Creating great places means sharing resources and power with residents

Aug 12, 2019

By Ian Wardle, Group Chief Executive, Thirteen Group, and member of the Great Places Commission

The Great Places Commission came together in 2018 to understand what makes a great place, and consider how housing associations, working with national and local government and other partners, can create thriving and successful places across the North and the Midlands. As housing associations, we already make a difference day in day out, but could we do more to help the communities we serve?

Through the course of the year we saw the positive impact previous national regeneration programmes have had on people and their places across the North and the Midlands. These had been substantial, well-resourced and locally driven initiatives in locations with little, or no prior prospect of private sector investment addressing market failure.

With the rolling back of state support through a period of enforced austerity since 2010, this has made the situation worse in many communities. This has created distance and distrust towards the state and the system. It’s a game of two halves in our country. 

Housing spend in the North fell by 84% between 2010/11 and 2017/18, compared with 43% elsewhere. In addition, overall public spending fell in the North and Midlands in the same period by £6.3bn. At the same time spending in the south increased by £3.2bn. There has been little effective national response to issues of decline and disconnectedness in the North and the Midlands. Heseltine’s report was on the money, but no respectable resources or effective change really flowed from this.

The issues we know are more than just about the bricks and mortar. The best examples we saw were holistic in their approach, combining physical and social regeneration and paying as much attention to the people as to places, to their health, education, employment, the environment and prosperity as well as levering in private sector investment. These areas had doggedly stuck to a vision, flexed their approach, tapped into as many funding streams as possible and reinvented themselves. Seaham in County Durham and Castle Vale in Birmingham were notable examples. They had completely shifted their baseline position.

As a result, one of the ten recommendations from the report is that housing associations commit to asset-based community development. This identifies and mobilises community’s strengths and targets resources accordingly. Its objective is to ensure that services to promote wellbeing and opportunity are delivered most effectively, to those who need them most.

Local people and their institutions are often the most in tune with their area.  If they had the resources to do what is required and commit over the long term, how many housing markets and communities could be transformed to make an active contribution to the UK plc? If we helped develop people’s knowledge and relationships and found solutions based on the strengths within that neighbourhood based on genuine partnerships, sharing power and resources with residents, we all could achieve better and more sustainable results.

Housing associations exist not only to provide great homes but to create great places. Most of us are more than just landlords. We hold our social and charitable purpose dear. By better focusing our spending as housing associations, along with other agencies and partners this can improve local social and economic outcomes on the ground for residents. 

New affordable housing supply needs to run in parallel with renewing housing and places, as damaging and costly market failure still exists in many neighbourhoods. These areas are capable of reinventing themselves to provide homes and places for now and the future. Places where average house prices and rents are more in tune with local average wages. Where there is access to education, jobs and health care. Where house designs and landscaping will stand the test of time, like the council estates and apartment blocks built in the late 19th century. 

Austerity may have unfairly hurt the North and the Midlands. This isn’t a whinge. This isn’t saying it’s all so unfair. It’s saying we aren’t unleashing our true potential and increasing our economic output at a time when it is needed the most – with and through our people and places – based on a glass half-full of a community’s strengths and potential. 

We don’t need anyone’s permission to get on rebuilding and knitting communities together. 

What we do need is a fair crack at the whip with a decent distribution in resources to renew areas alongside our own investment. 

Download the Great Places report

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