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Star quality

Welsh Housing Awards 2017: Outstanding contribution to housing in Wales

Sponsored by Coastal Housing

John Puzey, director, Shelter Cymru

WHQ asked John Puzey to celebrate his award with an article on a subject of his choice. Here he reflects on the value of celebrity in campaigning for better homes and the fight against homelessness.

There’s a debate about whether harnessing a celebrity to a cause really works. I mean works in the sense that more people support the cause because of the association. It’s been argued that it can have the reverse effect and put people off, that it can breed a certain amount of cynicism among the public who may doubt the intentions of the star – are they doing it because they are genuinely passionate or simply to enhance their own street cred?

Over the years we have had quite a few celebrities supporting Shelter Cymru in one way or another. When I first joined the charity back in… well never mind… we got a load of Welsh stars to sign up to a call to end homelessness. I can’t find the poster we had then with the names on and can only remember Harry Secombe, but I assure you they were top Welsh stars of the time. Okay we still have homelessness, but we felt, and still feel, that if you get the right people for the right reasons it can help the cause enormously.

We have used ‘celebs’ in a variety of ways over the years. At a Christmas fund raising concert once we had that great Welsh actor Philip Madoc reading prose and poetry in between the music. Despite his many appearances on stage and TV, one person in the audience seemed only to remember his part as the captured U Boat captain in Dad’s Army. As the audience milled around the performers at the end of the concert I heard above all the chat and congratulations a very loud voice repeating ‘don’t tell him Pike!’ Mr Madoc smiled diplomatically

I was a fan of George Melly long before he agreed to support Shelter Cymru; although English he lived in Brecon and was happy to put on a fundraising concert for us in Cardiff. By this time George, although still a great performer, was getting on a bit, he couldn’t hear very well and was a little forgetful. I went backstage to thank him for his support. ‘Ah – there you are – where’s the bottles of wine I am required to have in my room?’

‘It’s John, George, John from Shelter Cymru.’

‘Oh sorry dear boy I thought you were staff,’ a pause ‘but could you run along anyway and get me a rather urgent bottle of wine.’

Right now we have stellar list of supporters, Bryn Terfel is our president with Cerys Matthews and the soprano Rebecca Evans as vice-presidents. The concerts they put on not only raise much needed money for the charity but are stunning in their own right. So the support of celebrities has helped us raise money and profile. But can the support of a ‘celeb’ really change things – could a star help end homelessness?

We think Shelter Cymru is a pretty good lobbying organisation – we’ve made a valuable, often leading, contribution to improving (even changing) law, policy and practice particularly concerning homelessness. But despite the improvements we have all seen in Wales, they have been achieved against a background of low resources and capacity.

Why, over many decades, has the need for homes and the fight against homelessness struggled to get the resources it so desperately needs? Why has it not had the political and therefore resource priority that would make a real difference to so many people’s lives?

I have been campaigning for decent, affordable homes for 35 years and one thing that someone pointed out to me, at a very early stage, was that most people are okay about where they live. That unlike health, education, crime etc which people feel has a direct impact on their lives, housing is often seen as an individual problem rather than a failure of government or society. Housing was down as low as sixth as a voting determinant in the last Assembly elections. I know that polling evidence like this depends on what question you ask and I know that as more people are affected by years of underfunding and a failed housing market that may change, but will it be enough of a change and how long will it take?

Our view is that the need for decent affordable homes and ending homelessness will only start moving up the political and resource agenda as more people see it as an issue and are prepared to exercise their vote in response to housing policy and spending promises. When I say more I don’t only mean those directly affected by the lack of affordable homes, I mean more people in general.

At the moment political policy priorities of all parties reflect, as well as influence, what are seen as the public’s own priorities; they may differ in policy, but they will be the same headings. So given where housing apparently is in terms of determining votes, political parties would consider a significant shift of resources from, say health to housing, or an increase in taxation to fund more affordable homes, as political suicide.

So we need to connect with people about why housing is important to everyone. We need to activate the compassion and empathy people clearly have for others facing difficulties – get citizens upset that people have to live in places that badly affect their health and wellbeing. Angry that in the 21st century there are increasing numbers of people sleeping on the streets and more seeking help because they are facing or actually experiencing homelessness. Shocked that people can be evicted, with no defence, from private rented sector homes they may have been living in for years.

One of the answers, we think, is to grow a mass people and homes movement. A movement that is both ready to be active and passionate about the issues and a movement that builds practical forms of solidarity between people who are not in housing need and those who are. A movement that is both local and national, people hat will talk to friends, families and neighbours about the issues, people that will makes an impact on the thinking of decision makers, a movement that can help shape a new set of political priorities.

Last year we met the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans to talk about starting a campaign to do just this – he had already been very public about his anger over homelessness, he understood what we wanted to achieve and agreed to help – his video, facebook, twitter messages and media exposure about the issue has been hugely important to the campaign, his fame and his clear compassion and sincerity has cut through to many people who may not have listened to ‘the usual suspects.’ Already, with over 3,000 people becoming active supporters across Wales it has made an impact, helping, for example, the campaign to end letting agency fees to tenants.

But this is right at the beginning – the first target is to get housing higher up the league of reasons to vote by the 2021 Assembly elections, (we are aiming for third!) but more than this we want the campaign to gain its own momentum – grow and become truly influential and get that paradigm shift we need in policy and resources. If this happens it will no longer be Shelter Cymru’s campaign – it will be one we all need to support, including the stars.

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