The big draw of the CIH conference on day two was Manchester’s very own Andy Burnham who had a few thoughts of his own to share with delegates on how Britain can handle the housing crisis.
The key question from Burnham was whether Britain could be ‘rewired’ with housing leading the charge.
The mayor of Greater Manchester has seen his political stock rise during the pandemic with his stance against funding arrangements from Westminster and the public seemingly backing his stance to stand up for Manchester. So much so in fact that he was introduced as “The King of the North” by Guardian columnist Gabby Hinscliff who introduced him onto the stage.
Burnham wears the moniker lightly, stating that “I don’t carry my crown with me all the time” before settling into this speech.
He told CIH delegates that he would consider a “war cabinet” to help solve the plethora of problems that have surfaced due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said: “I think now that as we come out of this terrible time we need something of this post-war spirit of the absolute centrality of housing to people’s lives. You cannot have good health without good housing, and I am not just talking about physical health, I am talking about mental health.
“Housing is at the heart of everything, it is the absolute cornerstone of life, kids can't get a good education without good housing.”
It began to seem clear that time spent away from the Westminster “bubble” has been good for Burnham, who was bristling with ideas on how to solve housing issues such as fire safety, retrofitting and even challenging the government on its own levelling up agenda.
He said: “I will say to the government that we can define levelling up for you, we have got a plan for it. We have plans for 30,000 zero carbon homes and the transport system.
“As part of the spending review we are calling on the government to do a levelling up deal with Manchester - we have a template that can be taken elsewhere. I can pull the levels on bus transport, I know we can decarbonise the transport system, They [the government] can hold me accountable for this.”
Burnham also called on the government, and perhaps the sector itself, to embrace more of the principles of the Housing First scheme which has provided homeless and vulnerable people with a place to live while they effectively find their feet.
Burnham said: “Housing First gives tenants breathing space - it says “look here’s a home, recover”. That is what Housing First is doing, you just need that platform of a good home if you are going to succeed instead of setting people up to fail.
“We have a benefit system which doesn’t work, how about we set people up to succeed. And we do what the Finnish have done, and make Housing First a national philosophy. All government departments in Finland buy into it. There’s no point patching people up in hospitals to send to out to where they have no home, or an unhealthy home. That doesn’t work.”
Giving people, whether it be tenants, customers of housing association staff time was something touched upon by other speakers on day two of the conference.
Riverside Housing’s chief executive Carol Matthews gave an open and honest opinion on the challenges she and other providers face when dealing with organisational change. Addressing the audience and her fellow panel members she quipped: “You lot talk about this stuff as if it is easy. Oh my! Organisational learning is absolutely the toughest nut to crack.
“It is really tough, as it is about people, and I see a lot of conscious and unconscious bias playing out.
“The hardest thing in this sector is making best practice common practice, taking an individual problem and making it an organisation problem [that needs change].”
The argument that change, whether it be rewiring the country, or an organisation has been an emerging theme of the conference. The idea that things cannot or should not be simply done “the normal way” post-pandemic has seemed into a number of speakers' notes.
Leicester-based PA housing’s chief exec Ravi Dilip spoke about how PA Housing began during the pandemic to reach out to all of its roughly 24,000 tenants to provide what was effectively a check up on them, the practice wasn’t a one-off however and has continued even as the UK has opened up.
He said: “Leicester was the first city which went into special lockdown, and some areas of Leicester have multi-generations of BAME population.
“The whole organisation talked to all our customers. Most of them said “Go away, don’t bother us” however about a thousand of them continued to engage us, there are even now a thousand people from the 24,000 who need our support. It may be as little as a telephone call asking people if they are ok.
“But it is important to ensure that we serve and exist for our customers”