Looking through a different lens: the CIH South West Regional Conference
Melanie Brain, head of housing strategy and partnerships at Cornwall Council talks about what she got out of day one at the South West conference 2018.
The CIH South West Regional Conference was the first time in many years since I’ve stepped foot inside a housing conference and it was certainly the event to reignite those old conference flames. It’s been many years since I last worked in the South West too, so I was really pleased to make my return and I’ll be honest, it felt a lot like ‘coming home’ to a long-lost family.
Sold out on day 1, the event offered a fantastic line-up of keynote speeches and masterclass sessions, not to mention an exhibition that catered for the wide and diverse arena that makes up the housing profession. Whether you worked for a local authority or a housing association, in development, housing management, repairs or customer services the agenda was a sheer pick and mix delight that offered something for everyone and left nobody disappointed.
CIH chief executive Terrie Alafat kicked off the conference with a keynote speech that reflected on the events of the past year, took stock of where the housing world is now and sought to scan the horizon for what is to come. If you work in housing, and you invest in staying up-to-date with current housing affairs, then nothing here should have been a surprise to you. Terrie’s message was not really about the why’s and wherefores of the national housing scene, important though they are, Terrie’s focus was much more on housing’s ‘people’, whether they be the people who live in our homes or the people who provide the services and keep those homes running. Terrie spoke about the CIH Rethinking Social Housing campaign, whose modest intentions were wholly surpassed with over 200 workshops and 2,000 participants, 40% of whom were tenants. And she spoke about the importance of the tenant voice, a concept that I wholeheartedly agree with. After all the housing sector exists to build homes (not housing) and thus it serves people and as such, we need to hear the voices of those people to make sure we deliver quality homes and communities that we and they can be proud of.
And finally, Terrie spoke about professionalism, values and investment: investment in ourselves so that we promote professionalism; working to make sure that housing is a career of choice; and the need to inspire a future generation of housing professionals. And with this, she very much set the tone for the day.
A celebrity appearance by Georgie Barrat, presenter of the Gadget Show followed, with a strapline of “digitalisation , which left us all confused as she kick-started her speech with a photo from the 1940’s Australian Motorcycle Chariot racing circuit. The reason soon became clear however: new ways of interacting and communicating lead to new systems. But Georgie was keen to point out that it is strategy, not technology, that should drive digital transformation and that story-telling is at the heart of digital success. Amongst the references to Snapchat, Alexa and Chatbox, which had some members of Generation X scratching their heads in technophobic wonder, were similar references to those made by Terrie; the millennial generation placed great importance on shared values, ethics and authenticity. And with this, she very much continued the theme for the day.
Victor Da Cunha from Curo gave an inspirational keynote speech on regeneration, not a subject I ever thought I would find exciting, but then, little did I know! He started off by telling us that we have a responsibility as a sector to be aspirational and bold for our communities. Regeneration has, he told us, been politicised and we need to seize it back. Regeneration is about place-making and place-shaping, with a social purpose of making, often the most challenging, communities successful. The most important aspect to regeneration, he pointed out, is that we do not build and leave: we build and stay and create places where people can lead happy lives. Certainly a concept that members of the housing sector would want to sign up to.
Alison Inman, CIH President’s speech started off with a similar theme to Terrie’s and that the CIH is first and foremost about people and supporting people to be the best they can be. Combining aspects of Terrie’s and Georgie’s keynote speeches, Alison talked about the fantastic membership offer for the under-30’s of just £60 a year, and advised them that “it’s better than Netflix”. It’s also “different to Netflix” she said, and of course it is: does Netflix offer membership benefits like webinars, events, professional recognition, networking, policy updates, continuing professional development and even a book club? I’ll leave that one with you there and move onto the second part of Alison’s speech.
1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will experience domestic abuse during their lifetime. If that statistic isn’t shocking enough for you, two women a week die from domestic abuse. As Alison pointed out, she never thought that 22 years after she first visited a refuge, she would still be talking about the need to tackle domestic abuse. To a very quiet and reflective audience, she stated that the number one barrier to women seeking to leave an abusive relationship is housing and most women who die from domestic abuse do so as they try to leave or just after they have left. 63% of women who have rent arrears and 40% of women who come to the attention of their landlord for anti-social behaviour are experiencing domestic abuse. As a sector we then put our traditional pathways into motion and proceed downwards towards eviction without a momentary thought about underlying reasons. I make no apologies for laying this on thick: housing can, and should, be part of the solution for victims seeking to leave an abusive relationship, not the barrier that keeps them there, and as the very wise Alison told the audience “if we look down a different lens, we might get a different result”.
I haven’t even begun to do justice to all of the speakers and masterclasses due to time, but what do I take away from day one of the conference? Firstly, I take away the fact that it is good to leave the day job behind, network and take time to reflect on aspects of our work that we simply do not get time to reflect on in our day-to-day business. Space to think, engage and proactively consider new ways of working is a positive and should never be deemed as time wasted. But most importantly, I take away the messages around professionalism, values and ethics. As an old and established member of the CIH (of 22+ years), I am really pleased to see that professionalism is being given a new platform by the CIH and that emphasis on values and ethics is being given new weight. Why? Because I sincerely believe that if we want to strive to deliver Octavia Hill’s aim of making 'lives noble, homes happy and family life good', then we need a sound and ethical basis on which we can make decisions and, as a professional sector, we need to demonstrate that we respect others, act with integrity, take responsibility, maintain professional competence and make a difference. And a year on from the tragedy of Grenfell, demonstrating that we are a sector with professional values and ethics, that places people (tenants and staff) at the core of what we do, has never been more important.
Melanie Brain FCIH is head of housing strategy and partnerships at Cornwall Council. Melanie is also a CIH membership champion and CIH mentor.