English | Cymraeg Tel: 029 2076 5760 Connect: Twitter

Blog: Matt Dicks rounds up the BIG Question 2019

CIH Cymru’s Big Question event on 7 November asked, “Are we creating the places of tomorrow?”. National Director, Matt Dicks, blogs for Welsh Housing Quarterly on the main discussion points that came out of the event.

It certainly was a case of the “morning after the night before” for me as I drove down the M4 to Swansea for The Big Question 2019. The night before Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party had resigned. The pinnacle of a bad start to the Labour campaign.

The day before, Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns had also resigned on the same day that the Prime Minister launched the Conservative’s general election campaign. A bad start to the campaign for the Conservatives as well, compounded by the “insulting” remarks made by cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg about the people who perished in the Grenfell Tower disaster.

So, it was perhaps a little optimistic of me to expect the opening session from Wales’ favourite psephologist, Professor Roger Awan-Scully of Cardiff University, to contextualise everything and give me a flavour of who will be eating their Christmas dinner at Chequers this year.

He didn’t deliver a definitive answer to my question, but as always, he gave a very insightful analysis of the current political geography. Telling conference delegates that, unlike so many general elections of the past, this one could genuinely be viewed as the most important we’ve had in many generations in terms of setting the direction of the country over the next several decades.

Although depressingly, he told us that the YouGov Welsh Political Barometer Poll, which he produces in partnership with ITV Wales, showed that housing was very much near the bottom of the list in terms of people’s priorities.

He added that current polls suggested a Tory majority after December 12 but added that this election is such a moveable feast that it is entirely possible that Jeremy Corbyn would be tucking into his nut roast as Prime Minister on Christmas Day.

So, armed with perhaps a tiny little bit less uncertainty about what the political and fiscal landscape will look like after polling day, we then went on to ask are we building the places of tomorrow?

And it appears that in Norwich they clearly are!

David Mikhail of Mikhail Riches Architects and Andrew Turnbull of Norwich City Council told us about the Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street development – the large-scale development of Passivhaus standard social homes, bringing what many of us see as the future into the present day.

And whilst I now know more about the ins-and-outs of fenestration, than I probably need to, it was a fascinating insight about how such an innovative project can get off the ground with the will and the desire to collaborate.

As the housing and local government minister, Julie James AM said later – “We to can do this in Wales…I want to see a Welsh winner of the Stirling Prize”.

In between award-winning architects and the ministerial address we heard from a panel about “community-powered housing”. Christopher Joffeh telling us about the central role that the de-carbonisation agenda must play in this; Jen Heal of the Design Commission Wales telling us about the placemaking agenda and Gemma Clissett of Lovell telling us how private developers also focus on creating a sense of place.

But perhaps the most difficult question raised in that session came from the CEO of headline sponsors, Coastal Housing. Debbie Green told us about the impressive Urban Village development and the foundational economy work they are undertaking in Morriston but her simple question – how do we scale up in the context of a very difficult financial climate? – is perhaps the key question that informed the discussions throughout the day.

The minister spoke passionately about placemaking – about true cross-tenure developments – that are sustainable and affordable for all. Most tellingly, in my view, she made a robust commitment to providing public land for housing development but with lower capital receipts. It will be interesting to see how she squares that with local government and health service colleagues. But she also emphasised, once again, the core element underpinning the Pamment review recommendations – that of regional collaboration.

And collaborative process was the theme of the final panel discussion of the day, entitled “partnerships equals place”. It was a varied collection of voices ranging from market-sale development arms of local authorities, to the tenants’ view. Views from registered social landlords and local authorities, as well as the Welsh Government. All looking at how discussions were going in terms of the grant allocation system that will underpin the new regional partnership model – ‘we’re getting there’ but still a bit of work to be done on that was the message.

And yes, there’s still a sense of needing to avoid the unintended consequences of a race to the bottom and a need to understand that collaboration and partnerships shouldn’t just be defined by size and economies of scale.

Rounding off the day was Dr Simon Duffy, director of the Centre for Welfare Reform, with an impassioned plea for us to tap into the desire for social justice that is “inherent” in all of us. We can only change the cycle of poverty and austerity from within ourselves, through activism, and as our organisations are in many cases driven by the delivery of social justice, then we must do more to promote it.

He had some very amusing critiques and quotes about the utter absurdity and counter-intuitive nature of the austerity agenda, but he didn’t use my all-time favourite – which comes from comedian Alexei Sayle:

‘Austerity is the idea that the global financial crash of 2008 was caused by there being too many libraries in Wolverhampton.’

A thought-provoking way to round off a thought-provoking day, a day with “collaboration” and “innovation” as the over-arching themes.

Sign up to our email newsletter

Every two months we'll email you a summary of the latest news & articles on the WHQ website. Better still, if you're a fully paid up magazine subscriber, you'll get access to the latest members-only articles as well.

Sign up for the email newsletter »

Looking to advertise in our magazine?

Advertising and sponsored features are a great way to raise your profile with our readership of housing and regeneration decision makers in Wales.

Find out more »