world – indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.