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Beyond equality

What kind of future Wales can social housing organisations help create? Tamsin Stirling outlines her thinking.

Tai Pawb asked me to contribute to its Creating Homes conference in October 2015 – it asked me to think about how social housing organisations have worked to support various vulnerable groups and to look forward to how they might continue to do so.

This led me to reflect on my own housing history and things that the organisations I have worked for have done to promote housing equality – providing homes for refugees and older people with various vulnerabilities and undertaking research on the allocation of social housing and Lifetime Homes are just some examples. The two housing associations I have been chair of – Rhondda HA and Bron Afon – take their role in providing for vulnerable groups very seriously – building new homes, making sure existing homes are suitable, working with other agencies to ensure effective support services, facilitating resident and community groups so that different voices can be heard, providing access to training, employment and other opportunities, action to tackle poverty, reducing fuel costs – the list goes on.

As a sector, we have much to be proud of. When you look at the totality of the work that social housing organisations do to support vulnerable groups across Wales, it is highly significant and impressive – as Tai Pawb and other umbrella organisations frequently demonstrate.

But we also face many challenges – unmet housing need, an ageing population, austerity and ideological dogma from across the Severn Bridge and a context where many individuals and communities are coming under increasing pressure.

So looking ahead, what role can social housing organisations play in continuing to protect vulnerable groups?

Social housing organisations have significant assets – homes and other physical assets, access to finance and people with technical knowledge and deep knowledge of communities – and I most definitely count tenants and residents as assets alongside staff teams and boards.

Social housing organisations have a leadership role in communities – they take decisions that have a huge impact on individuals and communities – for example procurement policies that mean the maximum amount of money stays in local communities and shaping new communities or new parts of existing communities when homes are designed and built.

And even in times of austerity, they spend significant amounts of money.

These assets, leadership roles and money can be used to have a positive impact on vulnerable groups – or not. We will have to work hard to ensure that ‘upwards redistribution’ does not become the norm in the social housing world, something that seems to be increasingly the case in the wider economy – think corporate taxation compared to cuts to tax credits.

So what kind of future Wales can social housing organisations help create?

Not a country in which fear, hate or at best tolerance abounds, but one in which we confidently relish and welcome difference.

Not a country in which equality and diversity are seen as issues of compliance but where diversity (in all its aspects) is central to our culture – hearts and minds, not spreadsheets.

Not a country where fairness is something mechanical, where people get the same things irrespective of need because someone getting more or different is seen as unfair, but where diversity in decision making and provision is seen as a strength which delivers fairness.

Not a country where people are seen as units of demand on services and any additional needs are simply seen as a matter of cost, but where the rich variety of lived experience is used as a resource to ensure all services and ‘products’ are the best they can be.

Not a country where language is used to ‘other’, to distance people from each other and to stigmatise, but where language is inclusive, engaging and empowering.

Not a county which is trying to compete with others (often on their terms rather than ours), or where we compete unnecessarily amongst each other, but where co-operation, collaboration and co-production are the norm – with each organisation playing to its organisational strengths.

It is interesting that Michael Young, founder of the Young Foundation, noted that ‘the opposite of inequality is not equality, it’s fraternity … it’s community and cooperation.’

Social housing organisations can embed the question ‘what will make the world a better place for vulnerable groups (for those who have fewer options or choices than what most people expect, fewer choices or options than what I expect)’ in all that they do – in their roles as decision-makers, as doers, as partners, as lobbyists, as advocates, as investors, as supporters. It is about hearts and minds – it is about organisational culture – as Peter Drucker so notably said, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’.

Given the assets, leadership roles and money we have, it is incumbent on our organisations to continue to make the world a better place for vulnerable groups, we can do this and we will.

Adapted from keynote session given by Tamsin Stirling at the Tai Pawb Creating Homes conference, October 2015

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